Formulaic stories are never what you’re setting out to create, but understanding narrative structure and the three-act construct are foundational to telling a satisfying story.
As a developmental editor, the number one problem I see in manuscripts is a lack of structure. These books feel like they are meandering, rather than driving towards a destination. It’s a common problem because structure, unlike plot, is hard to see. It’s behind the scenes, figuratively holding up your story, and many authors don’t understand it. So, let’s take a look at structure and how to use it to create a novel that keeps readers reading.
Before I begin, let me just head off all of the “yes, but…” Structure is important, but it’s not all-important. My next post will deal with when, how, and why to stray from structure.
Also, most discussions about structure tend to offer formulas (“You want your ‘Final Push’ to happen on page X”). But formulas don’t actually teach anything, and they lead to (you guessed it) formulaic stories. I don’t want that for you, but an understanding of structure is important. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break them.
Finally, I’m using movie references, as opposed to books, for two reasons. One: I’m pretty sure everyone has seen these movies, and two: movies tend to have great structure. It’s been refined to a science (for better and worse) over the past hundred years.
Structure vs. plot
According to Wikipedia, narrative structure is the “framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented.” Structure deals with generalities; plot deals with specifics. For example, one common structural element is called, in Hollywood lingo, an “inciting incident.” It happens early on in your tale, and it’s something that disrupts your protagonist’s life, creates a new desire, and/or sets them off on their journey. That’s structure. In terms of plot, this is when Luke buys the droids in Star Wars, when Neo is taken to meet Morpheus in The Matrix, or when the tornado whisks Dorothy away in The Wizard of Oz.
Every story has a different plot; many stories have the same structure. The movies Gladiator and Erin Brockovich seem like they couldn’t be more different, but, as you can see in this post on movieoutline.com, they have the exact same structure.
Because structure is so elusive, everyone has different ideas about how many structural elements a story needs (number of acts, number of turning points, etc.). People will even argue about the structural elements that exist in famous stories and movies. (“The ‘inciting incident’ of The Godfather is when Vito Corleone is shot, on page 32.” “No, it’s on page 64 when Michael visits Vito in the hospital.”) I’m not going to go down those paths. But there are some common elements that every theory of structure has, and these are important for you to learn.
Elements of structure
The great director Billy Wilder once said: in Act One, stick your character in a tree. In Act Two, set the tree on fire. In Act Three, they find a way to safety.
Though simplistic, that’s not a bad way to approach your story, and it’s an approach that works whether you are writing a romance, thriller, fantasy, or comedy. So let’s start with this structure and flesh it out a bit.
Wilder’s example of getting stuck in a tree is really where Act One would end. In Star Wars, this is where Luke leaves his home planet to go save Princess Leia.
But there’s obviously more to Act One than that, otherwise that action would be meaningless to the audience. So in Act One you need to introduce your readers to your character(s) and their desires. In Wilder’s example the character’s desire (or literal goal) is to get down from the tree.
In the best stories – the ones that resonate with readers – characters have emotional goals as well. Back to Star Wars, we see that Luke has been longing to go to space and join the rebel alliance, but he is being kept home by his aunt and uncle.
Then comes the inciting incident I mentioned earlier: He buys the droids. This winds up forcing his hand in two ways. Not only does R2D2 show him Princess Leia’s call for help, but the droids bring the imperial troops to his house, and cause his aunt and uncle to be killed.
Now, given his emotional and literal goals, Luke’s going to space has real meaning, not just for him, but for us as well. He already wanted to go to space. Now he has a specific reason to do so. So in Star Wars, as with many stories (Harry Potter comes to mind) we have a protagonist with an emotional longing, and the story gives them a chance to cure that.
Another approach is to have everything be perfect for your protagonist at the beginning, but then after the inciting incident (a divorce, a death, danger comes to town, the Ring of Power is suddenly given to you), everything is awful. Now your literal and emotional goals can be tied in to making everything right again.
It’s important that these goals are things your audience can relate to – this is especially true for children’s books.
Even if you’re not writing an action film, you want to give your audience these elements in Act One: a protagonist, their emotional goal, an inciting incident, and a literal goal. You may have the greatest setting or concept in the world, but at its core, if your story doesn’t have a character with a well-defined goal (or goals) your audience will have a hard time caring. And, more importantly, you will have a hard time writing your story. You’ll find yourself wondering where the plot should go.
Once you have a solid first act, the rest of your book should follow pretty easily, as long as you keep one thing in mind: Set your tree on fire.
