There are so many resources out there for plotting your novel—believe us, we know. Today, though we’re going to be talking about your basic three act plot structure—or, more specifically, the Save The Cat! Writes a Novel method. And how it can help you conquer your NaNoWriMo novel this year.
The STC method is the one that I, Megan (I can’t speak for everyone here), use most often. It’s the best way for me to break down my plot and see where I need to go. Now, of course, I’m not going to go over every step of the Save the Cat! method with you right now. You can read the book for yourself (in fact, I highly recommend it). But I will give you a brief overview and some things that you need to be on the lookout for.
Also, keep in mind that STC isn’t the be all, end all solution for plotting. There are lots of other methods you can look into. Plus, not everyone plots the same way. This is all based on my personal experience.
Let’s get started, shall we?
The biggest things you have to figure out at the beginning:
- The hook of your story and the setup
- Inciting incident / catalyst
- How the story really starts going
So, your first act is going to be the first roughly twenty-five percent of your novel. No matter how you’re plotting, that is just the natural progression of a story. This is going to be your setup, inciting incident, and everything else in that twenty-five percent.
First, your hook. What is happening at the very beginning of your story that intrigues the reader? Give us a scene to care about and pique our interest and then continue telling us what’s going on. The setup for the whole story is your chance to introduce the reader to your character and the world. You can answer questions about who your character is, why we should care about them, their misbelief about the world, etc. You want to be careful not to info-dump here, so figure out what’s really important about this character and world and show that at the beginning. Remember when we talked about characters last week? Here’s your chance to put some of that knowledge to good use.
Next, your inciting incident is the one thing that really kicks off the whole story. Take The Hunger Games, for example: Katniss volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games to protect her sister. What happens to get your character involved. Why does it matter now? The Hunger Games is normal in Katniss’ world, but it’s important now because her younger sister was chosen and she wants to protect her.
The rest of act one is going to include getting your character from the catalyst to the rest of the story—getting Katniss from the selection ceremony to the Hunger Games. Usually this will include some sort of debate as your character tries to decide if this is really what they’re going to do.
The most important aspects of your middle:
- Why we’re reading this story
- The midpoint
- How everything falls apart
Act two is made up of the middle fifty percent of your story. This will include alllll the good stuff. Some people refer to this part as the “murky middle,” because a lot of the time it’s tougher to write. You don’t know where you’re going, you get lost down a rabbit hole, you start to ramble. Believe me, I totally get it. But with a few guideposts, I actually find the middle to be one of the most exciting parts to write. (Although, don’t get me wrong, this section is huge and there are always parts of my middles that lag horribly.)
Before and after your midpoint is going to be all the things about your story that you want to write and that the reader wants to read. All of the stuff happens. New friends, new enemies, romance, fighting, whatever else. In The Hunger Games, leading up to the middle of the story and after the middle of the story, we see Katniss competing in the Hunger Games. This is what the story is really about, what we were promised on the inside flap.
Deciding what all should go in here can be daunting, but knowing your direction can at least help you figure where to put all the stuff you’re already excited to write about. Everything before the midpoint is driving you toward the middle, everything after is driving you to the end.
Your midpoint is going to be your next huge plot point. During the journey to the middle, things are either getting increasingly worse or increasingly better for your main character. That’s where the midpoint comes in—to mess everything up and throw something at your character that they never expected. This can be good or bad, but eventually everything is going to culminate into your main character’s “worst day ever”—as I like to call the “all is lost” and “dark night of the soul” parts of STC.
After your midpoint, all the fun stuff is still happening. Like I just said, all the stuff we want to read about. But generally in this part, unbeknownst to your characters, things are about to get worse. This is your chance to screw with their heads and make that internal conflict take over. Making our characters suffer is probably the best thing about being a writer. Their worst day ever is generally when they find out something big, i.e. *plot twist*, and it totally freaks them out. For obvious reasons. This is their lowest point.
All the factors of your ending:
- Get back up again
- Grand finale
- Happy ending
Act three is the remaining twenty-five percent of the story. The culmination of all your character’s hard work—not just physically, but emotionally, too. This is where all the change happens.
After your character’s worst day ever, they have to pick themselves back up. They have to have a reason to keep fighting. They now know what they have to do and how they might have to change to accomplish the goal.
When they’re ready, the finale starts. There are a lot of ways to look at the grand finale (STC, for example, further breaks down the finale into five parts), but for now, we’re just going to look at this very simply: your characters carry out a plan and something goes wrong, then they overcome the something wrong and live happily ever after. Or not, if you’re into breaking hearts.
Sounds a little too easy, right? Yeah, but hey, I’m not writing a book here. My biggest suggestion is just to not make it too easy for your character. There is a lot standing in their way, including themselves. It’s going to take hard work and some character growth to make it to the other side. They’re confronting their outer and inner demons at the same time here. It’s not going to be a walk in the park.
So, there you have it: a round-up of a three act plot. Again, I can’t recommend reading Save the Cat! or another craft book on plot to help you put all the pieces together. Even for pantsers, I imagine it’s a little easier to pants your way through a novel with at least some idea of where you have to get to. But what do I know, I’m a plotter through and through.
Also, if you’ve discovered some other plotting methods that have saved your life, please let us know! We need all the help we can get this NaNo.
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