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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel – Step 7: 3-Act Breakdown – Act I Plot Points and Critical Features

novel writing tipsNOTE: This article is part of a series. To get the most out of this series, it is best to start from article 1.

Now that you have established a great foundation of conflict for your story, it’s time to put the finishing touches on act 1 of your 3-act breakdown. I love this phase of the process because I get to see the story bloom like a flower.

During this exercise, you will be forced to explore the feasibility of your story. You will have to face plot problems head on and work them out. You will discover nuances to your story that you haven’t yet considered. You will open new characters and log them into your character document. You will give yourself research assignments.

With so much exploration and discovery, it’s easy to get excited about your story. You might be tempted to start writing your 1st draft; don’t fall for to this temptation. You haven’t filled in enough detail, even with a finished 3-act breakdown. You still run the risk of writing yourself into a corner and quitting the project. There is more work to be done. The best practice is to enjoy the journey and always remember that, at the end of the road, you will have a novel written by insert your name here.

 

Okay, enough chatter already; let’s dive in.

Plot Points and Critical Features
Plot points act as bumps—or gigantic mountains—along your character’s journey to his story resolution. They change the rules and flare up new conflicts. Each plot point is critical. You must think through them carefully as you craft your story. They should feel natural within the confines of your story’s set of rules.

Critical features are related closely to plot points because they help draw your readers in and keep them engaged in your story from the very first sentence to the last punctuation mark. These features should not be taken lightly; they may make or break your novel’s ability to sell itself.

Lets explore a list of plot points and critical features as they appear chronologically in act 1 of a typical novel.

Act I
Your main character must face opposition from the first page of your book. The conflict in act I of your story, however, differs from the conflicts faced in acts II and III. Act one is the appropriate place to establish characters, conflict, and setting. Perhaps the main character of your story, throughout act I, is acting out of curiosity, until, BAM, at the end of act I, something changes the rules. Think of act I as a quandary act. Your character faces something unusual, out of his normal world, and is compelled, by interest, or hard-handed dragooning, to look further into the matter.

A running conflict through act 1 accomplishes this. Conflicts can be viewed as sequences, as stated in Step 6. However, the overarching conflict of Act I, which you should have written already, deals with setting up your story’s mechanics: setting, time period, important places and people, the protagonist and antagonist. All of these elements must be present and accounted for in your act I conflict.

Think of act 1 as a place where your main character functions in his normal world, but not for long. Something happens early in act 1 that forces your main character to further explore an unexpected scenario.  At the end of act 1 there must be a big bear trap waiting for your main character. Throughout the act, your main character makes his way, step-by-step, closer to the bear trap until SNAP, the trap goes off and your main character is cut off completely from his normal world. Now your main character must devise a way to get out of the trap. The trap marks the end of act 1 and leads your reader straight into the engaging conflict of act 2.

To further break it down, act I, should move right along with 4 plot points and critical features that occur in rigid order: 1) Opening sentence (critical feature), 2) Hook (critical feature), 3) Dye Cast (plot point), 4) Game Changer (plot point). Remember that there is an overarching conflict—possibly broken into more than 1 conflict sequence–that occurs throughout act 1. The critical features and plot points listed above mark hot spots in this conflict that propel your story foreword at light speed.

Critical Feature: Opening Sentence
The first sentence of your finished story should ensnare your readers. Good opening sentences reflect something deep about a major character in the story. They establish, in a few words, the story’s voice. From a good first sentence, readers should gain a pretty solid grasp of what to expect. So you need to pack it all–voice, character depth, theme–into 1 sentence. Sound hard? It can be. Writers often agonize over their opening sentences. It is normal to go back and change this critical sentence often throughout the writing and revising processes.

I know that I have cautioned you against writing final story copy at this stage. Please heed this warning. However, the first sentence is an exception. You should put down a first sentence early in the story development process as a vehicle for inspiration. A powerful first sentence can get your story off on the right foot, even at this early stage of your novel’s inception. It might—probably will—be completely different in the final draft of your novel, but you should write your first sentence as part of your 3-act breakdown document.

