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:
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)
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)
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.
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)
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?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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