How to Plot a Three Act Story

One of my favorite places to talk about comics nowadays is over at the Digital Webbing message boards. It's a fantastic community of creative comics people who share tips and ideas. I got a little carried away with a response I wrote this morning, and I thought I would share it here on my blog.

I used to struggle with long-term plotting when I first began writing and I think it was because I was either over-thinking things or suffering from indecision. As I started to read Robert McKee's "Story" (scriptwriting book), it began to click for me, and I think the solution is simpler than it seems.

To me, plotting a story arc is all about identifying the points in the story where you want to create tension. For example, let's say I'm writing a story about the man who builds the world's largest skyscraper.

Where do I want the story to start? When he's a child. I want to show him playing with LEGOs and other architectural toys as a kid. So there's the first part of my story.Then I want him to go on to graduate from a great school and have a promising future ahead of him. That's a major turning point in his life, so let's make that the end of Act I.

From here, I can do one of two things for the end of Act II -- 1) I could have a major reversal that ends on a down note, or 2) I could have an even bigger victory that ends on an up note. The problem with solution 2 is that the only way to top it emotionally is to have Act III end with a big reversal -- modest success to big success to huge success wouldn't be a very exciting story arc.

I'm trying to plot out ups and downs to create back-and-forth tension. So I'll go with with option 1. Act II will end with the character suffering from a massive car accident that cripples him and puts him in the hospital. How's he ever going to build that skyscraper now?

That's what Act III is all about! I already know my ending -- man builds world's largest skyscraper. So now all I have to do is fill in the other parts. How does he go from crippled in the hospital to huge architectural success? When he's in the hospital, he begins to study new architecture techniques. For two years, he's in his bed learning everything he can learn. And when he emerges, he designs the giant building.

So there's my basic plot. Of course, there are holes in there and lots of opportunities to create spots of mini tension along the way. For example, as a kid, he should probably be taunted for being so obsessed with his architectural toys. And in the beginning of Act II, I need tension to follow the success of his graduation in Act I, so maybe he should have a failed romantic relationship as he launches his career.

AND, now that I look back on it, Act II might be even stronger if it ends with him falling from a tall building... a building that he designed! That way, the skyscraper isn't just about accomplishing his goal -- it's about overcoming his new fear of heights and putting his accident behind him.

Over on Digital Webbing, this is where I ended my response. But I want to add in a couple more thoughts here on the blog. For example, let's say I went the other way with Act II and decided to end on an up note -- man builds an incredible skyscraper. Not the largest one ever, but it establishes him in the architecture community.

So now how will I end Act III? I can still have the man build the world's largest skyscraper -- that's the whole point of the story, after all. But to create the tension I want, I think the end should be a tragic success. For example, as the man begins to design his great masterpiece, he becomes obsessed with it. He alienates the people that love him as he works day and night, even sleeping in his unfinished skyscraper.

By the time I get to the end of Act III, the main character is a huge success in his career but a massive failure in his personal life. The story could end with him standing outside on the highest ledge of his new building, staring down at the world and realizing everything that he's lost.

If I really want to drive home the tragedy, I could have the man throw himself off of the building and commit suicide. A bit heavy-handed, yes, but also a great way to reward the audience for putting up with the two big victories in a row that ended both Act I and Act II. I mean, some people just like sad stories, right?

Anyway, that's my beginners tutorial on how to plot out a three act story arc. It's not the greatest lesson ever, and I left out a lot of stuff (for example, I barely scratched the surface regarding the best way to fill in the blank parts of the story with even more tension). But all in all, I think it's a good place to start if there's a story you want to tell but you don't know how to plot it out.