Here are a few tips to help you write a potent first sentence:

Don’t open with dialog. Your readers have no idea who is delivering the dialog or why. Dialog, when used properly, should reflect context, but should never state the literal sentiments of the character delivering it. Hence, good dialog without context is useless as an opening sentence.

Don’t start with ungrounded, omniscient philosophy. Your opening line should be like a lightning rod, grounding the energy at first strike. Nothing annoys readers like getting a slice of the writer’s unsolicited philosophy in writing. Don’t do it, ever, particularly as an opening to your novel, unless you want to become president of a yawning club.

Don’t write about backstory or your main character’s background. Your story should be about your main character’s here and now, not his past. Good writers do tons of background research but rarely put any of it in their novels. Background acts as context for your story. Keep in where it belongs, in the background. The mistake of starting a story with background is one of the most common errors new writers make. Don’t fall into this trap.

Don’t start with a lengthy description of setting. Involved description, though they might feel right, bore readers. Insert your readers right into the story with your main character. Focus on story voice rather than description. Description, economically written, will come later. Save your bullets.

Do start with one character’s voice. 1st person is not necessary, just point of view. Stories roll naturally out of character. It makes sense that the human viewpoint of an important character should begin your story.

Do start with action if applicable to your story. Think carefully where you want your readers to enter your story. The beginning is more often than not found in the middle of the heat. So turn up the flames, baby, make it hot.

Do make your readers laugh or gasp. Your opening line must inspire your readers to want to know more. Make them wonder what will happen next after reading your opening sentence.

Do reveal the nature of your story in the opening sentence. So much about your story’s voice can be said in a single, well-crafted sentence. Try to capture the essence of your story in this critical opening line.

Now for some examples of the greatest opening lines in novel-writing history:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“A screaming comes across the sky.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“Lolita, Light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Kerina

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower

And now for my favorite opening sentence, drum roll please:

“The seller of lightning rods arrived just before the storm.” – Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Critical Feature – Hook
When you complete your novel, you will, no doubt, want to submit your work to editors, publishers, and agents. Editors rarely request an entire manuscript for review. They are interested in getting a high level view of your story, a feel for your characters, and an idea of how well you can write. Usually, they request a query letter, a brief synopsis of your story, and the first 10 pages to 3 chapters of your manuscript. Based on these materials, editors can determine if your work warrants a more thorough look or if it seems to be a waste of their time.

Hence, it is essential to ensnare your readers early. A hook is an excellent device to accomplish this. The hook in your story should span over the first, roughly, 10 pages of your manuscript. These pages must shine. After reading the hook of your story, your readers should feel compelled to read on. A good hook is like gassing up a car. If you put a full tank of high-octane fuel into your car before a trip, your car will drive far, unexhausted. If you only put in a quarter of a tank, you will have to stop somewhere to refill, thus, losing momentum. Fill your story’s gas tank to the brim with high-test to give your readers the drive to push enthusiastically from page 1 to the end.

It is most important to accurately capture the voice of your story in the first 10 pages of your manuscript. Establish your main character in a way that your readers can connect with him or her. Strong characters are the only force that draws readers in. Make your readers want to explore your main character and his conflicts further.

Your prose must shine, especially during the beginning chapters of your story. Make it visual and stunning. Use beautiful, succinct language, unencumbered by unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Use rich verbs to energize every sentence. Stay away from transition verbs such as was, are, were, etc. Striking these weak verbs out of your prose forces you to become a more descriptive writer. Stimulate the senses. Place your readers at the scene where they can experience the tone of your story from its very soul.

Do not under any circumstances load the first chapter(s) of your book with unnecessary back-story. There is no better way to turn readers off. Find the most stunning entry point for your story, which should be vital and current, and begin there. It is important for you as a writer to know the background of your story in order to enrich your plot and characters; but don’t burden your readers with it.

