Anyone who reads fiction regularly will realize that there is an established structure to the plot narrative. You may have heard of the three-act structure, and the seven-act structure, but overall these are both based on the some fundamentals: one is just longer!
This is, of course, not the only way you can structure your novel, and there have been some very creative variations on the theme, but when starting out as an author and learning the art, having a structure can help keep the plot on track.
The traditional three-act divides the story into three parts:
First Act (the Set-up):
This first act should establish:
- Who: introduces the main character
- Where: establishes the world/setting, and what is the neutral (ie: “normal”) for the character.
- Inciting Incident: this is the event that causes a disruption from the character’s normal life and indicates that life may not be the same again.
- For example: in Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Hagrid’s arrival, announcing that Harry is a wizard
- At this point, if the character were to ignore the inciting incident, their life would remain in the “normal” and there would be no story.
- What the inciting incident is for your story will depend on the genre of the story: For a mystery, it could be the finding of a body, or the client approaching the protagonist with the case. For a romance, it could be the first time that she sees him and decides that he is The One. It can be dramatic, or subtle, but ultimately will change the protagonist’s life and set it on a different course.
- First Turning Point: sometimes known as the “point of no return”, this is where the protagonist accepts the inciting incident, which will alter their life irrevocably. At this point, they cannot return to the period of normalcy without suffering in some way (socially, physically, emotionally). It also sets up the situation that needs to be resolved by the conclusion of the story. It makes the end of the First Act.
- For Harry, this is when he first enters Hogwarts.
How long the first act should be is determined by the length of the novel and the genre. Crime thrillers are quite likely to begin with the inciting incident, whereas a literary or fantasy novel may spend more time in setting the scene. Some authors may choose to have the character reject the incident, or may make it more difficult for the protagonist to accept it – think of how many times the Dursleys foiled Harry’s attempts to get his invitation. But generally speaking it should not be drawn out too long, lest the reader become frustrated and set the book aside.
Second Act (Rising Action):
The second act is the longest act, comprising of approximately half the manuscript.
in the second act:
- Midpoint: The protagonist attempts to deal with the situation, but fails and/or makes matters worse, because they do not, yet, have the skills or knowledge to deal with the situation.
- The protagonist must attempt to address the skills that will help them succeed. In Harry’s case, he’s learning magic, and making allies. In a romance, the protagonist may be fighting against self-doubt and their own insecurities. In a mystery, the inspector is collecting evidence and studying the clues that will help them solve the case.
- Do not make things too easy for your character. When they are facing an obstacle, even success should have ongoing, possibly worse, consequence. Always think, will my character succeed? “Yes, BUT…” (there’s another problem) or “No, AND…” (things get worse).
- Tension should keep rising. Use subplots and character relationships to help hold up a saggy middle.
- Second Turning Point: The tension is at its highest level, and the protagonist must make a decision that will – whether they win or lose – change their life forever. It is similar to the First Turning Point, except the cost for failure is much higher.
Third Act (Resolution):
This is the final quarter-or-so of your book, and the point in which you want to keep the reader fully hooked ad leave them satisfied.
- Climax: everything that protagonist has learned and all the obstacles they have faced can help her deal with the main source of conflict.
- Twists: any sudden reveals or twists to the plot should be “surprising but inevitable”. As a dedicated reader, I’ve found that if I spot a twist early in the book and it culminates to be the actual, I feel cheated, but if I unravel it 2-3 pages before it is revealed, then I feel satisfied (and clever). You do not want to leave the reader thinking, “Huh? How did that happen?” but “Of course! Why didn’t I notice that?”
- Character Development: your character now should no longer be the same person they were at the start; the events of the story have helped reshape them.
- Denouement: Untangling the more knotted parts of the story, and revealing (some of) the secrets and tying up (some of) the loose ends. If your story is in a series, you should always leave a few questions unanswered for the reader. Even if it’s not part of a series, it’s always fun to leave some of the “what comes next” to the reader’s imagination.
The three-act structure is frequently used in screenplays and theater. Next time you are watching a movie, see if you can identify the:
- Inciting Incident
- First Turning Point
- Second Turning Point
The creative perspective
As I embark on this fourth NaNo journey, I’ve found myself dwelling on how, as a writer, my craft and the experience of writing have changed since those early days. I still find it fun, but over the years I’ve become more introspective about the way I work. You’ll find that too.
That first journey saw me throw myself into a lifelong dream. The desire to simply write that novel motivating me to just write, and write, and write. Which is just what NaNo is about. But along the journey, I’ve realised that to complete my manuscripts, I need to have a direction. Some signposts along the way. Of course that won’t be the same for everybody.
As a result, you find yourself considering what type of writer you are.
Plotter or pantser?
For anyone new to writing, you’ll find there appear to be three general kinds of writer.
