How To Structure Your Book - My Plotting Method
A while back, I answered your 10 most popular questions about how to structure your novel, and now I'm breaking down my personal novel structure method. For those out of the loop, a structure is the framework of your novel. It puts all of your plot points together to make sure that they fit into a proper beginning, middle, and end.
In that video, I broke down the basics of structuring your novel. But as writers grow, they tend to develop their own methods. And thus, since I have been writing for about 30 years, I have created my own sense of structure. My structural method is mostly subconscious, but I tried to lay it out in the three act structure format since that's what a lot of writers prefer. Plus, I tried to label the major plot points, because I'm a generous bitch like that. My genres of choice are science fiction, fantasy, action adventure, and romance, so that's what this particular structure lends itself to.
And again, this is the structural method that works for the genres I write. It might work for the genres you write, as well. It might not. You might like it. You might hate it. I don't give a shit. Basically, what I'm saying is, "Do you!"
Without further ado, let's get to the steps! Are you excited? 'Cause I am!
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We'll start with Act I: All the beginning shit. If you wanted proper names, you came to the wrong place, 'cause I'm making shit up as I go along. You're welcome!
Step 1: A Look Into The Future
This is not a literal look into the future. I mean, it can be. That's up to you. But in general, it is a taste of what readers can expect later in the book. For example, if you're writing erotica, you might open with something erotic. If you're writing action adventure, you might open with a gunfight. I usually open my stories with something violent, because my books are heavily violent and I want readers to know what they're getting themselves into. Evaluate the overall tone of your story and give your readers a taste of it at the beginning.
Step 2: A Look At Normal Life
This is where we get a look at what your main character considers normal. This usually involves them going to school or work. Basically, some kind of daily obligation. But it's important to consider that this step should be brief. Normal life is boring! We all know what work and school looks like.
Pro Tip: Maybe showcase the end of a normal day, or a snippet of it. Maybe they're clocking out at work. Maybe they're on the final page of their last test before the bell rings. Don't bore readers with a full day of normalcy. The idea is to give them a taste, not to lull them to sleep.
Step 3: Establish Desire
What does your main character want or need within their normal life? In The Savior's Champion, Tobias needs money to care for his struggling family. You can, and probably should, establish this desire within the look at your character's normal daily life. This will make their normal life look a lot more interesting, because you're setting stakes. It doesn't matter if the desire established ends up becoming irrelevant later on in the book. In fact, this happens quite a lot. But you should present something missing in their life, or something they're aspiring toward.
Step 4: Introduce the Dilemma
What is the main character's problem? This is ultimately going to trigger the inciting incident. Most of the time, the character's dilemma is related to their wants and needs. For example, in The Savior's Champion, Tobias needs money to support his family. However, his dilemma is the only way to get a ton of money is to enter the Sovereign's Tournament. And if he enters and is selected, he's probably going to die. Thus, establishing the desire and introducing the dilemma can sometimes occur at the same time. However, that's not always the case, which is why I list them as separate points.
Step 5: The MC Takes Action
Some people consider the inciting incident the dilemma that ultimately instigates the plot, which was my last point. I consider the inciting incident the first action that begins the plot. That's this point, baby! The MC makes a decision to take action toward their dilemma or they're thrust into action toward their dilemma. Either way, they're taking their first step into rectifying the situation, which sets the plot into motion.
This is the end of Act I, which is the shortest act in the novel. I personally believe it shouldn't last more than three chapters because you want to get to the meat of your story really quickly. However, this is a subjective opinion. It's my personal structural method, so it works the way I want it to work. But the point of this Act is to establish the plot. We're creating goals. We're setting stakes. We're moving the plot forward, and we're letting readers know what they can anticipate in the future.
Moving on, we've got Act II: The meat and potatoes. This is where shit gets real.
Step 6: In Over Their Head
This is the point when the MC realizes that shit is way harder than they expected. They're trying to tackle their dilemma head-on and they realize, "Wow, this fucking sucks!" In The Savior's Champion, this is when Tobias enters the Tournament and people just start getting killed willy-nilly despite the rules and regulations of the competition.
Step 7: Blunders
This is where our main character fucks up, probably a lot. They try to manage their dilemma and fail, either because they're not strong enough, they're not smart enough, they don't know what they're doing, or they don't have the proper allies to assist them. This, of course, can be combined with Step 6, but it doesn't have to be, which is why I'm listing them separately.
Step 8: Learning
Or, as I like to call it, forced adaptation! This is when the main character gets sick of fucking up so much, so they force themselves to analyze and adapt to their situation. This may include training montages. It may include making allies. It may include spying and observation. I don't know, it's your story! Do what you want! But essentially, at this point in the story, the character realizes, "I suck at this and I need to figure out how to un-suck."
Step 9: The First Win
The learning pays off and the character has their first win. This could be a career win, a personal win, a romantic win, a fighting win, any other kind of win. It could be killing a bad guy. It could be a fabulous makeover. In The Savior's Champion, Tobias's first win is defeating the Giant. You can tell because it comes after a series of blunders, a training montage, and befriending allies. This win comes at the perfect time, because otherwise, the plot would be a major downer. Your character just had blunder after blunder and your book can't just be a series of progressively worse failures. You're giving the character a win to prove to the reader that there is hope.
