Monday, October 7

How to Plot With the Three-Act Structure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

First up from the mailbag:
"Maybe I'm a sucker for plot, but I'd be interested in big picture plotting thoughts (Aristotle, 3 act, "save the cat", type stuff) in practical application."
The plotter in me cheered at this one, because I love talking about plot. This question alone could fill the blog this week, and since many others echoed an interest in plotting, I sense a plot week coming on. (ETA: Here are links to the other structures discussed: the Hero’s Journey, the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, and Michael Hague's Six Stage Plot Structure. For those who dislike structure, try this very basic three-point plot structure instead)

These big-picture structure formats can be incredibly helpful in plotting a novel, because they give you hard plot goals to aim for. Even if you're a pantser, structure formats can help during revisions when you have a first draft done and want to make sure all your plot points are working right. Jami Gold did a great post on this over at her blog, using Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" beat sheets.

How they work: A structure is like a rough map, the line drawings in a coloring book. How we overlay our story (color in the line drawings) is up to us, but the structure provides guides and boundaries to help keep us focused. Turning points like, "leave the ordinary world" are just a way of saying, "the protagonist does something new that starts the plot." This can be a literal enter a magic wardrobe and discover Narnia, or decide to wear a dress to school for the first time ever to catch the eye of the boy you like.

Some folks fear using one of these structures will create a formulaic novel. If you follow them exactly and take them literally, then yes, that could happen, but the strength of these structures is to let them guide you and remind you of the important story elements of a novel. The moments are metaphorical or symbolic, and they suggest types of situations to aim for. And even when a story does follow them exactly, if done well, readers don't even notice. The novel feels tightly plotted, not predictable.

Common Structure Formats:

The Three-Act Structure: The basic beginning, middle, end format we're most familiar with in storytelling. Setup, rising action and stakes, resolution.

The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell's 17-step myth structure that outlines the journey a mythic figure (hero) undergoes on an adventure.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure: A variation of the Three-Act Structure that focuses on six critical elements of a plot. This one is also connected to his internal character arc structure.

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheets: A screenwriter format for crafting great screenplays using 15 beats (or turning points). It's been adopted by novelists everywhere because the same basic rules apply to novels.

I'm going to focus on the Three-Act Structure first, because it's probably the most common story structure out there, and it's the one I use. The other formats also generally follow this structure so it's a good foundation to have before we explore the other three.

People have broken the Three-Act Structure down in a myriad of ways, but it unfolds basically like this:

Act One: The Beginning


Act One is roughly the first 25% of the novel. If focuses on the protagonist living in his world and being introduced to the problems he needs to solve. Something about his life is making him unhappy, but he’s not yet ready to do anything about it. He might not even be aware of the problem, but feels unsatisfied in some way. He's presented with an opportunity to change his life, and he either accepts the challenge or tries to avoid it and gets dragged into it anyway. By the end of the first act, he's on the plot path that leads to the climax of the book.

Everything is this first act familiarizes the reader with the world and characters and sets up the problem the book is going to spend the next 75% trying to resolve.

I use the words "sets up" but this is different from setup. This first act is NOT about explaining what the reader "needs to know" to get the book. You want to jump right into the action and have something happening, and that something will lead you to the inciting event, which is where the protagonist takes the first step onto the path of the core conflict.

Act One is all about showing the protagonist's world (his life, dreams, issues, etc, as well as the literal setting) and letting readers see the problems and flaws he'll need to overcome to get what he ultimately wants. In essence, it's where you say "See how screwed up this guy's life is? This is what he has to fix before he can win."

Act One typically contains three key plot moments:

Opening Scene


This is the introduction of the protagonist, the opening scene problem, the setting, the rules of the world, any critical traits or details readers need to know, etc. Something is happening that will draw readers in and allow them to get to know (and like) the protagonist.

(More on the opening scene here)

Inciting Event

This is when the opportunity to change or fix what’s wrong presents itself. The protagonist is uncertain whether or not to take advantage of this opportunity, but eventually he does, either through his choice or from outside forces acting upon him.

