Five-act structure

Most beginner novel advice is based on three-act structure. Problem is, I don’t find three-act structure helpful. I mean, three acts barely narrow a book down. And then you wind up with a big unstructured blob in the middle of your outline labeled “insert complications here.”

Meanwhile Save the Cat’s story beats are too specific. Maybe I don’t always want to state the theme outright. Maybe there’s no debate about whether to accept the quest.

I prefer five acts. Five acts means five big things happen in your book. Five big twists, or five big decisions, or five surprises.

Here’s my basic five-act outline, made by considering books I’ve already written and noticing how they work.

  • Act One: Beginning of the story. It’ll start with an opening episode, which could be the inciting action, a day in the life of the character (if it’s interesting), or the failure that sets them up for the main plot later. (Consider The Warrior’s Apprentice, where the book begins with Miles washing out of the military. It starts the book on a big low point which keeps us emotionally connected and makes us hope Miles succeeds at something else soon.) During the first act, we should be given the main outlines of the world our heroes live in – is there magic, are there spaceships, what is our hero’s place in this world? By the end of the first act (about three chapters in, if possible) the main plot should have begun.
  • Act Two: this is what Save the Cat calls “the promise of the premise.” We’re in the new world of the book, the adventure our hero is on. What does it involve? Who are the main players? It’s a good time for an initial adventure. The hero understands the main challenge, or they think they do, and are facing it head-on. Unfortunately, they don’t understand the complexity of the situation–their initial plan isn’t going to work, though they don’t know it yet. Around here is also where I like to put what I call the One-Third Reveal: a mystery I start hinting at in the first act, as a hook, and reveal once I have the main plot in place to hook the reader. Often it’s some facet of the hero’s backstory, or it’s a danger the hero didn’t know they faced.
  • Act Three: In a mystery, this is when the first suspect turns out not to be the real killer. It’s the first failure, the first time we see that we haven’t got the whole story. Maybe everything our hero grew up knowing is a lie! Maybe they assassinated who they thought was the bad guy, and it turned out they weren’t. Maybe, as in Save the Cat, they solved the problem wrong because of their character flaws. Or maybe, in a more plot-heavy story, they find the conspiracy goes way deeper than they knew. This may be a short bit, or it could consist of several new reveals on top of each other. Often there’s a big showdown, like Helm’s Deep, that isn’t the final conflict. It either ends badly or ambigously.
  • Act Four: Here the heroes begin to face their real challenges. They start to piece together who the killer is, or they fight the real baddie instead of the one they thought it was. By now we should know who the antagonist is, but they’re evading our heroes. It becomes clear that the heroes will have to sacrifice something of value or grow in a new way to win. Whatever they were holding back before, they have to pay in to succeed. There might be some agonizing about this, or maybe the tension is so tight that all we get is a quick reminder that if the protagonist doesn’t solve this, they’re going to die.
  • Act Five: The hero makes the big decision they need to. They face their big fear, lean on the new friend they didn’t trust before, fix their flaw, or risk what they’ve never risked before. That’s enough to turn the tide, but it might take awhile for it to play out. We have a final showdown that must be bigger than any previous one. Here any themes must be clearer than before, and they have to tie into the plot. Our heroes win at a single climactic moment, and all loose ends must be wrapped up afterward as quickly as possible. Like the introductory chapters, the final wrapups and epilogue must be brief. You don’t want more than two or three chapters after the final battle. *stares at J.R.R. Tolkien*

Is this the only way to break down a novel? Absolutely not, and it’s not even the one I always use. But I’m finding it helpful in plotting out my next project, because it provides just a little direction. And it doesn’t leave a long middle that’s marked “challenges and battles” or which consists of a series of unconnected episodes.

Now that I have five acts written out for my next project, I’m going to break down each of the acts into steps — corresponding to chapters of the book. Three to five chapters for each act sounds about right, leaving me with at least twenty chapters. Each chapter can be three to five thousand words, and that adds up to about 80,000 words, a good length for a novel. (It’ll get longer in the telling, as most stories do.)

In the past I haven’t outlined finely enough to have each chapter planned, but I’m going to try this time. I hate getting stuck, for one thing. For another, it allows each chapter to have a vital point instead of coming into being just because “oh well, this got long, add a chapter break.” Ideally, each chapter should have an arc of its own, a complete event that happens.

It remains to be seen whether I will actually make this outline, or whether it really helps, and most of all whether I stick to what I wrote. The best ideas happen when you’re deep in writing act four. But it’s a start!