It is unnecessary to start with a scene of violence. It is more important to explore the kernel of your main character and the tone of your story. Opening a murder mystery with the villain’s dastardly deed seems a good idea, but this is a real put off for readers. In great stories, relatable characters accomplish extraordinary things. To measure the distance a great character must go to overcome tremendous opposition, it is essential to establish a baseline of that character’s normal world in which she functions. Only by first glancing into the main character’s normal world can readers appreciate the new worlds of intrigue and conflict that that character must explore before coming out on top. The hook is a great place to give readers a glimpse of your main character’s normal world and a hint (perhaps more than a hint) of the great travails that await that character later in the story.

Within your hook, you should encapsulate the seeds of your entire story. You should define the appealing, or unappealing, traits of your main character. The hook of your story, by the way, can pull double duty should you so choose; your hook could at the same time act as your story’s dye cast plot point.

Plot Point – Dye Cast
Casting the dye is a phrase that dates back to ancient Rome. Julius Caesar, when returning from Gaul, decided to invade Rome by taking his troops across the Rubicon River, Rome’s Northern borer. While crossing the river, Caesar uttered the immortal words, “Iacta alea est.” This phrase translates into English as, “The dye is cast.” Caesar had crossed the point of no return; crossing the Rubicon was a clear act of war. He had, in effect, cast an amount of dye into clear water. Dye, once cast, makes its stain. The stain cannot be removed.

Like Caesar, you too, as a writer, must cast the dye early—within the first 3 chapters–in your story. The dye cast plot point provides the impetus for your character to act. It is a plot point that draws your main character closer to the big bear trap at the end of the act.

When casting the dye, you must ensure that, once cast, your main character has no option but to act. Either your character is thrown directly into the throws of act 1’s gripping conflict, or this single point in the story exacts such curiosity that your main character can’t help but seek out deeper answers.

To best understand casting the dye, lets explore a few well-known stories.

Early in Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, young Abe overhears a conversation between his father and a Jack Barts to whom Abe’s father owes a debt. When Abe’s father says he can’t repay the debt, the debtor tells him that he will take his due in another way.

Early in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a letter comes, carried by owl, to Harry at the Dursley’s home on Privet Drive. When Harry’s Uncle Vernon burns the letter, more and more letters are delivered until Harry is finally able to open one of them.

Early in George Lucus’s Star Wars, Luke Skywalker discovers an encoded message from Princess Laiah pleading for Obi Wan Kenobi’s help.

Often, but not always, the dye cast and the hook are the same event. It is a matter of preference, not correctness, which should rule your decision to either combine or break apart these two story parts.

Plot Point – Game Changer
It’s time for the big bear trap. You’ve drawn your main character toward the trap throughout act 1. You’ve coaxed him along with clues and intrigue. Finally he gets too close and, SNAP, he’s trapped. Now your main character must put all of his energy into figuring out how to escape from the trap. The rules switch from inquiry to survival, from exploration to escape.

You must drastically change the rules for your main character’s game. If he thinks he’s felt the squeeze so far, he’s in for a real surprise. The game changer plot point must be compelling. It must drive an iron spike directly into the heart of the main character’s normal world and force him into a new world of horror, violence, lost love, survival, name your poison.

The game changer plot point must also bring the real conflict between your protagonist and antagonist into the light. Perhaps your antagonist shows his face for the very first time. Perhaps your protagonist must face down one of your antagonist’s minions. Perhaps something happens to someone close to your antagonist—a dear friend is severely hurt or killed—causing him to act on the event, perhaps in revenge, perhaps in survival, perhaps in an effort to save his marriage or relationship with a significant other. No matter what, you must change the rules of your protagonist’s game, permanently, unremittingly.

Lets look at a few examples:

In Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the mysterious Jack Barts infects Abraham’s mother with his poisoned blood. His mother becomes ill and dies as a result. Abraham makes this cornerstone resolve: “I will kill every vampire in America.”

