When planning a novel, the most helpful tool I’ve found is a thousands-year-old recipe called the three-act structure. It’s helped me plan out my novels more effectively than any fiction writing software.
What is the three-act structure?
Greek philosopher, Aristotle, came up with this structure. He said a good story has three acts: a beginning, middle and end. Simple, right?
Act I: In the beginning, otherwise known as the setup, the writer introduces the characters and sets the tone for the story. This is also the time for the writer to tell the reader about the setting, at least for the beginning of the story. In Act I, a situation happens, an inciting incident, kicks off the story. This incident usually hints at the conflict that permeates the entire novel. Act I is roughly the first quarter of your novel and at the end of it is the first plot point. This plot point shows the reader a situation thrusting the main characters away from their normal lives into the conflict that changes their destiny.
Act II: This is the middle part of your novel and it takes up roughly fifty percent of your novel. Act II is where all the main confrontation occurs. Your characters find themselves facing a series of obstacles in which they keep getting deeper and deeper into trouble. They are prevented from reaching their goal. Roughly around the middle of Act II–the middle of the novel–everything changes. Your protagonist’s goals are shattered. Or they realize they can obtain the goal, but at a great cost. It might be a reversal of fortune. Whatever, the middle of the novel is where your protagonist and other characters start to change, really change because of the situation. By the end of Act II is your second plot point: everything is at stake. It’s do or die.
Act III: In the last quarter of your novel, the protagonist fights the battle that wins or loses everything. This scene, be it a literal or figurative battle, is the climax. A surprise or twist can make the ending of your novel a satisfying experience for your reader. The sub-plots involving all your minor characters are also resolved in the third act after the climax. In this resolution part of your story, you may hint at the future of your characters. What possibly happens to them after the last page is read? Here’s the main thing to pay attention to as your plan your novel: how are your characters, especially your protagonist, different than they were from the beginning of the story?
Plot a novel using the three act structure. You probably should have several characters already developed. It also helps if you know how the story is going to end, but you may want to discover that for yourself if you plot from scratch. Write one sentence for each of the main scenes in each act. Use the descriptions of the acts above to guide you.
If you already have a first draft of a novel or have already plotted a novel, try and break it down using the the three act structure. Does it work?
Read more on the three act structure:
- Write Your Novel – The Three Act Structure
- Three Act Structure: A Pair of Spanx for Your Novel
- How to Make the Three-Act Structure Work for Your Book
- The Basic Three Act Structure
- Please forgive me, but Wikipedia has a simple article about the three act structure.