How to Outline Using the 3-Act Structure


A few nights ago, I had the pleasure of sharing the spotlight with the illustrious Bruce Coffin during a reading at Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook. The new space there is beautiful, the audience was great, and – as an added treat – Bruce read from his upcoming Detective Byron mystery, so it was material I hadn’t read/heard before. All in all, a great evening. During the Q&A session at the end, Bruce and I were asked whether we knew what the ending to our novels were before we began, and what our writing process generally was beyond that. Which inevitably got me thinking.

When I first started writing, I rarely had any idea how a story would end or what kind of twists and turns I might find over the course of the process. I liked it that way – it meant more surprises for me, and I loved going along with the characters on a journey that could ultimately take us anywhere. Eventually, I would invariably find my way and at some point I would get where I was going. During that process, there were usually a few false starts and sometimes I would figure out that the bad guy was someone hadn’t even suspected initially, which would mean having to go back and retrace my steps, plant clues that might not have been there before, and make sure I hadn’t inadvertently written a solution to the mystery that would be disproven by some detail dropped earlier in the novel.

That worked just fine when I was working on a novel consistently for ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week. Back then, I lived in an apartment alone with two dogs and worked from home. My characters were my friends, I lived the story I was writing, and I was so immersed in a work-in-progress, it felt like I inhabited those words. Now, I live in a giant house with a dog and a cat and a man and sometimes that man’s seventeen-year-old child. There are gardens and shared meals and dog walks and doctor’s visits and so, so, so much vacuuming. I need a way to keep track of my novels, now that my writing isn’t exactly the central focus of my life. Which is where outlining comes in.

I’ve always outlined to some extent. A few years ago, however, I got very interested in three-act structure – one of the oldest, simplest, and best-known types of dramatic structure. To be clear, when I talk about three-act structure I’m talking about several specific components that make up a dramatic work. These are the basics, and I’ll just use a simple story about a round orange cat to illustrate what I mean.

Act I:

Inciting Incident – The event that sets the story in motion. Within the inciting incident, there is often the foreshadowing of the Obligatory Scene – the inevitable moment readers are waiting for, when the protagonist fulfills his destiny.
After a heated argument in which our protagonist’s virility is impugned after he’s compared with the neighbor’s conceited Russian blue, a round orange cat leaves his lady friend cat at home, and goes out seeking adventure. He spies a plump bluebird, and climbs a nearby oak to catch said bluebird. 
Turning Point #1 – A complication shifts the story in an unexpected direction.
The bluebird flies away, and ROC (round orange cat) can’t get back down the tree.

Act II:

Midpoint – A dramatic event deepens the conflict for the protagonist and intensifies the readers’ suspense/ups the stake in the story.
ROC, still stuck in the tree, smells smoke and realizes a nearby house is on fire. The flames are getting closer. 


All is Lost – Events seem to be conspiring against the protagonist; there is no apparent way out of the dilemma in which they have found themselves.
ROC tries once more to climb down the tree, but is paralyzed whenever he tries to venture from the branch he’s been perched on for an hour. Meanwhile, sparks from the nearby blaze are beginning to land close to the cat’s tree.
Dark Night of the Soul – With no apparent solution and all hope lost, the protagonist despairs. How will he solve the crime/rescue the girl/save the world?
Alone and terrified, certain that his lady love was right and he truly is worthless, ROC hunkers down and prepares for his demise.

Act III:

Final Commitment – Some internal or external force restores the protagonist’s faith in himself, and he is now determined to prevail.
ROC hears the cries of his lady friend cat, and realizes she is in dire need of saving. 
Crisis – The sequence of events that sets the climactic scene(s) in motion.
Terrified but determined, ROC faces his fear and slowly, painfully makes his way back down the tree. 
Climax – The moment everything has been building toward (frequently, the obligatory scene foreshadowed at the inciting incident, or a twist on it).
Down from the tree, ROC evades the flames, finds his feline love, and is about to save her when he realizes she’s trapped with the neighbor’s Russian blue. They’ve clearly been consorting for some time. Hurt but nevertheless heroic, ROC risks his life to save his feline damsel and her unsavory cohort. 
Denouement – The final strands of the piece are pulled together and random bits are explained as needed.
On solid ground once more with the feline damsel enraptured by his heroic act, ROC turns his back on her and Russian blue and leaves with a pudgy tortoise shell named Sheila.

