Act One: The Beginning of Everything

The first act is where you set up the problems that you the character is going to have to resolve. It takes up about the first twenty-five percent of the novel.

This is the first of three posts that put forward a simple interpretation of the three act structure.

KM Weiland suggests that there are two main events that we have to worry about here: the inciting incident and the first plot point.

The Inciting Incident

Michael Hauge calls this opening The Set Up . Here we have to introduce the protagonist in his 'ordinary life', the first 10% allows us to demonstrate the character and his situation, to establish him or her in the readers' sympathies.
In short, the opening scenes need to make us like or respect the hero.
For Hauge, the inciting incident is a choice. The character has a chance to attain some kind of new life or situation. That creates a new desire, setting the story in motion.
So the inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. Weiland is more flexible in her approach than Hauge. And perhaps this is because Hauge is a screenwriter rather than a novelist. Weiland's view is that while the inciting incident can happen on the 10% mark, it might be in the first couple of scenes as in The Hunger Games, or even before the start of the action of the novel.

First Plot Point

So from the inciting incident to about the 25% mark the character will react to the inciting incident, and this usually involves a choice on the part of the protagonist. During this section of the novel the character will encounter a bunch of problems and revelations that will most likely dampen enthusiasm and lead them to doubt themselves, until …

You guessed it – that pesky first plot point!

Hauge tells us that something big needs to happen to our hero about a quarter of the way through our story. The hero will usually make a choice here, a decision that cannot be reversed. Whatever it is, this event must change the hero's goal from a generalised desire into a specific goal with a definite end point.

And with that we end act one. We have shown the hero's ordinary world, seen him choose a new situation; we've seen his world view being challenged by a series of obstacles until finally he makes a dramatic choice that sets him on a new path towards a specific and finite goal.

Star Wars: A New Hope

Star Wars - classic three act structure.
Star Wars - classic three act structure.

If we think about Star Wars as an example we see Luke Skywalker's ordinary life on the farm. We see his competence and skill and his frustration, until at the ten-percent mark he accidentally triggers the message from Princess Leia, and this is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

From here Luke is tested. He is attacked by sand-people! Meets a crazy old man. He refuses the call. Then the first plot point occurs when Luke discovers that the storm-troopers have torched the farm and murdered his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Luke makes a choice to follow Ben Kenobi to Alderaan and to join the rebellion.

And that's the first act: an appealing protagonist, an inciting incident and a call to action.

Next up – Act Two


As a blogger about writing, it probably comes as no surprise that I dabble with story myself. I recently read K.M Weiland's 'Outlining Your Novel' as I am looking to scrap and restart an old project. K.M. Weiland takes a non- prescriptive approach to outlining, recognising that writers are an idiosyncratic bunch, and that each one of us needs to develop our own approach to outlining. What Weiland does brilliantly is to describe her own process and to offer other strategies that may appeal to others.

One of the strategies that she uses herself and recommends is the character interview. Weiland has developed a comprehensive 100 question interview on her blog and you can get it here.  I decided that I would give it a go as a part of my own process.

If you listen to the Story Grid podcast as I do, you may have heard editor Shawne Coyne talk about the importance of the antagonist, about how these bad guys are the most important character in terms of driving the story, about how despite this they are often neglected by novice writers like me.

So I interviewed the bad guy.

Practical stuff

Secrets: are your characters hiding something?
Secrets: are your characters hiding something?

The interview begins with biographical stuff: places lived, education and schools, dating history, self-image. I found myself in 'interview mode' writing fairly fluently in the first person, thinking little or nothing about the literary quality of what I wrote. And I found that I was coming up with stuff about my character that I didn't know – most significantly a failed marriage, and a sadistic pair of step-brothers.

This was powerful stuff that I simply wouldn't have without having done the interview.

However, I came unstuck a bit on 'Is he lying to himself about something?' I couldn't answer this in the first person, and if I did I would obscure the information I wanted to detail.

The next section is a description of the character's appearance, preferences and habits, and I felt I had to stay in the third person for this. That said the physical stuff made me see that I really had not considered the character in adequate depth. My descriptions led me to do an image search on Google, where a found a rugby player who pretty much matches the ideas I had.

I saved the image so I can load it into YWriter. I even came up with a few usable similes!

Getting to know the character

Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.
Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.


Some of the most exciting questions in K.M Weiland's interview are the ones that you could almost transplant directly into a key moment in the book.

Questions like:


What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why?
What does/will he like least about the other main character(s)?

Answering these questions made me think about those revelatory moments in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin's characters share character forming incidents in their pasts. I could just imagine my antagonist revealing the angry 'self-defence' attack on his brother at some key moment I have yet to discover. This was feeling like a really useful exercise.

Developing my own approach

In terms of developing my own approach I think I need to divide up the questions into those I can answer in the first person and those I need the third person for. I'll put the first person questions first so that I can dive into the character before defining them from the outside in.

Having considered my story's overview using the Story Grid foolscap method in previous weeks, I really wanted to make sure that I was considering my characters in terms of their link to my controlling idea and key themes, and about the values they represent more specifically.

I also want to move the history to the beginning so that I can add key dates as I think of them. Also I imagine that these dates may be useful to me, and that I am likely to want to access this information quickly.


