Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together. Plotting a Novel: Part Two

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

On Monday, I went over the first half of my process for outlining and plotting out the first draft of my novels. Today, it's the last half.

The Three Act Structure is probably one of the more common structures (if not the most common) in storytelling, for both books and movies. Not everyone uses it, of course, but I'd imagine a high percentage do because it's so handy and works so well. It's not a formula so much as a framework, and it follows the natural storytelling style we've all grown accustomed to. Someone has a problem (act one), someone tries to solve that problem (act two), someone solves the problem (act three). You can be as loose as that if you like to write organically, or be very detailed and break it down into a much tighter formula if you like more structured.

Before I jump in to today's post, let's have a reminder of the generalized goals for the back half of the novel.

Act Two End - Protagonist's actions have led them to a point where they can't back down, but they'll need to sacrifice something to continue.
Act Three Starts - Protagonist has acted in ways to bring them in direct conflict with the antagonist, it's do or die, all or nothing time.
Climax Starts - Showdown with the antagonist.

We left off with the Mid-Point Reversal. It's chapter twelve, the protagonist has just had their world shaken and stirred. Now what?

Mid-Point Reversal to End of Act Two 

Chapters Twelve through Eighteen 

The events in C12 will somehow put the protagonist on the path that will lead her to the end of Act Two. Things will have changed, however, either what has to be done, or how she feels about the events (or both). Stakes will have gone up, and walking away is no longer an option, even though she might really wish she could. There will probably be some soul searching. I've found it fun to combine these so the protagonist has to do her deep thinking while all heck is breaking loose (literal or metaphorically). Keep her off balanced so she misses important things. I also like to include her friends too, since the supporting cast can often get left behind in a book.

It's still the middle of the novel, but it's time to really put the pressure on. It can be a tough balance, because the Mid-Point Reversal was probably pretty cool, and the urge to really send things over the top might be high. But if you do, you risk having nowhere else to go for the climax, and that will leave you with a flat ending. You might even want to start adding more stuff to fill up the story, but instead of going wider, try going deeper.

I've found these chapters are great opportunities to plumb the emotional depths of my characters. I can put them into trouble that means something to them on a personal level. Really tug at those heartstrings. Remember, you're setting them up for something major at the act end, and that's where they'll have to sacrifice something. So showing the importance of that something on the way there will make that moment all the more poignant. And if the groundwork was layered well, the reader might even be starting to worry about what the protagonist might be willing do to later since they did this here.

Act Two End 

Chapter Eighteen 

This is a big moment for the story. Up until now, your protagonist has been dealing with a lot of stuff, and maybe trying to avoid dealing with a lot of stuff. But now, something has happened that makes it impossible to avoid their inevitable fate. I like forcing my protagonist here to make a choice she doesn't like. Not only does it keep the protagonist driving the story, it adds both external and internal conflict, thus increasing the tension. It's going to be a hard decision, and she'll have to give up something important. It'll also mean she'll have to grow up a little and take that next step in her character development. And as always, the stakes go up yet again.

Act Three 

Chapters Nineteen through Twenty-Four 

Now we're into the final act, and this is where you can let lose and go crazy. You're building toward your climax, and you want that to rock. The Act Three End will put your protagonist face to face with the antagonist and it'll be the fight of the century. This works for quieter, more character-based novels, too. The fight for a inner journey story might be an emotional one, where a protagonist faces her demons or her past. The fight might even be on multiple layers, which is what I like. I love sticking my protagonist between rocks and hard places, since it helps keep things unpredictable.

These chapters are also where I get to start revealing some bad guy secrets. The protagonist has gotten to the end and learns the truth she's been trying to uncover all book. The ultimate plan, the hidden truth, the horrible secret. Whatever mystery has been driving things.

I don't want to spill all the beans though, so I save some for the climax. Odds are the bad guy loses (we do like our happy endings), so the reader will be expecting that. Those last secrets will help draw them thorough they story even if they do see where things are going (though hopefully they don't have it all figured out) They'll want to know how the protagonist wins, and at what cost, but there's still one (or more) pieces of the puzzle left to uncover.

Act Three Starts 

Chapter Nineteen 

This is the spark for the climax, and the event that sends the protagonist hurtling toward the bad guy. My protagonist antagonist and the fight is on. This is what readers have been waiting for the entire book. They so want to see this fight (or struggle, or escape or however you've set it up). If you've done your job well, there's no way they're putting the book down here.

