Outlining with the Three-Act Structure

April 3, 2019 by Evan Braun


I meet with aspiring authors all the time—over coffee, over lunch, wherever happens to be convenient—and just let the conversation flow. These conversations end up going in a lot of different directions, but invariably I end up fielding a lot of questions. The most common ones, of course, is: how do I get published? And the answer is complicated and highly individual.
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Importantly, most of the people who want to know how to publish a book haven’t actually finished writing a book yet. In which case, any talk of publication is a bit premature.

So the second most common questions have to do with outlining. The world has no shortage of people who want to write books, and no shortage of people who start writing books. The number of those people who end up finishing a book, however, is a fairly small percentage. There are so many ways in which writers get hung up during the writing process. Outlining is the potential saviour.

I’ve written on this blog about outlining many, many times. Because it’s important, confusing, and there are seemingly endless ways to go about it. If you click on the links earlier in this paragraph, you’ll get some helpful tips and strategies about to undertake the process.

Today, though, I wanted to talk a little bit about my own process. I’ve discussed my preferred process before, and if you click on those aforementioned links you’ll see that I identify most strongly with a method called The Flashlight.

The Flashlight method says that you don’t have to figure out a whole book in advance, but merely figure out the concrete details of a few chapters ahead of wherever you happen to be. So if you’re in the middle of writing Chapter Ten, then this means you have, at minimum, a clear idea about what’s forthcoming in Chapters Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen. And beyond that, you’re working towards some kind of predetermined ending, but those are only vague notions that are subject to a lot of change as you go.

While this is generally true of my process, there’s a lot more to it than that.

If you’re a fan of live theatre, you may know a thing or two about the three-act structure. Act One is largely responsible for exposition, introducing the characters and setting—in the most compelling way possible (which is key, because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read uncompelling exposition at the start of a book; don’t fall into that trap). Early on in Act One, there will be an inciting incident which serves as the catalyst for the story.

The transition to Act Two is typically a major plot point of some kind that changes everything and raises several dramatic questions that will be explored throughout the rest of the story—and answered at the climax. Act Two is always the longest of the acts, and it’s also the hardest to define. There’s a term for this part of the story, shared by many writers in moments of commiseration—the “murky middle.” It’s the part of your story where stuff happens, and it’s where most inexperienced writers get hung up.

At the end of Act Two, there’s another vital plot point that kicks the story into high gear, significantly raises the stakes, and sets everyone and everything racing towards… Act Three. Act Three is the most propulsive part of the story, where everything that the writer has built up over the course of the first two acts comes crashing together into a hopefully satisfying climax. Importantly, the climax isn’t quite the end of the story, as you shouldn’t end things so abruptly. Even if your book ends in a startling cliffhanger, you should build in some room for a denouement, which is needed for the reader to let the events of the story to soak in.

But of course stage plays don’t have a monopoly on the three-act structure. Films and books (fiction and non-fiction alike) tend to follow the same basic story foundation.

And indeed it’s the way in which I plot my novels in advance. The only real difference in my case is that I concede to the reality that Act Two should sometimes be divided into two or three pieces, leading me to have four or five acts overall. The number of proverbial “acts” isn’t important; you’ll have as many acts as you have key turning points in your plot.

My outlines have looked this way for years, and I’ll use my first published novel, The Book of Creation, now as an example. Bear in mind that this isn’t the original outline I used, since that outline has since been lost to time. Rather, this is a relatively faithful reconstruction of it.

(I suppose I’m about to give away a lot of spoilers. There’s no way to talk the book’s outline without giving away the key turning points—so if you plan to read the book, look away now! Or purchase a copy by clicking on the title above)

Act One
Exposition: Establish three main characters, each of them separated by age, religion, and geography—a young and up-and-coming archaeologist, a middle-aged and washed-out archaeologist, and an elderly Jewish rabbi.
Inciting incident: An unexpected discovery in Egypt sheds light on the possible location of a millennia-old manuscript, thought either lost or apocryphal by anyone who’s ever heard of it, that is purported to lay out the scientific methodology by which God created the world—and which could potentially be duplicated by those who comprehend its secrets.
Turning point: All three characters gather in Switzerland for a secret meeting during which they are recruited by a wealthy philanthropist to undertake a dangerous and off-the-books mission to a foreign country. Reluctantly, and against their better judgment, they agree to undertake this globe-trotting adventure.

Act Two
Stuff happens: The trio travels to Egypt, and through a series of happenstances learns that the manuscript they’re looking for could be located underneath the great Giza pyramids. They venture to this secret location and learn that the manuscript might have once been there, but it’s not there anymore. They find clues, however, that could lead them to its possible current location. First, though, the trio must flee for their lives from the authorities that are pursuing them.
Turning point: Surprisingly solid evidence points their search toward a most unlikely location—Antarctica, which is almost impossible to get to. But after a daring and dramatic escape from Egypt, they are soon on their way south.

Act Three
Stuff happens: Their search in Antarctica is frustrating and initially fruitless, but they soon follow a trail of proverbial breadcrumbs to an enclosure under the ice where they find a man who has ostensibly been waiting for someone to find him. Still, there’s no manuscript to be found here. However, it turns out that this enclosure contains new clues—but the trio can’t make sense of them.
Turning point: In order to escape the enclosure, they are forced to abandon a vulnerable member of their party, causing them to cross an ethical line that they never thought they would have to cross.

Act Four
Stuff happens: They travel to Australia, where a linguist historian with special expertise can help them decode their latest clues. The new information sends them to a set of coordinates off the coast of a remote island in the South Pacific, but they’ve now decided that they can’t turn over their findings to the philanthropist who originally sent them on this mission. They are now on the run from him. Eventually, they make their way to the seafloor where they finally find the manuscript they’ve been looking for all along.
Climax: But the manuscript is guarded by an ancient creature who shares incredible stories about Earth’s deep past that completely alter the characters’ worldview. This creature won’t let them abscond with the manuscript, and an epic confrontation ensues. One of the main characters is killed while the others barely escape to safety.
Denouement: The two survivors, licking their wounds, confront the question about what to do with these paradigm-shattering discoveries, and how to move forward with their lives.

Now, before I had written a word of this novel, I had laid these details; I had the exposition worked out, the inciting incident, three major turning points, and then the climax. Notably, the stuff happens parts of the story hadn’t been worked out, so I’ve filled those bits in now with the benefit of knowing how it all came together. But with this outline in place, it was relatively straightforward to piece together the events that had to transpire in the story to link the turning points together. All I had to do was work backward from those key moments.

Every book I’ve written since has been written from an outline very similar to this one, and in the years since I’ve written nearly a dozen books. So I know that it works. You don’t have to come up with every minute detail of your story, just the major ones, and then it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks, treating each act as a mini-story of sorts.

My hope is that this might prove helpful as you embrace the difficult but ultimately rewarding task of getting your novel through its “murky middle.” Maybe one day soon you’ll have a writing success story of your own to share with the aspiring authors all around you.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.