Outlining Using the Three Act Structure in Your Writer’s Bullet Journal
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Pacing and structure can be the biggest Achilles heel we face when we write.
The three-act structure is a great way to pace your book in a way that will feel familiar to your readers. Now, this does mean that you have to fulfil certain promises in your manuscript, but it also means you can artfully break those promises as well.
I use the three-act structure to make sure my pacing is on track through my editing process.
Let’s DIVE right in, shall we?
Step 1: Write the Damn Book
I’m a panster, which simply means I “write by the seat of my pants”. So I don’t like to be confined to a heavy structure during my first draft.
I’ve already done a couple of blog posts on my “outlining” process, which isn’t actually an outlining process in the strictest sense of the word.
At least that’s what I tell my poor little brain.
But really, don’t get SO BOGGED DOWN in making the PERFECT outline that you neglect writing your book. The best thing you can do is just sit down and write 80,000 or so words and then edit them later.
But really. Write your damn book. Stop reading this blog post and write it.
Step 2: Print out THIS IMAGE for your Writer’s Bullet Journal
This is from Ingrid Sundberg’s website and I FREAKING LOVE IT. There it is: the whole structure, including how many “minutes” of “screen time”.
Screen time obviously means that the above chart is really tailored for movies.
But there’s a reason movies are structured the way they are! This makes it so that your movie or book will resonate with the most people possible. And the predictable structure means that more people will be satisfied when the movie fulfils the promises the audience has set up in their mind.
Don’t worry, I’ll break down this into sections with the percentage of your manuscript you should have done at this point. We are getting there!
My favourite part of this chart are the beats that you have to hit as you go along at the approximate location your readers will be expecting it! That way, your readers will know when your plot is going to switch up and reach a certain beat.
Once this chart is in your bullet journal, you’ll be able to access it easily and you’ll know exactly where you are in your manuscript.
Step 3: The Autopsy
Okay, you’ve done it, you’ve written 50K to 150K words and you are feeling elated! Now is a REALLY good time to crack the champagne/beer/scotch and let it SIT for a day or two. Give yourself a day or two to relax and get out of writing mode.
NOW we are gonna look at your manuscript and see IF you are following the Three Act Structure and what you need to change to make sure your pacing is correct.
Find your three acts thusly:
Act One ends when your MC knows they are past the point of no return, or we are done with the character/main conflict introduction and we are diving into the main meat of the plot.
Act Two ends just before our big showdown.
Act Three ends at the end of your book!
Pretty simple right?
Find each of those points and make note of where those are in your manuscript.
If your pacing is on track with these markers, this is the PERCENTAGE of the manuscript that should be in each act to be on track with this. I’m using percentages of word count because of the variability of page counts in manuscripts, depending on your formatting and the length of your novel.
Act 1: 25%
Act 2: 50%
Act 3: 25 %
Now, there are markers that you need to hit within each of these acts. Let’s talk about those markers.
Act 1: Ordinary World- 0% to 8.3%
This is your basic introduction. As your reader, I need an introduction, first and foremost, to your protagonist. I need to know who they are and what they care about and if I can relate to them. If I can’t, I will probably check out.
Often, a reader and an agent will decide if they will keep reading by how the first thirteen lines of your manuscript sounds.
This sounds really scary, but I am going to go into good beginnings later on in my blog, don’t worry about that.
Example: The Hunger Games
When we first meet Katniss, we see how she’s living in District 12, that she has a sister she loves and takes care of, and that each day is a fight and a struggle. We care about Katniss because she cares for her sister and we care that she needs to provide every single day.
Think about your favourite book and how it started out. Was it engaging? Did it get your attention right away? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Think carefully about the beginning of your book and don’t worry about fixing it right away. The perfect beginning will probably come along mid-way through your fourth or twentieth draft.
What you should be thinking about is introducing the rest of your characters and the world. Wow, your reader with the amazing parts of your world.
BUT THROUGH POV!!! PLEASE. DEAR GOD. DON’T INFO DUMP!!!
I’ll talk about this in a later blog post but making sure you don’t head hop or go to an omniscient POV will be IMPERATIVE to keep your reader hooked.
When we calculate book length, people often use the goal of 50K words, because that just crosses you into the threshold of novel classification. BUT if you think about your favorite books, they probably hit closer to 80K frame. That's the limit I will be using for this blog post.
So, at 8.3 percent of an 80,000 word novel, the first chunk should take about 6,640 words! That's a LOT of time!
