Last week we began a series discussing structure and, if you haven’t read last Monday’s blog, I strongly recommend checking it out. Each of these blogs will build upon the previous lesson. By the end of this series, I hope you to give you guys all the tools you need to be “structure experts.” Structure is one of those topics that I feel gets overlooked far too much. There are a lot of workshops designed to teach aspiring writers how to finish a novel in four weeks or three or two or whatever. And that is great…if a writer possesses a solid understanding of structure. If not? At the end of 4 weeks, you could very likely have a 60K word mess.
Finishing a novel is one of the best experiences in the world, but wanna know the worst? Pouring your heart and soul into a novel, finishing it, and then finding out it is not publishable or even salvageable. I make a lot of jokes about my first novel being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists. I’ll tell you where the bomb is just not another chapter of that booook!
Some of you might be in the midst of having to face some hard truths about your “baby.” If you have been shopping that same book for months or years, and an agent has yet to be interested, likely structure is the problem. Many of you might have a computer full of unfinished novels. Again, structure is likely the problem. Good news is that most structure problems can be fixed, although many times that requires leveling everything to the foundation and using the raw materials to begin anew….the correct way and killing a lot of little darlings along the way.
Last week I broke the bad news. Novels have rules. Sorry. They do. I didn’t make this stuff up. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.
Authors who break the rules do so with a fundamental understanding of rules and reader expectations. Remember the pizza analogy? We can get creative with pizza so long as we do so with an appreciation for consumer expectations. A fried quail leg on filo dough with raspberry glaze is not recognizable as a pizza. We can call it pizza until we are blue and a consumer will just think we’re a nut.
Same with a novel. Readers have expectations. Deviate too far and we will have produced a commodity so far off the standard consumer expectations that the product will not sell…which is why agents won’t rep it. Our novel can be brilliant, but not sell. Agents are interested more in making money than breaking literary rules. Rumor has it that agents do have to make a living.
I can tell if a writer understands structure in ten pages. So can an agent. We are diagnosticians and when we spot certain novel “diseases” we know there is a big internal problem. We’ll discuss two major symptoms of a flawed plot today, but first we are going to pan the camera back this time. Last time we zoomed in and looked at the most fundamental building blocks of a novel. Today, we are going to get an aerial shot—the Three Act Structure.
Aristotelian structure has worked for a couple thousand years for very good reasons. To paraphrase James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure, there is something fundamentally sound about the three act structure, and it is very much in harmony with how we live our lives. Three is a pattern. Childhood is short and introduces us to life (Act I). Most of our living comes in the middle span of years (Act II), and then we are old and we die and that sums up our existence (Act III). We wake in the morning (Act I) then have the day living life (Act II) and then night ties things up (Act III). When we are confronted with a problem we react (Act I) then spend the greatest amount of time searching for insight and looking for an answer (Act II) and then finally the solution (Act III).
Three act structure has endured thousands of years because it works. Beginning, middle and end. We can ignore the three act structure, but we do so at our own risk that our work will fail to connect with readers.
Beginnings present the story world, establish tone, compel the reader to come on the adventure, and introduce the opposition.
Middles deepen the character relationships, keep the reader emotionally invested in the characters, and sets up the events that will lead to the final showdown at the end.
Ends tie up the main plot and any other story threads and provide a sense of meaning.
Ideally, our story’s tension will steadily rise from the beginning to end, getting more intense like a roller coaster. Think of the best roller coasters. They start off with a huge hill (Inciting Incident that introduces the ride) then a small dip to catch your breath, and then we are committed. If the biggest hill is at the beginning of the ride, the rest of the ride is a total letdown. A well-designed rollercoaster gives escalating thrills—bigger and bigger hills and loops—with fewer troughs to catch our breath and all leading up to the Big Boss loop, then the glide home to the other side of where we began. We all want to get to the Big Boss loop, but we do so with a mix of terror, dread and glee. Same with a good story.
Great roller coasters are designed. So are great novels. Everything is done with purpose.
Two major problems will occur when we fail to follow this design. In a year and a half of running countless plots through my workshop, we have given them names—Falcor the Luck Dragon and The Purple Tornado.
Remember the movie The Neverending Story? Beautiful movie and amazing special effects…but (in my opinion) a HORRIBLE story. I loved the movie too. I have a soul. But I feel this movie is remembered and loved more for great effects and puppets, not the storytelling. The beginning starts with The Nothing eating away a world we haven’t been in long enough to care and gobbling up critters the viewing audience hasn’t even been introduced to. Total melodrama. And the solution? A boy hero who the viewer doesn’t know from a hole in the ground and who, truthfully, isn’t nearly as likable as his horse that sinks into the Bog of Despair. Yes, I cried.