The inciting event focuses the narrative (and plot) onto the core conflict of the novel. This is the moment when you say to your readers, "Here's what the book is going to be about." Even if the problem is going to get bigger later, the seed of the conflict the plot needs to resolve will be right here. The protagonist might not even be able to see the bigger picture yet, but you know this is point when things change for him. Had he not experienced this, the book would not have unfolded the same way.

(More on the inciting event here)

Act One Problem

This problem transitions to the middle of the book and gives the protagonist something to do (a goal), and a choice to make. It’s the first major step once the protagonist is on the path to the core conflict. It’s also where the stakes are significantly raised for the first time.

The choice is the big moment here, and the protagonist must choose to act. Greater forces could have gotten him here, but he must decide to move forward on his own. Agreeing to act will force him out of his comfort zone (his normal life) and into an unfamiliar (and often emotionally scary) situation. But this step into the unknown is vital for his goals, both the external plot goal and his internal character arc goal. This choice is what officially launches the middle.

(More on how choices affect plot here)

Act Two: The Middle


Middles make up roughly 50% of a novel. The protagonist leaves what’s familiar to him and undergoes a series of challenges that will allow him to get what he wants. He struggles and fails repeatedly, learning the valuable lessons he’ll need in Act Three to defeat the antagonist.

Good middles show this struggle and growth, and braids together the plot and subplots, smacking the conflicts against each other. Each clue, discovery, and action brings him closer to the act two disaster that sends him hurtling toward the climax and resolution of the novel. He’ll start off with some level of confidence, sure of his plans, but as things spiral out of control he’ll become more and more uncertain and filled with self-doubt until he’s forced to consider giving up entirely.

Act Two typically contains three key plot moments:

Act Two Choice


The act two choice is a transitional moment, linking the beginning and the middle. The protagonist embraces whatever problem he’s confronted with, and accepts the opportunity it offers to resolve that problem. How he decides to deal with that problem establishes how the plot is going to unfold until the next step on the plot path.

This problem is going to be a big one, because it's what's going to drive your plot for the next 25% of the book until the midpoint. It'll be the first major piece of the core conflict puzzle. In most cases, it ends in failure, because the protagonist hasn't yet learned the things he needs to learn to be victorious.

The act two choice frequently launches the protagonist’s character arc as well, because his flaw will be his weakness during the middle of the novel. He’ll struggle and fail, not seeing what he needs to do to become the person he wants to be.

(More on character arcs here)

Midpoint Reversal

The midpoint reversal occurs in the middle of the novel. Something unexpected happens and changes the worldview the protagonist has had all along. His plan no longer works or is no longer viable, and things have to change. This choice and new plan is what sends the plot into the second half of the middle.

A good midpoint reversal will also raise the stakes, even if they were high to begin with. It often adds a level of personal consequence that wasn't there before, or reveals a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. Sometimes it's all of these things at the same time.

This moment will also be large enough that it can carry the plot from the middle to the 75% mark (the next 25% of the book) and the beginning of the climax.

(More on midpoint reversals here)

Act Two Disaster

This act two disaster hits around the 75% mark of the novel. It's the moment when it all goes wrong for the protagonist, and is often the result of trying to fix whatever went wrong at the midpoint. The big plan to save the day fails miserably and he's worse off now than he's been the entire novel. The stakes are raised yet again, and it all becomes too much to handle.

Often, whatever lie the protagonist has been telling himself is stripped away, forcing him to see the truth, however harsh. If the antagonist has been a secret or a mystery, this is often when his identity is discovered (often with devastating effect). Even if the antagonist has been known all along, new information is revealed about him to make the task seem insurmountable now.

In cliché speak, it’s the darkness before the dawn. It all becomes too much and the protagonist feels like giving up, but finds the strength to carry on. He realizes the only way to succeed is to face the problem head on and do what he’s been scared to do all along.

Act Three: The End


The ending is the last 25% of the novel. The protagonist decides to take the problem to the antagonist. He’ll use all the things he’s learned over the course of the novel to outwit and defeat that antagonist. They battle it out, and he’ll win (usually), then the plot wraps up and readers see the new world the protagonist lives in, and the new person he’s become after undergoing these experiences.

