How to write a book

Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots

guardYesterday 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?

21 thoughts on “Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots

  1. It takes a year or even more to make a novel. For some it may take a month, but I think manuscripts need more time to gel. In my point of view if I have finished a manuscript in the future I would let it sit for four to six weeks. Liked your article.

  2. I may have told you before, Roz, I’m a convert now to a strict four-act structure. As humans we are hard-wired for story and can tell if something doesn’t feel “right”. And if it doesn’t feel right it’s probably because someone has ignored the structure and gone their own way.

    I understand people expressing fears that sticking to a structure will stifle their creativity, but personally I find it freeing rather than stifling. There are 100,000 billion different ways to string words together in combination, sticking them into a framework only helps me rather than hinder.

    Glad the course went well. (It did go well, didn’t it? Yes, I knew it would.)

    1. Hi David! This business about structure is interesting. It’s probably derived originally from what feels right and what works most of the time. And I often find if I look at books that apparently don’t seem to obey routine plot structures – eg any Human Heart – there are ways in which the crescendos fulfil those requirements. But they were well disguised. Just a few weeks ago I wrote a post answering a question about a plot hole, and suggested that the break into the third act (or the midpoint) was missing. I hadn’t even seen the book, but the answer came back from the writer immediately – yes, that had solved it.

      Like you, I find these guidelines are creative; encouraging me to be inventive within a framework. But yesterday it was interesting to see how, when you tell people about a rule, they then wonder how strictly they should follow it and whether they’re going to do it ‘wrong’. I found with My Memories of a Future Life that it fell roughly into four acts, which I made into episodes. In truth, they’re not equal lengths. They vary by as much as 6,000 words, so the plot points are probably at 29%, 49%, 67%. Still, that’s close, and there’s enough going on (I think!) to keep the reader satisfied about the rate of change.

      Oh and, yes, thank you, the course went very well. Great fun.

  3. This is going to be a great series Roz! For me it’s all part of the rhythm – like phrasing in music – there’s an arc for set scenes, one for each of the chapters, another for each plot event, plus the arc for the whole book. I don’t consciously write in 3 or 4 ‘acts’ but I’m definitely conscious of the rhythm of the prose and the need to vary it. It has to ‘feel right’ when I read it back. Suppose I’m a ‘panster’!!!

    1. Hi Kathleen!
      It’s funny that you should mention rhythm and phrasing, and compare writing to music. When I was explaining pace yesterday, I used the example of music – where something is changing all the time to hold onto the listener’s attention. From the simplest pop song to the longest symphony, there is always a sense of development.
      That’s on the micro level. You’re talking, of course, about the bigger scheme, and the way this rhythm operates over the book as a whole. It’s interesting how you say you’re a pantser who keeps the act structure in mind. I’m always sceptical when an accomplished write claims they write an entire book with no plan at all. They’re probably ‘pantsing’ within an instinctive framework, and a knowledge of what they are working towards – rather than groping in the dark.

  4. I’m with David. As a plotter, I’m a huge fan of four part structure. All of the creativity is in the writing of scenes with interesting characters and a plot that makes sense. Story structure has always helped me be more creative, not less. I almost never get stuck wondering what’s next except while planning. It’s comparatively easy to rethink the course of a novel when you haven’t already written half of it.

    That said, my initial story plan rarely survives completely intact to the end of the first draft. There’s always a bit of “drift” because of tweaks along the way that improve the story. I still know where I’m going with it, and all the major plot points remain pretty much the same, but the scene-by-scene journey to move between those plot points may vary from the plan.

    1. Exactly DRMarevello. As I work on my current WIP I have a beat sheet corkboard behind my monitor and I’m taking down and putting up new cards where the individual scenes wander from plan, but the major pivot points are locked down and unlikely to change.

  5. Hi Roz. I think, in today’s hyper ADHD world, the 25-50-75 marks might be a little dated. In my WIP, I’m trying 15-50-75. I still in the middle of Part Three, and my word count is utterly impossible, so I won’t know if I can fit into my Plot Points or not. Silent

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