Books that do this best:
- Enders Game
- The Handmaids Tale
- Hunger Games
- Wyrd Sisters
Act 1: Call to Adventure- 8.3% to 10%
Your character is confronted with the main conflict in your story. They are being called into a situation. Maybe they don’t want to go yet. But the call has been made.
In the Hunger Games; Katniss is called to adventure by volunteering for her sister. We’ve already been set up with the promise that Katniss loves her sister, so it’s not outside the character for her to sacrifice herself for Prim.
What is your inciting incident? Why does your protagonist give a flying fuck?
We don’t need to take a large part of our manuscript with this, but the inciting incident (as this is also known) should be big enough to knock our character out of their normality.
At a litte over 1 percent of your book, this is a smaller portion. At 80K words, this should only consume about 1,300 words. Thats LESS than one day of NaNoWriMo!
Act 1: Refusal of the Call- 10% to 22.5%
This is hard to do if your character has thrown themselves into their adventure like Katniss did. However, if we think about it emotionally and mentally it starts to make a little more sense.
While your character might not physically have a choice to do what the book is calling them to do, they might have some SERIOUS mental hang-ups.
Make a List
Once you’ve written up to this point, make a list of all the doubts your character can have about their current situation. Then start planning on integrating this into your manuscript during this period.
Just because it’s in your head, doesn’t mean that it’s apparent to the reader. Some things you really do have to state outright.
This is about 12 percent of your book, which feels like a lot! In an 80K book, it could take you 10,000 words to get there! That's okay! Write away!
Act 1: Crossing the First Threshold- 22.5 to 25%
This is when your character has exhausted all options and it's time to get shit done. they have made the choice to act instead of sitting back and being passive. They are going to act!
In the Hunger Games, I consider this to be the moment when Katniss decides she's not just going to participate in the Hunger Games, she's going to win. She's not going to just lay back and die. she's going to act.
Take the list of doubts that you wrote above and find ways to eliminate those excuses.
If they are more internal doubts, your protagonist will probably have to have a close friend tell them to get over it. If it's physical, then your protagonist will have to have a moment they realize they can get over their physical limitations.
Once you have those doubts, take the biggest one and make your antagonist directly or indirectly make the situation unavoidable.
This is a bit of a long portion, but it should only take you about 2.5K in an 80K book to accomplish.
Act 2: Tests, Allies, and Enemies- 25% to 50%
This is the LARGEST portion of your book! This is where we introduce the main antagonist and we start in with a Try/Fail Cycle that will make your readers stand up and cheer when your protagonist overcomes it!
In an 80K book, this should take you about 20K words to complete! This is a LONG portion of your book and you should use as many try/fails as you can!
In the Hunger Games, this is partially the Train ride, the Training centre, and the beginning of the Hunger Games. This is a LARGE portion of the book where Katniss is figuring out her strategies and is fumbling her way through the interviews and the first days of the games.
Make a List:
What is your protagonist's main flaw? What are five situations (or more!) where your protagonist's flaw will come up as a stumbling block for them on their journey?
Act 2: Mid-Point 50% to 52%
This can take many forms, as the chart has labeled:
- Energetic marker 2: Halfway Point
- Mid-act Climax
- Moment of Grace
- Mind Fuck Moment
- Moment of Enlightenment
- Commitment to the Journey
This is a really good moment to have your protagonist have an emotional low point or even a plot low point.
All of your protagonists efforts have been for nothing and this is the peak or plateu of their try/fail cycle.
Make a list of all your characters actors and failures in their try/fail cycle.
For Katniss, this is a commitment to the journey. When Rue dies. Rue reminds her so much of her sister that it sends Katniss into a depressive spiral. She then has to kick herself out of this spiral and commit again to the journey.
Make a List: What is the worst possible thing to happen at this moment? It might take a few tries to figure this out, so write down at least 5. Probably more if your list feels too cliche.
This will allow you to dig deep, so your mid-act climax will either catch your readers off guard, or it will be a more nuanced answer to your readers questions.
In an 80K book, this should take about 1,600 words or so.
Keep in mind, in the Princess Bride; Inigo had no less than 14 try/fail cycles.
If you can, watch the Princess Bride with this in mind and see how many times he fails before he succeeds. This is what makes you pull for him. You want him to succeed and live. Despite his many flaws and failures.
Act 2: Approaching Inmost Cave 52% to 72.5%
This is the moment your protagonist is facing down their mission and is probably dealing with some of those original doubts.
As in many many many works of fiction, these doubts may become the theme of your novel. If you think those doubts are not only relevant, but also universal and relateable, then you should hone in on them.
Take the list of doubts and mark the ones you're using again. With a star or an underline or another signifier.
