I’m currently plowing my way through KM Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel. There is a very good point early on that I want to address today: writers are afraid that structure will take the art out of their writing.
There are writers who get away without consciously outlining their novels, including Stephen King. It seems to work okay for him. However, he’s also a prolific read and I’m sure he at least understands story structure.
Story structure takes nothing away from art. Here are a few examples from other artforms:
Architecture relies on buildings being structurally sound. Yet for every plain row house out there, there is a beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright creation or an IM Pei glass pyramid. They both use structure; in fact, they have to understand it innately to create the buildings they do. But their structure only adds to their artistry.
Michelangelo and da Vinci are both known to have studied human anatomy excessively to give their artwork more lifelike reality. They knew that the underlying structure of the human body is what influences the outward beauty.
So why are writers so afraid that structure will destroy their art?
“The three-act structure is intrinsic to the human brain’s model of the world; it matches a blueprint that is hard-wired in the human brain, which is constantly attempting to rationalize the world and resolve it into patterns. It is therefore an inevitable property of almost any successful drama, whether the writer is aware of it or not.” – Edoardo Nolfo
The three-act structure is really very simple:
- Setup (beginning)
- Confrontation (middle)
- Resolution (end)
Remember that outline we did (some of you kicking and screaming– or just lying about doing it)? Let’s go back to that. We’re going to hash your story (and mine) into three-act structure.
First, we have our amazing opening line and chapter. This is the setup to the setup. Usually, it’s set in the normal, boring world before everything starts. Then the setup continues for roughly 25% of the book. At 25%, you have the end of Act 1.
There is an important plot point at the end of acts 1 and 2:
“The Plot Point at the end of Act I is always the true beginning of your screenplay. Acts I sets up the story components. Then, the screenwriter has to establish the dramatic need and create obstacles to that need; the story becomes the main character overcoming the obstacle after obstacle to achieve his or her dramatic need.”
“There could be as many as nine or 10 plot points during a screenplay. But the two most important come at the end of act one and at the end of act two. They are the anchors of your storyline, the stitches that hold everything together.” – Syd Field, Four Screenplays
After Act 1, you go into the guts of the story, the meat of it. There’s a lot of flexibility in this section, but you need to continue building upon whatever plot point happened at the end of Act 1. You can introduce (and sometimes close) new plot points, but that main plot point will continue throughout Act 2.
“Act II is a unit of action that is held together with the dramatic context of Confrontation. Your character will confront obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to achieve his or her dramatic need.” – Syd Field, Four Screenplays
Finally, you’re in Act 3 at about 75% of your story. This means you still have 25% left, so don’t go resolving the story early and then dragging out the ending. End the story at the end, period.
“Be certain that the hurdles get bigger and come closer together, accelerating the pace of your story, as your story moves forward.” – Michael Hauge, author and script consultant
Your Monday assignment is to embrace the beauty of structure. Take that outline you did (*coughcough*) and pick out your three act structure: opening line, opening, plot point at the end of act 1, midpoint (not always obvious), plot point at the end of act 2, and ending.
Don’t worry. I’ll be right here, cheering you on.
Unless you throw things. Then I’m moving.