Over the course of writing five novels, reading countless books on writing, and taking notes on some of my favorite stories, I’ve distilled it all into a very rough plot framework.
I find working from a framework extremely useful. I’m not ever wholly wedded to this exact structure, but it’s so helpful for brainstorming what “should” be happening, to weave disparate plot threads together, and to make sure the overall plot is on track.
And I’m sharing it with you!
This is a four act structure based on a 50 chapter book. A book doesn’t have to be exactly 50 chapters of course, but I like using that for the purposes of the framework because it’s easier to benchmark to a round number.
Also, I refer to “protagonist” in the singular, but the same structure applies with multiple protagonists. I’d highly recommend trying to weave the storylines together in such a way that the characters are either involved in the same climaxes or they happen around the same point in the novel.
Chapters 1-3: The starting place. This where we see the protagonist in their “usual” environment before something happens to know them ajar. Note that these shouldn’t just be empty scenes with no purpose. If the plot doesn’t really get going until Chapter 4, give the protagonist a mini-quest so we can learn about them by seeing them go after something they want.
Chapter 4: Protagonist knocked off kilter. Also called the “inciting incident.” This is something that happens that prompts the main character to want something big, whether it’s a disaster, an opportunity, or a challenge. It inspires the protagonist to go on a quest (literal or figurative).
Chapters 5-10: Buildup/escape routes closed. Once the protagonist is knocked off kilter, the buildup often entails the protagonist trying to solve things the easy way, only to become blocked by obstacles. This is a time to deepen the stakes and show the contours of the obstacles standing in the protagonist’s way.
Chapter 11: First act climax. This is often a point of no return. The easy escape routes have been eliminated, and the only remaining path is a difficult one.
Chapters 12-13: There’s no turning back. The seriousness of the first act climax sinks in. The protagonist is in deep now.
Chapters 14-24: Things are getting exciting but dangerous. In Save The Cat, this stretch is referred to as “the promise of the premise,” which I like. This is a time for the protagonist to explore new territory (literal or figurative), to begin learning skills, and grow as a person. But things are also getting more dangerous and intense.
Chapter 25: Second act climax. The second act climax often feels like a high water mark before things start to get very difficult for the protagonist. Triumph is in sight, but it’s a false dawn. This can often take the form of a climax that looks like a victory at first blush but is actually revealed to be a defeat, or the seeds for decline are otherwise sown by what happens in the climax.
Chapter 26: Start of the decline. The efforts and new skills the protagonist learned may have worked to this point, but now they’re going to have to dig deep.
Chapters 27-33: A mix of false hope and things getting serious. The villain gains strength, cracks in the protagonist’s team emerge, and every glimmer of hope is quickly dashed. The protagonist’s gains to this point are rolled back.
Chapter 34: False climax. This is often a moment when the protagonist may lose their mentor/protector (think: Darth Vader killing Obi Wan) and they have to go the rest of the way on their own. Things are getting bad.
Chapters 35-38: Nadir. The protagonist is alone, damaged, or otherwise weak. All hope feels lost.
Chapter 39: Third act climax. Often the lowest point for the protagonist, where they are very nearly defeated.
Chapter 40: Protagonist turns the corner. The protagonist summons something within for one last push. They might make a key realization, dig deep mentally, or gain a talisman that will help them turn the corner.
Chapters 41-45: Building toward the climax. The protagonist starts dispatching obstacles leading to a final confrontation with the villain.
Chapters 46-48: The climax. The protagonist has to summon the skills/powers they’ve learned, the teachings of their mentor, and the determination they summoned in their nadir, in order to overcome the ultimate villain.
Chapter 49: Denouement. The implications of the climax sink in and remaining plot threads are resolved.
Chapter 50: Finale. We have a sense of where the protagonist will head from here.
So how do you use this framework? First, check out this overall post on how to outline:
And then download this spreadsheet, which has the plot framework baked in:
To download it and start using it, go through the File menu within the doc:
What do you think of this approach? Do you have any plot frameworks you like to draw upon?
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Art: The Course of Empire – Consummation by Thomas Cole