If you read my last post and identified yourself as a pantser, you may think the topic of story structure doesn’t apply to you. But it does. It is what keeps a plot rolling and
If you read my last post and identified yourself as a pantser, you may think the topic of story structure doesn’t apply to you. But it does. It is what keeps a plot rolling and building in a satisfying way. The only difference is when you apply it. Plotters use it as the basis of their outlines, while pantsers can use it to mold and refine their discovery draft.
I’ve encountered several different ways to structure a novel, but most of them seem to fit nicely within what is commonly called the 3-Act structure. That’s where I’ll start (with one small variation).
The 3-Act Structure
Step 1- Overview
Looking at the big picture, your story can be divided into two parts. It begins in your character’s normal world, but external forces soon drag them into conflict. They spend the entire first half of the book reacting to these events. This doesn’t mean they passively let things happen. But all their actions are in response to things outside their control.
Then at the midpoint, something changes. It can be a revelation, developing a new skill, or gaining a new tool or ally. Or it could affect their willingness to engage in the conflict, rather than their ability. They might have spent the first half dragging their heels, but now they know who they’re fighting and why. Whatever it is, it causes a shift for your character. From this point forward, they proactively pursue their story goal. They initiate confrontations. They make progress.
We can see this in The Hunger Games (SPOILER ALERT). Katniss volunteers not out of a desire for glory, but to save her sister. She is reacting to events out of her control. This continues throughout training in the Capitol. Cinna and Haymitch craft her image, and Peeta announces to the world that he loves her. Even in the arena, she begins by running. It’s not until the midpoint when she drops the tracker jacker nest on the Careers and gets the bow and arrows from Glimmer that she starts taking charge. She allies herself with Rue and blows up the Careers’ stash. She finds Peeta and goes to the feast at the Cornucopia. In the end, she refuses to play by the Capitol’s rules and finds her own way to get herself and Peeta out alive. (END SPOILERS)
Step 2- Division
Now we divide each half once again to get four equal acts.
These acts are separated by turning points.
Act 1 is the setup. Here you introduce your character, setting, and conflict, and your character becomes involved in the conflict. The 1st Plot Point is the point of no return. Before this your protagonist could have said “I want no part of this” and gone back to their normal world and that would be the end of the story. But the events of the 1st Plot Point mean that is no longer an option. They are committed. There’s no going back.
Act 2 is spent reacting to the events of the 1st Plot Point and the continued assaults of the primary conflict. At the end of the 2nd Act is the midpoint which changes everything.
In Act 3 your characters finally take control of the action. It’s not all smooth sailing, but they’re experiencing more and more wins. In fact, by the end of the act, the conflict seems nearly resolved. That is, until the 2nd Plot Point, sometimes called the dark night of the soul. A crushing blow shatters their plans. All seems lost. Often there is a theme of death, either literal or symbolic. The reader cannot imagine how they can recover.
Act 4 begins with this loss and builds up to the climax. There is no new information at this point. The plot is now a runaway train, barreling toward the conclusion.
But wait, you say. Why are there four acts in this supposed 3-Act Structure? Caught that, did you? In the traditional theory, Act 2 spans 50% of the book, from the 1st to the 2nd Plot Point. I simply broke it up into two parts. It made more sense to me.
Also “Act 3” is easier to say than “the second half of Act 2.”
Step 3- Subdivision
Now you have a solid grasp on the 3 (or 4) Act Structure. But these acts are further subdivided by four key events.
The Inciting Event occurs somewhere in the 1st Act. You’ve established your character and introduced the conflict, but here’s where it comes knocking at their door. This is their invitation to join the larger story. They may not accept it just yet, but it’s there and not to be ignored.
Pinch Points happen in the middle of the 2nd and 3rd acts. A Pinch Point impresses upon the reader the power of the opposing force. It reminds them that this won’t be easy. It may not even be possible.
You have some flexibility on where to place these events, depending on the needs of your story. But if possible, I recommend having them as close to the middle of each act as possible.
Halfway through the 4th act (around 87% of the way through the story) the climax begins, and continues nearly to the end of the book. They had a bit of time before this to recover from the 3rd Plot Point, but that’s over now and they won’t get another breather until it’s finished. Tension mounts. Can they make it? The conflict is only finally resolved a few pages (or maybe a chapter) before the end. Then the Resolution gives the reader closure before they shut the book with a satisfied sigh (we hope).
To read a more in-depth analysis of the 3-Act Structure, I highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s story structure series.
The beauty of this structure is that spacing key events at regular intervals throughout the story ensures your plot keeps moving without long periods of little to no action. One final note: each of these events should increase in intensity and raise the stakes (more on that later). This will keep your story rolling along and building to a satisfying climax.
