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!

Outlining Your Novel: Character Arcs

I’m a big proponent of outlining books before writing them. I think it can cut serious amounts of time out of the drafting process—months, in most cases! Most people agree they’ll try anything to cut time out of drafting, but most who are new to outlining often don’t really know where to start. Or they see in their mind a kind of top-down outline that moves through the book in a chronological order.

In my experience, true outlining has very little to do with chronological order. In fact, that’s something I do at the very end of the process. Actually, outlining (at least, the way I outline a project) is about whittling. Taking a big idea and breaking it down in to increasingly smaller chunks.

That’s why I’m starting a series here on outlining.

This week, I’m focusing on the very first step in outlining:

The character arc.

This is arguably the most important part of any book. Even action-driven books.

What is a character arc?

It’s the internal journey your main character goes on in your book. This main character will not be the same person at the end of the book that they are in the beginning. They’ve had a revelation (or several). They’ve seen the world in a new way. They see their role in the world in a new way.

The physical journey they go on—which is the actual plot of the book—facilitates this change. It allows the character arc to take place.

Maybe one of the best examples of a journey that directly facilitates a change occurs in Dickens’s Christmas Carol—Scrooge sees the error of his miserly ways because of his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. He’s a different man as the book closes.

But the change occurs because of his physical journey. Nobody changes their mind sitting on the couch and binge-watching Netflix. They change because they have an adventure out in the world.

*Your main character will undergo a fairly radical internal change. This change will be the direct result of the physical journey they go on, which will be the plot of your book.

The first step of outlining, then, is deciding who your main character is. And how they will change. And how that change will take place—what will happen that will allow that change will take place. Don’t worry about order of events. Don’t worry about the finer points of plot. Put this part together in a single sentence. Use Scrooge as an example:

Scrooge sees the error of his miserly ways because of his encounters with he ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

That’s it. One sentence. That’s all this step requires.

But it’s also one of the most important steps. In many respects, this is will form the basis or your hook or pitch when you prepare to submit the book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Don’t worry about hooks or pitches right now. Just write your sentence.