Story structure: why plot milestones might not be equally spaced – and why that’s good

Darmstaedter-Madonna-golden-ratioI’ve had a question from Jennifer Ibarra.

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.

But novels…

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, whicterreh 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!

Thanks for the golden ratio pic Snotty on Wikimedia Commons

What would you say to Jen?


ebookcovernyn3Update December 2014: if you liked this discussion, you’ll find loads more in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel – which is launching right now! Special pre-release price if you reserve a copy before 5 January.


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  1. #1 by greatalpha on March 17, 2013 - 1:55 pm

    Roz,this is a topic that I’ve discussed with many others for a while now. My argument has consistently been, ‘Let the story tell itself, then go back and edit.’ Of course, the arc will define itself to some degree, but a fantastic theme typically exposes itself and greater ideas become fluid. Structure is good, but the story is what readers remember.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:10 pm

      Many good points in your comment, Greatalpha. Sometimes the story structure finds itself, sometimes it needs a helping hand. If you’re wondering how to order events or you sense there might be a missing piece, if can help to think about the three-cat paradigm. Or, as you say, you can go back and sculpt.
      Interesting that you mention theme! Some writers get hung up on looking for it, aware that they are writing ‘a novel’ and so they need to make it respectable with concerns and issues. But as you say, it’s better to wait for these to arise naturally from the story and the characters.
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. #3 by DRMarvello on March 17, 2013 - 2:37 pm

    How long each of the four parts need to be in a book depends upon who you believe. Brooks and Ingermanson generally recommend “equal quarters,” but no one I’ve read says it has to be exact. Having the points be off by 1-2K (or even more) would be fine if we’re talking a novel-length work.

    James Scott Bell recommends a 20-55-25 split, or even 20-60-20 (“Plot & Structure” p.33). His theory is that you want that first turning point (the first door of no return) early in the book so the story doesn’t seem to drag at the beginning.

    I think the standard recommendations make sense for story planning purposes before you start writing and before you start on your first revision pass (and for troubleshooting). But I don’t think it makes much sense to weaken scenes by padding or trimming just to hit those milestones exactly.


    As for uploading to different platforms, I think doing so is a great idea. Different types of books do better at different retailers. I know of authors whose books sell better on B&N or Apple than they do on Amazon. The wider your accessibility, the more likely you are to find your audience.

    I upload books to CreateSpace (paperback on, Lightning Source (paperback to everyone other than Amazon), KDP (Kindle), PubIt! (Nook), Kobo, and the iBookstore.

    Managing all of those portals can be a pain. If you are willing to give up 15% of your net royalty, you can distribute your ebooks from a single account with a distributor like Smashwords or the new kid on the block

    I’m using Draft2Digital for iBookstore distribution, and their service has been fantastic. Draft2Digital does direct deposit (even internationally now), which I prefer over the Smashwords/PayPal option. Draft2Digital distributes to Amazon (unlike Smashwords), and they can even put your book into CreateSpace. They accept a Word document and, by all accounts, do a nice job of conversion without all the agony of the Smashwords Meatgrinder and endless Premium Catalog acceptance delays. I don’t use their conversion myself; I upload my own EPUB files.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:23 pm

      Hi Daniel! That sounds like good advice from Mr Scott Bell – he’s a sound writing coach. Putting the first turning point at 20% makes sense if you can get there in the time. But if you’d have to fillet too much it might not be possible. And yes, I totally agree that padding or overpruning are not going to do a book any good.

      As for the ebook platforms… in the UK we can’t use PubIt so we’re stuck with Smashwords if we want to be in B&N. I didn’t know about Draft2Digital, in fact I’ve never even heard of them. I’ll definitely check them out for ebooks to see if they’re an improvement on what I’m already doing.
      I wouldn’t trust them to handle a print book, though – but then, I’m used to doing that professionally anyway. I’d never upload anything as changeable as a Word file when I can lock everything down with a PDF. But I bet you feel the same way about uploading finished epub files!

