Plotting, Pantsing, and the Three Act Structure

Welcome to another installment of Wednesday Writer’s Workshop,  your place for great How-To’s to help you write your awesome story. Let’s get into it.

To Plot or to Pants

Should you outline your story or be adventurous and see where it goes? It’s a big question for both new and established authors. If you pose the question in your favorite Internet search engine or on a forum you will get a multitude of responses arguing for either. Many people will have great answers as to why to plot or pants but who’s right?


A plotter is someone who outlines his or her story before they start writing. This outline can be as simple as a three-word sentence for each chapter to a 15,000-word summary for the entire 100,000-word novel. Some plotters use Excel or Google Sheets to lay out chapters and scenes. Others may layout all of the scenes in Scrivener with a short synopsis before they start writing.


A pantser is someone who “flies by the seat of their pants.” They usually know the starting point and how it will. They find out as they go along as to what happens in the middle. Pantsers start writing and let the flow of the book write itself.

You may have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, who is the most prolific of plotters. Not only did Tolkien outline his high fantasy saga, The Lord of the Rings, but he also outlined world events of Middle Earth for a hundred years after the final book and for thousands of years before The Hobbit in the case of The Silmarillion. He also invented part of a language that changed over time and by region within his world. This world was so well outlined that his son, Christopher Tolkien, was able to finish his father’s work, The Children of Hurin, which takes place 500 years before the Fellowship of the Ring. It was published in 2007, 34 years after Tolkien’s death in 1973. Tolkien knew exactly what he wanted for the books and the backstory for the whole world before they were ever published.

A famous pantser would be Stephen King. King is infamous for creating characters, dropping them into situations, and then seeing where the plot goes. He does not outline; he doesn’t know how the book will end. In his books, the characters will have to act according to the characteristics he gave them. He says in, On Writing, if he is surprised by what happens in the book then the reader should be surprised too.

These are two examples of a famous plotter and pantser giving credence to the validity of either strategy. They are also the extremes of either strategy for writing. The important takeaway for you is to find what works for you. Try both and see what feels more natural.

Whether you find yourself a plotter or pantser, you still need to understand story structure. Starting out, I would recommend using the three act structure. This structure, as the name implies, has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. It is tried and true to be effective at entertaining and capturing your readers. Regardless if you pants, your books you should follow a similar structure until you have grasped more complicated structures, which are beyond this article.

Myself, I’m a hybrid of both plotting and pantsing. I started my writing journey as a pantser before I knew the terms plotting and pantsing. The first book I ever wrote (a now victim of a dead hard drive), I pants wrote by writing chapter by chapter not knowing what would happen next. I knew the theme and the general arc, but not what would happen later on. I would write a few pages and then decide to put in a fight scene, since the chapter was lacking any action for a while. When I was in college I would also pants write my short stories for classes in my creative writing undergraduate program. In college, had a better idea of what I wanted in the 6,000-word short story; but I never sat down and outlined it scene by scene or paragraph by paragraph. My vision for writing a complete story was refined here. Whether a 6,000-word short story or 60,000-word novel, beginning, middle and end are crucial to your book.


Last Time in Wednesday Writer’s Workshop

How to Get Inspired and Write Your First Book


The First Act – Setup

The first act of the story is the setup and introduction. The introduction establishes the status quo of the setting and characters. You see how life for the characters was before the action and rising tension as the story begins. The introduction should not take up more than one-third of the story, usually much less. Use this time to establish relationships between the characters. When the readers know the connection between characters, they to establish relationships with the characters. Spending the time to get to know your characters will make them feel more real and your readers will root for them in times of peril and mourn their deaths.

A great example of the first act comes from Tolkien. We find the main character of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, awaiting Gandalf as he arrives for Bilbo Baggins’ (Frodo’s uncle) birthday party. Everything is fine in Hobbiton and life goes on as it had for thousands of years. Nothing appeared to change from the perspective of Frodo.

The Second Act – Confrontation

The second act is my favorite part. It is the action. Act two begins with the inciting event. Inciting incidents must always involve the character making the choice for themselves. It is up to them to break the mold of status quo and begin something adventurous. Act two is where the character is thrown into action; breaking away from the placidity of the first act. Your hero is thrust into action and on their journey to change the world while changing themselves. The second act also has the first climax at the end of the rising tension. The conclusion of this first climax brings the end of the second act.

Back to Tolkien – Frodo’s inciting event is at the Council of Elrond when he discovered exactly what the Ring of Power is and it was sought by Sauron. The ring was the only thing keeping Sauron from conquering Middle Earth. Frodo made a conscious decision to take the ring to Mordor and destroy it. The Fellowship joined him. They move across lands, through mountains, then under one by entering the Mines of Moria. Here the story encounters its first climax. The Fellowship must battle an army of goblins and cave trolls to escape with their lives and the ring. The climax of the second act concludes with Gandalf being pulled off the edge of a bridge by a demon named Balrog.

