We’re here to tackle structure. Maybe you’re like me and you have only snippets of information about where your novel will go, what the plot will consist of, in essence: what the heck happens?
To help you out, we’re going to go over the basic plot structure that bestsellers have been based on both intentionally and inadvertently. We’ll be borrowing from screenwriting class for this lecture, but trust me when I say it definitely helps to know where in a well-structured plot each event you have swimming around in your head would best fit in your story. Many times I have received negative critiques of old stories not because of characters or voice, but lack of a strong plot. Using this tried-and-true method is a great springboard that will give you a basic structure. You can add, change, or expand on it as you write, of course.
So, the 3-Act structure is made up of just that: 3 acts. Beginning, middle and end. Some people will break this down into 9 acts (beginning, middle and end for each act), and even 27 acts or chapters. You can dice it however you like, but in the end, it all boils down to the same thing.
If we follow the original passed down from ancient times, the Hero’s Journey, Act 1 starts off with the normal world. In the Matrix, this is where Neo exists in his day-to-day job. We establish the rules of the normal world and the setting.
You might start your next chapter off with this segment, the inciting incident. This is where everything changes and something pushes the main character towards a certain goal. In the Matrix, this is when Neo receives the mysterious message on his computer, calling him to the next stage.
The call to adventure is where your main character(s) is pushed in a new direction, and the status quo is broken. After this they can either accept the call or refuse/deny the call to adventure.
From here, you might introduce your subplot, or B-plot. New characters are often introduced here that either support or challenge the main character(s) in some way. You wrote before about the point where everything turns around in a previous assignment, the midpoint. Write towards this mid-climax and your story will be in good shape for Act 3. Some writers use the midpoint as an opportunity for a reversal; if at the beginning of Act 2 your character got some breathing room and learned new skills after a defeat earlier on, maybe they get a victory in a battle but are ultimately doomed in the war. Maybe your character was failing at the beginning of Act 2, now all their plans are going well. Use this strategy at your discretion.
In the next section, darkness falls upon the main character(s). Maybe they lose a crucial battle and their entire fleet has been destroyed. Maybe the girl of his dreams has accepted a proposal from a love rival. Here, the main character can get a pep talk from a secondary character to get momentum in the right direction. Or you can have the main and subplot converge to move the story forward into Act 3.
The night is darkest just before day. Build on what the main character has to overcome to find resolution or resolve to defeat the antagonistic force. At some point we have the breakthrough, where the main character has the a-ha moment that makes them spring into action. Audiences don’t empathize well with characters who panic under pressure; unless this is the Fatal Flaw your character has to overcome, try to make them decisive in the face of their primary threat as they move forward.
Often stories will move into a new setting for the final push to the end. You can choose your setting as you feel is appropriate to your climax. This is the final battle, the last showdown, the confession, the verdict, the winning numbers being called. This is where it all comes together. The final act is usually the same length as the first act, not too long, so try not to drag things out too long unless you have a second twist coming up and the plot doesn’t sag.
Finally, bring everything to resolution. Tie up the loose ends as you see fit, plant any cliff-hangers or hints at series potential at the end. Give your readers breathing room. Finish your happily-ever-after if you have one.
These are the basic slots you can use to place scenes in your manuscript. Check out these downloadables to help guide you to a polished outline.