I like to rev up my protagonist's here to get them ready for the fight. Push their buttons so whatever really gets them pushes them over an emotional top. I've found this allows me to let them be a little rash and impulsive for the climax and make some fun mistakes. (Or it lets them really get the implications of it and forces them to go super calm to do the job) It really depends on the character. But they should be feeling it here. This isn't just about whatever plot device got them here, it's about them.


Chapters Twenty-Two through Twenty-Four 

Let the games begin! Now I'm seriously into the climax. This is the most exciting part of the book, no matter what type of story you're working on. Emotions are high, all bets are off. Final secrets are revealed (unless you're doing a sequel and need that one for the next book) and all those things your reader has been wondering about are uncovered.

The victory here should also be personal. Your protagonist should win on her own merit and ingenuity, and not be rescued by someone. (even though it's okay to rescue them after they kick bad guy butt). All those little foreshadowing bits you did come into play to help her win. The experiences your protagonist had all through the book has given her a unique perspective that lets her figure out how to win. And win she does (or doesn't if that's the kind of story you're writing). But the core story premise and problem is resolved.

This is a biggie if you're writing a series. While some authors do have series where the books don't end, until you're a big name, it's not likely you'll be able to do that. So the book has to end, even if there are still loose ends for another book.

After the climax, there's the wrap up, which is pretty much just tying up loose ends and resolving any unfinished business. I like to show the protagonist and how her life has been changed by the events of the novel and where she is now as compared to the start of the book. (this can all be very subtle of course. You're not doing an obvious comparison). This is another area where it's a balance of just enough information to satisfy the reader and let them come down after the climax. Too much and they might get bored because the book doesn't end. Too little and they can feel like they slammed into a literary wall and their head spins.

And that's it! By now I have a rough summary of my novel.

It is important to note that I'm speaking in the most general sense of things here. These are guidelines for generally how a novel goes, not a recipe for a book. Let it inspire you and use it to guide you to write the best story you can, but if something doesn't work for you, push it aside. Words like fight can mean a struggle on any level, and the bad guy could be anything from a person to an event to a memory. Adapt the concepts to your book.

And in case you're curious, here's a snippet of outline from my original draft for The Shifter. You'll notice how little I actually say. But these are the things that I used to write that book, and the rest of these chapters came from these small frameworks. And for those who read the book, you'll notice a few subtle changes from this as well. Nothing major, but events paned out a little differently, and there's an extra chapter in the book now for these same events. I hope it's clear how I got there, though.
Nya is stealing eggs, nearly gets caught and uses her talent to get away. She's seen by two League wards. She goes to her sister to get rid of the pain and, while leaving, is spotted by the wards. An Elder is there and insists she come speak to him.

She talks to him, lies about who she is. He tries to touch her and she flinches away. He tries to grab her, does, is surprised, and she manages to escape. She runs into the crowd but he doesn't chase her. She's scared, but hungry, and goes looking for work. She doesn't find any and goes home. But she missed paying her rent and she's been thrown out. She realizes she's being followed.

She evades her follower, but now she has nowhere to go. She spends the night somewhere. Next morning, she's determined to get work so she can eat and get back her room. Some accident happens (something world related) and a lot of aristocrats are hurt. Big run on the League. Nya helps a few and heals some. She meets Tali that evening. Tali is scared, there are rumors flying around the League and people are asking questions. More that something weird is going on. More apprentices are gone, right after the big healing of the aristocrats. Nya tells her about being followed. After Tali leaves, Nya gets grabbed.

Very loose, but just enough to help lead me through writing that first draft.


  1. Thanks for these two incredible posts. This is better information than many of the craft books I have read. It is really kind of you to share this.

  2. Hi Janice. These last two posts were very informative. I've never been one for outlining - i can't think that far into the future and when i do things almost always change, but I was trying to put some of what you said in reference to my book and I did find a lot of commonalities. Maybe my book is more structured than I think. Anyway, I may just try this strict planning on a smaller scale with a MG book that I'm thinking about. Your posts are always so very insightful.

    Have a good one! :)

  3. Janice, you're a gem. Cheers for the last two posts. The things I learn from this blog - so much useful stuff, man

  4. Thank you your posts are very insightful. I am writing my first novel and all advice is good advice :)

  5. Glad it helped. Best of luck on your novel :)