How I go about plotting… using the Three-Act Structure

Recently, I lovingly shoved last year’s novel into the cavernous depths of the closet. Maybe I’ll revamp it one day, but not any day soon. There are a couple of reasons for this, the biggest one being that its dystopian through and through: a dead fish in YA publishing right now. As a result, I don’t want to invest a lot of time and energy revising, trying to make it ‘the one’. Its not marketable right now. I accept that.

To be perfectly honest, it needs a whole lot of work and that was going to be a DAUNTING task. I know novel number two will require a whole lot of work too, but at least I will be able to query it after the revision process without agents doing a form rejection because its dystopian. Gotta give myself the best shot I can.

ANYWHO, as a result of Novel 1 (lets call it, ‘The Citadel‘ – as I am still super attached to the original title, and want to keep it under wraps) being shelved I started the process of plotting Novel 2 (code name ‘Happily Never After’). So I thought I’d run through the constantly evolving process of how I go about plotting my novel:

Idea Generation

Normally a vague idea forms, for me this is nearly always about plot rather than character, and normally as result of the question ‘what if X happened because of Y and it led to Z’. For example, for The Citadel, I started with the idea of ‘what if, far in the future, as a result of world wars that had purged the world of most humans, a citadel had been created to keep the last  community of humans alive. What if they were protected by genetically engineered humans who had special abilities (once used as a weapon against other countries in the world wars), but the ruler of the Citadel lost it and decreed that no human was allowed to leave the Citadel. Those that did would be hunted (through a microchip inserted at birth) and killed.’ These were the initial kind of thoughts for my story The Citadel, note the main character hasn’t been described yet.

Notebook ramblings

Once I have the beginnings of a story I grab my notebook and write everything and anything that comes to mind. I will fill loads of pages with ramblings, arrows will shoot out across the page connecting one idea with another, post it notes will be strewn about (love this, because i can move post-its around later for when I put the ideas into the three Act structure).  I may even draw some terrible pictures. In the back of my mind, when I am thinking of these ideas, I am thinking about my key plot points and how these ideas may fit in to the three-act structure. 20150527_190923 20150527_190915  20150527_190629

Putting the ideas into the three-act structure

Now that I’ve got a sense of my characters and their world and the kind of obstacles that I want to throw in their way, I start planning what I want to happen for the main plot points using the three act structure. James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure is excellent at describing how the three act structure works. For a hugely in-depth look at this, K M Weiland’s posts on this structure are amazing too, she uses great examples.

So what is the three-act structure? (with examples)

Act One

Forms the first 25 per cent of the book and sets up your protagonist in their normal environment before the first plot point pulls them into action. Things to do here: present character, setting, stakes and conflict, and possibly subtly introduce theme.

The hook: Aptly named, you are going to want to get your pointy hooks into the reader straight away. You do this by luring them in with a question that piques their curiosity; this needs to happen straight away, the first line if possible, if not–at least the first page.

Example“I first noticed I was missing on a Thursday” — Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray

Woah, how does someone notice they are missing? Are they dead? Are they now a ghost? Doesn’t this first sentence raise a zillion questions in your mind? I don’t know about you, but after this I am dying to know what this story is about. That is what a hook should do. Do this with your story. The hook should be relevant to your plot, or else you are just setting yourself up for failure as readers get disappointed when the hook promises one thing, and the story delivers something different. Also, this can run the risk of setting the wrong tone for your book.

Inciting Event: The inciting event is crucial to your story, this is what sets everything in motion for your protagonist. The inciting event focuses on the core-conflict of your novel (it might be an inkling of whats to come, but it is the start of it all), and draws your protag into the story line.

Example: For Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J. K. Rowling), this is when Harry Potter is set upon by the  sweet, goofy giant Hagrid and is told he has been accepted into Hogwarts. Without this, Harry would still be cooped up in that horrible little cupboard. 

The First Plot Point: At roughly the 25 per cent mark you are going to want to put your first MAJOR plot point. This is a turning point for your protagonist, she has been presented with a problem that she MUST react to. This reaction must be strong, changing something irrevocably.  This will set your protagonist on the path to the climax of your story. The stakes will be raised at this point; the protag can not go back to the way things were. This plot point marks the end of the first act, and propels the character, through how they react into the second act.  This is quite often accompanied by a total change of scenery.

Example: Continuing on with the Harry Potter example, at approximately 25 % through you will find Harry Potter at the train station,  catching the Hogwarts Express for the first time. This is the point of no return, the moment when everything changes for Harry.

Act Two

Out here in the middle… (for those ‘The Middle’ tv fans): Act Two forms the middle part of your novel, it commences roughly from 25% and goes to 75%. This is where your protag finds the time and space to react to the first major plot point, before they get to the Mid-Plot Point. The protag will face a series of challenges, flailing and struggling, learning the lessons that she needs to become badass and kick butt in the final act, and defeat the antagonist.