The final battle with the antagonist doesn’t have to be an actual battle, just two conflicted sides trying to win. The protagonist gathers himself and any allies and challenges the antagonist. There is often a journey involved, either metaphorical or literal, as a final test.

Act Three typically contains three key plot moments:

Act Three Plan


After digging deep down and finding the emotional strength to continue, the protagonist puts a new plan into action, using everything he’s learned over the course of the novel. He finally knows who he is and what’s he supposed to do, and he sets off to accomplish that.

The plan is usually ambitious, clever, and unexpected, even though it also feels inevitable. This is what the protagonist and the supporting characters were meant to do all along. The plan may or may not be revealed to readers at this point. Often the actual details are kept secret, even though the general idea is mentioned to help drive the plot forward. The plan doesn’t have to be something that will actually work if you want to surprise the protagonist in the climax and force him to think on the run. What’s important is that the protagonist thinks it’ll work. Once the climax starts, plans can fail and the protagonist can have to revise in a hurry to win.

Climax

The climax is the final showdown with the antagonist. The protagonist faces whomever or whatever has been making his life miserable for 400 pages, and because he’s learned XYZ over the course of the novel, he wins (or loses spectacularly if that’s the type of book you’re writing). This realization is also what was missing in his life all along. Whatever happens, the core conflict problem is resolved.

The climax often has one last increase in stakes, making this final battle matter on a bigger scale. Look at what the protagonist has at stake on a personal level. Look at how that ties into the story from a thematic aspect, so the ending has more poignancy. It’s not uncommon for this rise in stakes to happen after a twist or surprise.

(More on what makes a good endings here)

Wrap Up

The wrap up is the happily ever after, or the burning apocalypse if that's how you prefer it. What the protagonist is going to do now that he’s resolved his problem. In essence, the final scene says, “yes, there was a point to this novel and here it is.” It gives readers a sense of closure and reassurance that the novel was worth their time.

What makes any plotting structure so valuable as a tool is that these elements can be anything you want them to be. The structure is just a frame to hang the story on, and knowing solid, proven turning points can help you decide what events need to happen to get the most out of your own plot.

They also help you find holes in your plot and places where the stakes might need to be raised. If you notice the protagonist never fails, that's a red flag that you might not have enough at stake or enough conflict driving the plot. Or you might not have a solid character arc that allows your protagonist to grow. It's a map, a guide, but the scenes and problems encountered are all up to you.

Any other questions on how to use this to plot?

52 comments:

  1. Plot is something I still struggle with. Thanks for this very useful post!!!

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  2. I think I have a decent middle...but we'll see.

    Thanks for explaining the structure so well! I'll have to come back to this post several times!

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  3. Andrea, hope it helps! Knowing the end ahead of time helps a lot as well, since you have an end point to write toward. You don't have to know the exact details, but if you know what "winning" means for the protagonist, you can work backward and plot the steps to get there.

    Rachel, I made a template of of it. I use it for every book and lay my working synopsis into it. Very useful.

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  4. This comes at a perfect time for me, as I'm currently trying to plot out my NaNoWriMo novel! Thanks, this is very helpful :) Now, back to plotting, with a new perspective...

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  5. Tiny1, I love when that happens. The right post for the right writer. These structures will really help with NanNo planning. It'll take some of the pressure off in Nov since you'll have a solid plan to write from.

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  6. Thanks Janice, have reposted this on my writers facebook page - a timely reminder for all of those who are about to undertake NaNo

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  7. Thanks for the breakdown -especially of the final third. That's where I often get hung up.

    On a side-note, it occurred to me (after reading a breakdown of Star Wars: A New Hope in the Hero's Journey plot structure) that the first Pirates of the Caribbean also uses a Hero's Journey structure. (Just thought that's a fun thing to think about.)

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  8. This is EXCELLENT! Thanks for taking the time to break this down into such great detail! As I read, I was both heartened and bummed. I actually have most of these milestones in my WIP, but the pace is wrong, and I'm missing some of the bridges that would make it all a tad less shallow and rushed. I have to shave what are likely info dumps posing as substance and include more true building blocks. This post will be a helpful tool.