    • #5 by DRMarvello on March 17, 2013 - 9:50 pm

      You are right that I only upload finished EPUB files to D2D. Like you, I wouldn’t use an automated conversion for a print book or an e-book. Both LSI and CreateSpace get print-ready PDFs.

      I tried Smashwords with one book and concluded that I would not go back until they supported direct EPUB uploads. Smashwords Direct finally came along in late December 2012, but by then I’d discovered Draft2Digital. I chose to go with D2D for the following reasons:

      * Superior customer service. I’ve gotten friendly, complete answers directly from one of the founders quickly, often within minutes. They are still in beta right now, so time will tell if they will remain responsive in the long term.

      * Superior user interface. They have an advantage in being the new guy: they have built a new site from scratch using modern tools, and they’ve learned from their competitors’ mistakes.

      * Publisher-friendly. You can set up multiple publishers/imprints, multiple payment accounts (for royalties from different books to pay into), and multiple author profiles (so you can have specialized author biographies for specific books/genres). I know this doesn’t matter to most authors, but even if you publish under multiple pen names, these features are welcome.

      * Direct deposit. (I’m not a big fan of PayPal.)

      * Monthly royalty payments. They have a low minimum payout amount ($10 EFT/$100 check). Their royalty rate is comparable to other distributors: 15% of net, which usually works out to about 10% of list.

      * Speedy distribution: They submit your book to Apple generally within an hour of you uploading it. Apple reviews everything, so you may experience a delay of a few hours up to three weeks, but that’s Apple, not D2D. With most vendors, D2D submissions are live within a few hours or at most a couple of days.

      * Avoiding the “Preview = full book” problem in the iBookstore. There’s a bug on the Apple side related to the EPUB table of contents that makes your entire book available as a preview. D2D automatically generates a 10% preview from your book and submits it to Apple along with your title so Apple doesn’t generate its own preview and create this problem.

      * Distribution to the iBookstore. I don’t own a Mac, so I can’t upload direct to Apple. While I could distribute through Smashwords instead, getting a book into Premium Distribution and actually showing up on a vendor site is an exercise in frustration.

      The main down side to D2D is that they don’t have as many distribution partners as Smashwords. However, the company is new and building new relationships all the time. They are also responding quickly to customer feedback. For now, I’m just using them for iBookstore distribution and going direct to all the other vendors anyway, so they are satisfying my requirements perfectly.

    • #6 by DRMarvello on March 17, 2013 - 9:56 pm

      Oops. Above, I said D2Ds “royalty rate” was comparable to other distributors, but what I meant to say was their “distribution fee” is comparable. 15% of net is their fee; you get the other 85%.

      • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 9:59 pm

        *splutter* wait a moment… Daniel, did you say Apple make an ENTIRE book available as a preview? And does that happen with books submitted through Smashwords? Eek!

      • #8 by DRMarvello on March 17, 2013 - 10:20 pm

        Yes, it’s been known to happen, but only under specific circumstances. It can happen to books that are submitted through Smashwords or even directly to Apple.

        It’s a bit technical to get into, but it relates to the “NCX” table of contents within the EPUB file. Apple apparently generates its preview off the NCX somehow. If your TOC only has a few entries (or no entries), your preview may contain your entire book. I’m not positive on the true nature of the problem, just that it exists and it’s related to the NCX.

  3. #9 by John Yeoman on March 17, 2013 - 3:00 pm

    True, plot structures should follow the cycladic rhythms of life. A great novel is an organic thing, not a cereal-box formula!

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:27 pm

      It certainly is, John. And some novels have very fluid structures indeed. Though they are usually written by people who have already understood the basics.

  4. #11 by Karen E Martin on March 17, 2013 - 3:14 pm

    Informative article, Roz!

  5. #13 by writejenwrite on March 17, 2013 - 3:40 pm

    Thank you, thank you for this! I can’t tell you what a relief it is not to have to force my draft into 100% precision. As you said, it’s good to have structure and make sure things are roughly where they should be, but if getting them to fit the rigid structure means rushing on one end or unnecessarily prolonging at the other end, then it doesn’t really serve the story or the characters well, does it?

