MATH TIPS for Constructing Your NOVEL with Susan Meissner

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Photo Taken From Susan Meissner’s site HERE.


Last weekend I attended the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference. One of the highlights was taking Susan Meissner’s course on The Three Act Structure, which I always enjoy studying. Susan’s a multi-published author. Her favorite genre to write is contemporary fiction with a historical thread.

She was an awesome speaker. I really enjoyed her movie and book examples to illustrate the three acts. Since I was only at the conference on Saturday I didn’t get to hear the entire presentation.

But during her presentation, Susan gave us an outline suggestion for our novels that I thought you might like to see too. This example won’t apply to every genre because not every novel is 80,000 words long, but you could adjust the percentages accordingly to come up with different math and a road map.

Do you outline your novel? Many do, many don’t. But here is a rough outline you might want to consider before writing your next novel, maybe for NaNoWriMo.

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This is a term I made up that explains how to construct your novel’s innards

Assumption:  Let’s say you’re writing a novel and shooting for 40 chapters and 80,000 words.

  • That means each chapter should roughly be 2200 words long. (Typically there are more than one scene per chapter.)
  • ACT ONE – should only be about 5-7 chapters or 4-5. This is the set-up.
  • ACT THREE – should be about 3-4 chapters. This is the wrap-up.
  • ACT TWO – contains the highest percentage of your novel. It’s the middle. This act should contain roughly 30 chapters for the QUEST. Think of it this way: you need to give your characters 30 things to do.
  • If you want to take it further and break it down, Susan showed us these examples:

How To Outline ACT TWO

5 brave steps forward scenes

5 setback scenes

3 twists the reader won’t see coming

4 action scenes

4 reaction scenes

2 scenes that highlight a MC flaw

2 scenes that highlight a MC strength

2 scenes to reinforce inner goal from Act 1

3 scenes to prep for the next Big Plot Point

I like how manageable this looks. Don’t you? It’s not as intimidating as sitting down to a blank screen and trying to fit all the pieces in and remember which ones you included.

Let me illustrate the above by giving you a few of Susan’s examples from Gone With The Wind:


Brave steps forward scenes

Scarlett moves to Atlanta

“I will never be hungry again”

Marrying Frank Kennedy

Setback scenes

When Ahsley and Melanie go up to bed. They’re walking up the steps above Scarlett and she’s standing at the bottom. They’re happy, she’s not.

She needs money for taxes or she’ll lose Tara. Rhett is prison and he can’t give it to her. (After set-back scene there’s a reaction.)

Ashley taking Melanie upstairs at Pittypats’

Mother is dead, Pa is nuts

Twists the reader won’t see coming

She marries Frank Kennedy because there’s no other way to save Tara

Frank Kennedy dies

The miscarriage

Action Scenes

Flight out of Atlanta

Killing the Yankee deserter

The raid on Shanty town

Reaction scenes 

Dances in her mourning clothes

Makes the dress out of curtains – not deterred by obstacles

Rhett and Scarlett’s dining room argument

Scenes that highlight a MC flaw 

Scarlett’s treatment of Belle

Scarlett telling Rhett no more children

Scenes that highlight a MC strength

Saving Melanie’s life at great cost

Throws dirt at the former overseer

Give Pork Pa’s Watch


“I want to go home!”

She wants to make Tara beautiful again


Rhett goes to Europe/takes Bonnie

Rhett wants to start over

Bonnie dies in horse jumping accident

ACT ONE. The set-up.

This act should show readers what your main character wants in life, what is her story goal? In the WIZARD of OZ Dorothy sings, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” and we know that she wants to go to a place where her troubles are far behind, where dreams come true.

Make this goal as universal as you can because you want readers to be able to relate to it. For instance, in my YA novel, LOVE is JUST a WORD, Oksana wants to be loved. Love is a basic need that everyone wants to feel, so it’s universal.

Give your character three flaws and three virtues that readers can relate to and you can use to your advantage as you write.

INCITING INCIDENT – is a part of Act One. This is when something changes or happens TO your character. It sets up the plot pivot. (Do not start your character in happy land. There has to be an inner goal, something burning inside, shake the status quo.)

Susan’s Example:  In the WIZARD of OZ, the inciting incident is the tornado – the door of no return. There’s no getting back. What’s happened has happened.

We’re in OZ – nothing is the same. At first, Dorothy is entranced. Is this the place where everything is perfect?  Did I get my wish? But when she realizes none of the OZ people are like her and she’s in a place where witches fly, she realizes this isn’t what she wants at all. This sets her on the QUEST to get back home, which begins in ACT TWO. The quest is ACT TWO.

Dorothy’s external goal (QUEST) is to get back home when she realizes this is NOT the place she wants to live. She might be happy for a while, but not for long. The witch adds tension/conflict that’s relatable—opposes her character.

Here’s an assignment that Susan gave us. I loved it because it forced me to think about my stories, to check if I’d included the necessary parts. I’ll definitely include these in the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo too!

Write down these four items about your novel. You can share them in the comment section below or in your own WORD file. 

  1. What does your mc want? (inner goal)
  2. Give her/him three flaws (weaknesses) and three virtues (strengths)
  3. Create an inciting incident that will pave the way for a quest
  4. Give her a quest – an external goal

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Here is a list of Susan’s novels:

White Picket Fences
The Shape of Mercy
Blue Heart Blessed
Widows and Orphans
A Seahorse in the Thames
In All Deep Places
A Remedy for Regret
A Window to the World
Why the Sky is Blue

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