1) The Plotter – somebody who meticulously plans their entire project, so that when NaNo starts they have an outline, their structure, know their plot, their characters and what their end goal is.
2) The Pantser – somebody who quite literally writes by the seat of their pants. No real direction, just the ability to follow the plot and characters wherever they may lead.
3) The Hybrid – somebody who combines both plotting and panting to their novel-writing journey.
When embarking on NaNo, it’s worth considering what kind of writer you are.
As I mentioned before, I’ve always been a pantser. Literally writing by the seat of my pants. Letting the characters develop the stories as I go. To the extent that I’d find my characters talking to me (I know, you think I’m mad). Driving in the car, carrying out my own interviews with them to learn who they were, how they’d react to things, who they’d vote for the next American president! All things that gave me an insight into the people I was creating, and the direction my story was taking.
However, this year, I’ve decided to embark on the NaNo journey with a plan. A result of which has seen me methodically planned my book from beginning to end. I’ve researched my backstory, and all of the key points throughout the novel and have reams of notes as a result. I’ve filled out character worksheets, setting worksheets, created picture boards, and even organised a road trip to Mackenzie which is the setting for the vast part of my story.
This is not because I’ve decided that pantsing is wrong, but because I’m open to new ways of doing this.
What type are you? It’s well worth considering before you embark on your NaNo journey. If you’re new to NaNo. Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem is an awesome read, giving some insight into what the National Novel Writing Month is. As well as giving you some insights into how to go about it (from well-learned experience).
If you’re not a NaNo, but want to look at ways of plotting and planning, then I thoroughly recommend the following books for helping with writing craft in so far as structuring and planning your novel:
1) Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – a comprehensive, easy to read guide to structuring your story.
2) Michael Hauge’s
3) Jack M Bickman’sScene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing)
I’ve found these three books invaluable in helping me plan for NaNo, and perhaps because I want to take my writing to the next level, I’ve enjoyed investing in craft books that have opened my eyes to the whole concept of plotting and planning for my writing journey.
Another aspect of the planning that I’ve come to think of as vital for writing development is surrounding yourself with likeminded people.
Use the Writing Community
Writing is a solitary activity, and can be really lonely. Particularly when you hit the wall often called writers block, or self-doubt. During NaNo, the goal is to hit that 50,000 word target. A goal that is completely achievable. However, it is inevitable that during NaNo, you’ll have peaks and troughs. Some days, you’ll fly. Others you’ll wonder just what on earth you are doing. By surrounding yourself with people with that same objective, you give yourself not only a sounding board, but also a support network. It can become competitive. I love a challenge, and going to our Tuesday ‘Night Owls’ write in, I find myself challenging myself to keep up with some of the more prolific writers (some of whom have achieved 160,000 words during NaNo in the past – yikes!).
So here’s some suggestions.
Visit the NaNoWriMo website:
Find out who your Municipal Liaison is ( http://nanowrimo.org/regions)
Find out where write-ins are planned with other writers in your local community – these can offer invaluable support, and potentially create lifelong friendships.
Join NaNo to make the most of the webinar’s and support it offers during November.
Visit your Local Library:
Is there any information on local groups?
Do they have activities or workshops for writers?
Local writing organisations:
In our case, we’re lucky to have a vibrant community of writers locally. The Christchurch Writers Guild ( https://chchwriters.org ), New Zealand Society of Authors ( http://authors.org.nz/about/branches/canterbury/ ), and the Romance Writers of New Zealand ( http://www.romancewriters.co.nz/about/regional-meetings/ ). The latter of which have local chapters who organise workshops, monthly meetings, and local write ins. Investigate if there is anything like that near you.
This may all seem a little much for the writer who’s new to this, but these lessons have been learned over four years. And if I’m completely honest, I’ll undoubtedly learn more lessons this year.
Furthermore, there are two more things to remember during NaNo:
The first: Switch off that inner-critic. That little niggle of self-doubt is the worst thing for creativity. He/ she will whisper in your ear as you write, telling you you’re taking the wrong direction, that your writing is crap, that this is a waste of time. He’s a pain in the ass, and needs to be told that. My first year I let him really get at me. Kept re-reading what I’d written, questioning whether I was made for the whole writing thing. So the second year, I made a poster. “Inner-critic you’re banned from my study for a month.”
Childish perhaps, but psychologically, I refused to listen to anything the rotten demon. He had no part in my NaNo journey, or any writing journey from that day on.
The second: is to enjoy. Have fun. Creativity and writing are a truly exciting opportunity to explore something that few of us ever do. People will poo-poo you, “Gah, why would you write? There’s no money in it? Why waste the time?”
If it’s something you truly want to do – then do it. Enjoy it. Lose yourself in your own fantasy world. Whether it be crime, mystery, fantasy, a children’s story or a romance, NaNo is the one time of the year you can say “Okay, I’m gonna do this.”