    I know this doesn’t give me an excuse to meander aimlessly to my heart’s content (or rush, rush, rush if I’m nearing a set marker in the story and I haven’t set up properly yet), but it does make me feel that I have the wiggle room I need to ensure I’m building this in a natural way.

    Great stuff as always, Roz!!

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:29 pm

      Thanks, Jen. That’s the problem with rules. When we discover them they’re so brilliant, especially if we’ve been making a glorious mess without them. But although they’re life-savers, and incredibly useful, they don’t have to be straitjackets.

  6. #15 by Evangeline Holland on March 17, 2013 - 3:56 pm

    I found the 25-55-20 structure a few months ago and found it helpful for helping me visualize my pacing. I veer off it sometimes, so it’s reassuring to read this post say that novels don’t quite need to follow scriptwriting storytelling techniques to the letter!

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:32 pm

      Thanks, Evangeline! You’re right, scriptwriting techniques can teach us a lot. It’s all story and characters, after all. It’s necessary to have some kind of structure or we’ll never pull the story together. But we can be more relaxed than movie writers are.

  7. #17 by Evangeline Holland on March 17, 2013 - 3:57 pm

    RE: formatting…I hang my head in shame and admit I neglect Smashwords because the Meatgrinder confounds me!

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:36 pm

      I know, I know. Their instructions for formatting etc are mostly brilliant – clear, reasoned and user-friendly. But the Meatgrinder is a bit more fussy than they let on.
      I kept getting errors in the copyright page even though I thought I’d followed their guidelines. I kept experimenting and found it was accepted only when I added the ISBN, which they don’t put in their examples. In case this is what’s holding you up too, here’s what worked for me:


      Roz Morris
      Copyright © Roz Morris 2011
      Smashwords edition ISBN 9781301501373

      This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.

      Hope that helps! But Kobo is a lot more forgiving.

      • #19 by Evangeline Holland on March 18, 2013 - 7:57 am

        Thanks Roz! I’ll go try your tip and see if it works for me as well.

  8. #20 by Jami Gold on March 17, 2013 - 4:43 pm

    Great post! I pants my stories, so it’s always a minor miracle that my turning points end up anywhere close. 🙂

    As writers, if we’re able to sense that internal storytelling clock, I think we’ll know if the pacing feels off when things land “too short” or “too long.” If it feels right, the readers will never count pages. LOL! I have a strong internalized story structure sense, so I usually discover that my turning points land close enough (sometimes within a page or two! other times within 10 pages or so).

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:38 pm

      Thanks, Jami! You’ve obviously got a well-tuned storytelling instinct. And you’re right, if readers are engrossed they don’t count pages or look at the thermometer at the foot of the ebook page to check where the percentages are.

  9. #22 by Melanie Marttila on March 17, 2013 - 6:24 pm

    I’m no longer certain whether I’m a pantser or a plotter, whether I have an innate understanding of story structure or if I’m totally clueless.
    Have decided not to sweat it and write. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?
    Thanks for this. The more I read about structure (and read novels with a critical eye to discovering same), the more I think I learn through osmosis.
    Writing is like sculpting. We uncover the underlying structure as we go. Just my opinion.
    Happy St. Paddy’s!

    • #23 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 17, 2013 - 8:40 pm

      Hi Melanie! Have fun sculpting and osmosing. There certainly comes a point where the techniques are ingrained and you can let go and write. And a very good Patrick to you too!

  10. #24 by raizscanlon on March 18, 2013 - 12:22 am

    Thanks again Roz, your posts are always welcomed 😉

    Out of curiosity, has there been any benchmarking of consistent top sellers – I’m talking commercial fiction – and especially if there is a discernible/measurable percentage that do NOT follow the 3-Act structure?

    If so, I’ve love to read those books (if I haven’t already haha) and try to analyze what it was about those stories that rose above a “standard structure”. Only for curiosity though – I think the 3-Act structure makes so much sense – and audiences are educated to follow it – that for a novice like me, I need nothing else at this stage 😉

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 19, 2013 - 6:58 pm

      Hi Robert! What a good question. The answer is, I don’t know. Obviously there’s room for manoeuvre, and once writers know the expected marks to hit to make a story satisfying they can play however they like.