In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s little sister, Prim, draws the lot that will send her into the Hunger Games to face off with one boy and one girl from each of the country’s districts. Katniss knows that this will almost certainly mean death for Prim, so she volunteers as a substitute for her sister to go into the games.

In George Lucus’s Star Wars, Luke Skywalker comes back from a journey with Obi Wan to hire a star ship captain to find his uncle and aunt, with whom he has lived for his entire life, murdered. Now with no ties to his home world of Tatooine, he decides to go with Obi Wan off world.

The game changer plot point always marks the end of act 1. Your protagonist must adapt to the new rules of his new world or fall victim to the antagonist’s goal. Remember, your protagonist and antagonist have opposing goals. If your antagonist wins, your protagonist loses, and visa versa.

What About Gus the Plumber?
Now its time to demonstrate how act 1 of your 3-act breakdown should work. Let’s return to the story of Gus the Plumber. You will notice that I have written descriptions for each plot point and critical feature. Also notice that there are 2 act conflicts present in act 1 of this story; this is a matter of taste. Sometimes one conflict sequence is all that is necessary. The important thing is that the tale of Gus the Plumber is beginning to take shape right before our eyes.


The Integrity of Gus the Plumber – 3-act Breakdown

Act I

Opening sentence
Gus, a good plumber by any standard, usually dealt in pipes, fittings, and congested clogs, not in contending with creatures from alternate universes.

Hook
Gus, while repairing a sink for an elderly woman, discovers an alternate dimension behind the wall in the woman’s kitchen. Upon further exploration, Gus discovers a ferocious, tentacled monster. The beast attacks Gus. He uses standard plumbing equipment to defeat the beast.

Dye Cast
While on a double date–Gus, his fiancé, Mark Atwood, and his wife–Mark tells Gus that he ran into Jeremy Harper, one of Gus’s competitors. Mark shows Gus Jeremy’s card. It says: “Harper Plumbing and Pandimensional Exterminator Service.” After some talk about Jeremy’s bad ethics, mostly on Gus’s part, Mark drops a bomb; he’s decided to work for Jeremy. Gus can’t believe it. Mark says things are getting dangerous for plumbers out there. Jeremy has all the necessary weapons and safety equipment and Mark just can’t jeopardize his family. Mark is still committed to being Gus’s best man at his wedding.

Gus decides to look into pandimensional extermination as part of his service list.

 

Act I Conflict 1 – Gus learns about Vorvadoss’s planet.
Gus visits a cultist – Gus looks pandimensional creatures on the net and finds the name of a cultist named Arthur Coen who lives nearby. Gus goes to Coen’s shop to visit him and ask questions. Coen introduces Gus to some relics from the Cthulhu Mythos and tells him about the elder gods and the old ones. Coen tells Gus that the world is tearing apart at the seams. Gus says that’s why he’s come to see Coen. He wants to become a pandimensional exterminator. Coen goes off on Gus, telling him that he’s a murder. Me mentions Vorvodoss and how, once Vorvodoss comes, the world will be once again cleansed.

Gus meets the man in black – Gus leaves the cultist’s shop, noting a strange car across the street. The car, driven by a man in black, follows Gus’s plumbing truck to his next job and parks across the street while Gus goes to work. Gus fights a second pandimensional being. When Gus comes out from the job, monster gore all over him, he notices the man in black leaning against his car, smiling. Gus asks why the man has been following him. The man says they must talk on safe ground.

Gus learns about Vorvodoss – The man in black takes Gus to a basement, scrawled with symbols, a circle on the floor. He lights a few candles and brings Gus into the circle. He tells Gus about Vorvodoss and how evil the elder god is. He tells Gus that, unless something is done to stop him, Vorvodoss will cleanse the earth of humankind. Gus says he’s looking to get into the pandimensional extermination business as a matter of competition. The man gives him a book and a few implements to fight against Vorvodoss’s minions. He also says to never mention Vovodoss’s name unless he is in a place of safety, especially now that he had been marked by one of Vorvadoss’s cultists. Gus is thankful. The man in black says they will stay in touch.

