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Posts Tagged story structure
Yesterday I was teaching a course for Guardian newspapers on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 7 days.
Three/four-act story structure – how strictly must you stick to it?
Briefly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, and seem to work best when the major turning points are at 25%, 50% and 75%.
It’s a formula followed by Hollywood screenplays, and it’s certainly useful for novelists – but as a guideline, not a hard rule. In novels it probably won’t matter if you begin your climax at 80% instead of 75%. If you begin at 90% the ending might feel abrupt because you might not have time to come down the other side. You might also have too much of a lull beforehand. On the other hand, it might be perfect.
Where the structure rules become really useful is if you spot a problem. If the end seems too sudden, or too drawn out, would repositioning it help?
Tomorrow: ends and epilogues
Thanks for the pic TMAB2003 on Flickr
Let’s discuss! Do you find the three/four-act structure is useful to you, too formulaic? Has it helped you iron out a problem in your manuscript?
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I have bought your book, Nail Your Novel, and it has been really helpful. I was having a blast. Loving my characters, villains, setting, plot. But after 70.000 words I have a huge abyss in my story, I hit this blank between the middle of act II and the climax. Everything before and after that is just fine, but it seems that no matter what I do, I can’t resolve this blank spot.
Eric Alatza, first-time writer, Brazil. (Oh my: Brazil. I know the web is world wide so this shouldn’t give us pause, not for even a picosecond. Especially as you might be reading this in Brazil too. But it reminds me, in London, how much I appreciate that self-publishing and social media lets us reach …. anywhere. #momentofawe #howmuchdoIlovetechnology)
Okay, here’s how I’d attack Eric’s problem.
1 Does your story climax really fit?
You’re trying to join the end to the rest of the book, but does it fit? Has the story evolved beyond your original plans? Do you believe in this ending?
I had this problem with Lifeform Three. In my first draft I had written a storming finale, planned from the start, and indeed it had a lot of material I was chuffed with. You will never see it because it wasn’t the ending the book needed. As I wrote, the characters had taken on deeper issues, confronted essential questions – and my original ending was logical but disappointing. So I nuked it – yes, the entire final third of the book – and started again.
I’m wondering, Eric, if your spider sense is telling you this, which is why you can’t jump the chasm to the finale you planned. Ask yourself:
- Is the ending unsatisfying in terms of themes explored, questions posed, other threads left dangling?
- Are you forcing the characters in a direction they don’t want to go?
- Will a character have to be uncharacteristically stupid to bring about this climax?
Is a new ending too painful to contemplate? Well, it costs nothing to brainstorm. Just as an exercise, cut loose and see where else you might go.
You mention you have problems with the story’s middle. Is that because your ideas so far don’t seem significant enough?
If so, ask why. The middle of act II is traditionally a turning point. Perhaps the story stakes magnify, or an event turns everything on its head. Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, which surprises and appals her. Nothing can be the same after that conversation. Perhaps there are new alliances that change the nature of the conflict – as in The Hunger Games. It might be the point where the character’s flaw, inner problem or true self first emerges as a dominant force – in Fahrenheit 451, the midpoint is where Montag meets a new mentor character. In the film of The Godfather, the midpoint is the scene where Michael Corleone commits murder, setting him on a new path. It might be a transformation that is subtle but deep. In My Memories of a Future Life, it’s where my narrator truly surrenders to the future incarnation. (I tried to write that without giving spoilers…)
So is your midpoint important enough? Have you got that sense of transformation and escalation? If not, brainstorm ways to find this significance. (And allow yourself to think of solutions that might mess up your planned ending.)
3 Get fresh inspiration
As always, you might be running on empty. When I’m stuck, I go to LibraryThing.com and search for novels that tackle similar themes, issues and situations. I also post an appeal for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook. (I’d do it on Goodreads too if I could work out how.)
Dissatisfaction is progress
There is a reason why you’re balking, although you may not consciously know it yet Our instincts are rarely articulate, but they are usually right. You know the rule about inspiration and perspiration? To fill a plot hole, do more digging.
Drafting is more than transcribing your notes
All the stages of novel-writing are creative. We’re constantly triaging our ideas and refining them. Whether we’re outlining, drafting or editing, we might find new insights and directions. Be ready to make the most of them.
More about the Nail Your Novels here. Even available in Brazil.
Thanks for the pic Corinnely
What would you say to Eric?
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This 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…
‘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?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
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.
… 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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It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).
At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.
Today, she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.
Introduce the setting and world
I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.