Step 10: The Perspective Shift
People start viewing the character differently. Readers start viewing the character differently. Hell, the character probably views themselves differently. This is the start of the main character questioning themselves, who they are, and where they stand. It's also the start of the villain getting their panties in a knot, which we'll cover in the next Act.
Some of the questions you want to determine in this Act are first and foremost, where are the lines drawn? Who is the character close with? Who are they against, and who are the grey characters? And of course, this is an Act where the character starts questioning themselves and their morals. Who are they and what do they believe? But don't give them those answers just yet.
That brings us to Act III: Shit gets wild! It's like girls gone wild, except with shit!
Step 11: The Threat Gets Worse
Your main character just had a win, which means the villain's gonna be pretty damn pissed. Whenever the main character succeeds, you can't just leave the story there, you need to up the stakes. Now whatever villain, bad guy, or dilemma your character is facing off against has gotten worse, maybe as a direct result of their success. Remember, this doesn't have to be a literal villain if you're not writing that kind of book. If you're writing a romance, it could be that the love interest's ex shows up and wants their partner back. Basically, the goal is to make sure that the win doesn't last too long. Up the stakes!
Step 12: The Struggle Bus
Shit got a whole lot worse and you're showing your readers just how much worse it's gotten. This is where the MC is struggling to deal with the worsening threat. There may be some wins along the way, but they're getting harder to achieve and the character is REALLY dealing with the weight of this threat.
Step 13: A Major Loss
This could be a literal loss, like losing a bet, a challenge, or a match. It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a friend. It could be an injury. It could be losing your partner. Whatever! Ultimately, something terrible happens to your main character. Something supremely important to them. This loss is extremely important, because it's going to lead directly into Step 14: The Breaking Point.
Step 14: The Breaking Point
Sometimes the major loss and the breaking point occur at the same time. Sometimes they don't. It depends. The breaking point is the lowest point for your main character. They suffered a major loss, and now they're not feeling so confident. They're questioning their beliefs, themselves, their allies, all of the above. This usually causes them to make shitty decisions. Ultimately, the breaking point is a new low for the main character and you need this because it will make the high of the climax that much more exciting.
Step 15: The Wallow
The main character shat their diaper and they're sittin' in it. That's not to say they're a whiny, stinking mess, but they're festering in that breaking point. They may be feeling grief, remorse, or anger. They may have accepted that they've lost and they're a failure. This step is important 1.) because no one bounces right back after a breaking point and 2.) because sometimes you gotta wallow in your own shit before you're able to climb out of it.
Step 16: The Redemption
Your character, for whatever reason, crawls out of their pit of despair and decides to redeem themselves. The key here is to give them a reason for this redemption. Usually, it relates to having one last chance to achieve their goal, or maybe realizing that shit has gotten way worse and someone has to take action, so it might as well be them. Whatever the reason, your main character decides to shake off their funk, seize their glory, and right their wrongs.
Step 17: The Almost
This moment usually happens right before or during the climax. This is when the main character almost loses, and I mean really loses. Like, as loser-y as it gets. If the stakes are low, then that means they miss the train that could've gotten them to their love interest. If the stakes are high, then it means they probably almost die. This moment is important, because no one values a success story that came easily. We wanna see struggle, because struggle is something that everyone can relate to. The Almost provides that. It's that moment before or during the climax where the main character is most vulnerable.
No one values a success story that came easily. We wanna see struggle, because struggle is something that everyone can relate to. You need that moment before or during the story's climax where the main character is most vulnerable.
Step 18: The Climax
This is the high point of the novel, when all the obstacles come to a head. The main character is facing their dilemma head on, and this moment will determine whether or not they win or lose. Nine times out of ten, they're gonna win, or at least partially win. As I mentioned already, the Almost may occur within this moment, but it doesn't have to. The idea is to lay on the tension and drama. You are finally resolving the dilemma one way or another, and you're not making it easy on that character–or your readers, for that matter!
Step 19: The Fallout
Typically, the climax of a story can be very revealing. It can unveil secrets. It can reveal hidden agendas, or lies. The fallout is when the characters regroup to ask questions and provide explanations. Sometimes this is exposition the readers need, which is completely fine, so long as it's realistic and relatable to that point in the plot. But ultimately, the goal is to ask and answer questions. If this is one book within a series, it's important to ask more questions than you answer, because you need some unanswered questions in order to urge people to continue the series.
Step 20: The Resolution
This is when at least one main problem of the story is solved. If it's a standalone, then most of the problems or dilemmas within your story should be resolved in this moment. If it's a series, resolve the most important issue and leave something big and intriguing on the table. The resolution can be something as simple as a kiss between lovers, or as complicated as a peace treaty between planets.
Thus, Act III of your novel is complete, and you want to be focusing on these concepts within this Act:
Your main character should be questioning themselves, their beliefs, and their integrity. Maybe they're not sure of the path they've chosen, maybe they're not sure of who they want to be, but ultimately they find some semblance of self-acceptance by the resolution. They finally feel at peace with their choices, at least to some degree, which will provide a sense of closure for both them and the reader.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Again, this is my personal structural method. It came from a bunch of structures that I have studied and learned over the years. It's what works for me. If you like it, cool. If you don't, I don't give a shit!
Have you developed a personal story structure method? If so, which is your favorite part to write?
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