So, that’s three-act structure in a nutshell. When I first started using it, I would either apply the elements retroactively to a completed draft of my novel, or I would start using it halfway through the novel as a basic guide to figure out where I was going. I found it challenging, however, if I didn’t have a clear understanding of what the novel was about as a whole.

Then, I read an article on outlining that suggested coming up with the ending of a story first – before getting anything else down on the page. I’ve looked high and low to try and find that article, or who wrote it, or what else is in it, and I unfortunately can’t. The only thing I remember is the recommendation that an author try coming up with the ending first. I think I stopped reading at that point, because I wanted to try applying it to whatever novel I was working on at the time. I did, and the rest is history. For me, the pieces fell into place from there. This, then, is how I outline a novel in full before I begin writing.

I start with the ending. With all of this, keep in mind that there’s always room to play – no one says I have to stick with the outline. Characters still surprise me, and I’ll often find halfway through the novel that the ending I’ve written or the twists I’ve manufactured can be outdone by something else. But, I start everything with some ending.

From there, I go through and write an outline based on the three-act structure explained above. I get pretty detailed, and definitely think about the obligatory scene and any twists and turns that might come in along the way. When I first started, my final novel looked very little like the original outline… These days, however, I’m writing a bit faster and have a better sense of the way novels (and my characters) work, so what I first put on the page in the outline is close to what is ultimately published.

What I like best about this process is the fact that starting this way means I can generate a fairly extensive list of scenes revolving around the elements within the structure. If I’m not feeling particularly creative one day, all I need to do is go to the outline and go through the motions until my muse returns. Once that happens, things feel spontaneous and magical all over again – but since I can’t count on spontaneity and magic to earn a living as a writer, I know I’ve got the outline to fall back on whenever necessary.

If you’re interested, I’ve created this handy infograph with the key elements of 3-act structure here. Feel free to download and reference whenever you need it, and happy outlining!

Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries. You can learn more at http://www.jenblood.com. 

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Weekend Update: November 16-17, 2019

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Jen Blood (Monday), Sandra Neily (Tuesday), and Kate Flora (Friday), with a special two-part feature on Wednesday and Thursday to tell readers about the creation of Lea Wait’s Thread and Buried in her own words.

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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Diabetes Alert Dogs

A fellow author and friend of mine told me a few years ago about the special dog she owned that could detect the rising and falling glucose levels in her daughter.  The dog’s name was Little Bear and he was a very special animal. Ever since she told me about Little Bear, I’d been thinking about him and the amazing things he had done to keep her daughter alive. So much so that I featured a diabetes alert dog in my upcoming book, THE PERFECT DAUGHTER (3/20, Kensington).

Fiona Quinn is a talented and USA Today bestselling author of over a dozen novels. I first met her after we published novels under the same Amazon imprint. She shared many of her stories about Little Bear, her miracle service dog. So when I came up with an idea to use a diabetes alert dog in one of my novels, Fiona was the first person I called for advice. She was generous to a fault and very accommodating.

Here’s a few things she taught me about these incredible animals.

These dogs are typically for children with Type 1 diabetes who are insulin dependent. Their blood sugar can range from deadly high to deadly low in a short time, and it is the alert dog’s responsibility to detect a change in the child’s blood sugar before it reaches dangerous levels.

According to Liz Donovan, writing on the American Kennel Club’s website, “. . .researchers at the University of Cambridge believe they’ve cracked the code. In a recently concluded study of eight women with type 1 diabetes, researchers found that a chemical called isoprene is present in elevated levels during hypoglycemic episodes. Although this chemical goes unnoticed by humans, a dog’s sharp nose can pick it up.”

These dogs are rigorously trained to detect changing blood sugars in their person and they are not to be treated as a pet. In fact, Fiona was one of the first people to train dogs to alert for changing blood sugars, which is how Little Bear learned his lifesaving skills.

Most alert dogs wear a vest when in public, carrying the supplies needed to treat their person’s condition. When in vest, they are in service dog mode and there are behaviors (like barking) that they can not do. When not in vest they are treated like a service dog.

.When the dog scents, the dog will shakes its body and makes its tag jingle. If that doesn’t alert someone, the dog will pace up and down, making a lot of noise. Or it will carry a bringsels—a designated item—and bring it to the child’s guardian, signifying to them that the child is experiencing a change in blood sugar. The more aggressive the dog acts, the greater the rate of fluctuation.

The dog always alerts ahead of the meter. Looking at the meter might show a normal glucose reading. What the dog is doing is indicating ahead of the meter that the child’s glucose number is heading toward a dangerous number.

These are a few of the things I learned from talking to Fiona. Sadly, Little Bear passed away this year and will be greatly missed. To check out Fiona’s book page, please check out https://www.amazon.com/Fiona-Quinn/e/B00OTQE926?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1573664736&sr=1-1

In the meanwhile, look for my new novel, THE PERFECT DAUGHTER (Kensington), coming this April.

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Optimism, or the Triumph of Hope over Experience?

It’s been a busy month, what with the launch of Elder Darrow’s fourth adventure Last Call at the Esposito, or as it’s known in-house: Elder goes to the Olympics. Been a good deal of assorted hoop-te-doodle and exercise of my extroverted side, working to encourage people to buy and read the book. As always, many thanks for the encouraging emails, tweets and retweets, shares, and so on that spread the word. It is greatly appreciated, even if I haven’t been able to tell you directly.

I wanted to say something about what I heard Linda Greenlaw say at the keynote speech at Murder by the Book at the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor last month. Linda, as you probably know, is the Isle au Haut swordfish captain who was central to the story behind the book (and movie) The Perfect Storm, and an accomplished mystery writer in her own right.

I can’t remember the actual question that engendered the comment, but when I heard her say that fishing is all about optimism, it made me sit up straight. She’s right, of course, though I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before.

I’m a fisherman myself, recreational, not commercial, and quite familiar with the belief that one more cast, the next pool in the river, the perfect fly, will yield the fish of dreams. It’s a general kind of optimism required by a pastime that has you standing to your waist in freezing water and swinging a stick in hopes of overriding the survival instincts that a wild creature has developed over eons.

Greenlaw was talking in terms of size of swordfish, poundage of a groundfish haul, and the like, but a fundamental optimism is also the urge that drives us through the hard work and the internal and external challenges of writing, too.
We have to be optimists to believe that this time, no matter how poorly we think our last effort was, this next poem, this next story, this next novel will match our mental ideal more completely, touch our readers more deeply, find that quirk of working that opens our work to deeper and more meaningful words and ideas. Because if we were not optimists at the bottom of it, if we didn’t believe we were going to get better, why would we try so hard to tell our stories? Why would we continue to believe we have something to say? We may temporarily succumb to pessimism, true, but at heart, we are all optimists.

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An Editor’s Tribute to Lea Wait

As part of Maine Crime Writers’ promotion of Lea Wait’s last book, Thread and Buried, we’re delighted to welcome John Scognamiglio to the blog.

We asked him to say a few words about what it was like to be Lea’s editor at Kensington Books. Take it away, John.

Lea Wait and I worked together for five years on her Mainely Needlepoint mystery series.  It was always one of my favorites for many, many reasons. First, the setting. Who doesn’t want to read about Maine? Lea always brought the state vividly to life, no matter what season the story was taking place in. Then there was the food! All those yummy Maine dishes like lobster and chowder and blueberry pie–I always found myself hungry while editing one of her manuscripts. Then there was the historical information about needlepointing that opened up each chapter. I always found those little tidbits to be fascinating. And then there were the characters. Angie and her gram and the rest of the residents of Haven Harbor were always a joy to visit and revisit in each book. I’m sad that THREAD AND BURIED is going to be the last book in the series. It took Lea a while to deliver it, but eventually she did and it was worth the wait. If you haven’t taken a visit to Haven Harbor, start with TWISTED THREADS, the first book in the series. I guarantee you’ll want to dive into the rest of the books in the series after that. Lea will be missed, but her books will live on.

Thank you, John, for that lovely tribute. For readers who want to pre-order Thread and Buried, which will be published on November 26, here’s a link that will take you to links to all the major booksellers.

https://www.kensingtonbooks.com/book.aspx/39279

You can also purchase this book from your favorite independent bookstore and request that your local library order copies. If you want to know more about Lea and her books, including a list of all her titles, her webpage is http://www.LeaWait.com

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Stockpiling Inspiration like Acorns to Carry Us Through the Winter

How is it mid-November already?

I’m writing this on Veteran’s Day, eleven days into the eleventh month.  It was full-on dark outside my window at 4:30 this afternoon, which was just as well because it was spitting snow. We all know what snow in November portends, so let’s talk about crime writer conferences instead.

Murder by the Book took place last month, and New England Crime Bake happened this past weekend. Both offered lots of convivial interaction with other writers and plenty to think about over the winter.

Murder By The Book panel on the importance of setting at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor, left to right, Moderator Josh Christie of Print: A Bookstore, Darcy Scott, me, Dick Cass and Sherry Harris, who just finished a stellar term as president of the national organization, Sisters in Crime.

Murder By The Book was the weekend of October 18-19, when the lovely folks at Bar Harbor’s Jesup Memorial Library hosted a gaggle of us at a conference that always balances insight with laughter.

Linda Greenlaw, who writes a mystery series featuring Detective Jane Bunker in addition to her well-known books about her fishing life (The Hungry Ocean, The Lobster Chronicles, All Fishermen are Liars) was the keynote speaker. Several members of this blog–Dick Cass, Bruce Coffin, Vaughn Hardacker, Barb Ross, Darcy Scott and me) were there, as were a number of other crime writers including national Sisters in Crime President Sherry Harris (author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries), Lynne Raimondo (whose three-book series featuring blind psychiatrist Mark Angelotti is marvelous), MCW alum and NYT best-selling author Julia Spencer-Fleming, (whose long-awaited next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery, Hid From Our Eyes, will be out next April), Anne Canadeo (who writes the best-selling Black Sheep Knitting Mysteries) and Nicole Seavey, whose first novel will be out soon.

Here I am with Barbara Ross and Sherry Harris at Murder By The Book

I didn’t make it down to Dallas for Bouchercon the weekend of October 31 – November 3, but several other MCWers were there, and I expect they will fill us in on the highlights sometime soon.

New England Crime Bake took place this past weekend.

For those of you who do not know, the ‘Bake is an annual region-wide mystery writer confab outside of Boston co-sponsored by Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.

This year’s Guest of Honor was the brilliant Ann Cleeves, creator of Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez, the protagonists of her Vera and Shetland novels, which have led to a pair of hit British television series that go by the same names. (You can stream them through Acorn, Netflix and Britbox.)

Lori Rader-Day, the new president of Sisters in Crime, with Crime Bake Guest of Honor, the marvelous Ann Cleeves.

Ann spoke with great candor about her long career–she wrote in relative obscurity for twenty years before finally breaking out–and introduced us to her new series, set in North Devon and featuring Detective Matthew Venn. I devoured the first Matthew Venn book—The Long Call—and was keen to hear what inspired her to start a new series in a different part of England.

Ann mingled happily with the crowd, posed for countless photos and said with utter conviction one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever heard from a writer of her stature. If all of her success evaporated tomorrow, she’d continue writing, Ann said. The fame is nice, but it’s not what drives her to tell stories.

Crime Bake also featured many lively panels, formal and informal meetings with agents and editors, and a banquet where first-time authors were applauded, award-winning writers were recognized and the Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed upon Hallie Ephron.

In addition, Barbara Ross offered a moving tribute to our departed and much-missed blogmate Lea Wait, whose final book Thread and Buried will be released posthumously on November 26 (just in time for holiday giving.)

In place of more words from me, here are some photos from Crime Bake, all taken by my inveterate camera-toting spouse, Diane Kenty.

A terrific panel called Trends and Tactics for Today’s Marketplace featured Eddie Vincent of Encircle Publications, Moderator Connie Johnson Hambley, president of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime, Founder of Bestseller Builders and President of New Shelves Books Amy Collins, Kristopher Zgorski, creator of the wonderful BOLO Books website, and Dru Ann Love, the woman behind the award-winning blog Dru’s Book Musings.

The kickoff panel featured a powerhouse lineup: Ann Cleeves, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Paula Munier, Hallie Ephron (who was presented with the Crime Bake Lifetime Achievement Award) and Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Sisters in Crime President Lori Rader-Day flew in from Chicago and my sisters-in-law Janice Asher and Chris Kenty journeyed by train from Philadelphia to attend Crime Bake.

At every crime writers’ conference, the bar is a central part of the action. Here’s a shot of an after-banquet gathering on Saturday night.

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What Veterans Day Means To Me

Pvt V. C. Hardacker
Parris Island, SC
July to September 1966

Vaughn Hardacker here: I have been sitting here watching the news on my local television station. Due to the upcoming Veterans Day holiday they have been running a series of commercials featuring veterans and each of them spoke about lost comrades in arms. Veterans Day is not for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we observe Memorial Day for that purpose. Veterans Day is to recognize all who have served. That’s not to take anything away from those who gave all, its a way of thanking all of our veterans from all of our military services, not only those who served in combat. Many veterans never hear a shot fired in anger, however, they made themselves available if called–Veterans Day is when we say thank you to these men and women, living and dead.

