Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: The Climactic Scene

Plotting a Novel in 3 Acts by Janalyn Voigt for Live Write BreatheThe stakes are at their highest in the final face-off between the antagonist and protagonist of your novel.  With the reader’s expectations keyed to the maximum, this do-or-die moment can make or break your book.  

No pressure there, right? Breathe deeply and hang on tight, because we’re going to dive into the climactic scene. Although that final, nail-biting event occurs near the end of your book, the build-up to it encompasses most of Act 3. You will recall that Act 2 ends with  the second plot point that propels the plot toward its final major conflict. If you’ve built your story well, your reader will be turning pages to find out what happens next.

How do you bring the climactic scene to this enviable point?

Make Readers Worry

Throughout your story the protagonist should pursue a deep desire that events conspire to circumvent.  Each obstacle leads the protagonist farther away from the desired outcome and closer to the thing feared most (often the direct opposite of the deep desire). This is the essence of any story arc, in a nutshell. By the time the story reaches the climactic scene, attainment of the protagonist’s deep desire seems all but impossible. Indeed it would be if the protagonist had not experienced a life-changing epiphany.

It is out of this changed mindset that the protagonist is now able to face his or her greatest fear and overcome a previously impossible challenge. Frodo finds the strength from within to cast the one ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Scarlet gains the wisdom to overcome her infatuation for the wrong man and confess her love for Rhett. (Regardless of Rhett’s subsequent rejection, this is her moment of victory.)  Victory should never be a sure thing, though, and in fact defeat should seem more likely.

One way to make your readers worry is to have the protagonist’s epiphany take place off stage, so to speak. Readers experience the black moment but don’t learn how it changed the protagonist until the final confrontation.  This leaves them guessing, which is always a good thing. Involving readers in the epiphany can be powerful, so consider this well. What to do depends on the dictates of the story. Revealing Scarlett’s changed mindset in Gone With The Wind, doesn’t give the ending away as her unpredictable nature makes it uncertain what she will do next. She has demonstrated over the course of the novel that she is capable of truly messing up her life, making the reader’s concern for her well-founded.

To avoid giving away your story’s ending too soon, give away only as much information as will keep readers from becoming frustrated.

Increase Risk

Make sure the final conflict is something worth fighting over. Not every story has to have a world at stake, but the outcome should matter to your reader. Only when you touch readers’ emotions on a gut level will they truly engage with your story. To do this, evoke universal experiences. We can all understand on a gut level a parent’s fear for a child’s safety, the drive to redeem a failure, or the need to appease guilt through forgiveness. The depth of your readers’  identification with your protagonist’s struggle correlates directly with their perception of risk.

The antagonist, whether an actual person or not, should be a worthy opponent offering formidable opposition. The stronger the antagonist, the greater the risk will seem. This doesn’t mean your antagonist should have no weaknesses, however. Unless you’re writing melodrama, avoid making a hero too heroic and a villain too dastardly.

Shorten the Time Frame

You can wrest control out of your main character’s hands and propel the plot into a satisfying resolution by abbreviating the time needed to attain the main character’s desired outcome. With less time than ever and the clock ticking relentlessly, suspense can’t fail to heighten.

Stage the Final Conflict

Tolkien could have placed the climactic scene of his The Lord of the Rings Trilogy anywhere, but he chose Mount Doom. The name of this location is already so sinister it creates a sense of dread in advance of the final conflict. This is foreshadowing at its best. Even in genres that don’t call for obvious naming, it can be possible to carry off subtle nuances.

Climactic events often take place in a new location to increase the sense of isolation and drama. The setting for the final showdown should match the mood of the story and complicate the protagonist’s journey by giving the advantage to the antagonist.

Resist the Urge to Explain

We’ve all seen movies or read books where the villain and hero engage in a lengthy conversation about what brought them to the present situation. Unless handled well, this tactic usually doesn’t work well because it slows events to a snail’s pace and stalls momentum. It’s hard to pull out of the tailspin that results, which brings us to the next point.

Keep the Pacing Fast

Now is not the time for leisurely descriptive passages and lengthy introspection. Action is the thing that’s needed most here. Simple sentence structures help keep momentum high. They hit the reader with a constant barrage of new thoughts. It’s usually best to save lyrical sentences for slower passages. Let your sentences serve the story and not vice versa.

