three act structure

Plot Development: Outline in Three Acts

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Recall from the plot structure pages the attributes of these three parts.

  • The beginning, Act I, constitutes the first quarter of a book.
  • The middle or Act II makes up one half of the story.
  • The last quarter consists of the grand finale, climax and resolution, Act III.

In other words, your outline will have proportions similar to this:

Act I.

1.

2.

3.

Act II.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

Act III.

1.

2.

3.

We also looked at plot points, events that push your protagonist through the door of no return and into the next act.  Script your first plot point toward the end of Act I and your second towards the end of Act II.

Act I.

1.

2.

3.

A. Plot Point

Act II.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

A. Plot Point

Act III.

1.

2.

3.

Act III typically begins with a breather.  What will you use? The troops regrouping, gathering strength, a moment of reflection, a focus on the subplot?  Look at the material you already have. Continue to query your questions and answers, then choose the one detail that offers the best potential to expand with pace-altering significance. Insert it into your outline with a note on how you plan to develop it.

Of course, Act III then launches into its final struggles which will culminate in the story’s climax and resolution. Work these events into your blueprint.

ACT III.

  1. Breather from plot point, which holds the reader’s attention and allows the author to slow down the story and develop the characters’ emotional plot line together with thematic significance.
  2. Launch cavalcade of conflicts.

Now back up and plug in your four or five “take stock events of reckoning”. Fill Act II with the episodes of conflict and complications you’ve chosen. Make sure these events escalate in intensity and significance. Here’s a good place to map out your protagonist’s awareness of the stakes involved, which will rise from the action and tie into his emotional development plot line (which enhances thematic significance).

ACT II.

  1. Begin the middle with an overarching tension, conflict, or suspenseful plot point. While the threat holds the reader’s attention, it allows the author to slow down the story and incorporate scenes of place and time, of humanness.
  2. What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?
    1. What adversaries arise to wreak havoc?
    2. What are the protagonist’s (and key characters’) emotional reactions?
    3. What are the protagonist’s goals in this scene?
  3. What’s worse than the previous malady to befall your hero?
    1. What adversaries arise and what havoc do they wreak?
    2. What are the protagonist’s (and key characters’) emotional reactions?
    3. What are the protagonist’s goals in this scene?
  4. What’s worse than the previous malady to befall your hero?
    1. What adversaries arise and what havoc do they wreak?
    2. Through your protagonist’s emotional reactions, increasingly peel away layers of masking, gradually exposing their inner development through dramatic action with thematic significance.
    3. What are the protagonist’s goals in this scene and how does he adapt?
  5. What’s worse than the previous malady to befall your hero?
    1. What adversaries arise and what havoc do they wreak?
    2. What are the protagonist’s (and key characters’) emotional reactions
    3. What are the protagonist’s goals in this scene?
    4. Plot Point: The highest crisis in the story thus far.

Okay, step back again. What about scenes of preparation? A good place to insert one is prior to the climax. Are you making good use of cause and effect? What about reversals? Do you have a twist or two that can thwart your readers’ expectations?  If not, make a list of everything they might expect for your pivotal events and turn one or two of these end-up. Make sure, though, that the reversal is consistent with and benefits the story as a whole. Now plug these items into your outline.

Read Part I Approaching Story Outline in Three Acts

For More on Plot Development

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist