Get ready to roll up your sleeves; its time to put some real elbow grease into your story structure. By now you have a good idea of what your story is going to be. You have probably been working on it in your head even when you are away from your word processor. The more you think about your story, the quicker you will find ways to add twists and turns to the plot and nuances to the characters. But it is essential to put your ideas down on paper.
It’s time to write a full 3-act breakdown. This is an involved description of your story that you will reference often throughout the writing process. A good 3-act breakdown describes the major plot points, conflicts, and characters that will be involved in your story.
The 3-act breakdown is more of a mechanical exercise than anything. Creating this document is like drafting a roadmap and travel plan for you as a writer. You are about to embark on a journey. At some points along your path, you will want to stop and read the historical markers. You will decide to simply drive by other stretches of landscape to get to even more compelling destinations.
Lets start with a blank 3-act breakdown form. It should look like this:
Act I – Conflict 1
(Optional Act I -Conflict 2)
Act II – Conflict 1
Act II – Conflict 2
Act II – Conflict 3
(Optional Act II – Conflict 4)
Act III – Endgame Conflict
Looks simple, right? Just fill in the blanks. I have good news; it is simple. But it takes work. Once you understand each component of the 3-act structure, it’s a matter of a lot of thought and writing.
This part of the novel writing process can take days or weeks to finish. Don’t force it. Take time in the process to reflect, read, research, learn, and write notes about your story. As you write your 3-act structure, many story puzzles will peel out of the woodwork. You have to face them head on and solve them. You will discover research holes that must be filled. You can easily give yourself research assignments by logging them into your research assignment document in your story canon.
You will open new characters along the way. Make sure you log these new characters into your character document, also found in your story canon. You will write new details about characters that already exist in your character document. Make sure you are meticulous about documenting everything.
Lets define the components of your 3-act breakdown. We will start with conflict–in my mind, the second most important component after depth of character.
In Syd Field’s wonderful book, FOUR SCREENPLAYS, he says it best: “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.” One might just as easily sub in the word novel in place of screenplay in this quote.
Conflict is so important to every scene in your story that, should you write a scene that does not have conflict, you must either devise a way to insert conflict into that scene or delete it. Stories that allow the main character to wander along without any opposing force even in scenes peppered sporadically through the story tend to drag. These stories are easily forgotten.
There are different types of conflict. These conflict types can be rolled into the overall conflict of your story or used in short sequences or even shorter scenes. The two conflict types below may seem a bit divisive. But most conflict can be placed into one of these categories and such devices only help you more easily define the nature of your story.
The Time Lock
This type of conflict occurs when your character is up against the clock. If she doesn’t perform perfectly within an allotted time period before a certain deadline, the consequences should be grave. Time lock conflict can be used as an overall conflict arching over your entire story or in short scenes to dial up the tension.
A character might have 24 hours to deliver information or money before a loved one is killed.
Injected with poison that attacks the nervous system, a character might have only 3 days to live, just enough time to take revenge on his nemesis.
A character’s true love might be getting on a plane to fly out of the country at 2:00 p.m. her chances at a life with her true love might depend on her ability to intercept him before he boards.
A hard-boiled detective knows that an informant has vital information to help his case. He must meet the informant before opposing forces find and kill him.
The Option Lock
If you put your character up against the wall and surround him with 10 gunmen, how many options does he have? This is an option lock. This type of conflict occurs when you limit your character’s abilities and/or choices. You can lay option locks on thickly. The more the better. Again, you can use option lock as your story’s overarching conflict or you can pepper it into scenes to squeeze your character along the way.
With no weapons, surrounded in an abandoned warehouse by vampires, your character has no option but to be resourceful in his escape.
After the death of his parents and the family fortune being donated to charity, your character, now poor, has no option but to either try to make an honest living or turn to crime.
Banished from his tribe and stripped of his personal possessions, your character must make a go of it in an untamed world.
With his daughter kidnapped by his archenemy, your character must do exactly what his nemesis says or his daughter will be killed.
In advance, you must put a conflict map in place for every step of your character’s journey. You must cast the overarching conflict of your entire story, the conflict for each act, and the conflict for every sequence. This hedges against the tendency to let your main character off the hook for even an instant.
Lets take a look at the trap of allowing your main character to float by with no conflict. Below are 2 examples of how a scene might play out.
Scenario 1: Your character must get information from a woman about a murder victim. This information is essential to solving his case. He visits the woman’s house. The two of them sit down together. He asks his questions. She gives him the information he needs.