  11. #26 by cydmadsen on March 18, 2013 - 3:29 am

    That’s good advice, Roz. Just write the novel and get a feel for whether or not it flows, lags, or rushes necessary parts of development. Readers are influenced by the structure of film, but film is changing rapidly. Truby is gaining a lot of traction with his courses at the UCLA film school, and he advocates throwing away the three act structure completely. Many agree with him. I guarantee nobody looks for exact placement of plot points when reading a script and deciding whether or not to spend millions on production. The four, five, or six point structure of TV is also becoming an expectation of readers, and that always involves a teaser. You have exactly two minutes to establish the major conflicts of the protagonist (s/he better have several), set the tone, sound off the voice, and hook the reader/viewer with the eternal question, “What happens next?” Watch the pilots of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Community. Everything’s there, including the franchise, in the teaser. Because so many readers depend on samples of books before deciding to buy, the only “rule” I’d give Jen is have the opening match the standards of TV, then be ready to back it up and carry it through to the end, regardless of where what plot points fall. This is nothing new. It can be found in everything from Homer to the Bible, to Shakespeare, to Dickens, to Hemingway and Irving.

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 19, 2013 - 7:06 pm

      Hi Cyd! Much interesting material in your comment. I know John Truby’s name, but didn’t know he was so radical. I’ll have to look him up.
      I have to admit I’m also lagging behind you on 4, 5 and 6-point structure. But I agree on getting the irresistible hook in as soon as possible. Not everyone agrees, especially people who resent the way that TV and movie principles are infecting people’s judgement of prose fiction. But I’d rather hook people as fast as possible than leave them dithering. Although that might not be with an event. It could be voice.
      I’m still looking forward to your promised series on TV writing BTW!

      • #28 by cydmadsen on March 20, 2013 - 4:16 am

        Did my response post? Grrrrr. That’s why I haven’t yet put up the series on TV. I’m switching to a host and don’t want “moving day” to be too confusing. Too many problems with Word Press to stay here. Anyway, Truby is a new name to me, and I was quite surprised to read his thoughts echoed in those of others. I used to set a timer while watching films to see if the plot points came where they should, and they did. During the movie marathon in preparation for Houston, I really wasn’t seeing glaring plot points anywhere. It was a continuum of complications moving the story forward. And they were wonderful films to watch. But as William Goldman said, in the end, nobody knows nothing. LOL

  12. #29 by seschoen on March 18, 2013 - 8:31 pm

    Many cultures don’t follow the same pattern — just like many cultures use repetitions of 4 or 5 or even 9. They’re not wrong, although they might not match what we Westerners have become used to. (By Western, I mean cultures heavily influenced by Aristotle.)

    Oriental, Jewish, Native American, Maori and other cultures have different patterns, although many of their tales have been adapted to fit the pattern we’re used to.

    It’s worth comparing your flow to the standard flow. It might show things are way off balance. It might show that a part is missing (such as “before” and “challenge accepted”). It also depends on your audience. TV producers are very strict. Those who read stories from other cultures might not even notice.

    • #30 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on March 19, 2013 - 7:14 pm

      Very interesting about the repetition patterns, Sandy. I’m trying to get my head around how you’d keep track of 9 repetitions…
      Despite these different conventions, I wonder if there are still fundamentals that need to be tackled. You mention ‘before’ and ‘challenge accepted’. Is there also ‘challenge refused’, then later ‘getting serious’, then ‘much more dire than we thought’… obviously there has to be ‘resolution’. Most stories need a change, and a change that has been more difficult than anticipated and therefore earned. Food for thought.

  13. #31 by Suzie Quint on December 21, 2014 - 11:58 pm

    Thanks so much for this article. Sometimes I can be a real rule follower, so I need permission to bend the rules. You’ve given me that, so I won’t stress so much about exact placement as long as the points all land in the correct order.

    • #32 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on December 22, 2014 - 9:53 am

      Gosh, Suzie,you dug a long way back to find this post. But thank you for leaving your calling card. Have fun bending the rules.

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