K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.
K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.

I'm always a little bit envious of writers whose characters speak to them. K.M. Weiland writes about characters that 'speak' in relation to this exercise. If you are one of those people then this exercise might get you there quickly. If you are more like me, however, and your characters just don't like you enough to chat, this exercise will give your plotting more power and fuel emotive revelations that will fire up key scenes. Either way the task is really enjoyable. It is, as K.M Weiland says, 'grand fun'.

See my character interview here.


David Farland is a prolific and successful fantasy and sci-fi writer. As a writer who hasn't ever written a complete novel, I was, unsurprisingly tempted to read David's outlining book, 'Million Dollar Outlines'.

I am currently working on a plan of a novel that I half completed , before abandoning the first draft at about 40,000 words. I am pretty sure that my decision to plan only in the form of six pretty sketchy bullet points was the reason that the novel just sort of ground to a disappointing stand-still. Having tried unsuccessfully to outline my way out of the plot hole I put myself in, I have decided to start from scratch.

The book was a compelling read that related genres to audiences and emotions. The primary emotional resonances of a story, Farland argues, are key to its success with specific audiences. He supports his points with evidence from reader surveys and from the preferences of film-goers.

What I had really been looking for was a clear, step by step plan that will lead me towards a brilliant and cohesive story. David Farland gives us that, and here I will outline his ten step approach:

1. Setting

margate, setting
Margate: destruction and rebirth

As a fantasy / sci-fi writer setting for Farland is an imaginative process in itself, and he doesn't specify as to whether the story idea comes first or whether the setting leads him to the story and its themes.

What he does say is that the setting should be closely linked with the ideas in your story.

In my case my story is to be set in and around a particular town in England. So I researched the town and its prominent locations and tried to find ways that they linked to the themes and the key ideas I thought might feature in my story. Ideas of rejuvenation and rebirth came to mind.

2. Characters

Make a list of the main characters that you are going to need. For Farland a main character is anyone we follow through the whole story. I get the impression that Farland is fairly loose at this stage, just defining roles and vague backgrounds and descriptions for his characters.

3. Conflicts

Starting with protagonist and antagonist decide on some key conflicts. Farland tells us that he often uses plot charts for main characters onto which he pencils in possible key conflicts. He seems to be fairly loose at this stage, adding conflicts that come from setting and context along with specific details about characters' problems – misfiring weapons etc.

4. Conflicts for each character

Electric plots come from characters with circuitry.

Every character deserves a few 'juicy' conflicts that give them depth. Farland tells us to pile on the conflicts for individual characters until every character is done. The conflicts should interlink and cross and link the characters into a web of 'circuitry', where each character's goals become dependent upon a number of other characters.

5. Attempts to resolve conflicts

Farland writes about stages of resolution that link with Todorov - ie recogntion, attempts, resolutions. We need to think for each of our characters how they recognise their challenges, how they make failed attempts to resolve their conflicts, then finally how the character confronts and successfully resolves the conflicts.

6. Produce a plot chart

Buy a huge piece of card – 2 feet by 3 feet! I guess (hope, wonder) you could do this on a computer program – Excel maybe? You should start with your protagonist's main plot-line and this should be plotted strongly. Onto this we add the hero's romantic, internal, maturation plots etc. Farland talks about story shapes emerging in 3D and I think that's a pretty powerful concept.

Once this is done you should add the stories of your other major characters to your plot charts. From this chart you can see when characters' storylines are peaking and troughing. The visual representation should enable you to spot slow sections where no tensions are peaking and to make adjustments to your story accordingly.

7. Scene by scene outline

Look at the plot points on your chart and turn them into a series of scenes or chapters. Each chapter needs to have at least one key change. Farland tells of a writing teacher who wouldn't write chapter that didn't achieve at least three things.

Farland uses colours to show the viewpoint or focus character in each scene. This enables us to ensure that there is a variety of settings and possibly speakers across the plan.

At this stage Farland may add key lines of dialogue and possibly even descriptions of key objects and locations. You will be forced to create a thorough 'game-plan' of evenly developed scenes.

8. Map how emotions flow

By focussing on the emotions of each scene we can ensure that our novel is meeting the emotional needs of the audience of our particular genre.

Hitting the right emotional notes is key.

We can also ensure that there is a good range of emotions across the text. Farland tells us that at key points of the novel we may choose to hammer home the same emotion over a number of scenes, but that a range or 'symphony' of emotions is required to deliver truly satisfying results.

9. Add non-plot details

Essentially, Farland argues that a satisfying story will need what he calls 'non-arc' problems. He gives the examples of unresolved arguments and irritations that characters engage with. This should give the story some 'rough edges' that give it heightened sense of realness that readers will appreciate.

10. Write a final draft of your outline

Remove colours and notes and retell your story in the present tense. Farland tries to write this outline beautifully. Add dialogue, craft your sentences, and build to emotional highs.


Success Balloon
With the right outline, the rest's a breeze! Okay. Perhaps not.

And there you have it a succinct ten step approach. Naturally I totally recommend buying the book if this process appeals to you as Farland gives context and examples throughout the book to help us understand how this stuff fits together, and how the outlines we create can be crafted to target audiences and create success.