I’ve been thinking a lot about structure recently and more specifically about outlining. This is not something I’m used to doing — I’ve never been much of an outliner, but over the past several months I’ve been forced to become one. For me, outlining is the first step to drafting a synopsis and I had several synopses to write in order to send various projects out on proposal.
In the past, whenever I’ve had to outline something I’ve turned to my favorite structure guru, Michael Hague. He uses a classic three-act structure and a fairly straightforward set of stages and turning points that a story moves through. Late last year, an author friend turned me on to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat which lays out 16 plot beats at the heart of any story and I’ve found his approach to be super helpful as well (plus it meshes well with Hague’s; I’ve talked about them both here).
But still, both of those approaches were a little too detailed for me. They’re perfect to guide revisions once I’ve finished a rough draft and want to make sure the story works, but it’s too much when I’m first starting out. I find myself too caught up in the weeds of a story and missing out on the big picture.
Enter my friend Jennifer Lynn Barnes. I was discussing a problem with my plot with her recently and she whipped out a piece of paper and showed me her approach which she adapted from Alexandra Sokoloff‘s “Screenwriting Tips for Authors.” It’s brilliant. And since I’ve learned it, I’ve showed it to several other authors who have used it to map out their own plots.
Jen also uses a three act structure which she breaks down into four sections (she separates the second act into two parts). Each section has a midpoint and an endpoint and each of those points should be a “Holy &*#%$!” moment — some kind of game changer that drives the plot in a new direction. This creates a series of mini-arcs between each point — action that connects the dots.
Here’s a sketch of the overall structure (and whenever I’m trying to plot something, I just draw this out on a blank sheet of paper and start filling it in) (also, click the image or here for a larger version):
Essentially, you begin your book with an establishing character shot — this gives the reader the “before” that they can then compare to the “after” at the end of the book. This leads to the midpoint of Act 1 which is where things get complicated — this is the first twist/revelation, the first thing that disrupts the character’s ordinary world. The character’s reaction to that twist drives toward the endpoint of Act 1 which is some sort of event/revelation/etc that launches the main problem of the book.
The thing to keep in mind is that while movies tend to have a rigid structure (which is why you’ll see Hague and Snyder listing specific page numbers where each beat must take place), books are much more fluid. I’d always approached the three act structure thinking that each of those four columns above needed to be roughly equivalent. Jen pointed out to me that that didn’t have to be the case. The first act can actually be super short if you want or need it to be.
What I like about this approach to Act 1 is that according to Hague, the the initial problem in a story can never carry the weight of the entire plot — it will peter out too soon. But at the same time, you want stuff to happen or else the story is boring. Thus, you basically need an initial problem that then leads to the inciting incident. I’d always had a bit of trouble figuring that out and I think this structure addresses that: the initial incident is where things get complicated, and the endpoint is the inciting incident that launches the plot (what I like to think of as the “but for point” — but for Thelma and Louise deciding to go on a road trip, the entire movie wouldn’t have happened).
In Act 2, Part 1 you have two twists/major revelations and the second is basically the midpoint of your story. This is where the stakes are raised and things get personal. This is also the “point of no return;” up until this point your characters could have changed their minds and returned to their normal lives. After this point, that’s no longer an option. There is no going back.
The key here is making it personal and this was a huge revelation to me. As Jen and I were walking through the plot of my latest book, I kept coming up with ideas for this beat and Jen kept saying, “You need to make it more personal.” This is where things need to hit close to home and by making it super personal, you’re automatically raising the stakes.
In Act 2, Part 2, you have another twist/revelation which then leads to the endpoint, or the “dark night of the soul.” This is the “all is lost” point and if someone’s going to die in your book, this is where it happens. Blake Snyder refers to this as the “whiff of death” — even in a romantic comedy you’ll see this (a shot of dead flowers on the character’s desk, a goldfish dying, news of a relative passing away, etc).
And again, just as in the midpoint, here you should really push to make this as deeply personal as possible. Take everything you can away from the character — abandon them and make it look like resolution is impossible. Don’t hold back!
This then leads to the climax at the midpoint of Act 3 which is where evil is defeated, the hero conquers all, the home team wins the game, etc etc. The timing of this point was also a huge revelation to me. I’d always pushed my climaxes to the end of the third act and I’ve realized that doing so created a lot of lag. The “dark night of the soul” is supposed to be such a huge crisis point and putting too much time between that and the climax always felt like it was throwing off the pacing.
Pulling the climax up to the middle of the third act keeps the pacing tight and the story racing toward the end. The bottom of the third act is therefore the denouement where the reader gets the reward of seeing the changed hero; we get the “after” snapshot to compare against the “before.”
Jen’s approach to the final beat is to create one last game-changer. My understanding is that this basically leaves the reader with an idea of what might happen next (it also leaves open the possibility of a sequel). For example, let’s say you have a book about a woman who is the target of a serial killer and narrowly escapes death while helping to bring the killer down. The final beat might be her joining the FBI — it sends her off in a new direction and as the reader, we can imagine what her life will be like moving forward. We know what direction the course of the book has set her on even though we’ve reached the last page.
What I love about this structure is that it’s more stripped down and basic — there’s less I have to pinpoint which gives me a measure of flexibility. When Jen was showing it to me, she asked what plot points I already knew had to happen and then she filled those in. Almost always, even at the most beginning stages, you’re going to know some of the “must have” beats. If it’s a murder mystery you know one of the likely beats is discovering the body and another beat is discovering the murderer. If it’s a romantic comedy, one of the beats is likely going to be the meet cute and another is something that breaks up the characters.
Once those known points are filled in, you’ll find that you often only have 2-3 additional plot points to figure out and those should come easier since you know what needs to happen before and after each one. Furthermore, you know that each action segment needs to connect each beat to the next and often you’ll see that once you have all the beats in place, what the action needs to be becomes clear.
After Jen taught me this approach to outlining, I took my chart and converted it to a broad-strokes outline. I then used that as a basis for my synopsis. Not long after, I sold that project. And since then, I’ve sat down with at least a dozen authors and we’ve used this chart as a blueprint for plotting out their current or future projects. It’s been a big game changer in my approach to writing and I hope that you find it useful as well!
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