About five years ago, I joined a writing workshop to convert an idea bubbling in my head into a novel. The workshop was going to last for one year, and we met once a month. In the first session, I made the mistake of asking whether I could discuss the idea with the group to determine whether it was good enough to be developed into a novel. I was volunteered to bring the first chapter to critique the very next month.
I had no idea how to write a chapter, let alone develop the characters and write a scene. We were yet to cover those elements in the subsequent months. I did my best, and to my amazement, everyone liked the opening chapter.
But that was all I had. I lacked the skills to develop it further. My characters were one-dimensional; I didn’t know how to end the story and, most importantly, how to beef up the middle.
As the year passed, we learned a bit about the unique elements of novel writing; each month, one participant presented a chapter for critique.
At the end of the workshop, five of us continued meeting and working on our novels. Six years have passed since the workshop, and none of us have been able to finish. We all have attributed our failure to the lack of a structure.
The mistake we made was that we started writing our novels without working out the structure of them. We hadn’t even worked out the entire story. We were practically writing from the seat of our pants.
For years we were convinced that it was the best way to write a novel. We were exploring; we were having fun, and we were making progress until we were not.
There came the point when we were realizing that the story was not going anywhere. One of my friends realized she had written 100,000 words, but she was not halfway through the story. The other one had all the inciting incidents that happened initially, leaving nothing for the middle. I figured out the end but did not know what to put in the middle. I also realized I had two stories running in parallel, making the book too long and complicated.
Your novel’s structure should be the first thing to be nailed down if you want to finish your novel. Without the structure, you will write and rewrite your novel nth number of times and still won’t finish it.
Why we need a structure?
If you look at anything, it has a structure. A building has a structure; a house has a structure; a tree has a structure; the human body has a structure.
The structure differs from the plot. A novel plot is about elements that go into mixing to make a story even better.
The structure is the backbone. It is about where the plot elements should go to make the story stand.
Without a structure, a story is just a series of anecdotes.
Twenty-three hundred years ago, Aristotle’s figured out how drama worked. His work was based on the thriving Greek theater and the surrounding mythology, rich in story and plot.
He wrote in Poetics that a story has a beginning, middle, and end. But more importantly, he explained how those sections play distinct roles in successful storytelling.
The universality of the Three-Act-Structure structure makes it easy to accept. Our life is a three-act structure — we are born, we live, and we die. Our day is a three-act structure — we get up in the morning, we go to work, and we sleep.
In the simplest form, Aristotle’s “beginning, middle, and end” has been translated into the Three-Act-Structure comprising Act I, Act II, and Act III.
Many authors have described Three-Act-Structure in different ways. They are all fine. You can pick up any and model your novel on that. However, I have amalgamated a few to make a structure that works for me. This article will explain the eight elements I define before embarking on plotting and writing literary novels.
Act I occupy 10% to 20% of the novel but incorporates three important elements — Setup, Inciting Incident, and Plot Point 1.
Setup: This is where the readers are introduced to the setting and the characters. Everything is fine here. The main character is happily living her “normal” life.
Inciting Incident: Something happens and disrupts the “normal” life of the main character. It is the first turning point, the point from where the protagonist’s life is about to change. The protagonist resists, the inner conflict begins.
Plot Point 1: Something throws everything off balance. It usually comes as a surprise. The main character is forced to decide. She sets on a new direction in her life.
Many good novels begin at Plot Point 1., thrusting the main character right into the thick of things. It is where the protagonist acquires her goal.
Act II has rising action and occupies 60% to 70% of the novel.
The main characters face a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini-crisis. The protagonist keeps deciding to resolve the crisis until she reaches the second turning point — Plot Point 2.
The key to Act II is conflict. Without it, the story can’t move forward. Thus, the stakes are continually raised. The protagonist faces both inner and outer conflicts, alternating up and down internally between hope and disappointment and externally between solving crises and facing bigger crises.
Plot Point 2 is the second major turning point where the protagonist’s actions caused the disaster. Usually, Plot Point 2 leads to mid-point.
MidPoint: As the name explains, it is the middle of Act II and the novel. It is also known as Plot Point 3 or Mirror Moment, where the protagonist looks inwards and faces the moment of truth. A subtle but big change happens here. Instead of reacting to the crises, the protagonist goes through a fundamental change using her newly gained skills and knowledge.
Plot Point 3 shows the protagonist at her lowest, taking a profound misstep among her newfound actions, which drives her directly into the Climax and Resolution.
The story turns towards the climax in Act III, often involving a crucial decision.
In the third Act, the climax is reached. All the loose ends are tied, and the resolution is reached. The third Act shows how the character can succeed or has become a better person.
Climax: Theis the last turning point of the novel, and it is the point of highest tension and drama. But it resolved quickly as well. It is the point at which the action starts, during which the solution is also found.
Resolution: Also known as the denouement, the resolution is when all the conflicts are resolved, and the story concludes. Tension rapidly dissipates because it’s nearly impossible to sustain a reader’s interest long after the climax.
The three-act structure is not the only way to structure a novel. Many others (and I will write about them in another post), but it is the simplest and can apply to any genre.
Benefits of a Three-Act-Structure
- It is the fastest way to work out where your story is going as you identify the eight elements of the structure. Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, 2, and 3, and MidPoint, you figure out whether your story is proportionate or stretched disproportionately.
- It helps identify the major turning points in the story ( Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Plot Point 2, MidPoint, Plot Point 3, Climax). Absence or week turning points make your story bland.
- It helps you meet the expectations of the readers. Readers are used to resolutions at the end of the story. They also want the end to be surprising as well as satisfying. In fact, the entire story has a rhythm to it, which can’t be achieved without a structure.
Aristotle codified still plays itself out in story after story and novel after the novel is written in our time.
A structure is only a sketch of how you think the story might go. Your story will inevitably change as you write it. By determining a structure beforehand, you are not tying yourself down to a plan you might not want to follow later.
A structure is just a guideline.
The structure is not a prison rather a map with trails. Finding the road is the most pleasurable part of writing.
Great stories existed long before there were books on story structure. The pattern of an enchanting yarn has been recreated again and again through time and around the world in myths and tales. The rhythm of these stories that so captures our imaginations reflects not marketing trends but our collective struggle through life. Things that deeply resonate do so because they tug at our inner workings.
Does your novel have to adhere to the Three-Act-Structure? No. But you probably find that it does because this is the structure of most stories in Western civilization. We are used to thinking about stories this way, even if we aren’t aware of it.
Some approaches differ slightly from the way I have described them here. Some books include all plot points in Act II, others don’t have Mid Point and Plot Point III, yet others have five or six plot points. The best approach is:
Perhaps the easiest way to decide exactly where your Plot Points fall and their importance is — not as what happens — but what the character decides to do about the thing that happens. It is the decision which drives the story — readers stay involved because they want to understand character motivation and the outcomes of the decisions the characters make. Do be careful to ensure that the scenes which relate to the turning points in your novel have enough resonance — don’t rush these scenes.
Now get a pen and paper and start describing your story idea in terms of the eight elements of the Three-Act-Structure.