9-Act Screenplay Structure – Novel Plotting Resource

The first step toward recovery is to admit I have a problem. So here it is. I’m NOT a plotter. I’m a complete “pantser.” There, I said it, but…

When I looked into plot structure for fiction—while I was still delusional about having the capability to actually plot—I found references to the Nine-Act Screenplay Structure. This is the basic framework of today’s blockbuster movies. You’ll see 3-Acts and 12-Acts, but I played with this version below as a format and had some success in conceptually plotting one or two of my earlier stories. Ah, the ambiguity…

It’s my belief that once your brain grasps the concept of this structure, you may automatically follow the idea whether you’re aware of it or not. As a visual learner, it helped me to draft this and embed it in my brain, like a time bomb triggered to go off when I sat in front of my computer.

The 9-Act structure is similar to the classic Hero’s Journey that you may have seen, but I thought this would be interesting to talk about. See what you think. Would something like this work for writing a novel?

Word of Caution – Once you see this framework, you may not enjoy movies the same way again. Just sayin’…

Nine-Act Screenplay Structure

Act 0—During Opening Credits First 5 Minutes (film time)
What strikes the conflict—sets it up—event years earlier may plant the seed of conflict

Act 1—Opening Image—The Panoramic Crane Shot Next 5 Minutes

Act 2—Something Bad Happens 5 Minutes
In a crime story, it’s usually the murder—Reveal the bad front man, but hold off on the introduction of the bad head honcho until later

Act 3—Meet Hero/Protagonist 15 minutes
Meet hero—give him 3 plot nudges to push him to commit

Act 4—Commitment 5-10 Minutes
The push—Usually one scene that’s a door to Act 5—1-way door, no turning back

Act 5—Go for wrong goal – approx. 30 minutes est.
A series of 8-12 min. cycles called whammos or complications followed by a rest period of 5 minutes or so to uncover some of the backstory. End this act with the lowest point for the protagonist. The dark moment.

Act 6—Reversal 5-10 Minutes—Usually 70 Minutes into the Film
The last clue discovered—Now Act 2 makes sense—It is the low point, a history lesson usually revealed by the bad guy/honcho—but reveals the Achilles heel of the nemesis too.

Act 7—Go for New Goal 15-20 Minutes
The clock is ticking—Hero has a new plan. The action seesaws back and forth with nemesis and hero gaining & losing ground between each other—usually takes place in 24 hours within the context of the movie. Favors are repaid, magic, good luck happens. The new plan is kept secret. New goal is achieved.

Act 8—Wrap it Up 5 minutes
Back to where it all began—a feeling of accomplishment & rebirth—the world restored. Ahh!

Now having outlined this plotting structure, I’m not sure if following something like this (without deviation) would hamper creativity by providing too much framework. This would be like “the rules” of writing. Maybe rules are there to be understood, but we shouldn’t be afraid to break them either.

I tend to “think” about my book ahead of time and let my brain ponder what I call my “big ticket” plot movements—like what my black moment will be for my main character(s). I also develop my ideas on who the main cast of characters will be and maybe where I might set the story location(s).

Basically I’m impatient about writing. Plotting and outlining ahead of time would be like the San Antonio Spurs, Manu Ginobili, sitting injured on the sidelines of the NBA finals. The guy just wants to play, man. Let the dude play. (Of course by the time this post happens, the Memphis Grizzlies could put Ginobili on the bench until next season.)

What tips can you share on plotting…for those of us who are challenged by a heavy dose of impatience?


19 thoughts on “9-Act Screenplay Structure – Novel Plotting Resource

  1. Hey Martin. I love Alexandra. She’s an amazing authority on the subject and a very talented author. Thanks for the link.

    Breaking down a book into manageable bite-sized pieces makes it less intimidating, I agree. Even if an author doesn’t have all the transitional details, the significant plot movements can be thought about ahead of time, making the writing go smoother for someone like me who doesn’t have the patience to outline.

    Thanks for your comment.

  2. Great stuff, Jordan. One of the debut posts on my blog was a list of plots. I compiled them to try and get my head around them much like you did here.

    My favorite finds are from Cheryl Klein who works for Arthur A Levine books in NYC. She posted some of her talks on her editorial website which is her name + dot com.

    One thing she wrote (that fits in a comment!) is that all plots are one of three possibilities: conflict, mystery, or a “lack” of something.


  3. Good exercise in planning and structure, Jordan. What you describe is a classic thriller plot. And regarding the anxiousness to just start writing, we’re all guilty of wanting to jump in the pool before we learn to swim. But I think it’s most critical to a new writer to try and follow even the most basic of outlining methods. Once writers have gotten a few manuscripts under their belts, the need to plan ahead or fly blind becomes their norm. After all, looking at a road map has never stifled a fun-filled vacation. It just helps you get to your destination without becoming lost in the woods.

  4. Well, since I wrote a book on structure, I should weigh in here. The 3 Act structure is basic. I mean, duh, beginning – middle – end. Every story has these (if they don’t, they’re “experimental” which translates into 5 copies sold). What I was able to add to the mix is why the two main “act breaks” work, and the metaphor of “doorways of no return” to explain it.

