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The Story of My Writing Career in 3-Act Plot Structure

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The Story of My Writing Career in 3-Act Plot Structure

*Check out my guest blog post for Brevity Magazine!*

Sometimes it really pisses me off that I got my MFA in Fiction Writing so I could learn to write better novels, but all my MFA taught me was how to write literary short stories. In my classes we rarely mentioned one of the most important aspects of a novel, or of any story, really: the plot. And as I now struggle to write and revise novels, I realize that lessons on plot is what I sorely need.

It seems to be the thing a lot of “literary” writers need help with. At the recent AWP conference, panels on plot and structuring the novel were packed, but even the panelists seemed baffled by the topic. “With my first novel, the structure just sort of emerged by accident,” one writer said. “Now I’m two-hundred and fifty pages into my second novel, and I don’t know what the story is. I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

I sat in the audience with my pen poised, ready to take notes, but all of the panelists gave similar, vague anecdotes.

“I write until I see a shape emerge. Then I chip away at it, like a sculptor,” one of them said. Gee, so helpful.

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about story structure. Unlike the AWP panels, these books are specific and prescriptive. Perhaps a little too much so. Each book has it’s own tried-and-true plot “formula,” whether it’s the “three-act structure,” the “Hero’s Journey,” or the “cause-and-effect chain.” These ideas are helpful, but I find myself trying to follow every single guideline from every single book, which is both impossible and paralyzing.

Here I am sitting on a panel at a literary conference — The Burlesque Press Festival in New Orleans, Dec. 29 2013. (Eva Langston, Melanie Neale, Lynne Barrett)

Yesterday, I was going over all my notes on plot and feeling overwhelmed as to how to structure my novel, when I got an email from my friend Daniel Wallace, writer of the blog, The Incompetent Writer. In the email, he summed up the plot structure of a good story in a few simple sentences, which he attributed to John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. :

A character is morally flawed in some way. At the start of the story, she desperately desires something and struggles to get it, facing increased set- backs. But as she struggles, the evidence accumulates that what she really needs is something more important than getting the thing she desires. Her moral need is what is really at stake, not the thing she desires.

This summary fits with most of the plot formulas I’ve read about (another writer succinctly described plot to me as “put your character up a tree, throw rocks at her, then get her back down.)  To help myself understand plot even better, I am going to put my own story into a plot “formula.”  See below…


Premise: Eva’s moral flaw is that she is looking for validation from external sources instead of finding acceptance within herself. She thinks she must have commercial success with a novel in order to be satisfied with her writing.

She desperately desires to write a novel that is published by a major publisher and to make money from her writing.

ACT 1:  
Exposition: Eva has always loved to write and imagines herself a famous novelist.

Inciting Incident/Turning Point 1: At age 24, Eva quits her job as a math teacher to write a novel. She is confident that she will have success with her writing by the time she’s 30.

ACT 2:  
Setback 1: She writes a novel, but it isn’t as good as she’d like it to be.

Setback 2: She gets her MFA in Fiction Writing, but the MFA teaches her to write short stories, not novels. She graduates feeling more unsure of her novel-writing abilities than she was before.

Setback 3: Feeling scared for her future and embarrassed at her lack of success, she goes back to teaching full-time, abandoning writing.

Setback 4: She turns 30 and feels depressed about her life.

Turning Point 2: She quits her teaching job and announces to the world that she is focusing on writing.

Momentary Triumph: She writes a novel and gets some positive feedback from agents.

Setback 5/Darkest Point: She does not land an agent. She writes two more novels, and they are both lacking in plot. She feels like a failure. She worries about her future. She wonders if she will ever have any success as a novelist, or if she should give up and find a different career.

Turning Point 3/Choice: She decides not to give up on writing. She buckles down and begins to work as hard as she can to make her dream a reality.

**This is where I am right now in the story. So what will happen in Act 3?

Daniel says there are several things that can happen at the end of a story.
#1 She gets the thing she wants but fails to see the moral need. Callous, he says, but perhaps satisfying.
#2 She sees the moral need, changes as a person, and uses her new-found better nature to get the thing she wants. This is a crowd-pleasing success story.
#3 She gives up the search for the thing she wanted and is happier for it. This, he says, is a meditative redemption story.
#4 She sees the moral need, gives up the thing she wants, and suffers for losing it. This is a tragedy. (Doing the right thing and suffering for it.)

Of course, I’m hoping that the end of my story will be Option #2. Here’s how I imagine it might go…

ACT 3:  
Self-Realization: Eva finally gets an agent and a novel published, but she doesn’t much care for the book, or her agent, and her novel goes largely unrecognized.  She realizes that even with a published novel, she still continues to struggle with feelings of validation.

Eva realizes that she has been placing too high an importance on getting published and having external success. Writing should not be about money or validation or her own success. It should be about writing the books people need to read. In her case, she wants to write in an engaging way about some of the difficulties young women face when it comes to sex, body-image, and self-esteem. She writes passionately about these topics, and in a way that she thinks publishers might like. Not because she wants huge success, but because she wants her books to go out into the world and be read by young women who might need to read them.

