An alternative to the five-act structure

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.”

story structure
Photo © chesterF – Fotolia.com

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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4 Comments

  1. Kristen, I totally agree with you about everything you said in this post. And I’m with you about plotting. In fact, I have a good writer friend who says I’m a plotter on steroids. The thing is is it’s what works for me in the end. I tried the pantser way for over 2 years and got about 3 chapters done in my book. Once I tried a small outline and then bought a book on how to outline a fiction novel, my book took off and I had it done within a month.

    Like you said, everyone is different and in the end you have to do what is best for your writing style.

    I also wanted to let you know that I’ve nominated you for a Liebester Award. You can find it here: http://kristenatunstall.com/ive-been-nominated-for-a-liebster-award/ You can choose to accept it if you like as it’s optional.

    1. Thanks, Kristena! Your experience is one lots of writers share. Some of us just weren’t meant to wing it.

  2. Kristen, hi,
    I think perhaps, the difficulty is in definitions. While I’ve met many authors who cringe at the thought of “outlining” their book, if you ask them, almost invariably, they know the ending… and the initial problem (inciting incident) that sets the story in motion, and well, yes they often have an idea what the first plot point should be that pushes the main character into the action, and if they think about it… you get the idea – “pantsers” (I kind of like the name) often keep the outline between their ears, where they can change relationships & scenes on the fly. They just don’t much like the stodgy connotation of “outlining” from school.

    1. Yep, I think you nailed it, Michael.

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