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  9. This is great, Janice. I only plot out the major plot points you've mentioned. This is really helpful to stay focused.

    Glad you're focusing on plot this week.

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  10. This is awesome. Now, just have to DO IT! Thanks for the explanation. For my writing students and for me!!

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  11. Catherine, thanks! This would be a lot of help to NaNoers for sure.

    Chicory, the hero's journey is very popular in film, actually. It's probably the second most common novel structure as well. A lot of folks even merge the hero's journey with the three-act structure for a more well-rounded format.

    Deborah, thanks! This is great for revisions for those reasons. First drafts can fall out of our heads, and it's nice to have a structure to help us tighten our manuscripts.

    Natalie, same here. Plotting seems to be high on the list of trouble spots for a lot of writers. Folks here have asked for tips on it, writers I talk to elsewhere have as well.

    Carol, that's always the hard part, right? You can do it! Once you get a sense of how structure works with your process, it gets easier and easier to plot.

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  12. So helpful! I'm starting to plan my NaNo novel and was at a complete loss as to what to do for the actual PLOT! I usually have a decent plan of the major plot points but this year I had an idea for a novel but no idea what would actually happen in the novel. This helped a lot. I wrote all the headings out and filled them in with ideas for each one although I'm still struggling with the mid point reversal. Hopefully that will come with time, but knowing what I'll need to do when I get there makes the novel feel more manageable.

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  13. Janice, as always a great post and very timely.
    I have a question about the Act 1 problem/choice. Does the protag have to choose the right path by the end of the first act? Can choosing the wrong path set her on a course that will later force her to repeat the choice. Early on my character chooses to run rather than take the step to resolving her story problem. This choice literally sets her on a collision course with people and events that will force her to either accept her situation and resolve her problem or run away again.

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  14. Haley, that's great! Some pieces might not come to you until you start writing, and that's fine. Sometimes we only have an inkling about where the story will go, but this type of structure can help guide our thoughts as we figure it out. But your subconscious will be churning as you write, and the midpoint reversal will come to you eventually. Even if it's something you flesh out more on the second draft after you see how the full story unfolds. It's totally okay to fill in parts on the second (or third) draft.

    Lynn, sure, they can be wrong. The point is the choice to move forward that puts them on the core conflict path. Even if that choice is wrong, it leads them one step closer. And if she runs and that's her flaw, forcing her to choose again works well for her character arc. Until she learns to stand and face her problems she can't win. She might take a long time to get there but that wrong choice does ultimate set her on the path she needs to be on.

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  15. As usual, some great insight. Thanks for putting it together. And a good link to that Beat Sheet spreadsheet, which is definitely a useful tool!

    I can see myself visiting this post a few times. :)

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  16. Hey Janice! Thanks so much for focusing on plot this week. This post is right on time, and as always VERY helpful. Now I'm off to fill in the blanks. Wish me luck!

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  17. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I've moaned before on here about my lack of plotting skills! I've also mentioned being a pantser, so your idea of using this during the editing stage is an excellent one!
    You've described all three stages as 'typically' featuring three key points. Do you ensure that you feature all of them, or does it change depending on the book? For instance, in my latest, the protagonist spends much of the book running blindly from disaster to disaster, so the planning part of act three never really occurs. He's learnt a great deal, and become someone who can handle the crazy stuff, but still heads to his show down with the antagonist pretty much unprepared, mostly due to the time constraints enforced by the evil dude's plans! I'm not sure it's a loss, but I'd appreciate your thoughts :)
    thanks
    Mike

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  18. Adrian, the beat sheet is quite helpful. I recommend picking up the Save the Cat book s as well if you like the sheet. It'll give you a lot more info on how it works.

    Marti, good luck!

    Michael, there's flexibility in any structure, but even in a scene by scene basis the "beginning middle and ending" format still applies. So I find it very helpful to approach my acts the same way. But I hate to say "YOU MUST DO THIS" when you can structure your novel however you see fit. It's your novel.

    However, if your protagonist is just reacting to events in the climax and not actually driving the plot, that's usually a red flag that you might have a reactive protagonist. Even if things are moving faster than he can keep up with, he should still be making plans and acting.