So high council instructs unlikable boy hero to go and talk to the Northern Oracle. Northern Oracle is a giant turtle that is suffering depression and is apparently off his meds. Northern Oracle tells boy hero the answer to their problems rest with the Southern Oracle, but it is ten thousand miles away. Boy trudges off depressed and defeated and music rises to cue the audience that we are supposed to care. Unlikable boy hero falls into the swamp…oh but Falcor the Luck Dragon swoops down from the sky and flies him ten thousand miles to the Southern Oracle. How lucky for the boy hero. Better yet. How convenient for the screenwriters that Falcor was there to bail them out of a massive plot problem.
No, your protagonist cannot find a journal or letters or some contrived coincidence to bail her out of a corner and get her back on track. That is what we at WWBC call a Luck Dragon. Don’t think you can sneak a Falcor by an agent or editor either. There is no camouflaging this guy. Did you see the picture? He’s HUGE, and he will stand out like, like…like a Luck Dragon bailing you out of a plot problem. But take heart. Looking at structure ahead of time will make all actions logical and Falcor the Luck Dragon can stay up in the clouds where he belongs.
Next plot problem? The Purple Tornado. What is a purple tornado? So glad you asked. One of the first participants of WWBC had a YA fantasy. By page 30 there was this MASSIVE supernatural event with a purple tornado. This writer clung to the purple tornado scene until I thought I was going to break his knuckles prying it away from him. Why was I prying the purple tornado from his hands? Because he couldn’t top the purple tornado. He had his Big Boss Battle, his grand finale, his giant loop too close to the beginning. The rest of the book would have either been a letdown or totally contrived.
Plan where that loop will be situated and put it in the spot that will evoke the greatest emotional reaction….at the end.
I hope you guys get a lot out of this series. I know it took me years to learn some of this stuff and part of the reason I started the Warrior Writers blog was to help shorten the learning curve. I would imagine most of you reading this would like to be published while you are still young enough to enjoy it. Join me next week for more on structure and plotting.
What are some problems you guys have faced in plotting? What are the biggest struggles? Do you have any suggestions for books on the subject or methods you use that you could share? Have you been guilty of a Falcor or a Purple Tornado? Share your thoughts.
Until next time….
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I’m really enjoying this series. You have a great way of boiling down novel structure to a digestable message.
Thanks, Pamela. I hope you recommend it to your fellow writers. I have wanted to write this series for a long time, but I had to read and study until I felt confident that I knew enough to boil it down to a very easily “digestable message” as you so beautifully put it. Thanks for the feedback and the support :D.
This is a very good series and you were not alone when it came to Neverending story – I cried when the horse died too!
I struggled a lot with my plot int he beginning. Because I’m writing an epic fantasy, I had to have the series plot structure down pact before getting into the individual books. My biggest problem was the Luck Dragon syndrome. Some things were way too convenient and my writing partners kept challenging me until I came up with an idea that was solid (and could withstand their gazillion questions!)
Great series! I just discovered it. Structure is always one of my problem areas! So thank you. It’s easy to get a Falcor, harder to figure out why you need him in the first place ;O)
You’ve given me a lot to think about!
Thank you so much for posting this series. My main plot struggle is wrestling my little darlings back from my editor. 🙂 Just kidding. Actually, it’s that I didn’t consider plot at all with my first novel, trusting my characters to tell it as it unfolded. As a result, I had a novel that was a lovely local theater production rather than a blockbuster, and seriously, what agent wants to represent a local theater production? Thank you for cutting years of struggling off of my “struggling writer” label. All the best.
Great breakdown of the reason behind some structure problems. Thanks!
Problems about my plot… My middle is sagging. I copied the plot from Romeo and Juliet (and I added my own twists) so the beginning and the ending are there but in the middle, I use the spaghetti method–throw everything and see what sticks. I’m on my third rewrite now and my story is having a life of its own but it’s still not good (I know it’s not good when I have the urge to rewrite it everytime I read it).
The middles are often the toughest spot. Act II is the longest act, so more opportunity for it to lag. I will be blogging about how to fix that in the coming weeks, so hopefully we can whip it in to shape for the New Year 😉
Very helpful series. Glad Elizabeth Tweeted this today so I could find it. I have always had an inherent sense of story structure, but it is good to have it defined.
Excellent explanation! I am an old guy but very new to actually attempting to write. Your blog is giving me a wonderful set of concepts to help my writing. Thanks again!
Oh wow! Now I understand why I hated The Neverending Story. I always suspected there was no realy plot but everyone said it was a classic.