Let the Main Character Win

Your main character should directly affect the outcome of the final conflict.  Never cheat the reader of the vicariously defeating a worthy antagonist to win a prize of value. There should be a moment of truth when your protagonist acts upon the change brought about in the epiphany following the black moment. From this point on, the wheels are in motion to bring about the antagonist’s defeat.

Don’t Cut Away Too Soon

Let your reader revel in the main character’s hard-won reward. That’s not to say you should drag things out, but pause a moment to let your reader taste the sweetness of victory.

Writing the climactic scene can intimidate the best of us, but once you wade into the pool, you’ll find the water is fine.  

Do you have more tips to add? Have you ever been intimidated at the thought of writing a climactic scene? 

©2014 by Janalyn Voigt

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Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: Second Plot Point

Plotting a Novel in 3 Acts: Aristotle's-Incline Graphic by Janalyn Voigt

The second plot point injects the final information needed to propel a novel toward its climax. Occurring around the 75% mark, this scene effectively rings the curtain down on the novel’s second act as it skews the story in an unexpected direction. From this point onward, the reader is aware that the climax has begun and is now inevitable. 

Nothing intimidating in all of that, right? Breathe deep, and we’ll take it slow.

In the story of Cinderella, the second plot point occurs when she flees the ball, losing a slipper in the process. Could the first-time hearer of this tale have foretold she would lose a slipper? No. This event pivots the story and launches a chain of events in which Prince Charming finds Cinderella. She is forced into a position where she must choose whether to step forward despite opposition and overcome both her poverty and the animosity of her step-mother.

To help us grasp the second plot point, let’s look at its results.

  • Acceleration of the quest. Cinderella’s search for true love is about to be realized.
  • Loss of control creates an internal crisis for the antagonist: As the prince takes action, Cinderella is forced to respond to events beyond her control. She must choose whether to remain under the tyranny of abuse or believe in her own worth enough to escape it.
  • Uncertainty: At this point, there are no guarantees of a happy ending.
  • Raised stakes. The prize elevates from going to a ball into marriage to Prince Charming and rescue from the obscurity of poverty.
  • Heightened danger. The prince searching for Cinderella represents a danger because of her step-mother’s antagonism.
  • Heightened emotion. Cinderella has both fallen in love and glimpsed a different style of life. At the stroke of a clock, she has fallen from wealth back into poverty. Her sorrow and profound disappointment lay the groundwork to heighten her later joy.
  • The antagonist’s situation worsens. Cinderella returns to brutal labor as she serves her ever-more-demanding step-sisters and step-mother. In some versions of the story, Cinderella’s step-mother suspects she went to the ball and punishes her with an increased workload. 

So, how do you bring all of this about?

Know the end from the beginning. Have at least a rough idea where your story is headed, and then brainstorm how to get there. Look for an event that will act as a turning point.

Work backwards. Take the results of the second plot point into consideration as you decide your second plot point. Use them as a ruler to measure your brainstormed scene. 

Trust your instincts. It’s all too easy to second-guess a plot. While it’s good to leave yourself open to suggestion, once you are certain of your story’s path, follow it.

Plotting a novel becomes easier with an understanding of story structure. Check out more posts on plotting a novel in three acts.
DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn VoigtNeed a good book to read?

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn Voigt

A headstrong young princess and the guardian sworn to protect her fly on winged horses to the Gate of Life above the Well of Light in a desperate bid to release the DawnKing, and the salvation he offers, into a divided land. Will they each learn in time that sometimes victory comes only through surrender?

Purchase DawnSinger today!

©2013 by Janalyn Voigt

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Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: The Epiphany

Plotting a Novel in 3 Acts: The Epiphany by Janalyn Voigt for Live Write BreatheAn epiphany is a sudden, unexpected moment of revelation. In literature, the epiphany moment comes after events force the protagonist to call upon previously untapped inner resources to make a crucial decision. The epiphany comes as an internal revelation of  a previously hidden truth about the protagonist’s character and abilities.

Let’s return to Gone With the Wind. You may recall from my post on Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: The Black Moment, that after escaping the burning of Atlanta, Scarlett returned home with Melanie and her newborn baby only to find her mother dead, her father out of his wits, her sisters ill, Tara looted, and the world she knew gone forever. Scarlett is frightened and exhausted but finds no comfort at Tara. She is hungry, but when she tries to eat a lone radish she finds in the garden, it comes back up. With the whole household now depending on her for survival, she can’t even nourish herself!  