Veterans Day was originally celebrated as Armistice Day. It is a unique holiday as it is always celebrated on November 11. World War I officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. However, the fighting ended about seven months before that when the Allies and Germany put into effect an armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

I am currently serving as Commandant of Detachment 1414 of the Marine Corps League. This past summer we undertook a mission to identify and visit with each WWII veteran in northern Aroostook County. We held ceremonies at several places and presented each veteran with an encased United States Flag and a Certificate of Appreciation. I had no idea of the affect it would have on me. As I presented the award to each veteran and shook their hands I was humbled when these men and women (we had the honor of presenting to a  lady who served in the United States Army Air Corps–the precursor to the U. S. Air Force. she is 95 years young and drove forty plus miles to attend–note I said drove, not was driven) thanked me with tears in their eyes. All I could say was, “No, sir (or ma’am) THANK YOU.” Many of the veterans we presented to were unable to attend the ceremonies so my officers and I visited them in their homes. In every visit, family members took me aside and told me how great it was that we were doing this and how much it meant to these aging vets to know that they were not forgotten. During the period we were doing this I was watching The Man in the High Castle, an American alternate history television series depicting a parallel universe where the Axis powers win World War II. The series is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name. As I watched I could not help but think: There, if not for the brave veterans of WWII, goes us.

I now fully know what humility is–I felt it each time I was in the presence of these members of our Greatest Generation. It is sobering to realize that within the next decade we will have lost virtually all of these true heroes. (Since we visited several of these vets have passed over, I am thankful we met them before it was too late.)

Here is a poem I came across that I believe everyone who enjoys freedom should read:

I AM A VETERAN                                                                                                                                 by Andrea Christensen Brett

You may not know me the first time we meet                                                                                I’m just another you see on the street                                                                                            But I am the reason you walk and breathe free                                                                                I am the reason for your liberty

I AM A VETERAN

I work in the local factory all day                                                                                                          I own the restaurant just down the way                                                                                             I sell you insurance, I start your IV                                                                                                   I’ve got the best-looking grandkids you’ll ever see

I’m your grocer, your banker                                                                                                               Your child’s schoolteacher                                                                                                                I’m your plumber, your barber                                                                                                             Your family’s preacher                                                                                                                      But there’s part of me you don’t know very well                                                                        Just listen a moment, I’ve a story to tell

I AM A VETERAN

I joined the service while still in my teens                                                                                          I traded my prom dress for camouflage greens                                                                            I’m the first in my family to do something like this                                                                          I followed my father, like he followed his

Defying my fears and hiding my doubt                                                                                              I married my sweetheart before I shipped out                                                                                   I missed Christmas, then Easter                                                                                                      The birth of my son                                                                                                                            But I knew I was doing what had to be done

I served on the battlefront, I served on the base                                                                              I bound up the wounded                                                                                                                   And begged for God’s grace                                                                                                                   I gave orders to fire, I followed commands                                                                                       I marched into conflict in far distant lands

In the jungle, the desert, on mountains and shores                                                                         In bunkers, in tents, on dank earthen floors                                                                             While I fought on the ground, in the air, on the sea                                                                    My family and friends were home praying for me

For the land of the free and the home of the brave                                                                          I faced my demons in foxholes and caves                                                                                     Then one dreaded day, without drummer or fife                                                                             I lost an arm, my buddy lost his life

I came home and moved on                                                                                                              But forever was changed                                                                                                                   The perils of war in my memory remained                                                                                         I don’t really say much, I don’t feel like I can                                                                                But I left home a child, and came home a man

There are thousands like me                                                                                                    Thousands more who are gone                                                                                                              But their legacy lives as time marches on                                                                                  White crosses in rows                                                                                                                       And names carved in queue                                                                                                                Remind us of what these brave souls had to do

I’m part of a fellowship, a strong mighty band                                                                                   Of each man and each woman                                                                                                              Who has served this great land                                                                                                       And when Old Glory waves                                                                                                                   I stand proud, I stand tall                                                                                                                       I helped keep her flying over you, over all

I AM A VETERAN                                                                                                                                 © Copyright Andrea C. Brett 2003, All rights reserved                     https://www.iamaveteran.net/the-country-annex

Always Remember:

“A soldier doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him. He fights because he loves what he left behind.”Anonymous

“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to act in the presence of fear.” —Anonymous

“This nation will remain the land of the free as long as it is the home of the brave.”Anonymous

 

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