Structure is the secret to knowing whether your story works. Here’s why splitting my novel into episodes has given me a useful new tool
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.
Have you focused your story wrong?
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.
23 thoughts on “Can you split your novel into four equal parts?”
You know, I never questioned your decision to do a four part serialization. As a story structure junkie, it totally made sense to me. I could see where die-hard pantsers would wonder about that, however. And that’s not saying anything bad about pantsers! Everyone should write the way that works best for them.
I’m sure I’ve brought this up before, but the 4-part story structure is exactly what Larry Brooks talks about in his book Story Engineering. The concept of the 3-act structure with a midpoint really helped me out when I got briefly stuck on my novel. I had written part 1 and then scratched my head and asked myself, “Now what?”
It was either Larry or Randy Ingermanson who suggested that the hero is on the defense (resisting the flow of events) until something happens at the midpoint to shift him/her to take the offensive (inciting the flow of events). Adding the midpoint to the classic 3-act structure is a natural extension.
Having even that much understanding of your story from the outset helps you tremendously to fill in with scenes that build tension, weave subplots, and properly tie off loose ends. I would say that learning this concept saved my first draft from becoming a meandering mess.
Daniel, I found your comment about the hero on the defense until halfway very interesting – this is exactly what happens to my novel’s heroine (the main protagonist).
Roz, sounds like this proved to be a good test of the strength of your story structure. Mine is split into three parts anyway, but analysing the four-way split has shown me a change in the pace of story I wasn’t even quite aware of. Thanks for an interesting post!
Hi Sally. It sounds like you may have an instinctive sense for story structure. I’m sure it will serve you well. Best of luck with your book project!
Daniel and Sally – yes, that point about being on the defence… absolutely! It’s as if a barrier is lifted. Gosh, I should shut up now…
And yes – I agree with Daniel that Sally has many good instincts!
And do these four pieces also correspond with a conventional story structure? The three act idea is based on the setup/conflict/resolution story structure, further broken up with tension, climax, and denouement. I just think splitting into four could be challenging to get the climax in the right place, no?
Westwood, they certainly do. And it’s not at all challenging to get the climax in the right place, doing it this way. Four-part TV dramas do it all the time.
I naturally write fiction split in parts (generally 3 or 5, with the middle one being the longest), just because I feel this is the best way to do it for me. What happens at the end of each part represents a kind of goal helping me in the process of writing. But I also think it makes reading easier.
Having the goal – yes, good point. Everything has to be pointing towards them.
I write non-fiction but I think your advice about a piece needing to have major shifts still applies. If a non-fiction work doesn’t have that, it feels plodding and heavy. Readers lose interest completely. Thanks for sharing your insights.
That’s a really good point about non-fiction, Heidi. I’ve helped people with their memoirs and they often need a similar sort of structure because readers expect it of a narrative. I also find myself explaining to them about showing not telling – a province usually thought of as exclusively for fiction.
It’s true. The fix is always hiding in plain sight amid the essence of camouflage. My wheat blonde hair pulling – if I had any to spare – is that three acts are too few and summative, and five’s too many, arbitrarily divisive, and other old worldly. Oh, the virtues of these structural leftovers sound so appealing when extolled by the primping pros, but I find myself leaving the finger-banging battle less than victorious with too much carnage clutter to ignore. Four-in-hand tie-ups on the freeway-o-symmetric fiction are just neato-jet, peachy-keen, groovy in the tear-and-repair tradition.
‘Camouflaged in plain sight…’ you’ve nailed the showmanship of storytelling, Paul! Tear and repair? Most finished manuscripts are scar tissue. Keep up the carnage!
I haven’t done this, yet, but will give it a try. It makes the plot move at a better pace I think. Thanks.
Hello there, Roz. I found this piece and the way you’ve structured your new book for sale fascinating. The very first of a dozen actually under the Roz Morris byline. Nice feeling, eh? I got the same kick with a book of my own after years of ghosting celeb autobiographies and editing for other houses.
Anyway the novel itself and the blog above got me thinking. You could probably hear the old brain ticking in the south of France even where you are, and there’s something I’d like to bounce off you if you don’t mind. Could you drop me a quick email at ntmarrATbewrite.net (use the @ sign, natch) when you have a mo, so that I could explain? I don’t want to bore your readers here with it. They come to NYN to read you, not me. Cheers. Neil
My first novel was structured in 3 parts. But my new one is structured in 4 parts which I find much more manageable. Also I think that a 4 part story makes for a better ride for readers.
Hey, Dwight! It’s funny, but people talk about the 3-act structure – when in fact it’s 4. Life Form 3 conformed to a 4-act structure as well – although I probably won’t serialise that. I agree with you that 4 seems to make a better ride. What does the trick, though? Is it the midpoint? Curious.