Very helpful post. Now I also understand that my NaNoWriMo novel is in trouble – but I’ve only written 6,000 words so still have time to rescue my characters from the swamp without Falcor 😉 Mind you – it’s my first real attempt at fiction so am just going to see what happens 😀
This was a really great post. And I loved Neverending Story… coincidentally, my dog looks just like Falcor.:) And I never noticed any of those things you mentioned until now. You’re right! But who notices those things? Is it the genearal audience? I think it’s only writers, professors, lit agents… that type of thing.
I find the hardest part of the structure to be the first chapter or scene. It’s so crucial to the rest of the story and whether or not the reader will put it down, but how do you make it so that it reflects the rest of your story clearly. It needs to have the inciting incident, but what if it’s small… or more internal? I have no prob with middle and endings, but sheesh! Beginnings just kill me!
Well, there are stories that will make it as movies but would never fly as a book. “The Neverending Story” I suspect was written in such a way as to show off the new CGI of the time and the puppets. If it had been a book, however, it would be sitting in a slush pile somewhere. Writers don’t have the luxury of computer graphics and Jim Henson.
If beginnings give you trouble, I recommend reading my posts back in September. I discussed great beginnings. Also get a copy of “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. And finally, go read some of your favorite beginnings. Why did they work? What grabbed you? We will be revisiting beginnings in this series, so hopefully we can get you sorted ;). If it makes you feel better, beginnings are probably the hardest part to write.
I realize this is a couple of years after your post, but I stumbled in and wanted to point out that The Neverending Story was a book long before it was a movie. It was written by German writer Michael Ende and translated into English before the movie was ever made. It’s a well-respected book, and often considered a classic in children’s literature.
Granted the movie only covered the first half of the book (and left much out, as adaptations often do), but the book was successful long before the movie. Just thought you might like to know.
Sorry to barge in- did you even READ that book?
‘Die unendliche Geschichte’ or ‘The neverending story’ by Michael Ende is a wonderfull book for children (with 2 stories happening simultanious but seperated bij red and blue ink) teaching them the power and joy of imagination.
Something you all are also trying to find for yourself here 😉
Yes, the storylines they used for the movies are horrible, but don’t belittle something you haven’t read!
(pardon my english, I am dutch)
Well, in fairness, I was talking about the movie to give an example most people likely know. I’m sure the book was excellent. “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is one of my all-time favorite books and yet the movie was a train wreck. And I would still use the movie as teaching example despite the book. And don’t be sorry :).
HA! That is so funny that your dog reminds you of the luck dragon. That is how I found myself at this blog! I was thinking about my labradoodle and was just looking up pictures of Falcor and got side tracked reading. lol
At the start of my Act III, my character’s deity gives him some advice that keep him from dying in the end. I”ll have to decide if that is a Luck Dragon or not!
What an awesome post, thanks for the helpful advice!
Ok, I’m really liking the way you explain things. And I’d like to see if you can take the Falcor comparison a little further. I understand what you mean but I want to clarify the journal idea. Are you saying you can’t have a protagonist use a journal/letters/emails to further the plot and gather information? Or do you mean if they are stuck in a pickle you can’t have something magically appear that saves them? I ask because my story begins with a journal that the protagonist finds before there is a problem and uses to gather information until enough is known about her dilemma to move the story to the next stage. However, the journal plays a constant role throughout the story and is used later by antagonists to determine the identity of my protagonist. Which seems like at that point it may be throwing a Falcor into the story and the only thing that sets it apart from your example is that it has been present since the beginning. This probably isn’t enough information for you to say whether I have inadvertantly created a Falcor or not, but I’d love a little more clarification as to whether the dilemma is using a journal to move along plot or using it to get a character out of a fix.
Thanks so much for taking your time to help the newbies! Have you written anything about voice? Apparently it’s kind of important.:D
Stephanie, it is very likely you have a Falcor. Journals and letters are often tools used by newer writers because you are still growing and developing your writing skills (my first novel ten years ago had both a journal and letters–hey, I’m an overachiever :)). Folding information into a story and crafting situations of discovery is a skill. Please make sure you read this Friday’s blog.
Journals and letters can be centerpieces of novels and act as the inciting incident (“Bridges of Madison County”) or even a motif (“Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), but too often they are used for contrived info dump…to move the characters like chess pieces where the author needs them to be. Just bear with this series and I hope to shorten your learning curve by years. I am going to be taking the best books on plotting and combining them with eight years of being an editor and a year and a half of running a novel writing boot camp to make structure and plot simple and fun.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Stephanie. Likely you will need to rewrite if your goal is to be published. But, that is very common so breathe and enjoy learning to become an author :D.
