Saturday, October 12, 2013

5-Minute MFA: Plotting and the Three Act Structure (Day 12)

Over the next few days, I'm going to dig into just how I plot my novels. There are a few pieces to it, so I thought I'd spare the 50,000 word blog post and break it down into manageable chunks.

Today, I want to talk about the three-act structure.

Whether or not we realize it, we all know the three-act structure. Most movies live or die by the three-act structure and when we write most commercial (and plenty of literary) fiction, the three-act structure is our default story structure.

It has its detractors. Some people swear modern storytelling does not depend on breaks in the action, etc., etc., but I 'm not worried about defending my own plotting methods. I'm simply sharing what works for me. (/end disclaimer!)

It's really just a model that divides the written work in the beginning, middle, and end. Fancier terms would be the set up, the crisis, and the resolution.

Act I

In the first of three acts, we establish the characters and the world they exist in. We learn the rules of their world and toward the end of this first act, something happens. It could be anything. Plague. Zombie apocalypse. The murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Verue. By the end of the first Act, our hero or heroine has changed and must move on for the story to take shape.

Act II

The second act is called rising action. The speed usually picks up and our protagonist spends the majority of act two trying to resolve whatever problem was dropped on them toward the end of the first act. We learn more about our characters and subplots and the "darkest moment" usually occurs sometime in this second act.


The third act is our resolution. We resolve the problem (or we fail, or we suffer defeat) but the climax occurs and we wind down our story. Our hero usually returns a changed character.

How do I use this in plotting?

In its most basic sense, I'll sketch out the novel's story line and divide the action into the appropriate act. It helps me develop scenes and important moments and I sketch out the conflict, action, and resolution based on this three act structure.

Sometimes I don't follow the "roller coaster" diagram to the letter, but when it comes to plotting the rise and fall of my story's action, I've found that the three act structure is the first step in my rudimentary story building.

I use the three act structure to build my most basic framework. From there, I add more to my outlines, but it all starts with those three acts for me. See my preliminary use of it here: How I Use the Three Act Structure to Plot.

This week? I'll talk about how I layer on the Hero's Journey onto the three act structure and get more detail out of my novel's outline.

Miss a day? Check out my 31 Day MFA Challenge Master List!

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