Mid-Plot Point: This can roughly be found halfway through your novel. This plot point needs to drive towards the core-conflict, upping the stakes. Instead of just reacting now, your protagonist is going to start to take  control and start taking action against the antagonist. This is the major moment that will push the protag from merely reacting, something big just happened and your protag MUST take action. Because they NEED to do something. If your protag is going to survive this mess, they’re going to have to stop defending themselves or burying their head in the sand, and go on the attack.

Example – Harry Potter defeats outwit the three headed monster to protect the stone and not allow Voldemort to obtain it. Harry is becoming bold, he is putting his life on the line to protect the stone. 

After the Mid-Plot Point your protag will be pissed off, something big just happened and they are now realizing that they ARE capable of fighting back, and that they want to respond, they NEED to take action. The stakes are high, your character has purpose and is highly motivated to take action, she wants to do something about the position she is in.

Act Three

This kicks off around the 75% mark and is the final act, it will round out your novel. This is where everything comes to a head, this is the moment you have been building too. This is where your climax will be. All those threads you’ve been laying out throughout your novel must come together and be tied off; all those wonderful subplots and the main plot must be resolved.

Third-Plot Point: this plot point kicks off the third act (around the 75 % mark).  It may not be as huge as the first, or the mid-point, but it should still be significant. This will set the protagonist’s feet on the path toward the final conflict in the climax. This will often lead to the protag getting all the final info they need to battle that antagonist in the climax, and come up with a plan that feels to the reader was inevitable, but never obvious.

Example: Harry realizes that Voldemort is the one behind trying to get the stone; then Harry discovers that Hagrid, in a drunken moment, accidentally told a disguised stranger how to get by the 3-headed dog. Harry is forced to take action, if Voldemort gets his hands on the stone he will be restored to his pre-Lily-sapping evil self.

Climax: Occurs very near the end of the novel, usually with only 10 % or less to go. It is otherwise known as the black moment, your protagonist is trodden by the antagonist force, and the reader believes there is absolutely no way the protagonist could get herself out of this one. The climax should have readers TENSE. Shoulders hard as rocks, tense; no finger nails left, tense; desperate to turn the page, tense. If your readers don’t find out what happens soon, they will cry out in agony. That’s your job as a writer.

Example: Harry finds the Sorcerer’s Stone in his pocket (because he is good and pure) and uses it to defeat Voldemort.

Resolution: this should not be long, normally only an extra scene or two to tie off any leftover loose ends and to leave the reader with the happy/hopeful or sad/reflective emotions you want to leave them.

How I plot my ideas into the three-act structure

I use post-it notes to play around with the ideas that I’ve brainstormed and line them up with the key plot points above in mind. To be honest, my ending is never full plotted out, I like to let this grow organically as I am writing ( though I may have a really broad idea of where I want this to go).

I also start to chronologically plot points (as in the second pic), however, again, this is subject to change once I’ve started writing; I never want to force it and try let the characters dictate where they want to go. See post it plan and bullet points in chronological order (the second one was from the Citadel). 20150527_214656 20150527_214738


As a fantastic follower on twitter pointed out, the photo and explanation above doesn’t really go into detail about how I line up the ideas with the three-act structure. So, after I’ve written all my ideas into the notebook (as mentioned earlier in post) I normally have a good sense (although pretty ‘high level’) of how the story will chronologically play out. I may even at this point write a bullet pointed list (as above). What I then do is assess how these plot points play out against the key components of the three-act structure (though I keep these major plot points in the back of mind as I am jotting down ideas in the note book phase).

The main points that I care about getting right are the Inciting Event, PP1, the Mid-point, and PP3 and I will know roughly what the climax is going to look like.  If PP1 isn’t strong enough to be the turning point for my protagonist, I will bolster this until my protag can only take that path. For example, the inciting event for my Protag involves a threat which she doesnt take seriously until PP1 makes it clear that she can not ignore it (the stake are raised, and it leads my protag on the path to the core-conflict).  I basically check the adequacy of the plot-points I’ve come up with, make sure they are doing what is intended at each plot-point and pop them on a chart. You are probably wondering why I have a lot of post it notes, this is because once I’ve got the core plot points down I start beefing this up with my other ideas.

(NB: if you were wondering what my colour code system was, orange was for my main plot points, yellow and pink were two different subplots that will weave into the main story line.)

I hope that helped shed a bit more light on my process, although it is not an exact science and seems to change a little each time.

Let me know how you like to plot your novels, are you a plotter or a pantser or something in between? S.


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