Whether you have a PC, or a rudimentary paper and pen. Let your imagination run wild for the month. You never know where it might take you.
I hope this helps, and that you enjoy your NaNo journey.
Emma Lowe moved to North Canterbury from Dunedin three years ago. She promptly joined the CWG and was overwhelmed to discover not only a network of writers, but a group of people who have become close personal friends. She has been focusing on her writing ever since (at least when she’s not juggling kids and the family business). She predominantly writes romance, and is also a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, amongst other writing organisations.
Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, not following a set structure but letting the story take them on a wild, sometimes chaotic, journey. It is also known as “Discovery Writing”.
Plotters plan out the novel in advance, sometimes in meticulous detail, setting out the story’s structure and following it from beginning to end.
Which of the two are you? Is one way better than another? While I would never dictate how anyone should write, it is true that each method has its pros and its cons, and also that many writers tend to fit somewhere between the two.
Here are some tips and tricks our members shared during our Monday night discussion:
- It helps to know where the story begins, and have some idea of how it will end.
- Consider your plot points to be “signposts” designed to move the plot in the right direction.
- Be flexible: if characters, or the plot, behaves in an unexpected manner, be prepared to move these signposts.
- Use the first draft of your discovery written novel to determine the structure of the second draft.
- Many writers (especially those that are also dedicated readers) will find themselves subconsciously following the traditional story structure.
What are you? A plotter? A Pantser? Or a hybrid?
Do you have any tips and tricks of your own?
Share them with us on Twitter: @chchwriters or comment here!
We are also happy to take suggestions for our Monthly themes!
For NaNo Newbies
|No Plot, No Problem
|No Plot, No Problem
|Write your Novel in a Month: How to Complete a First Draft in 30 Days and What to Do Next
|The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Facebook has several pages dedicated to including the main NaNoWriMo group as well as municipal groups.
After an enjoyable lunch and a quick stretch of the legs, it was back into the boardroom for our afternoon lectures on Developmental Editing: the Editing Skills Every Writer Needs.
Jenner Lichtwark, from Millwheel Press, was one of our sponsors, and also our third lecturer. She has worked as a journalist, and is a freelance editor, publisher and author. Her presentation was on Voice, Backstory and Staying on Track.
She spoke of the importance of choosing the right time in the narrative to begin—reinforcing the mantra of “start late, leave early”—and selecting the right narrator, and voice, to write in. If one character is the focus of your story, and appears in every scene, then first person is the best option for you: it allows the writing style to be more colloquial, and more personal, creating a greater intimacy. She also recommended that the writer stay open to changing characters if the plot demands it.
After Voice we delved into Plot and the importance of keeping the story on track. The plot must be structured so that the ending is the end of the story you started to tell, and that you haven’t meandered off on a wild tangent. Even for pantser writers like myself, it is best to have the skeleton of the story in mind although, like a skeleton, it will require bones to make it work. How to cope when you do feel your work has wandered away off into the wild woods (a common cause of Writer’s Block)? Go back to where you strayed from the path, and choose the trail that gets you closer to the end you had intended!
Backstory is a case of the “Iceberg Theory”: the writer needs to know everything, or almost everything, but the reader only needs to know what is relevant to the plot. Dripfeed it in early to foreshadow future events. Hint at it in conversations and action. Beware of info-dumping paragraphs of exposition, you’ll lose the reader’s interest.
And, most importantly, you don’t need to resolve every bit of backstory. It’s always fun to leave a few threads hanging and the reader hungry for more —thus opening the path to a sequel, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination or, heck, who knows, you may even inspire fanfiction!
Our final speaker was Dr. Shelley Chappell. She has a PhD in literature and works as an advisor at the University of Canterbury. She spoke to us on Literary Criticism.
Literary Criticism, for those of us who have not studied it at university, is the analysis, interpretation, classification and evaluation of literature. And it proved to be quite an insightful lecture. First, she suggested that we look beyond the plot and into genre, setting, structure, characterisation, audience, theme and more. She then talked us through the process of close-reading, looking for insights into the story such as recurring motifs, metaphoric representations/imagery and into structure such as sentence length, use of words, repetition (intentional, or not?). We were then encouraged to practice close-reading on a sample she handed to us (or on our own work), which turned out to be more of a challenge than I would have expected.
Finally, we looked deeper into the subconscious messages we might be conveying in our stories, such as playing to clichés and tropes, as well as unintentially incorporating prejudices, or things that could be perceived as prejudices. This was a little disconcerting for me, as it illuminated some issues in my own novels, which I may have to be careful with.
After that, many of the attendees departed, with much to think on, educated and, hopefully, inspired. Those receiving critiques remained, to await their ten minute slot with the chosen editor. Overall, I felt enlightened, not just by new knowledge gained, but also by the feeling of connection and kinship with my fellow writers.
Our next workshop, Marketing for Writers, will be held on Sunday, May 22nd, 2016.