As a spoiled southern belle, Scarlett depended on others to provide for her, but none of the people, conventions or abilities she once took for granted can help her now. All her proficiencies have failed, and there seems nothing she can do but despair. Scarlett faces two life-or-death choices. She can give up, in which case both she and her family will starve, or struggle against crushing odds to provide for herself and her family. There is no middle ground.

Scarlett discovers inside herself and finds the strength she has owned without realizing it all along. In a defining moment, she stands and raises her fist to the sky and vows, “as God is my witness,” that she and her family will never go hungry again. While Scarlett’s tactics (“If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill”) might be questionable, her passion to survive rings true. She has connected with herself in a visceral way that changes her mindset. From here on out, things will change. And they do. 

In case you missed it, here’s the scene again:

Action Steps for Plotting a Novel in Three Acts

Decide what your protagonist’s main epiphany will be. Bear in mind that your main character might experience more than one epiphany in the course of your story, but there needs to be one compelling epiphany moment which will lead to the solution of your story problem in the climax of your book. Make sure you know the big decision your character will make to move your plot toward its resolution.

Thanks for stopping by. As always, I welcome your comments.



DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn VoigtNeed a good book to read?

DawnSinger, Tales of Faeraven #1 by Janalyn Voigt

A headstrong young princess and the guardian sworn to protect her fly on winged horses to the Gate of Life above the Well of Light in a desperate bid to release the DawnKing, and the salvation he offers, into a divided land. Will they each learn in time that sometimes victory comes only through surrender?

Purchase DawnSinger today!

©2013 by Janalyn Voigt

How to Edit by Janalyn VoigtSubscribe to the Creative Worlds of Janalyn Voigt and receive a free copy of How to Edit: Checklists and Guidance for Fiction Writers

How to Tell Subplots From Plot Bunnies

How to Tell Subplots from Plot Bunnies @JanalynVoigtAs a child, did you blow bubbles? If so, you already understand something about subplots.

What does blowing bubbles have to do with subplots, you ask? Simply this: When you blew too hard, you burst the bubbles as they formed. Blowing too lightly, while it showed you there were bubbles to be made, didn’t produce them. Only by exerting the right amount of force could you blow bubbles.

Subplots are a lot like bubbles. If you try too hard to produce them, they evaporate. However, they won’t necessarily form without your help.

What’s a Subplot?

It’s easy to become confused when thinking about subplots, so let’s start with a definition. A subplot is a secondary plot that compliments your main plot. Adding subplots to your novel will give it layers of substance and effectively underline your theme. Layering with subplots adds texture to your story’s weave. Good subplots form and grow as you write. Most show up early but can also make their appearance partway through a story. Watch for them as you introduce new characters or new situations. They can show up as a romantic interest, a character from the past, an obstacle to be overcome, or a past experience which is revealed over the course of the book, to name a few occurrences.

Most people would agree that the novel, Gone with the Wind, tells the epic romance of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Scarlett’s relationship with Melanie Wilkes, her father’s fate, and her relationship with her sister, Sue Ellen, are all subplots. Each forms its own story within a story, and yet each contributes to the greater story by shaping our opinions about Scarlett. None of these subplots is forced. Each arises naturally from the main plot and helps develop the theme.

What’s a Bunny Trail?

It’s sometimes hard to detect bunny trails. They can sneak into your story as a romantic interest, a character from the past, or an obstacle to be overcome. Like Pegasus and his brother, Chrysaor, they can spring fully-grown out of your backstory. Subplots should never lead the reader away from your theme and should, in fact, support your primary plot. A subplot happens because of (rather than instead of) the main story. Anything else is a distraction. It’s true that all sorts of unrelated events tangle together in real life, but good fiction doesn’t suffer from such snarls and is carefully constructed to represent, rather than emulate, real life. Understanding this difference is crucial.

Adding Subplots to Your Novel
As you develop your novel, give some thought to what else could happen to reinforce your theme. Be open to insights that come as you write. Even those of us who plot our novels sometimes benefit from the introduction of an unexpected subplot. While writing WayFarer, the second novel in my Tales of Faeraven epic fantasy series, the story took a turn into the Vale of Shadows, a place I hadn’t know existed. Its inclusion in the novel was exactly right. I’m so glad I allowed the novel’s hero to take me there.
One of the best ways to add subplots to the main story line is to introduce new scenes from the point of view of the characters involved in them. This is a great way to introduce secondary characters, by the way. Remember never to change viewpoints within a scene. Provide either a scene or chapter break whenever you change the point of view. Using other characters’ viewpoints to tell subplots means you can introduce information to which your main character is not privy. Just remember as you weave your story lines to connect them at the end of the book. Don’t leave threads hanging.