The Third Act – Resolution

The third act is where you bring it all together. This is the place for a second climax with fast rising tension and a swift conclusion. It holds your opportunity to satisfy any unanswered questions and propose new questions as a teaser for the possible next book.

Last time to Tolkien – the Fellowship reached the surface from the Mines of Moria and flee the goblins into the woods of Lothlórien. There they meet elves, led by Lady Galadriel, who rearm them with special weapons. Lady Galadriel also warned Frodo that the ring he carried would one-by-one destroy the Fellowship. The Frodo and his party move on and are pursued by Urik-Hai, a mutant who are stronger than orcs and goblins. The enemy caught up with the Fellowship and splinters them in battle. Just before the battle, a member of the Fellowship, Boromir, tried to take the ring from Frodo. Frodo realized Galadriel was right about the ring’s influence over others, especially men. He made the decision to go to Mordor alone. Sam, a friend of Frodo’s from the Shire and now with the Fellowship, caught Frodo in the act of leaving the Fellowship. Frodo and Sam journey to Mordor together after Sam nearly drowned in a river. Boromir died in the battle with the Uriks. The other Hobbits, Merry, and Pippin, were captured by the Uriks. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli pursue the Uriks to save Merry and Pippin after giving Boromir a funeral.

Next Week: The Snowflake

I’ll have a follow-up post on how to plot act-by-act and chapter-by-chapter next week using the snowflake method. For now, I want you to focus on the grand scheme of your novel. Whether you are plotting or pantsing, you should be aware of this three act structure: introduce your characters; give them an inciting event where they move into action; have a climax (or two) at the end of the tension; resolve the story, and give a teaser to the next book.

Finding Your Own Way

What does this mean for you? Find your own style and what works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment and change as needed. Finally, write. Write. Write. Write. You aren’t going to know what works for you until you write. Don’t get hung up on what someone said in a forum response. The great thing about writing a story is that it will always be from your perspective and unique. Try both plotting and pantsing, as I have, and see which fits you better. I enjoyed pantsing, but I think my writing has gotten better and the process is much, much faster now that most of the thought is done ahead of time. Writing prose to the page is much easier.


The three act structure, or story structures of any kind, have all been met with some criticism over the years. One reason being the original Greek plays did not have acts. People sat through the entire performance from beginning to end. The origin of the act structure came from the Romans in order to have intermissions. In the present day, this pause was incorporated in radio and film and was meant to capture the complete rising and climax of tension for the viewer to stayed tuned during a commercial or restroom break.

James Bonnet, an awarded screenwriter, playwright, and novelist criticized the three act structure writing, “The three (four, five, six, or seven) act structures are the arbitrary divisions of the principal (or main) action of the story.” Bonnet argued that dividing a story structure into numbered acts was archaic and damaging. Even with an accomplished three act structure, he said, there is no guarantee of a good story. Later, he later proclaimed in the article, “…when you’re creating a story [you need] to be thinking in terms of the natural structure of the problem which has two main parts: the action that created it and the action that will resolve it.” Stories, much like real life, revolve around two things: problem and resolution. Bonnet believed writers should focus on whether they have a good problem (the villain) and a good solution (the hero) instead of worrying about whether a story fits into a certain number of acts or follows rules for network cable.

Reaction to Criticism

I partially agree with Bonnet. Despite having a solid story structure with a specified number of acts, if the story does not propose a diabolical problem and provides a believable solution, then it does not matter. Your story will not be fulfilling to the reader or audience; your book may be put back on the shelf, or the reader will tell their friends not to read your books. Of course, there are examples of the unsatisfactory ending to a great novel that withstood criticism such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. A good story is one with a character who battles a problem: a good wizard fighting a bad wizard, a hobbit destroying a ring, or a couple overcoming societal norms to love one another publicly.

Since this “How-To” article is geared toward first time or inexperienced authors, my suggestion is to use act structures as a tool when you are crafting your story, whether plotted or pantsed. It is not a replacement for a compelling story with strong prose or witty dialogue. All stories must have a problem, a solution, and resolution to be satisfying. Make sure that someone or something is posing a problem (Sauron); something is at stake to be lost in the world (all life in Middle Earth), and provide someone to step up to the challenge (Frodo). You may never use acts in your stories or may become advanced in your writing where you do not require them. They are a means to an end ensuring you have a complete story arc. Nothing is a substitute for a good story and that, my friends, is up for your readers to decide.


Thank you for reading this installment of Wednesday Writer’s Workshop. Please like, share on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ if you liked it. You can follow me, Ryan A. Ross, on Twitter @ryanthebossross. Don’t forget to check out the Archives, there’s a lot of great stuff including the Daily Download and Friday Fiction Breakdown.

Please comment below on things you would like to see me explain How To write.

The question of the day: Are you a plotter or pantser? Please comment below.

Happy writing.

Word Count: 2,222

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