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What If Your Novel Doesn’t Fit The Three Act Structure

Matthew Jockers, Professor of English and Data Analytics at Washington State University, conducted an interesting study. He designed a computer program that used sentiment analysis as a proxy for plot movement of any book.

Jockers used best-selling novels for his study, including The Secret Life of Bees, The Lovely Bones, Gone Girl, All the Light We Cannot See, The Da Vinci Code, and The Notebook. When he fed the narrative arc for each of these novels into his computer program, it spat out lovely data that resembled a seismic graph. In other words, the plots of these best-selling novels had nothing in common. There was no clear three-act structure, plot elements all over the place, and each story followed its own unique structure.

As I am researching the novel-structure, I am discovering many other story structures.

Reading and understanding them is mind-boggling. Thankfully, another structure enthusiast, Greg Miller, has charted the important ones in a spreadsheet. Here is an image, but you can download it from his site.

To me, they are not much different than Three-Act-Structure. They have slightly different ways of arranging the plot elements, which could be useful for certain stories.

If you want to study any of them in detail, I suggest you go to the source (usually each author has written a book about it) and learn it well.

There are three I would like to mention here for their usefulness.

1. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell made literary waves when he suggested The Hero’s Journey based on mythological stories. According to this structure, every story is a journey where the protagonist goes through a transformation.

Campbell went on to say — that whether it is a myth scratched on a cave wall or uttered by a holy priest or a story written by a college freshman — it comes down to one basic structure: the transformation of consciousness via trials.

He broke this transformation into three steps or Acts: departure, fulfillment, and return.

It forms a common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis and comes home changed or transformed.

Image Source: TheOtherNetwork

2. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey

In the late nineties, writer Christopher Vogler developed on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey template (particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and came up with a theory that most stories can be boiled down to a series of narrative structures and character archetypes, described through mythological allegory.

Image Source: TheOtherNetwork

3. Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure

I like Michael’s “Six Stage Plot Structure” because it takes into account the protagonist’s outer and inner journey. It is not as fast-paced as the other structures and has room for character growth, particularly in Stage III in Act II.

According to Michael Hauge, “Your role as a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. That’s it.” The way you elicit emotion is by introducing conflict. Internal and external conflict is what engages your reader and gets them to care.” The bottom line is that all characters have an emotional wound they are trying to overcome.

Image Source: TheOtherNetwork


Okay, let me recap.

Most novels do not follow the classic models. They adhere to their own internal pulse.

Several authors have come up with several structures over thousands of years, but Aristotle’s Three-Act-Structure remains the most used and suitable for most stories.

If it doesn’t suit your story for some reason, the other three to consider are The Hero’s Journey, The Writer’s Journey, and the Six Stage Plot Structure.

There is only one universal rule of the structure of a story. It goes back to what Joseph Campbell uncovered: every story worth telling is about transformation via trials. There is no pattern because each character’s evolution is as unique and as individual as your transformation or mine.

In my next article on structure, I have more in store for you.

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