I’m a long-time listener to the Writing Excuses podcast, and the pandemic this year forced their annual retreat (WXR) from a cruise ship to online, in conjunction with the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC). That made it both accessible and more affordable, so I attended. I was glad I did. I learned a lot about story structure in lectures from Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Robinette Kowal, Liz Palmer, and Dan Wells, and some new ways at looking at the emotional character of scenes from Tetsuro Shigematsu. This blog post is an attempt to distill some of the lessons into a framework for outlining.
As the instructors repeat (and perhaps belabor), these lessons are not the answer to how to structure a story. They’re at best an answer, and more realistically, a diagnostic tool. If a manuscript feels like it isn’t working, analyzing it per these structures can reveal where something is missing or weak.
In this post, I’ll show you how I’m using the structural tools in my process. I will typically free-write a First Lousy Draft that captures as much of the raw story idea as I have. I then start an outline template that unifies the Three Act Structure, the DREAM framework, and the 7 Point Structure. I slot my First Lousy Draft scenes into the outline, and look where I need to flesh out the plot. I’ll then use the completed outline to write a Second Less Lousy Draft that feels more like a complete story. Then comes the development and revision, which is beyond the scope of this post.
The Three Act Structure is a simple beginning, middle, and end, as follows:
- Act I – the “ordinary world” status quo
- Act II – the inciting incident and its repercussions
- Act III – the resolution
The DREAM framework is an character journey as follows:
- Denial – the character denies the need to change
- Resistance – the character resists pressure to change
- Exploration – the character explores a new concept of self
- Acceptance – the character accepts the new self definition
- Manifestation – the character’s new self effects external change
The Seven Point Structure calls out a progression of plot events, as follows:
- Hook – the world before the change initiating the story
- Plot Point 1 – the inciting incident
- Pinch Point 1 – the pressure to adapt increases, the antagonist is revealed
- Midpoint – the character is at the cusp of change
- Pinch Point 2 – attempts to solve the problem fail, things get worse
- Plot Point 2 – the “surprising but inevitable” solution is revealed
- Resolution – the climax and denouement
Together, the three structures overlay this way:
I’ve organized this into my favorite outlining tool, Workflowy. You can see the outline template here. Let’s look at what kinds of things go into the outline.
Act I encompasses the state of the story before the inciting incident, roughly 10-20% of the text. This is where we establish the main character, the setting, and the theme. It’s also the place to seed promises of the main character’s growth challenge or emotional conflict.
This is also where it’s important to build reader interest. Is the character someone we want to read about? Is the setting interesting? Are tantalizing questions raised?
A minor challenge or question may arise, testing the main character’s desire to change. But the main character plants their feet. Peter Parker, even suffused with radioactive spider energy, doesn’t stop the robber because it’s not his job.
The Hook is where you establish what normal is, so normal can be contrasted with the extraordinary that the main character will be forced to enter. The character could spend a lifetime here in the normalcy of Act I, were it not for the entry into Act II, which is a one-way gate.
Act II contains roughly 60-80% of the text. This is where the main character learns of the story’s problem or goal, takes steps to reach it, and grows in the process. The main character cannot go back to the status quo of Act I, because of internal or external forces. Luke’s aunt and uncle have been killed, and he’ll have to sell his landspeeder.
Act II is a set of try/fail cycles to find the solution to the story’s problem. How many cycles? It depends on the story and the problem. A satisfying “Rule of Three” structure suggests two failures followed by a success. A harder problem calls for more cycles, an easier problem calls for fewer. And problems can nest–any given “try” can open up sub-problems and subplots that open and close like well-formed XML. The MICE Quotient is a good tool for structuring these plotlines, and is worth learning.
The main character drags their feet, doing the minimum amount in response to the problem. This is Joseph Campbell’s reluctant hero refusing the call to adventure. “I can take you as far as Anchorhead.” The stakes haven’t yet hit to compel the main character forward.
Plot Point 1
The inciting incident happens early in Act II, and the main character’s world starts to change. The problem emerges. The need to change in response to the problem is what the main character resists.
Pinch Point 1
The main character’s resistance to change creates pressure. The try/fail cycle starts, and it starts in failure. The antagonist typically emerges here.
Emerging from the failure of Pinch Point 1, the main character sees glimpses of how they must change, what they must become. This is where they “try on” a new identity, imperfectly, with failures that are also learning moments. The new hero begins to learn their powers.
The main character has reached a point of disillusionment and reflection. They may look at themselves in the mirror and ask “what have I become?” There is no going back to Denial. The character realizes they must change. They switch from reacting to the problem to confronting it.
Pinch Point 2
Everything gets worse. The main character’s proactive attempt to solve the problem has misfired. Darth Vader hands his son over to the Emperor, and the Empire springs a trap on Endor. Loki plays the Avengers against each other and Phil Coulson dies (-ish). The main character’s dark night of the soul begins.
Act III is the wrap-up, roughly the last 10-20% of the story. It’s time for the main character to definitively win or lose. There’s no going back to Act II.
Act III is where the try/fail cycles become try/succeed cycles, or if the story is a tragedy, they become failures from which they cannot recover.
The main character has gone from resisting the internal change to fully embracing it. Luke throws away his lightsaber and tells the Emperor he is a Jedi now–he has been tested against his father and cannot be corrupted to the Dark Side.
Plot Point 2
The main character has found the surprising but inevitable answer to the problem. Both external conflicts and internal conflicts may converge here in the same or connected answers. Tony Stark, who was only ever in it for himself, thwarts Loki’s plan by sacrificing (-ish) himself and saving New York.
If the Acceptance phase was an internal transformation by the main character, Manifestation is where that change is externalized. Armed with their new self-knowledge, the main character changes the world. In a romance, the characters’ change manifests as marriage. In The Matrix, Neo holds up his hand and stops bullets.
The climax and denouement occur. The problem is solved, and the emotional aftermath plays out in a look at the new, transformed status quo. A visual “avatar” of the change, seeded in Act I, can be revisited here, like the reflection of the audience in the movie Cabaret showing figures with Nazi armbands at the end.
As I wrote this post, I realized there is a great deal more to say about each point in this outline. Tips and tricks and techniques that can be employed at each stage. But this is already a long post, and it’s a good starting point for writers looking to analyze their plots. Drilling into these sections separately may be the topic of future posts, as I practice and get more proficient in them. I hope this was useful, and helps you move your stories forward.