[You can skip on down to Story structure below if that’s all you’re interested in.]
Plotting was always a mystery to me. I read a lot of how-to books on writing, I have an entire shelf devoted to those books (which doesn’t count the ones scattered about the house or the ebooks I bought). But in all those books, up until recently, say within the last three or four years, none of them told me how to plot. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve bought a foot or more of books on plotting (or story or structure or …). But reading them left me more confused than when I started. The main culprit of confusion was The Three Act structure. What a horrible no good crappy phrase (I actually used the F word in this sentence originally but decided to red-line it). This f-ing phrase (I’m kinda pissed right now just thinking about it) had me lost for, quite literally, decades.
I assume all y’all know what it is, so briefly in case you don’t it’s stupidly as simple as Beginning, Middle, End (I kid you not) or it’s also known as: Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. And NO ONE explained it in terms that helped me understand good novel/screenplay writing structure. Now part (or all of it, rather) is on me in that obviously I didn’t have either the correct background or mental acuity or something that let me understand the concept. Other people understood it and put it to use (see, like, almost every movie made). However, with that said, I’m going to blame the writers of these books just a little, as well. To paraphrase Amadeus, they used too many words. At least half of the words in their how-to books were used to try and convince me that their ideas were solid gold instead of just getting to the point (the point being how to plot/structure a good novel). Because there was/is so much fluff in these books it was difficult to know what was the important stuff and what was the author pleading for me to believe what they were saying. My advice to these writers: Hey, I already bought your book, now just tell me what I want to know. I have my theories about why they’re so fluffy, but I won’t digress any more than I already have. I wrote something similar in my Finding a category post.
[I hate to keep harping on Chris Fox (link to his Amazon page), but here we go again. The reason I like his how-to books is that they take about an hour to read. They’re SHORT and TO THE POINT. There is very little fluff. And at 3 or 4 bucks a book, worth every penny.]
Okay, done venting (maybe).
So finally finally I ran into blog posts and websites and how-to books that got me to a point where I feel I understand structure (it’s a tenuous understanding, but it’s there nonetheless). It was such a jumble of random clicking that there’s no possible way, all these years later, that I could reconstruct that path. And, besides, everyone’s different. If I laid out exactly the path I took and you followed it, you’d end up somewhere else. The major players, however, were the likes of Larry Brooks (his website), Jami Gold (her worksheets), K. M. Weiland (website and story structure database), and then the countless blog posts/websites I clicked through over the years. It’s a very very deep rabbit hole.
Enough fluff? Fair enough.
I now think of novels (and movies) as FOUR sections (roughly equal to one another in length based on word count or screen time). I DO NOT think about it as three acts. Then within these four sections are the following parts:
- Section 1:
- The setup.
- Seeing the protagonist in their daily life (before their life is turned upside down).
- A hook (something intriguing happens). This can happen first. If you know you want to do quite a bit of setup for the protagonist before something really cool happens, you can put the hook first. Think about James Bond or Indiana Jones … they always start with some unrelated hook. Make your book and hook even better? Don’t let the hook be unrelated.
- Plot Point 1. This is something big that happens that irreversible propels the protagonist forward (Imperials kill Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru … those bastards!).
- The setup.
- Section 2:
- Pinch Point 1. The protagonist is “pinched” by the antagonist. This is something the antagonist does, such as blowing up Alderaan. (I’m sorry, how does Darth Vader get redeemed after taking part in killing billions of people? Just sayin’.).
- Plot Point 2 (more commonly known as midpoint). This can quite often be a HOLY COW! reversal moment in the book—but most importantly, it’s when the protagonist stops reacting to events and becomes proactive because the princess is on the Death Star, we gotta do something!!
- Section 3:
- Pinch Point 2. Another pinch. The antagonist actively does something bad to the protagonist. “Active” meaning they’re in the scene(s) where the pinch occurs (it doesn’t happen off-screen and the protagonist hears about it later) … you know, like cutting Obi Wan in half in front of Luke.
- Low point. All is lost. This might be short (Luke and Leia commiserating over Obi Wan) but usually looks like the world is about to end and there’s just no way the good guys can succeed. If you’re really good at your craft, you make this so bad that the reader can’t possibly see a way forward for our hero.
- Plot Point 3. This is the last bit of information the protagonist needs to propel forward, then (as Larry Brooks says) there is no new expository information. The protagonist has the plans to the Death Star and a defect, about the size of a womp rat, has been found.
- Section 4:
- Climax. Shit’s gonna get real.
- Resolution. Sometimes you write an entire scene or chapter to have a nice medal ceremony (and forget the Wookiee was piloting the freakin’ Millennium Falcon … where the hell is his medal?!) but sometimes it’s just a final poignant sentence at the end of the climax.