A conversation about story structure – and writing rules

Become a native in the world of your storyThis post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?

Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:

‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:

‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’

It happened I knew just the man…

‘Husband @MirabilisDave is a comic writer, however it’s not an ongoing story but a big story split into many episodes.’

mirabdaveThen Dave said:

‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’

Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…

But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’

He said:

In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’

Phew.

3 and 4-act structure

In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.

Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.

mirabBack to rules

… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.

This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.

Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler

(So yes, I am working on Nail Your Novel 3, which will tackle plot. It doesn’t have an official title yet, nor a release date, but if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter. Other Nail Your Novel books can be found here)

And in the meantime…

Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?

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  1. #1 by tomburkhalter on February 23, 2014 - 10:50 pm

    I think I’m with David on this one – a certain wariness about rules! Nonetheless, the three-act structure does seem to have a certain validity, along with enough looseness that you can play with it without it being too restrictive.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 23, 2014 - 11:57 pm

      Hi Tom! Good points. In fact, a better term might be ‘principles’. I also like ‘laws of physics’ as an alternative to ‘rules’. But as you say, the three-act structure is a pretty flexible beast, and not restrictive.

  2. #3 by Tony McFadden (@Tony_McFadden) on February 23, 2014 - 11:02 pm

    Three act structure would be in each episode, and over the series. Take Breaking Bad, for example. The three act structure is very evident in the very first episode (I deconstruct it on my site) and there is no more blatant mid-point shift in the final season than the end of the “first half” of the season, Hank on the toilet discovering “Walt Whitman” poem.”

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 24, 2014 - 12:02 am

      Hi Tony! Oh my goodness, Breaking Bad is one of my favourite shows of all time. Plenty of character arcs and plot arcs. Fantastic, tight storytelling, with so much at stake all the way through. And that twist with Hank – in most shows it would be the run-up to the climax, but they put it in the middle to get more mileage out of it.

  3. #5 by rolandclarke on February 24, 2014 - 11:25 am

    Think I’m another Dave camp follower ;-) – well in the sense that the three acts are there but I didn’t structure them. Innate storytelling? When I first read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, I realised that myths and storytelling had some roots in the unconscious. Maybe structure is something that I test in my editing.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 24, 2014 - 8:33 pm

      Hi Roland
      That’s an interesting point about myths and storytelling, and what we unconsciously find satisfying. The most useful storytelling rules are artefacts of how we think, what we’re curious about and our sense of dramatic justice.

  4. #7 by writerchick on February 24, 2014 - 6:09 pm

    The three-act structure concept was probably made famous by screenwriter Syd Field. He wrote several books and taught classes about it back in the day. Although you could also use The Hero’s Journey as a structural guide, which goes a little deeper and is based on Joseph Campbell’s work on story structure and archetypal characters. In the end, though, I think you could say a story follows the action line of anything – it has a beginning a middle and an end.

    Personally, I’m not big on the ‘rules’ and often feel suffocated by them (because there just seems to be so darn many of them). But following the 3-act structure can certainly help you get where you want to go with your story and it’s a good yardstick against which to evaluate your story – especially when you are in the editing/rewrite stage.

    Annie

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 24, 2014 - 8:27 pm

      Hi Annie!
      I’ve read several books over the years that split stories into more than a mere three or four acts. Your word ‘suffocated’ describes very well how that made me feel, although these analyses must help some people or they wouldn’t have gained traction. Similarly, I have difficulty with character archetypes – although, strangely, Dave believes more in archetypes than he does in consciously structuring a book! Swings and roundabouts.
      I think the reason I like three/four-act structure is that it’s always been helpful to me and has allowed plenty of room for manoeuvre.

  5. #9 by Alexander Briggs on February 25, 2014 - 6:06 am

    Maybe taking an approach of relating need for the three parts. Rules are fun to break and at the end of the creative haul. You still eat, sleep and defecate. I don’t know anyway to break biological inevitability of these three events. So there are always going to be a middle, begin and the end of the story. The fact those stories are part larger and larger complicated story is how they emulate life.

    • #10 by Alexander Briggs on February 25, 2014 - 6:29 am

      Where I am trying to go in this reply is ask the hard question of what are the parts, of this structure you are wanting to declare, that a story just must have. I am ever so young in the craft of storytelling and alternate systems.
      I find that point the reader is access via begin (Hero, Blah) goes somewhere that our radio can connect to. This is impossible to ignore. The the tale brings the reader to the highest emotion of the promises and then it is taken away. (Which is basic sales 101, people want what they can have) So now the reader will get their emotional fix and in serial writing it comes with a cost. This cost is why they keep reading. Further promise or resolving the new complication.

      I have held theory that archetypes are just thin personalized stories. Simple threads in the loom. By themselves, they hold very little and when many are brought together they define the depth of a good story.

      New writer or halted creatives may need new mental magic to understand the natural structure of the story. That is the raw question you are trying to address is, what will be Roz’s mental magic be to make good writing easier?

      • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 26, 2014 - 8:53 pm

        It sounds as though you’re on the right track, Alexander. Especially with the sales 101 factor! Most stories start with a state of tension that magnifies, mutates and comes to a peak. The story ends when the tension is resolved, or if it has proved unsolvable but some other changes have happened.

        As for how to make good writing easier, steep yourself in stories of all kinds so that their various forms seem natural. And analyse a lot as you revise!

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 26, 2014 - 8:49 pm

      Alimentary, my dear Alexander…

  6. #13 by Teddi Deppner on February 25, 2014 - 9:59 pm

    So great that you turned this into a blog post, Roz. Really appreciated Dave’s feedback. I needed the reminder that it’s not all about following a formula. The common perception is that following a certain structure is the best recipe for success.

    While there is some truth to that, plenty of authors have good success while following their instincts. And maybe they look back and recognize that the structure is there, but it doesn’t have to be in the forefront of my mind while in the creation process. What a relief!

    I think the thing I struggle with the most is that so many voices are available for the writer these days. So many sources of instruction or inspiration. And yet, the very heartbeat and life’s blood of any creative endeavor is listening to that voice that only exists inside you.

    There’s definitely a balance, because so many books out there truly do help me on my journey (including yours, Roz). But I need to know when to pick them up for help and when to put them down and trust the story.

    Thanks again, both of you! I love walking this writing journey with you.

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 26, 2014 - 8:54 pm

      Thanks, Teddi, for provoking a piece that was a fun challenge to write! And it’s always nice to get the opportunity to introduce my other half…

  7. #15 by symplysilent on February 26, 2014 - 8:12 pm

    I was a panster for years, but I never felt satisfied at the end, like something was missing, even when I added more endings. Over Christmas I read Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” and everything suddenly made sense. Beyond that, I am not reading “Story Engineering” and a lot of character development books.

    I was, actually, relieved, to learn there is a basic framework, within which to write a story – that other people will get, or at least have a chance to get. Do I feel hemmed in or controlled? Nope.

    I only wish I had known about these “tricks” sooner.

    Silent

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 26, 2014 - 8:57 pm

      Hello Silent – what a wonderful pen name! And you’ve summed up the true value of writing principles – that they give you the ‘aha’ you were looking for. Not a straitjacket, but a line in the fog.

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