CLIMAX: Once she stops worrying quite so much about her own success, she writes a book of which she is proud and feels internal validation for her efforts. Due to her hard work and open heart, the universe smiles upon her. She finds a new agent, gets her book published and begins a true career as a novelist.

New Equilibrium: Eva happily writes more novels, and although she doesn’t make much money from them, she likes her novels, and she has a fan-base who likes them, too. She sometimes gets emails or Twitter shout-outs from young women who tell her how much they enjoy or appreciate her books. She feels confident about her writing abilities because she has found acceptance inside of herself.

So that’s the outline.  I still feel like I have a long way to go before I get to the end…

Also important when writing a novel?  Having fun with it.

Also important when writing a novel? Having fun with it.


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

80 responses »

  1. Great post! Glad to see I’m not alone in frustration…lol

  2. I hope you are able to publish a successful novel and are able to find a plot. I guess you should read books related to what your writing and then bring your own world into life. 🙂
    Please visit:

  3. Eva…so many good comments on your writing life. One I really related to was by helenjain21…(As an aspiring novelist (working on the first book, it is not quite finished with the rough draft yet) I can fully understand this problem. Before starting my novel, I read so much information on “how to write a novel” that was contradictory and confusing that I gave up that idea.) Eva, Do we need to read all those HT books? So many say the same thing over and over. It is confusing. And if we’re reading all the time, when do we have time to write? Yes, I’ve learned a lot from these books and online classes, but if I don’t get busy and write the story I want to write I’ll never get the chance to fail/succeed/validate or anything else from my writing. Your blog rocks. Best of luck and blessings with your career.

    • I totally agree. It’s so hard to find balance between finding time to read and time to write (and time to read about writing!) I am always surprised and annoyed by how short the day is. I have so much more I want to do! Good luck finding the time to write!

  4. I am currently doing and English Literature degree with a minor in creative writing; it really does help! I have my own creative writing blog, which can be found HERE

  5. I always say this too. I love doing the actual writing, but making up the plot is so hard. It seems that anything I think of is soon either too trivial or too grandiose. And I just can’t seem to get myself out of that rut.

    I like the morality structure, I haven’t heard that one before. Maybe I’ll try creating something around that.

    • I read somewhere recently that the idea off the top of your head (that many people assume is inspiration) is probably something you’ve seen or read before, and therefore a possible cliche. So that’s why you should brainstorm many, many different ideas for your story and what might happen next instead of going with your first idea. It’s probably not always true, but it’s something interesting to think about!

  6. Never ever give up. Never ever ever ever…!

  7. Get out of your head and into your heart. As long your are looking for the scientifically correct approach to write you’ll always struggle to some degree never being really satisfied with your work. Think about something you want to write about, don’t think about the correct structure (it does come when your heart is with it 100%) just yet.

  8. So glad I found this post! I’m struggling a lot with the plot of my novel at the moment and I can relate to how we shouldn’t put so much value into getting published and earning so much money from our writing. In the end we do it because we love it, and I know that, but it’s hard to let that thought of success go. Success is a vague term anyway.

  9. Reblogged this on ans67 and commented:
    I really liked this post..this is what i meant when I spoke of moving ahead.Dismissal of opportunities meant giving up on writing completely.Reading literacy was always poor in my immediate background hence writing could not be understood or even appreciated for that matter.
    This post is really inspiring and sums up everything that I wanted to say in dry fires and wet waves of emotions.

  10. This is awesome. You deserve it!

  11. This is amazing and really well written 🙂 you have my kudos and subscription.

  12. hannibalthehat

    Every writer finds their own way to tell the story that’s in their head. There may be a finite list of plot lines and good form and content are vital but no story, regardless of its structure, will be worth anything, if it isn’t told well

  13. When I finished my MFA almost 15 years ago, I walked away holding on to one thing that will always be my writing purpose: make it significant.

    I think my Act 3 would be #2 and #3… I have changed since the MFA and continue to write in my new skin.. And I am happier for not trying so hard to fit myself into the literary world.

    Thanks for giving me this to reflect on…

  14. Pingback: Moral Flaws in Main Characters, or, What’s Your Biggest Weakness? | In the Garden of Eva

  15. You just helped me to put my current novel into focus 🙂 thank you!

  16. I feel like in some weird world we are twins. I am also a teacher but I recently changed all my social media to let everyone know I am going to be a writer now! I start an MFA program in October and really it was just to get me writing again. I just want to make enough money to stay home and write and not teach anymore but secretly, of course, I want that novel turned into a movie! Good Luck!

    • Congratulations! It’s a big step to announce it to the world! Where are you getting your MFA? And I hear you loud and clear about not wanting to teach anymore! It’s always my “fall back” plan… but I don’t WANT to fall back into it! Good luck and keep in touch.


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