Scenario 2: Your character must get information from a woman about a murder victim. The woman lives in a crack house. When your character visits the crack house, he discovers that her dealer is there. The dealer thinks your character is a cop. In order to get to the woman, your character must convince the dealer that he is not a cop. When he finally reaches the woman, she tells him she won’t give him any information unless he pays her for it. He knows that if he pays her she will buy drugs. But your character’s daughter died of a drug overdose related to his case. He faces a moral dilemma; does he give her the money for the information? Or does he try to help the woman, perhaps by taking her away from the crack house and checking her into rehab?
Scenario 1 takes place more often than I care to mention. Scenario 1 is one of my pet peeves, especially when reading murder mysteries. Too often such stories turn an exercise of the main character visiting informant after informant to gather information with no true conflict. Such stories usually end with a violent outcome and a twist at the end. But great stories should keep us rapt from the first page to the last sentence.
Scenario 2 not only adds conflict to an otherwise flaccid scene, it opens up possibilities. The story now has a new interesting character (the addict woman)–which hopefully has been logged into the writer’s character document in his story canon. This character now stands ready as a sharpened tool to help propel the story along throughout the journey.
Conflict Sequences in a 3-act Structure
Conflict is like gasoline for your story. Your story should be like a house of winding hallways, doors, and rooms. Each room should have its own brand of conflict. Once your character enters a room, he must resolve the conflict he finds there and exit through another door, only to find himself in another room full of conflict, whether it be an option lock or a time lock.
There should be at least 5 major conflicts between your major character and his nemesis. The first clash should occur in act 1 as an act-long conflict. The next 3 or 4 should be set as sequences throughout act 2, each conflict more severe than the last. The final conflict of act 2 should culminate in utter disaster for your main character. The final conflict should take place in act 3. Act 3’s conflict should lead your main character to a story resolution.
Stories are made up of acts; acts are made up of sequences; sequences are made up of scenes. Act-wise conflicts usually take place over the breadth of sequences. During a sequence, a problem is presented and over a series of scenes the main character jumps through hoops to solve it. When you think about your story in the sense of sequences, it becomes much easier to get your head around its full spectrum.
A sequence might be described thus:
Sequence name: Penelope Dies
Joey Archer, a small time criminal, kisses his girlfriend, Penelope, before going to work. That day he and his boys pull over and rob a freight truck full of department store goods. Penelope calls him during the robbery on his cell phone. He tells her, a bit curtly, to never bother him when he’s at work. She tries to tell him that there are some men parked out in front of her house. He’s too busy and annoyed to listen to her. He hangs up on her. The men outside Penelope’s house break in and shoot her. They call Joey to tell him that his debt to a rival crime boss has been paid. Joey, having a good idea what happened, leaves the heist and speeds back to his house where he finds his girlfriend, bloody and dead on the couch. Two days later, at Penelope’s funeral, Joey spots the men that he thinks gunned his girlfriend down. Out of respect for Penelope, Joey doesn’t do anything rash at the funeral. But he does corner them and utter an intense oath that he will kill them both and kill the boss for which they work.
In reading the above sequence, it is obvious that it will need to be broken up into multiple scenes. Perhaps the scene breakdown might look like this:
Scene 1: Joey’s house – Joey kisses Penelope goodbye
Scene 2: Joey’s car – Joey and his boys drive to the heist
Scene 3: Heist – Joey and his boys start the heist. Penelope calls Joey. He is short with her.
Scene 4: Joey’s house – Penelope is assassinated by hit men
Scene 5: Heist – Joey gets a call from the hit men, informing him that his debt has been paid.
Scene 6: Joey’s house – Joey discovers his girlfriend’s body.
Scene 7: Funeral – Joey faces off with his girlfriend’s assassins at the funeral, vowing that he will kill them and their boss.
At roughly 2,000 words per chapter, each scene being 1 chapter, we have lined out about 14,000 words of a novel. This could become a respectable 1st act conflict description in a 3-act breakdown.
Remember, conflict is king. Should you write a scene with no conflict, you have only 2 options: either add conflict or delete the scene. Drive your story by constantly placing your main character in peril and allowing her to find a way out.
Now its your turn
For your weekly assignment, create a blank 3-act breakdown form for your novel. Write a conflict sequence for act 1 of your story, such as the example above: Penelope Dies.
Good luck. I’ll see you next time.
Go to the next step.