This is also a REALLY good time to ramp up the interest or tension in your side quests. Maybe even your romantic side Story.
You will have PLENTY of time to write about all this! In an 80,000 word novel, you should take about 16,400 to do so!
Act 2: Inmost Cave 72.5% to 76%
This is probably when your character makes some contact with the antagonist and probably makes the ultimate decision to confront them.
But this attempt should HURT.
Having your character succeed despite how hurt they are will allow your readers to sympathize and root for your character.
SYMPATHY is key here.
How do we evoke sympathy? We turn the situation into a series of emotions that are highly relatable to your readers and then use description to evoke them.
"Show don't tell" is a different blog post entirely, but there are lots of resources that can tell you how. My best tip is:
Make a list of the emotions you want your readers to feel at this point. Then break that list down and figure out three ways you can evoke each emotion. These don't need to be big. They can be as small as fidgeting with a pen to evoke anxiety or crossing arms to evoke resilience.
You also need to set your readers you for the climax of your story. Making this list will help bring your characters and your readers up to speed emotionally. Once you have this in your mind, writing the emotions will be much easier.
If you're writing a truly full size novel, or 80k, this should take about 2,800 words to accomplish.
Act 3: Final Push 76% 87.5%
This should be your final battle, the last hurrah, the famous last stand.
If you're writing an 80K book, this shuld take about 9,200 words.
And taking over ten percent of your book isn’t the worst thing in the world! In fact, you need to take this time to get your readers set up to let go of our characters. You need to set them up to know the promises you made in your first two acts.
- If you've set up a love triangle: resolve it.
- If you've set up a revenge sequence; resolve it.
- If you've set up a coming of age story: have the character find themselves.
That is the simple way of thinking about it. If you have a writing group or a mentor, this is the perfect time to bounce ideas off them to see if you're on the right track, especially if they have read your peice up until this point.
If you don't have a writing community around you; first, cosider getting one. If you can't then here's what you need to do to help...
Make a List:
Go through your whole story and write down EVERY promise you've made and then write down when you fulfill those promises. If it helps, make this almost like an excel spreadsheet.
Now, if you have promises on this list that haven't been fulfilled yet, you need to mark all of the things that need to be fullfilled before the next marker, "Seizing the Sword" and also what need to be resolved at "Return with the Elixer" and "End".
There may be promises that you can't fulfill until the last SENTENCE!.
NOW, we need to write the scenes and promises that need to be written for this portion. Just write each of those scenes, not in chornological order. They can be reordered later. Just write them all. It's like putting together a puzzle.
Act 3: Seizing the Sword 87.5% to 90%
The final accomplishment! We have finally accomplished the BIG goal!
We have slain the dragon!
We have pulled the sword from the stone!
We have dethroned the evil dictator!
Whatever your climax is, whatever your biggest promise is, whatever you main character's big external goal is, now is the time to MAKE IT HAPPEN!
Writing BACKWARDS can be the best help here
Take that big ultimate climax and write it however you want. THEN work backwards and formulate an outline to get your character there with the proper foreshadowing!
This should take you about 2K words to accomplish in an 80K book.
Act 3: Return with the Elixir 90% to 100%
The journey home, the resolution, clean the woulds.
It's time to start resolving all the things. It's time to let your readers down gently.
And yes you have to take JUST as much time and space as your climactic scene. This needs to be an easy decent.
But, Zoe, what about those times when an author has cut me off in the middle of the action?
Keep this in mind:
If it was a satisfying ending, the author has probably answered most of your quesitons and fulfilled most of their promises. Also, if they haven't fulfilled all of those questions, you are probably very annoyed that they haven't been answered, or the book is part of a series and that question will be answered in the next book.
So, revisit that big list and answer all those questions in the let down. It's gonna take some time and in an 80,000 word book, that means this is about 8,000 words long!
If you're setting yourself up for another book, now is the time to set that up and tease your readers. It's okay to intruduce a new conflict for that purpose or tease the continuing journey.
Act 3: End
YOU'RE DONE BITCH! GREAT JOB! POP A BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE (or bourbon, in my case) AND CELEBRATE!
Look that the list you've made and make sure each of the promises have been fulfilled. Migrate all the promises for the next book to a new spread or notebook.
And put your feet up for a nice little Netflix BINGE! You've EARNED IT!
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this monster post and thank you so much for hanging out with me. I LOVE reading your comments and I try to respond to each of you!
So, what formula is your favorite for outlining? How do you use it in your bullet journal?
Make sure to share this with your friends on your favorite social meida platform, it really helps me spread the word and help more writers!
The Ginger Wordsmith