Write Your Novel Like a Play

One of the hardest things I have taught myself to do is outline a novel before writing it. I am not a detail person when it comes to pre-planning stages, but I have found that a rough outline has helped both my writing speed and plotting.

I have tried different outlining methods but have fallen in love with following a three or five act structure, similar to play arcs. Shakespeare is famous for his five act structured plays and the idea of applying it to novels is not necessarily a new idea. Gustav Freytag has been a major proponent of this concept and a quick Google search brings up other writer’s thoughts on it.


The above image shows the general structure of a five act play. When writing my outlines, I break these down into scenes or at least chapter goals. I personally strive for 3-5 chapters or goals per act that add and provide support for the kind of act it is. If I’m working on, Act IV, then my chapters should focus around emotional resolutions and characters coming back together after a catastrophic event. Things are still tense, perhaps, but slowly turning towards a happy for now type ending. This is not the same as the denouement which focuses on resolution and the character(s) final situations.

Writing out my outline in this structure has helped me develop and nail down just when emotional changes should occur or, in fantasy novels, how far in should the big fight scene occur. Sometimes these things aren’t the climax of the novel but having a guided outline helps set the pacing and prevent me from feeling like I’m drawing out events for too long or making them happen to fast.

Outlining for novels is still not one of my favorite tasks but following this simple structure has dramatically improved my writing and being able to visually look at my novel goals as I write helps immensely.

If you outline for novels, or even short stories, what method do you follow? Have you ever tried a five or even three act structure outline before?


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