Introduce the main characters
By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.
Make the reader care
Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)
Establish the need and the stakes
By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.
Back story on a need-to-know basis
There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.
Add an element that makes sense of the ending
The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.
The first big change at the quarter mark
Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.
And now to work
Right. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.
In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?
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‘Tell me about pace,’ said one of the panellists in my video interview at John Rakestraw’s. If we hadn’t had a time limit I’d still be talking now.
A well-paced story is like an act of hypnosis. It has a travelling beat that takes control of the reader’s attention. It proceeds at just the right speed to trap the reader a little longer, urge them to turn another page.
How is it done?
With constant development and change.
You might assume pace is only a concern in fast-moving plots, such as thrillers. Not so. Every story will benefit if it is written with an awareness of pace; even a leisurely character journey.
Indeed, pace is a fundamental in most dynamic artforms – not just storytelling.
Video and music
If you’re making a video, you want to change something every 15 seconds. The change might be subtle, such as fading a colour, or panning a picture so the view reveals more. Or it might be obvious, such as switching to a different image or bringing in new music. Listen to a piece of music and you’ll hear how it’s being constantly modified. Even a simple verse/chorus/verse structure, which appears predictable, is developing. Other instruments are joining, variations are being made with the phrasing, note patterns or rhythm.
Singers do it too. When I used to take lessons, I was told that if a lyric is repeated, it must have different emphasis or emotion. (‘I get a kick out of you’ ‘I get a kick out of you’.) Listen to an actor repeat a line. The repetitions will not be the same (unless for a deliberate effect).
Law of physics
So audiences need change. This is, if you like, a physical law of any dynamic art. They need to be kept attentive while we have our wicked (or wonderful) way with them.
How can we do this in stories?
1 In a story, pace comes from change. Always be developing. In every scene. The change doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny, such as the reader’s perception of a situation or a shift in a character’s attitude. But every scene should take the reader somewhere they didn’t expect. Scenes with no change lie flat on the page.
2 Remember the singers and actors. Look for repeated lines, emotional changes and plot events. If you repeat something, develop it or make sure it will be read differently – perhaps with new significance. (Unless you intend deliberately to keep it static.) Another type of repetition is the function of a scene – in My Memories of a Future Life, I jettisoned a scene that repeated an emotional beat I had already covered. Here’s the post that explains. This kind of repetition is hard to spot. The surest way I’ve found is by making a beat sheet, where I summarise the entire book by writing the purpose of each scene. This reveals the kind of repetition that will spoil the forward momentum. More about the beat sheet (left) in NYN1.
3 Don’t be slow but don’t rush. An ideally paced story keeps up with the reader’s need for change. Although we want to pull them along, we don’t want to overtake them. Paradoxically, if you do this, they might feel the story is slow. So when your trusted critique partners tell you a scene flags, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut material. Try writing a version where you enlarge a moment, explore it more. See if that does the trick.
4 Use variety. Readers get numbed if too many successive scenes have the same tone (except at the climax). Vary the feel of each scene. Give readers a breather after major revelations. Give them a lighter moment or regroup around the campfire after you’ve put them through the wringer. Another way to use variety is to cut away to a subplot. The contrast will intensify the impact of all your scenes. Again, the beat sheet will show you this at a glance.
5 Become aware of your prose. Pace can come from your style. Not from show-off words or sparkling metaphors, but at a basic, moment-by-moment level. Virginia Woolf said ‘style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm’. What might she mean? I like to think of it as the fall of syllables in a sentence. This is independent of length; a well-paced long sentence is as easy to read as a short one. But often we use more syllables than an idea needs; we cram in adjectives, adverbs and similes when we’d be better to choose a more vivid verb. (‘She shouted in a harsh voice’ or ‘she roared’.) A smooth sentence, though, makes every syllable count and uses them with grace. It has a quality of control, which keeps the reader in surrender to the writer’s mind.
Pace keeps a story alive and restless, makes it grow in the reader’s mind. It sets up an imbalance, a need for resolution. When this stops, you let the audience go. And the proper place for that is …
thanks for the runner pic Jacobo Garcia
Well that’s my take on pace. What’s yours? Let’s discuss!
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How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?
The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…
What are we talking about?
Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).
Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.
Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)
How exact do these act points have to be?
If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.
Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:
Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around
They do indeed. And that’s good.
Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.
Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.
Equal but not equal
Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.
I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)
Act 1 contains set-up, which has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)
In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.
In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.
Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.
Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.
Novels aren’t movies
Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.
So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!
What would you say to Jen?