Action Step

As you write your novel, keep an eye out for subplots that would deepen your main story. If you’re a plotter, brainstorm to discover these in advance, but be open to discovery as you write.

Can you name some plot bunnies that have led you down a rabbit trail?

Plotting a Novel in Three Acts: Opening Scene


The lights go out. A hush breathes through the audience. The curtain rises.  There is never a moment so pregnant with anticipation as the opening scene of a play. The audience, primed and ready, wants to believe and if given the opportunity willingly immerses itself for the story’s duration. Only if the performance falters will the audience boo, hiss, and may well leave the theater.

A wise writer understands that a novel is no different with respect to its opening scene. The reader is already pulling for the story. However, if the execution fails to muster up to expectations the reader may lose interest, disengage, and abandon the story.

Your opening scene has to work hard. I’ll illustrate with the first scene of Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I recommend that you read it and/or watch it online, and then go on with this post.

What Your Opening Scene Must Accomplish 

  • Introduce your main character. Since we experience books vicariously, your readers want to identify right away with the main character of your story, so it’s best to begin by introducing that person. Scarlett’s introduction in Gone With The Wind makes it clear that as a beautiful girl, she is pampered, privileged, and willful.
  • Reveal the main theme. Clue your readers into what the story will be about early on. This helps them prepare to tackle your theme as they read. If you hint at one type of story but partway through turn it into another, for your reader it can be as disconcerting as getting ready to take a bite of pumpkin pie and tasting a dill pickle instead. Gone With The Wind establishes its theme of surviving loss with Scarlett’s reaction to Ashley’s engagement to Melanie. In many ways, Ashley Wilkes is allegorical for the Old South. Scarlett longs for him, but he is lost to her forever. It is Rhett Butler, symbolizing survival in a brave new world, that Scarlett really needs.
  • Initiate the story problem. What does your main character want more than anything and what is it that interferes with attaining that desire? This is the problem that must be resolved by your main character. The story problem in Gone With The Wind becomes apparent from Scarlett’s reaction when the Tarleton twins tell her that Ashley Wilkes is engaged to his cousin, Melanie. The driving question for the reader is how will Scarlett find happiness when the man of her dreams rejects her love?
  • Set the tone of your story. Extract the mood of your story from its main theme and bring your readers in with sensory details. The movie version of Gone With The Wind opens with captions that effectively establish a mood of deep reflection over a world lost forever, reflecting its piercing main theme.
  • Initiate conflict. Set the stakes so your readers will continue to care what happens. In the opening scene of Gone With The Wind the reader learns that Scarlett is about to lose the man she loves. The Tarleton twin’s announcement of impending war sets the stage for conflicts to come.
  • Establish your setting. You probably won’t give your setting a heavy emphasis at first, but it must be present in every scene. Unless you provide glimpses into its setting the reader will feel ungrounded. The opening scene of Gone With The Wind gives glimpses of its setting in details like Scarlett’s flowered-muslin dress with its billowing skirts and seventeen-inch waist, of quarreling possum hounds, and of the clink of silver being laid for supper by darkies.
  • Engage the emotions. Drawing your readers in emotionally helps them connect with your main character. Be sure to have your main character react with story events on an emotional level. In Gone With The Wind we are first amused by Scarlett’s simpering, spoiled ways. This draws us in, and when she receives the bad news about Ashley, we grieve also.
  • Connect with a universal experience. One of the reasons readers read is to make sense of their world. They want to identify themselves in a story so that they can become changed, like the main character, for the better. A great way to engage readers is to evoke an experience common to man. Most people understand the pain of romantic loss, which is why the opening conflict in Gone With The Wind effectively hooks the reader.
  • Raise questions. Intrigue and engage your reader using one of the most powerful tools in existence: the desire to know what happens next. Now that she knows the news about Ashley, what will Scarlett do at the barbeque? Will she lose the man she loves? Will he cause a scandal by choosing Scarlett instead of the woman he’s engaged to marry? All of these questions lure readers further into the story.

A well-written opening scene is one of the keys to retaining readers .