So, what does all this look like in action?
3-Act Structure in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
SPOILERS – If you haven’t read this book and still plan to, skip to the next section!
(side note: I consider the first chapter a prologue as it occurs a decade before the events of the rest of the story. All my percentages are based on page count, starting at chapter two)
Act 1 introduces Harry’s terrible life with the Dursleys, the fact that strange things often happen around him, and the mystery of the letters. The Inciting Incident comes on pg. 50 (11%) when Hagrid tells Harry that he’s a wizard. In this instance, the hero doesn’t want to reject the invitation to adventure, but he still could. At least until the 1st Plot Point on pg. 91 (25%) when Uncle Vernon leaves him at King’s Cross, and he boards the Hogwarts Express a few pages later.
Act 2 is a crash course in the wizarding world, as Harry is sorted, begins classes, and learns the ins and outs of Hogwarts. The first Pinch Point falls on pg. 126 (37%) at the start-of-term banquet, when Harry sees Snape (and Quirrell) and his scar hurts for the first time. The Midpoint arrives on pg. 162-163 (50%) when Harry first recognizes the mystery, and discusses it with Ron.
Act 3 finds Harry, Ron, and Hermione searching for Nicolas Flamel, learning about the Sorcerer’s Stone, spying on Snape, and discovering that Voldemort is behind it all. The second Pinch Point, when Harry overhears Snape threatening Quirrell, comes late- on pg. 226 (71.5%)- to compensate for the 2nd Plot Point also arriving late, at pg 267 (85.5%). This is when they discover that Hagrid let slip the secret to getting past Fluffy, and that Dumbledore has been called away from Hogwarts on business.
Act 4 makes up for lost time by almost immediately jumping into the Climax on pg. 271 (87%) when the kids decide to get the Stone before Snape can. This continues until Harry blacks out on pg. 295 (95%). The remainder of the final chapter is devoted to Resolution, with questions answered, the House Cup won, and the heroes heading home for the summer.
There are other ways to break down story structure. Many of them fit nicely within the 3 act structure. Please note, this list isn’t comprehensive.
7 Plot Points
Dan Wells’ 7 Plot Points is a slightly different way of explaining the 3-Act Structure. He presents it in this series of videos. It’s worth the time to check it out (although the superimposed intro music is a bit weird).
The Hollywood Formula
As its name implies, the Hollywood Formula was intended for movie scripts, but many of its principles apply to novels as well. It follows the 3-Act Structure as well, with a few key additions:
- Three character archetypes must be present: the protagonist (who has a concrete goal- not simply to “be happy”), the antagonist (who sets obstacles in the protagonist’s way), and the dynamic character (who helps the protagonist and understands their struggles)
- A clear statement of the theme by (or to) the dynamic character
- The difference between the first and second halves of the story is asking and then answering questions (rather than reacting then acting)
- In the end, the protagonist should reconcile with the dynamic character (preferably as close as possible to the defeat of the antagonist and the achievement of the goal)
To hear more about the Hollywood Formula, I recommend listening to the Writing Excuses podcast on the topic with Lou Anders.
Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient posits that all stories are about one (or more) of the following:
- Milieu (setting)
Without explaining much about the internal structure, the MICE quotient does help determine where a story should begin and end.
A milieu story is all about the setting. Gulliver’s Travels is a perfect example. The point was to experience different countries and note the parallels to our own. Gulliver himself was secondary. A milieu story begins when the character enters the setting and ends when they leave it.
An idea story is one that poses a question. Mysteries are great examples. An idea story begins when a question is posed, and ends when it is answered.
A character story is about someone who is unsatisfied with some aspect of their life. It begins with this dissatisfaction, and ends once they become satisfied or resign themselves to it.
An event story is about something that destroys the normal order of things. It ends when order is either restored or irrevocably lost.
Of course, books can (and should) include some of all of these. The question is, which is foremost? It can even shift from the beginning of the book to the end. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone begins as a milieu story. Through Harry, we get to explore a magical world alongside our own. Then, about halfway through, it transitions into an idea story, with the heroes focused on solving the puzzle. This is why the mystery is hardly touched on until the midpoint.
If you’d like to read more on the MICE quotient, I recommend Orson Scott Card’s book, Character and Viewpoint. If you’d like something a little less involved, you could listen to the Writing Excuses podcast on the topic.
Story structure is for everyone. There are writers who never consciously use it, but often they follow a basic structure instinctively. Whether you use these in your outlining process like me, or pants your way to the end and then go back and impose structure over it, it will help make your novel one that readers won’t want to put down.
Do you know any structures I didn’t cover here? Do you have a favorite?