    And remember, "planning" doesn't necessarily mean sitting around a table with allies and coming up with ideas. It might be one guy taking two minutes to scope out an area and figure out how he's going to break into a building. His planning might be on the fly trying to deal with things as they tumble out of control. Does that help?

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  19. Hi Janice
    That does, and it's very useful, thanks. The challenge now is to keep the sense of pace and action, but give him those moments of proper conscious choice.
    Having said that, I tend to write quickly, and then notice things I've done once I start the edit, so maybe he's planned more than I thought, :)
    Thanks again. What is the thinking behind a reactive protagonist being a bad thing? Is it the sense that readers will find it difficult to relate to someone who doesn't make the choices that affect the outcomes?
    cheers
    Mike

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  20. Michael, a reactive protagonist tends to feel like the story is happening despite them. Like you could take them out and nothing in the story would change because they weren't actually doing anything to make story happen. Plus, if all they do is react, the story can feel aimless and low stakes because there's nothing to be gained. No goal. Low stakes. Stuff is just happening willy nilly for no clear reason.

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    1. I think you described the problem with my current WIP. The only thing my protag is doing is running around the woods getting lost. She's not really engaged in the machinations of the antagonists. This is probably a main reason why the ending isn't working for me either. Oh well! Time to rewrite! :)

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  21. Yep, that makes sense
    Thank you :)

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  22. Thank you for doing this on plotting. As a panster, I am weaker in plotting on paper. It still lives in my head though. I just need to transition to a little more paper. I loved the links to the beat sheet. I am half-way through my WIP and planning on writing for NaNoWriMo to finish. I know I can only accomplish this if I have a solid, firm plan. This is exactly what I needed!

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    1. Awesome! You can always use these during revisions as well. I know a few pantsers who do that and love it. They get the story down how they like to write, then use the structures to help organize and tighter the story.

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  23. This is a little off topic of this post, but I can't get over how great your whole blog is. I've been reading post after post for the past few days, and they've all helped me figure out so many things I was struggling with, especially plotting. No other advice has "clicked" with me the way yours has. Can't wait to keep learning more from you!

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    1. Aw, thanks so much. You just made my day. It's certainly a labor of love for me and hearing it's helping my fellow writers means a lot to me.

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  24. Awesome! Thank you so much for this. It explains the three act method in the details that I need.

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  25. Hey Janice! I was wondering, whats your opinion on the four-act structure suggested by Larry Books in Story Engineering?

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    1. It's a solid structure, very similar to the three act structure (which really is four acts, since act two is broken into two parts), with a solid conceptual look at what happens to move the story from beginning to middle to ending. I think it could really appeal to those who want a little structure to plot, but still want a lot of room to let the story grow organically. It gives you some nice turning points and structure to frame a novel, but still lots of freedom to write.

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  27. Hello! First, thank you so much for all of these articles! I'm having a major issue though. I've been studying the three act structure for a couple of days because my writing has always had this issue of coming up short and thanks to this article, plus some other images, I now know why my writing always comes up so short!

    For the sake of example, I'm going to use this picture as a visual example of what I'm talking about. ( http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/pruter/film/three-act.png )

    Now, here's my issue. I always have a good Opening, I always know my inciting event, I have a Plot Point 1 Disaster, I have a Mid Point Disaster, a Plot Point 2 Disaster, a Climax, and an ending.

    Throughout all of this, I've discovered that I have this giant area of empty space between Plot Point 1 - Mid Point and Mid Point - Plot Point 2. Some times I'll struggle in the area between Plot Point 2 - Climax, but I can usually come up with something.

    Can you talk to me / write an article about filling in these 3 areas? Thanks!

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    1. Glad it helped!

      I'll be talking about all those points in upcoming posts, though I can certainly cover some of it now.

      The giant empty space is the middle, which is often a trouble spot since it's 50% of the novel. That's where all the story and struggle happens. If you know your major plot points through there, you should have enough to keep things moving. If it's not, that could indicate those points aren't strong enough or fleshed out enough yet to carry the story.

