So You Think You Can Write-Part 4.1: Outlining with the Three Act Structure

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Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or like me, who’s somewhere in between, having an outline is essential.

Pantsers usually get intimidated by the idea of having an outline and it’s a common misconception that outlines restrict creativity. I see outlines as a way of giving your story some structure. To quote Pirates of the Carribean, outlines are more like guidelines than a cut and dry formula. Just like a GPS map or a compass will help keep your story organized and guide you towards making your story the best that it can be, even if you’re just writing the first draft.

There are many ways to create an outline. Today will focus on the “Three Act Structure,” where you have a vague idea of the beginning, middle, and end. If you’re a pantser, a basic three-act-structure outline is probably the best one to use. I’m going to use movies as examples for every outline because movies are easy to break down and they’re great examples of structured storytelling.

Basic Three Act Structure (using Avengers)

  • Act 1
    • Opening Scene: How does your story begin? Avengers begins with Coulson, Maria Hill, and Nick Fury overlooking research on the Tesseract. Dr. Erik Selvig and Hawkeye are introduced.
    • Inciting Incident: What happens that changes the status quo? Loki comes into the research facility through a portal opened by the Tesseract and uses his staff to turn some people over to his side. Nick Fury distracts Loki as the portal collapses. He, Maria, and Coulson manage to escape, but the facility collapses in a sinkhole and Loki has taken Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig. The cold open ends with Coulson asking Nick Fury “What do we do?” The answer is given in the title shot.
    • Establishing Moments: Who are the important players? The rest of “Act 1” in Avengers is spent introducing the heroes who are central to the story. Black Widow, Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man have their own “character establishing moment.” In a book, a character can react to the inciting incident and try to figure out what to do about it. This is where you need to make sure that all your important characters are introduced and established.
    • The “turnabout” or “first escalation”: Act 1 ends when Loki causes a distraction in Stuttgart. The Avengers capture Loki but get sidetracked by Thor. After the best example of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, Thor decides to join up with the Avengers to keep an eye on his adopted brother.
  • Act 2
    • Choice: Act 2 of Avengers centers on everyone figuring out what to do with Loki in order to stop whatever he has planned with the Tesseract. Iron Man and Hulk do research on the Tesseract and Loki’s staff. Black Widow interrogates Loki.
    • Escalation: As the main action plays out, there are things bubbling under the surface. In Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk all wonder what “Phase Two” was and investigate Nick Fury’s plan, even as they try to figure out what Loki is up to. Tension builds up amongst the Avengers and certain personalities clash.
    • Midpoint Reversal: This is when things go wrong in a huge way. In Avengers, all the tension boils into arguments. Hawkeye blindsides the Hellicarrier. Loki kills Coulson and escapes. The Hulk and Thor go missing.
    • Disaster: At this point, anything that can go wrong does. Things get chaotic and messy and it’s up to the heroes to try and keep the damage to a minimum. In Avengers, this is when the Battle of New York begins.
  •  Act 3
    • The Plan:  The characters decide what to do in order to take down the bad guy once and for all. I’ll just let you watch how it plays out in Avengers for yourself.
    • ExecutionHow does the plan play out? The action needs to escalate and the focus is narrowed to whatever the character chooses to do in order to make sure the plan works. This is shown through the various scenes in the Battle of New York: Captain America rescuing people on the streets, Thor, Hawkeye and Iron Man battling the aliens, Hulk smashing, and Black Widow trying to figure out a way to close the portal. Everything basically leads up to…
    • The Climax: This is the final battle or confrontation against the antagonist. In Avengers, the World Council sends a nuclear bomb into the city. Thankfully, Tony decides to throw the nuke into the portal as it closes, destroying all the aliens in space in the process.
    • Wrap Up: If your book is stand-alone, this is where you tie up loose ends. If you’re writing a series, this is where you can start teasing the next book. You can either end the book on a cliffhanger or end the book with some things unresolved or with “the adventure continuing,” making the reader want more. In Avengers, Loki washes up, defeated in Tony Stark’s penthouse. The demigod gets taken back into Asgard and the Avengers all go their separate ways. However, there’s still the promise that someday, they’ll come back when they are needed, even as they all ride off into the sunset.

     

If you’re not exactly sure what order everything is going to happen, put your scenes down on index cards and play around with them to see which order makes the most sense to you. Remember, use the structure of the outline as a guide and feel free to make changes to your outline if your story starts changing.

Tomorrow, I will examine a different type of outline that can be used for more than just action movies.

One thought on “So You Think You Can Write-Part 4.1: Outlining with the Three Act Structure

  1. I am more of a “planster,” somewhere in between the planner/plotter and pantser. I’m in act 3 of my WIP, and my planner notes aren’t going in the direction that the pantser side of me wants to take the story in. It’s a tug-of-war right now. 🙂

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