The traditional three- and five-act structure is great for writers who outline. For those who don’t, not so much which is why it’s not a huge problem if you look at this item on the checklist and can’t really check it off:
☐ Key events or turning points form a three- or five-act structure.
Being a firm believer in the power of the outline, I love the idea of five-act structure. But some people can’t write that way. We often call them “seat of the pants” writers or pantsers. These are the kind of writers who say “I need to write the story to find out how it ends.” If you are this kind of writer, this kind of structure may be unenjoyable or even unfeasible. Not every story fits in this mold.
And story is what should guide your decisions. Not “rules.”
Last time, I mentioned Steven James. He has rightly pointed out that if your plot is based on a series of cause and effect relationships, it will be profluent—that is, flowing naturally. He calls this organic writing, and has called “seat of the pants” a derogatory term. He writes about organic writing at his own website, and taught about it at the Florida Christian Writers Conference a couple of years ago. He has written about this model of storytelling in his new book, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules.
James calls outlining a mistake, and I disagree with him there. It’s just a different style. It’s also possible to use a hybrid of the two styles. Sometimes I will outline half the story, write to that point, and then write a little more to see what happens.
It doesn’t really matter whether one outlines or not. The most important thing is not whether all your scenes fit neatly into a structure arbitrarily contrived by someone else. The important thing is that each scene happens not after the previous scenes, but because of them.
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