Little bit of news
My Memories of a Future Life is now on Kobo and Smashwords. I’d put it off because it would look unconvincing without reviews and also because I expected formatting migraines. But it was easy, and I’m an idiot for not doing it sooner like any other go-getting indie. Also, you can now port Goodreads reviews to Kobo – here’s a post by Eric Edstrom explaining how. Even so, I only braved it because of a request from The Alliance of Independent Authors, who are teaming up with Kobo for the London Book Fair and wanted to put my books on a shortlist to be featured. My work is a tiny proportion of the books they’re submitting, so the chance of making the cut is small, but it’s terrific to be asked! Do you put off uploading your books on all platforms? Tell me why (or tell me off) in the comments!
Also, I’m well into edits on Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. It’s due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.
And third: GIVEAWAY! Over on the Red Blog Dave Malone is giving away copies of his new poetic noir crime novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. Leave a comment and you might grab one!
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My guest this week says her novel would never have made it to publication if not for a piece of music. She’d been trying for a long time to weave two narratives together and was about to give up when by chance she listened to Philip Glass’s first violin concerto. In that piece she suddenly saw the rhythms of her characters and how they could harmonise. She is Linda Gillard, the novel is Untying The Knot and she’s on the Red Blog talking about its Undercover Soundtrack
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The most F of FAQs that I’m being asked at the moment is this: was it easy to split my novel into four parts? Did I originally write it that way?
When I first had the idea of releasing My Memories of a Future Life as episodes I was wondering how on earth it would work. Perhaps it wouldn’t go.
But when I divided it according to page numbers I found that, give or take a few, at the end of each quarter was a major shift. The stakes changed, or what the narrator wanted changed. I did some minor tweaking to punch up the episode beginnings but the structure was there already.
I might add that I was rather thankful.
But if you’re not planning to release your novel in episodes, why is this relevant to you?
Because all stories need these major shifts.
On the count of three…
Hollywood talks about the three-act structure for movies. Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the inciting incident. Act 2, the second two quarters, is where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution.
Now Hollywood movies have pretty formalised structures, but that’s not just because they like formulae. The three-act structure isn’t just a matter of convention. It comes from the way the brain naturally looks for change – and the way it likes to see a problem explored.
For the character’s journey to feel significant, we have to feel we have gone a long way between start and finish. That’s not done by dragging them through a lot of pages. It’s not done with the number of characters you whirl in and out, or the number of locations you visit like a James Bond movie. It’s done with an internal shift for the character. It’s done by altering what the journey means.
The stakes can’t be the same at the end of the story as they were at the start. The character must change what they want.
Three acts, four episodes?
Hang on, classic Hollywood structure is three acts. I’ve got four.
That’s because there’s also the midpoint.
I refer you to Blake Snyder, of Save The Cat fame. He explains that in his early days of movie-writing, he used to tape movies on C90 cassettes and listen to them in the car. At 45 minutes, where he turned over, he realised the most compelling movies had another crucial change – the midpoint.
The midpoint shifted the whole dynamic of the story. It was the threshold between the beginning and the beginning of the end. It was, to quote the great man, ‘the point where the fun and games are over and it’s back to the serious story.’ (And fortunately I had that too.)
Once you understand what the reader psychologically wants at each point of the story, you can give it a really thorough workout.
You can even tell if you’ve misunderstood it. In this post, Darcy Pattison discovered that her second act began far too late, did some soul-searching and realised she was focusing the story wrong. She thought she was writing a quest, but her structure told her her story was actually about the characters maturing. When she revised with this new focus in mind, it helped her create a tighter, more compelling manuscript.
From now on, I’m going to try splitting all my novels into four.
Have you ever analysed your novels by splitting them into acts? Share in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life, Episode 1: The Red Season. Launched 30 August.
Blake Snyder, Character, deepen your story, fiction, formulae, Hollywood, how to write a novel, midpoint, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, Planning, polishing, publishing, revising, Rewriting, Roz Morris, Save The Cat, story structure, structure, three-act structure, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Self-publishing answers: from writing to finding your readers – podcast with Nick Thacker September 14, 2014
- How to publish ebooks – the beginner’s ultimate guide September 11, 2014
- ‘Hacking to music’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Ian Sutherland September 10, 2014
- Kill me now – what do I do about a negative review? September 7, 2014
- ‘Music is a ritual of invocation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Alice Degan September 3, 2014
- Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire August 31, 2014
- ‘The power of music and friendship’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Paul Connolly August 27, 2014
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See what I did there…