A lot of books/movies drag in the middle because the writer doesn’t make things hard enough for their heroes. You need to throw obstacles in your protagonist’s way. Make it harder and harder for him to achieve his goals.
Another good thing to do in Act Two to keep it from dragging is to raise the stakes. Make it more important for your hero to achieve their goal. In Act Two of Star Wars we see the Death Star destroy a planet. Suddenly Luke’s saving Princess Leia takes on a whole new significance. He’s not just saving a woman in distress, he’s trying to stop a death machine.
But vs. And
There’s another important thing to keep in mind in Act Two, and that is avoiding the “and” problem. You don’t want to throw random obstacles at your hero. You don’t want your story to be “this happens and then this happens and then this happens.” (This is the number one structural problem I see.) You want to replace all those ands with buts.
In Star Wars, they rescue the princess, BUT the stormtroopers come and they can’t escape. This forces Luke and company to find another solution: they shoot a hole in the wall and jump in it, BUT they get stuck in a trash compactor. These buts force your characters’ hands, which ties the action in to the larger goal and also helps to develop your characters.
At the end of Act Two, it should seem like all hope is lost. In Star Wars, yes our heroes escape from the Death Star, BUT Darth Vader has tracked them to the rebel base and it will be only moments before that planet is destroyed. In romance novels this is where the romance seems to totally fall apart. In mysteries, the wrong person (maybe the hero) is arrested. Any time you’ve ever felt, “How are they going to fix this?” you know you’ve experienced a strong end to a second act.
The important thing for this act is for your hero to be the force of action. If they achieve their goal, it should be through their actions and not a deus ex machina, or luck, or someone else’s actions. What’s more, their victory should satisfy their emotional goal as well. Luke’s use of the Force to blow up the Death Star (spoiler alert!) satisfies both goals at once. Every story won’t be so clean, and that’s OK.
And of course, every story doesn’t have a happy ending. But in those cases, what usually happens is even though the protagonist fails in their literal goal, they achieve their emotional goal and that often feels like a more important victory. Rocky loses his first fight against Apollo Creed, but we don’t care. He went the distance, he got the girl, he’s a winner. In one of my favorite movies, the Bad News Bears lose their big game, but they bonded as a team, each player overcame his or her own obstacles, and they earned the respect of their peers. Losing can also be a wonderful twist, especially in sports stories. After all, we are conditioned to expect our heroes to win in the end. Here is a good moment to upend those expectations and play around with narrative structure. But the audience still needs to feel that there is a satisfying resolution.
This three act structure isn’t just for your novel. It can even work for set-pieces within your novel. Steven Spielberg does this all the time in his movies. This fight scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great example. It’s almost an entire movie in and of itself.
Act One: Getting stuck in tree. Indiana Jones tries to stop the plane from taking the Ark. Inciting incident: Indy gets stopped by a guard.
Act Two: Lighting the tree on fire. Spielberg sets multiple fires. First Indy has to fight the one guard. He beats him and makes his way to the pilot, BUT the muscle man gets into the fight. Then the pilot starts to shoot. Marion knocks out the pilot, BUT that causes the plane to start moving, which also causes gasoline to spill. Reinforcements arrive. Marion shoots at them, BUT that causes an explosion that alerts the rest of the Nazis. Marion is trapped in the cockpit. The gas flows under the plane, raising the stakes: Now Indy has to save her too. The muscle man starts winning the fight. The gas catches on fire. At this point all seems lost.
Act Three: Getting to safety. Indy defeats the muscle man, shoots the lock on the cockpit, and frees Marion. The plane blows up.
An entire story in five minutes. This is what sets Spielberg’s action scenes apart from his peers. You can do the same thing in your stories. And again, it doesn’t have to be just for action. It can be a comedy set-piece. Or suspense. Or a love scene.
Any time someone says “your story needs this,” people often put their guard up. No one wants a formulaic story. And I’m sure you can name a dozen wonderful books/movies that don’t follow this structure.
To answer some frequently asked questions: Yes, you can combine some of these elements or leave them out. Yes, you can have some of these things happen before the story starts or after it ends. And yes, you can ignore all of this. But this structure is good to know. It’ll help you understand why a good book feels good, or why it doesn’t. And if you encounter a book that beautifully throws traditional structure out the window, it can make it feel like an even more exciting ride.
BUT structure isn’t everything, and it can be suffocating. There are many movies and books that have a terrific structure but fail to resonate with audiences. Next time we’ll look at how and why to stray from structure.
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