I spent January writing the opening chapters of a book that will be a sequel to both Kindred and The Quiet in the Land.

This month I’ve put that story aside to work on Jesse (working title), a stand alone set in 1787, in the North Carolina back country. Having decided to do something different and plot this story out as thoroughly as possible before I write one word of it (in hopes of writing the first draft in under a year’s time, a feat I’ve never yet pulled off), I’ve chosen to try a technique I’ve heretofore shunned as too restrictive–outlining the plot using the Three Act Structure.

I’d read about it repeatedly, been taught it at conferences, but the notion didn’t strike me as something I might want to actually try out until my friend Joan Shoup (J. M. Hochstetler) posted about it on her blog. Though I used the basic format Joan provided in her blog post, substituting my story information for hers, the information in the outline below pertains to her Revolutionary War novel Crucible of War, the fourth book in the American Patriot series (which I eagerly await). It is shared here with her permission (thank you, Joan!). And just to note, key story points of Crucible of War have, naturally, been omitted to avoid serious spoilers. 

Act 1: Beginning the Quest

  • Battle of Trenton and return to camp.
  • Encounters between Carleton and Elizabeth, Andrews and Blue Sky

Act 2: Crisis Points
1. Battle of Princeton

  • Elizabeth returns to New York.
  • Washington and army block British at Princeton, then withdraw to Morristown.

2. Build-up to New Campaign
New York

  • Elizabeth and Tess renew relationship with Howe and his officers.
  • Pieter returns to NY to court Elizabeth.

Morristown

  • Reconstituting the army and planning campaign 1777.
  • Carleton rebuilds his Rangers from renegades.
  • Red Fox and/or Spotted Pony return to the Shawnee to seek reinforcements.
  • Carleton decides to refit several of his merchantmen in France as warships to engage in the naval war.

New York

  • Complications with Pieter and Howe.
  • Elizabeth carries intelligence to Congress, meeting with John Adams and others.
  • Progress of negotiations with France and Spain.

3. 1st Crisis and Turning Point

  • Pieter learns the truth.

4. 2nd Turning Point—Campaign 1777

  • Red Fox and/or Spotted Pony return to Morristown with a mixed party from the tribes.
  • Battles of Bennington, Brandywine, Germantown.
  • Elizabeth’s covert activities increasingly put her in danger.
  • Elizabeth learns her parents and Abby are returning to Boston.

5. Main Crisis and Turning Point—Saratoga

  • Carleton and his Rangers join General Gates at Saratoga.
  • Americans defeat Burgoyne, ending the British quest to split the colonies along the Hudson.

Act 3—Denouement

  • Tess leaves for Boston to prepare for the Howards’ return.
  • Howe prepares to move against Philadelphia.
  • Andrews and Blue Sky face a painful decision
  • Carleton and Elizabeth take leave of each other and Elizabeth returns to NY.
  • Setup for vol. 5.

Teachings abound on this well known story structure (as do opinions of its usefulness for novel writers), favored by screenwriters in particular. Googling it will turn up quite a few sites and resources. Here’s one.

Earlier this week as I was starting this process I read a great blog post from author Ann Tatlock, over at Novel Journey. It’s all about taking the time to listen to our characters before we push ahead with the writing.

For the past week I’ve combined Ann’s advice with Joan’s outline, and spent much time thinking this story through, daydreaming, reading over the gradually expanding outline again and again, adding details, turns and twists, the all important conflict, and generally spending more than usual time researching the relevant history and setting and frontier cultures. I now have a seven page single spaced outline, broken into three acts, and a story that’s more heavily plotted from the outset than any that have come before it.

Still, there are aspects of the story that aren’t clear to me. The spiritual thread is one. I suspect, but I don’t yet know, what the spiritual thread of the story will look like. I never do until I’ve started writing, whether I’ve plotted the story to a fair-thee-well or am flying by the seat of my pants. Pretty early on the characters will tell me what’s in the depths of their souls, what they need to work out between themselves and God.

For now though I’m seeing one great benefit of all this plotting and structure: I’m less intimidated by the mountain before me than I’ve been at the start of a novel since I finished my first, caught my breath, looked down to see how far I’d climbed and got a bit dizzy at the thought of doing it again. And again.

chess photo by Mrs Logic, flickr

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