Outlining is, for many writers, a necessary evil. Although not as complicated as plotting, it can still seem stifling for some peoples’ creativity. That’s why structures are so important– they set up a basic framework, while still leaving plenty of wiggle room in-between.
Most writers, in my opinion, use the Three Act Structure. It’s been used down through the centuries, from Homer to Hemingway. And, while it would be impossible to explain it in an original way, I like to think of the Three Act Structure as three Cs: Choice, Crucible, and Confrontation.
Act One: Choice
The book’s Beginning starts off with a character in an ordinary situation (or ordinary for the genre/setting). He has a problem to solve, even if it’s a minor one. He also has a character flaw that needs to be solved, even if he isn’t aware of it. Of course, his attempt to solve this initial problem hits complications, leading to the second event.
The Inciting Incident happens either due to the character making a mistake, or being thrust into a situation beyond his control. The second option makes the character more reactionary, but it helps if the character reacts in a way related to his flaw. Now the doorway into the main conflict has been opened. The character is presented with a call to action, and must decide whether to pursue it.
The First Doorway is where the first two acts meet. The character decides to press forward and embark on the journey. Sometimes, the character will initially refuse the call. This is where another incident or a conversation with a mentor figure would happen. In the end, the antagonist is bonded to the protagonist, and the death struggle begins. Also, now the main character has goals– and pitfalls if the goals aren’t met.
Act Two: Crucible
The next major event is the Midpoint Reversal, which is, of course, in the middle. Up until now the character has been trying to solve the problem posed at the Inciting Incident, or a smaller one introduced at the First Doorway or later. However, the character’s attempts are failing miserably. Often, a plot twist (revealed secret/unforeseen development) shakes the protagonist’s willpower and uplifts the antagonist.
Around 75% of the way through the book is the Act Two Disaster. The twist from the Midpoint Reversal hits the protagonist hard. All progress seems wiped away, all allies lost. Key themes here can be secrets, hidden identities, and new information that puts a spin on all the protagonist thinks he/she knows.
Between the last two acts is the Second Doorway. The main character is bent double after the Act Two Disaster. There’s seemingly no good path to take, and the antagonist holds all the cards. This leads to the Dark Night of the Soul— the place of rawest emotion, where the protagonist considers giving up. Somehow, the protagonist finds what he/she needs to keep going. He/she assembles a plan to take the fight to the antagonist.
Act Three: Confrontation
Act Three is mostly taken up by the Climax, the inevitable final fight between the protagonist and antagonist. By now, the protagonist has learned some important lessons. However, the fight still shouldn’t be even. The protagonist must struggle one last time before he/she overcomes the enemy (if you’re going for a happy ending, that is).
After the Climax is the Wrap Up, or Denouement if you prefer. The core conflict is over, with either good or evil victorious. Now it’s merely a matter of tying up any loose ends that you would prefer tied. Also, one should try to leave a few motifs/thematic elements to resonate with the book’s beginning.
The Three Act Structure is fairly easy to use if you remember the main milestones. Once you do, you can fill in the individual scenes between them, knowing what you need to do to get there. Of course, these milestones can be moved slightly to accommodate for different plots, but not too far. After all, the point of structure is to have fixed guidelines on where to place key scenes. It has its drawbacks, yes, but, given its prominence in the writing community, I doubt it’s going away anytime soon.