 

Act I Conflict 2 – Mark Atwood Disappears
Lunch date with Mark -Gus has a lunch date with Mark Atwood. He shows up at the diner and finds Mark, dressed in a Harper Plumbing coverall. He sits across the table from his friend. The lunch is vexing. Mark isn’t himself at all. It’s like his personality has been drained. Gus reminds Mark of their weekly poker game, this to be held at Dierdre—Gus’s fiancé’s—house. She makes the best sandwiches. Mark says he’ll be there.

Poker game – Gus, Mark, and 2 other friends, meet at Dierdre’s place for poker. Mark isn’t himself. He winds up winning everything with his unusual poker face. Usually the group can detect his tells from a mile away, but due to good luck and an unusually stoic demeanor, Mark wins it all. They keep asking Mark if he’s okay. Mark maintains that he is. When it’s time to wrap up, Mark heads out the door, leaving his money. Gus, surprised, gathers the bills and chases Mark down. He has to practically put the money into Mark’s hand and close it before Mark will take it.

Mark is missing – While out on a job, Mark’s wife calls Gus. She tells him that Mark never came home from the poker game. He’s been gone over 24 hours and she doesn’t know what to do. Gus tells her to relax. He’ll see what he can do to track Mark down.

Contacting the man in black – Gus calls the man in black. The man in black meets Gus at a cemetery. They go into a crypt where the same symbols written in the man in black’s basement are scrawled. They discuss Mark Atwood. The man in black says that Mark has probably been turned into a drone. Usually this happens from the top down. Has mark taken a new job on or formed a new business relationship? Gus says Mark has begun work for Harper Plumbing. The man in black says Harper Plumbing is probably an apparatus of Vorvodoss. The man in black will need time to gather a few more agents. Gus asks how much time. The man in black says it will take weeks, not enough time for Gus’s liking.

Gus gathers intelligence – Gus goes to a Harper plumbing job site and steals a pair of coveralls. He also finds a memo posted inside the door of the van that Harper will be having a necessary symposium for all regional plumbers. The memo has a date and time. Gus decides to attend.

The symposium – Gus goes to the symposium, wearing the Harper uniform, a hat and wig. The plumbers, nearly 100, sit in a small theater. Jeremy Harper opens the symposium with a few words then introduces Vorvodoss. Vorvodoss comes out onto the podium. All of the plumbers stand and quote a tribute to Vorvodoss. Gus tries to play along. The cultist whom Gus visited earlier, also attending the symposium, fingers Gus and says that he is an imposter. Vorvodoss sets Gus aside as a sacrifice. Harper plumbers go after Gus. Gus barely escapes and heads back to the crypt where earlier he met the man in black.

 

Game Changer
Once Gus is fingered by Vorvodoss as an imposter and set aside for sacrifice, his life has changed. Now he must evade the cultists of Vorvodoss while keeping his wedding plans. He is also in search of Mark Atwood, who is slated to be his best man.

Act II

Act II – Conflict 1

Act II – Conflict 2

Act II – Conflict 3

(Optional Act II – Conflict 4)

Disaster

Act III

Act III – Endgame Conflict

Resolution


Now it’s your turn
You should have, from a previous assignment, drafted a blank 3-act breakdown document. Time to get to work. Fill in act 1 of your 3-act breakdown form with details for the following plot points and critical features:

Act I

Opening Line – Write your opening line.

Hook – Write a paragraph that describes what happens in your hook.

Dye Cast – Write a paragraph that describes how you plan to cast the dye in your story.

Act 1 Conflict – You should already have a pretty solid description of an act 1 conflict sequence from a previous assignment.

Game Changer – Write a paragraph that describes what happens to change the game on your main character. This plot point should force your protagonist into a new world, and fling your story into act 2.

Good luck. I’ll see you next time.

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