Plot Structure Chart

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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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):

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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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13 comments to Plot Structure Chart

  • Mikaela

    Ooh. This couldn’t have come at a better time. There is a bank holiday in Sweden this weekend, and I am planning a writer’s retreat. Originally the plan was to make words happen, but I think I’ll make plots happen instead. Maybe I’ll finally get a grip on the second book in the Heaven and Hell series. ( After all, I realised yesterday that the loose plot thread in the first book was the perfect set up for book 3. Only took me 4+ years..)

  • This is brilliant. I need to print out that chart and put it on my office wall. I’m about to start a new project, and I have been wondering how to weave together all the different plot threads. I can see where something like this could be adapted to a broader series length story with multiple plot threads and POV characters. I’m looking forward to playing with it. Thanks, Carrie!

  • I like this! Simple and to the point with lots of room to play!

    David – I’d love to see how you adapt this to multiple plot threats and characters! Please share with us when you do!

  • Threads. Not threats. Sheesh. :-(

  • Razziecat

    Verrrry interesting. I have to put some thought into this, and give it a try for my next project. I might even be able to use it to restructure the current one, which has gone off the rails a bit…

  • quillet

    This is very, very helpful. I love how adaptable it is. Thank you. I’m definitely keeping a copy of that chart!

  • I like this chart! And I also like the statement “The first act can be super short if you want it to be.” This just might be the answer to an ongoing issue with my current opening act. Maybe it’s okay if it’s a little short.

  • I’m a big fan of Hague, and I’ve been taught the very basics of SAVE THE CAT, but this is new to me — and very, very welcome. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Rhonda

    Is it just me or is that “three act” chart actually four acts? (Note how “act two” is split into two parts.)

    I’ve become a fan of the five act structure myself.

  • Yes, Rhonda it’s four acts. The reason for this was explained in the fifth paragraph of the article.

    Carrie Ryan, thanks for this advice. You’ve actually answered a question I’ve been dealing with for a few months.

  • Mikaela — have a great writers retreat! I sat down with a bunch of authors at a recent retreat and we plotted out several of their books. I’d say it took on average less than an hour for each one, regardless of how much plotting they already knew. So hopefully you can both plot and write!

    David — so glad you like it! For me it’s at least a good first step — it helped me create the very broad arc that I could then go and fill in. Otherwise, trying to write a story out in more detail linearly I’d just get lost in the weeds. I’ll have to try it with a larger series arc (esp since my next series is 4 books and there are 4 columns — wonder if it will work).

    Glad you like this Lyn!

    Razziecat — I used to focus on structure more during revisions. That’s when I tend to use the more detailed structure charts like Hague and Snyder. But I definitely found this useful for getting the general bare-bones arc of the story. Basically, this structure lays out what *has* to happen and you can fill in the “what can happen” in between.

    I hope this works for you quillet!

    SiSi — yeah, hearing that it’s okay to shorten the first act really resonated with me. Esp since I’m a writer who likes to jump into things super fast.

    Mindy — sounds like you and I have a lot of the same go-to craft authors!

    Rhonda — I agree with you completely! I have no idea why they call it a three act structure, especially since I’ve always broken the second act into two parts. I hadn’t seen the five act structure — thanks for sharing the link!

  • Cindy

    Great Post! This is so helpful as plotting drives me crazy.

  • MykaReede

    Love the post. I typically lay out my WIP with outlines (it’s part of my DNA), but I view it more as stepping stones across a river – each must lead to the next and contain logic, conflict and heart – else the stone is wobbly. But as I’m tackling a novella, I’m finding this approach doesn’t work as cleanly. Can’t wait to try out your idea instead. Thanks!