      You might try looking to see what those plot points are doing for your story. The midpoint disaster should be carrying the first half of the middle, and dealing with that disaster should carry the second half and get you to the climax. Plot point one forces the protagonist to make a decision and create a plan that leads them to the midpoint. If you don't have enough steps there, or enough conflict and stakes, that could be your issue. Subplots are also woven through the main conflict in the middle, so if you have no subplots, that could be another issue making the middle feel light.

      After the midpoint, the protagonist will need to come up with a new plan and act in a way that leads them to the end of act two (the dark moment). This second half is all about trying and failing while the bad guys gain the upper hand. It ends with "failure" and things look the bleakest, and the protagonist must come up with a major plan to solve the problem and that will drive the story into the climax.

      Talking about this abstractly can be tough, so if you'd like to email me we can discuss specifics and see what's going on there. My email is under the "contact" tab.

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  28. Thanks, Janice! I've had characters, motivation, and setting for my WIP for a while - but have had no idea what that meant for the plot. Reading this helped me organize all my plot points into a workable structure. It's been incredibly helpful. Thank you!

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    1. Most welcome, I'm glad it helped :) I love this structure.

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  29. just wanted you to know that I returned to this blog again. So helpful, Janice. I love your blog!!!

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  30. This is EXACTLY what I needed!! The perfect thing to get my novel moving fast :)

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    1. Cool! Sending good writing vibes your way.

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  31. Thank you so much for this article. I just plotted my novel with it, and it's clarified some of the details for me.

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    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad it helped. I love this structure. It just makes it easier to see the big picture of the story.

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  32. This is amazingly written and extremely detailed and helpful, especially for beginners. Your blog has become an immensely valuable resource for both my sister and I who are embarking on our first novels!

    When I was at the planning stage of my novel a few months ago now, I really, really struggled with getting my head around the three act structure, as well as how everything else (character arc, conflict, scenes etc) 'plugged' into it. As a graphic designer I have attempted to make a graphic that showed this visually (see http://twincreatives.com/2015/09/27/planning-the-bigger-picture/), and it may or may not be helpful to others in a similar situation. :) It would be fabulous to hear what you think of it and if you have any comments or suggestions!

    Thanks again for the article.

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    1. Thanks, and I'm glad you guys find it helpful.

      Nice graphics! I think they'll be very helpful for visual learners. It breaks it down well and shows the pieces in action.

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  33. I normally dont choose to comment on these but this was so helpful I had to say thanks!

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  34. Hi Janice
    Thanks so much! This has been so valuable that I've been reading, re-reading, taking notes and comparing to my first draft story for literally 3 hours straight! I've also tweeted about how succinct and helpful your article is and emailed a fellow writer with a link. I am such a panster, and this reminds me how important it is for me to plan more. I just can't thank you enough.
    Lou

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    1. Thanks so much! If planning will help you, go for it, but if you're a pantser and it hurts your creativity, it's okay to pants that first draft and then revise with structure in mind. Whatever works best for you. Of course, if you realize a little (or a lot of) structure helps, go ahead and use it.

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  35. I'm finding this really useful, but is there any way that this could be altered to have four acts? I'm just finding that I can't fit as many things in as I would like to, and a lot of it is crucial to the plot. I should add that this is the first book in a quadrilogy, so I'm not certain that every element of this structure will quite work for me.

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    1. Sure. Technically it is four acts, since act two is really broken down into A (the ramp up) and B (the ramp down). Each section is roughly 25% of the novel. You might also look at Michael Hauge's six point plot plan (the link is there), and see if that fits your story better Same basic principles, but it's a little looser.

      And if some elements don't work, skip them. Maybe look at the structure as it apples to your quadrilogy and adjust the turning points from there. Just make sure you also have a solid per book structure as well, since you don't want to leave readers feeling like they got an incomplete story. :)

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  36. I commend you for this article. Cleared the three act structure for me. Well done!

    Love your site!

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  37. Each morning I look in my inbox to see what words of wisdom and help will come from you. I've been devouring your posts and applying them to my vey first manuscript. Yesterday I ordered your book so I can benefit from you experience whenever I need. Thank you.

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