Outlining Your Novel: Three Act Structure

Last week, I discussed getting started with novel outlining. Now that you’ve decided on your character arc (and general plotline), we can move on to the next step—actually dividing your work into a few smaller chunks. Three chunks, to be specific.

As I stated last week, the purpose of outlining is to break an enormous project (a novel) into manageable chunks.

Here, we’re breaking the novel into three acts.

You don’t have to use a three-act structure. Some novelists prefer four (or five!) acts. But when first learning the task of outlining, I think the three-act is the simplest. And the simplest description I’ve ever run into is in 2K TO 10K by Rachel Aaron:

ACT I: Put your characters in a tree.

ACT II: Light the tree on fire.

ACT III: Get your characters out of the tree.

That’s it—no worrying about turning points, etc., which you often encounter in descriptions of even the three-act structure.

ACT I: Describe the world of your novel. Introduce us to the characters. Even introduce the catalyst for change. Give us some hint of what’s about to send this world into chaos.

ACT II: Here is the crux of the action of your novel. Where the problems absolutely explode.

ACT III: The resolution to the problems. Get your characters to safety. OR: get your characters to extinguish the fire (this will make your characters heroes, because no one else in the world will face the same danger).

This portion takes more than a sentence. It might not even be something you accomplish in a day. It will take some exploratory writing. Play with this. Try out some passages. Imagine some scenes. But the key word here is play. That’s exactly what it is—play. Try things out. Some you’ll keep, some you’ll discard. And that’s okay—in fact, that’s what you should do. It’s a lot easier to try out ideas while brainstorming (and wind up discarding them) than it is to devote 20k words or so to an idea that you wind up scrapping. That’s the point of outlining, after all—to save you time and work!

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