Voice is something you develop through a lot of writing and just finding the style that suits you. Dennis LeHane has a very different “voice” than Janet Evanovich and each voice suits the stories they tell. Voice is best discovered through a lot of writing and a lot of reading.
There are lots of books on structure that deserve a mention, but top of the list has got to be ‘techniques of the selling writer’ by Dwight V Swain. The man is a genius, and has a writing style to die for. If you have a sagging middle, just refer to his chapter on middles and how they should be structured. Want to make sure your ending works? Go through his chapter on endings, and make sure you have all the elements in place. It’s not formulaic, it’s inspired.
I’ll have to pick that up. Thanks for the recommendation. And, movies are the same way. Screenwriters that deviate too far off the expected structure might win at Cannes, but the rest of us are scratching our heads going “Huh? I don’t get it.”
Thanks for giving me the heads-up on the link. WDW Pub just redid the website and I guess I was still using the old link. Thanks!
This is a fantastic post, and very valuable for anyone who is seriously considering writing a novel…
Keep up the fantastic work!
I think some blog posts fall into the trap of Falcor the Dragon or the tornado. People start off posts great, but then fail to wrap them into neat little presents. I guess I was lucky enough to have a high school English teacher who stressed the whole “beginning, middle, end” to essays and short stories. Now, I can’t LET myself save a document or paper without checking to make sure my writing includes all three. AND I usually try to tie the beginning and end together. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. If I continue to see great posts like this, I just might.
Nice to meet you on Clay’s blog!
Great stuff. You are a fine teacher because I’ve read so many different explanations of some of the topics you cover (and ya’ll should keep reading this site), but you talk in a way that is so straightforward. I don’t want to get anyone too excited, but you have guru potential 🙂
I hope so! I have done all the stupid stuff and made all the rookie errors. It is such a blessing to me to be able to poke fun at my own stupidity and help shorten the learning curve for others. Then I don’t feel like those years were wasted or the unfinished novels had no point. They all led me to being better able to help you guys. Thanks for such a lovely comment, and I am really happy you like the blog :D.
Really like the roller coaster analogy, Kristen. That makes sense.
So you are saying that The Neverending Story based on what you say is a bad story because it introduces characters at a fast pace as well as the settings?
By that logic almost all books are bad on that count.
What do stories need long Lord of the Rings style introduction to qualify your ideas of good storytelling?
Its a kids book for petes sake, I am not saying to “dumb it down” but there must be a middle ground of some sort.
I like the novel because it sets up its plot simply yes but really you don’t need to put in the whole history of a world for one to understand the basics.
What does the author have to go on a 900 page diatribe explaining all the elements, the characters, the world, heck even the creationist/evolutionist background of the world to qualify as a “good storytelling”?
And yes the appearance of Falkor is an issue that even I have, its called the magic wand syndrome in my part of the woods.
But heres the thing, again its a kids book so the main hero of the story just perishing would bring the book down even more.
Heck comic books do this sort of thing all the time, but its because well… they are the main heroes of the story so the main hero dying or not getting some sort of aid every once in a while is not in the best interest of the storytelling.
Heck I will bring up Tolkien again, even he did not evade this syndrome and he is praised by many as one of the best writers of fantasy novels.
Even Shakespeare regarded by many as the greatest writer in history is not really immune to this.
A little levity here and there helps.
Ahhh!!…What a great post! As far as The Neverending Story is concerned, I’ve always thought of it as “The Story that Never Started”. Loved it since I was a kid, but as an adult and writer, I now realize why somethings were always so off. That didn’t stop me from thinking I was going to ride off with Atreyu when I was six. I digress…
Thank you for your great tips on structure. As I plot out my first novel, everything you suggested makes some things I was pondering more clear. Placing the “Big Loop” has been a challenge for me, but putting it towards the end confirms my suspicions.
Keep up the great work!
I’m posting the same question as last monday hoping for an answer on either one. Hope that’s not annoying, I’ve just been wrestling with this a lot and having a lot of conversations about it:
Concerning the escalation of change/conflict:
How do you know when to use external or internal? For instance, in screenplays, it’s easy: you’re writing a visual medium so conflict must have some external, realized goal.
But in novels, how can you order both the internal world of the character and the external situations to escalate? How do we go from plot point one to plot point two with the internal world in sync?
Then, in addition to all of that, what if we switch perspectives? How can we escalate from one chapter to another if we’re jumping times, locations, or characters?
Scenes are for action and sequels are for thought. Read Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure and James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure to learn more how to balance.
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