Story Mapping with 3 Act Structure

There is a book that I see every time I’m in the reference section of Barnes and Nobles that makes me want to throw something against a wall.  I know that it’s not what the title says but just reading the title reminds me that “No Plot, No Problem!” really is a huge problem.  In writing terms, I’m what you would call “an architect”.  Aka I will build you a beautiful, graphic and compelling world.  I will make interesting, complicated, well-developed characters that will make you want to laugh, cry, love and murder.  But when it comes to solving a plot or having a focused plot….well, my abilities are less than focused.  Chances are that readers aren’t going to want to read a 1200 page book of your character just walking down the street to work in their awesome world every day.  I can make a conflict but its really hard for me to come to a stopping point where it’s solved.

For a while, I lived my writing life based on the improv principle of “Just say yes”.  I really just wrote any little fantasy/daydream that came to mind.  There’s nothing wrong with this….until you hit chapter 56 and realize that you’re still introducing your characters and haven’t even gotten to the climax yet.  Really the major thing here is to know where you’re going so that you can figure out how to get there.

A friend of mine from a writing group asked me to show some of my mind mapping techniques and the things that I’ve started using to keep myself on track.  Let me say that these tools are very simple.

 The first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with 3 act structure.

Most of us are familiar with this (Or if you remember high school way back then you remember this).  Basically, it’s your three acts.  I tend to throw a few twists in here but the main goal is to have an introduction, confrontation, and resolution.  There are a few things that you really do need to remember.


Act one:  Remember that this is why you have to make your reader care.  Honestly, they will not keep reading if they don’t.  Set up your characters and make them care about what they are about to go through.  But remember that you don’t have to give everything away.  Your conflict doesn’t have to be blatantly obvious.  If I know that Cindy and Mcgaiver are going to hook up cause you say so….do I really care?  Not really.

Act two:  This is where your rising action takes place.  By now we are getting invested in the characters and what they are about to go through.  Introduce your antagonist.  Remember that this doesn’t always have to be a person.  Obstacles are more than just other people.

Act Three: Resolution and falling action.  These are obviously where you are going to be wrapping things up.  Your goal here is to give your reader closure (Or if you’re evil like me….not.)

So now we are more familiar with the 3 act structure. I bet you already knew most of that right?

How do we make this effective to our novel writing planning? 


Above is an empty layout of what a three-act structure looks like.  I really do find it super effective to fill this out and write in the events.  Once I have the major events mapped out it is far easier to lay out where I want everything else to go. A timeline is important because when you right you know whats happening when…but sometimes to readers it can feel as if you are jumping around too much.  It’s even easier to fill in my subplots that way and make sure that they are tying into the main plot.  That looks/sounds easy and clean, right?  Well here is my filled out one…. (I blurred it so that my stuff isn’t really out there in cyberspace).


Yeah, not AS pretty and clean but still super effective.  As you can see I have my intro, major events, plot points, rising action, falling action is written in.  One the bottom and top I make a little note of my own.  In red at the top, I have my “Internal Conflicts” for each act.  These are what my character is dealing with emotionally because of the things that are happening in my plot.  It might seem obvious but characters really do have to develop.  Making these observations really do help the reader relate and become attached to them.  In green and the bottom are my external conflicts (Nature, other people, the elements, war, injuries, etc).

Using Mile Stones and Basing Acts on Percentages

I once wrote one of my fav fanfictions (Don’t judge me) and it was a huge favorite.  But it got to 56 chapters with over 2500 words in each and I didn’t know how to end it.  But it HAD to stop because otherwise….I just rambled on.  It’s rather like those tv shows that go on far too many seasons and people just start to lose interest (think X-files when they changed out the entire cast but still kept going and you watched it and thought “haven’t I seen this already?”).

Let’s say that you’re basing on the Nano 50,000 word goal.  You don’t have to stay in these exact word counts but trying to stick close to them is going to keep you moving forward.

  • Act One (1%-25%) 0-12,500 words:  This should include your introduction/hook, set up, inciting event, build up, and first major plot point/ call to action that will push you into act two.
  • Act Two (25%-75%) 12,500-37,250 words:  This is the bulk of the story including your reaction to the first plot point, pinch, realization, Moment of truth, midpoint and push.
  • Act Three: (75%-100%) 37,2500-50,000 words: This is really going to be the crazy point where it feels like everything is happening and coming to a head in the story.  It should include your climax, confrontation, recovery and falling action.  It’s also the time for you to wrap things up or if you plan on writing another addition, for you to hook them up to grab your next story!

How do I lay these out in a way that’s going to help me?  

We’re talking about planning here so I personally make a checklist of the major things that I need to make happen in each act.  Here is a little picture of mine that I made based off a template in Word.  It’s super easy and honestly, the boxes help because if you’re like me, you get a good amount of satisfaction every time you check something off!


Keep in mind that you don’t have to stick to these things religiously.  They are a template for you to work with so that you know where you’re going.  Using these, you should be able to keep on track and actually finish the plotline that you set out to get to.  Anything can be added in during the editing process.  You will also find out that some of the things that you put in change or are unnecessary.


One thought on “Story Mapping with 3 Act Structure

  1. Informative and thoughtful post, thank you for this! I find the three act structure useful too, and I’m glad that you recognize that this is meant to be a flexible framework rather than a rigid set of rules. 🙂


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