    But when you start adding stage after stage, it gets to be a bit much. It freaks out new writers and has them worrying about things they shouldn’t worry about. They should feel free to develop characters, dialogue, voice, scenes that surprise, etc. And if they know what the 3 acts are about, they’ll be inventing organic stuff. That’s why this basic structure is freeing, not restrictive.

    As for outlining, I’ve found that any writer, pantser or plotter, benefits from knowing certain elements before they start, and how to get them to maximum capacity. Then whether they outline or not, the story will unfold without getting way off track.

    As far as the Hero’s Journey goes, I like my friend Chris Vogler’s approach best (since he’s the one who popularized it). He offers up possibilities and the writer can utilize what’s helpful without stressing about what should happen on page 10…and it’s interesting to note that this approach also follows the 3 Act structure.

    I remember years ago hearing one guru spout, in colorful language, that there was “no %$#@! thing as a 3 act structure!” He then went into a long lecture using his stages and his terms…and they all fell into …the 3 Act structure.

    I still crack up.

  5. Hey Joe. I always say that I inherited my worst traits from my dad. He gave me the impatient gene and the one that makes reading instructions a waste of time. Even after I saw this the first time and played with it, I never followed it 100%. I like subplots too much.

    BTW You should see me trying a new cooking recipe.

  6. I love your input, Jim. I tried breaking down those film minutes into novel pages but didn’t go further. I like winging it too much. Like you’ve suggested, thinking about the story before you write helps, even if it’s in generalities.

    I’m working with a couple of young aspiring authors locally and we’ll be brainstorming plots and talking about the starting stages of writing their books. The process I’m planning to use with them should help define my process too. I’m looking forward to finding a different way to jumpstart my method.

  7. On my first YA, I wanted to show my organic process to a young teen writer, so we spent time brainstorming some aspects like characters, setting, and my “big ticket” plot movements on IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS. Including someone else in my process forced me to explain it so another author might find value, but it also helped me feel organized. I’m trying this process again to see if this kind of collaboration works–and hopefully our next session will be helpful to the two young writers I’m working with, too.

  8. I heard an interview with Ken Follett, in which he said that he’d written 11 books before his breakout book. The difference in the next book, he said, was that he did a lot of research, and wrote a detailed outline. Nowadays he spends up to a year on the outline.

  9. As an outliner I know I need to have structure but I also spend a lot of time re-outlining as the organic writing process takes over and I veer off course. Usually this is a good thing and I find re-outlining lets me check on this and keep myself on an overall track. sometimes of course the plot still unravels but I find breaking it down into chapters and parts (following very much the three act structure) I don’t feel like it gets totally out of control.

  10. Thanks for weighing in, Clare. Sounds like you’re flexible and have found something that works for you. I tried storyboarding and almost liked it. That might have potential, depending on the story.

  11. Some ‘pantsers’ communicate their belief that they let their characters tell them where the story needs to go and that outlining stifles the ‘creative process’. Anyone else heard this opinion? I think there may be a minnow of truth to this but believe the premise is fundamentally self-aggrandizing (consciously or unconsciously…i.e. I don’t outline, hence I am more creative.

    In some fashion, subliminal or otherwise we do lay out our stories at some point- on paper or in our heads.

    Influenced by the grandiose slant on ‘pantsing’ I avoided developing a formal outline for my first work and have been wrestling with revision since.

    I will outline, at least in broad strokes , in the future. I don’t believe it stifles creativity and suspect it makes for tales that are completed sooner with less rewrite/revison.

    We all process differently – neither approach is inherently superior to the other or determines the quality of the product. One man’s opinion.

  12. Hey tjc–

    Most of the pantsers I know, me included, have tried and continue to seek methods that organize our process. And I’ve never heard a pantser talk about their method being superior. Most days it feels like a weakness to overcome.

    With my first manuscript, I let characters highjack my plot and I took it back and never let that happen again. An author friend of mine shared that pantsers often get about halfway through their book before they run into trouble with going forward. I had to agree with her at that moment since it had happened to me with a particular story, but I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing the pitfalls ahead. I don’t write through them. I let my brain work through a solution while I take time off from writing and have always found what I needed.

    I also don’t like spending time with revisions or drafts after I’m finished, so I edit hard as I go and make one final pass through when I’m done. The same trait of impatience makes me want to get onto that next story and not rehash one I’m done telling.

    I generally see my plots like a movie running in my head, but that only takes me so far. I’ve probably become a hybrid pantser who still prefers not to know every detail in an outline, but makes forward notes of possible scenes going 1-2 chapters ahead at a time. The more I write, the more I learn about what works for me, but I think it pays to be open to new ways to improve that process.

  13. Jordan –
    Thank you.
    Interesting and informative. I appreciate the thought and effort you put into your posts.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff also has a great approach to plotting in her “Screenwriting Tricks For Authors” where she breaks plotting into a 3 act play. Check out her website, too. (From one pantser to another.)

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