When some novelists sit down to write a book, they begin within a general feel for their story and characters then sit down to write. The book sort of takes shape, fills in and reaches its culmination of its own accord. This technique is the one I’ve used to date. The problem is it calls for much editing after the first draft. In my current manuscript, “Born to be Brothers,” I’m on my sixth major edit and only yesterday determined a seventh is needed.
Other writers organize their thoughts into a formal outline with all plot points scripted, every character fleshed out to the level of ear hair, all imagery constructed and each subplot developed in full. This method requires less editing after the first draft but more thought beforehand.
I think it’s obvious the method one chooses is determined by the writer’s personality.
There is a third option for those who are more organized than I and less ordered than God. It’s called by a number of names but is often known as the Three-Act Structure. In general terms, it dictates a story has three distinct sections. Without surprise, you’ll find these “acts” are the beginning, middle and end.
Many say this is an arbitrary division of a story and has no real value within writing. They indicate the story revolves around the main conflict and how that conflict is resolved. To be honest, I see their point. However, I think organizing does help us to stay focused, especially those writers new to the industry. With that in mind, I’ll offer this and hope you’ll feel free to do with it as you wish.
I did a bit of research and found the early Greek stories consisted of only one act while the Romans settled on five. I couldn’t determine why they the numbers differed, but regardless, today we utilize three acts. As mentioned before, the acts comprise the beginning middle and end of your story or as I prefer, the Set-up, the Confrontation and the Resolution.
When I wrote the first draft of my current manuscript, I’d not given any thought to the three-act structure. However, as it turned out, the novel naturally fell into the Set-up, Confrontation and Resolution pattern. The Three-Act Structure seems to fit the human mind’s need for logic and may well be a natural storytelling methodology.
Although this is quite arbitrary, I’d guess you’d break up a hundred-thousand word novel into something like a twenty-five thousand word Introduction, a fifty thousand word Confrontation and a twenty-five thousand word Ending.
The Three Act Structure allows writers who don’t do a great deal of outlining to create a first draft with more efficient pacing. It gives them a feel for when to move from one part of the story to the next. This structure should also help eliminate the sagging middle, which is often caused by incorporating too much information too early in the manuscript.
The Set-up is designed to introduce your major characters, setting and premier conflict point. You might also toss in a subplot or two in this section. (For more on subplot, read my post from yesterday.) By the end of this section you’d have identified your detective, his lovely assistant, the murderer and the victim. There would be some action, a secret or two and maybe even an erotic innuendo here or there. However, the secret to the Set-up is it ends when your first major plot point, the hero’s great conflict, expels him from his normal life.
The Confrontation is all about thickening the plot. Think escalating tension and conflict, allies and enemies and character growth. It develops by way of the myriad of obstacles your protagonist faces and the many lessons he must learn in order to defeat the villain, whomever or whatever he may be. This is that part of your story where your second major plot point, the confrontation with the Big-Bad-Wolf, threatens. The formal confrontation takes place during Act Three.
The End is where the great villain is confronted and defeated. This section finalizes when you tie up all the loose ends and answer all the nagging questions you forgot to earlier. It is in this act you send your triumphant hero home to the welcoming arms of his lovely assistant - the very one your reader thought had died during the Confrontation.
By expending the energy to first classify your story into the Three Act Structure, you just might save yourself some of the backside editing with which I’m faced.
For more about how to structure a story, read my post titled “Storytelling in 12 Easy Steps.”
In the mean time, know I wish for you only best-sellers.
C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”