Category Archives: Structure

Novels In Three Acts . . . More Or Less

Some writing instructors insist on a particular story structure: there must be three acts and between each, a door of no return.

Screenwriters use this formulaic structure, and many novelists have adapted it. But is this “beginning, middle, and end” framework a must?

To be honest, when I started writing novels, I’d never heard of the three-act structure. Later, when I read about the concept, “beginning, middle, end” seemed like a horrific oversimplification of the story form. More than that, I bristled at the idea that I was to write according to a set formula.

Soon, however, I began to see the structure in movies, and honestly, some of the joy of stories blinked out. Now I could predict, when things were bad, they’d only get worse. I could anticipate the beaten bad guy pulling out a gun, or the frightened girl running into the arms of the killer. The more I saw the girders of the story structure, the less I liked it.

Did all stories really have three acts?

Anyone familiar with drama knows they do not. There are one-act plays, two-act plays, even four- or five-act plays. Yet there are writers, and writing instructors, who hold religiously to the three-act structure.

Act One introduces the hero and gives a call to adventure which he may resist, but eventually he passes through the first door of no return and accepts, ushering him into Act Two. Here a mentor appears who teaches the hero, and he has any number of encounters with the dark forces. At some point he faces a dark moment within himself, then discovers a talisman that helps him in the battle. Again he passes through a doorway of no return which thrusts him into Act Three and the final battle, after which he returns to normal, though he himself is changed, for good or ill.

Of course there are adaptations of this framework for the various genres, but a good many writers believe this is the only way a story can be structured. Thankfully, not every writing instructor sees it this way. Some time ago Stephen James said the following in a Writer’s Digest article entitled “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients”:

While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?

Screenwriter John Truby also brings into question following a formula. In his book The Anatomy of Story, he says, “A great story is organic — not a machine but a living body that develops” (p. 5). He further explains, “The story must feel organic to the audience; it must seem like a single thing that grows and builds to a climax. If you want to become a great storyteller, you have to master this technique to such a high degree that your characters seem to be acting on their own, as they must, even though you are the one making them act that way.”

Some writers talk about their characters insisting on going here or doing that. The characters, of course, aren’t real and can only do what the author imagines them to do. But if the character comes to life for the author, then there is a “right” way she must act that is consistent with her traits. The story, then, organically grows out of the characters rather than the author imposing a set of actions on the character.

And how many acts can that take? As many as need be. Stephen James again:

Stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.

Because story trumps structure.

Now that’s the kind of story structure I like.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in December 2011.



Filed under Plot, Story, Structure

A Story’s Bare Bones

1187803_skeleton_1What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.

For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.

Entertained yet?

I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉

The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)

Humpty_Dumpty_In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.

Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.

If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.

The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.

Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.

In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.

This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”

How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.

These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.


Filed under Characters, Inciting Incident, Plot, Story, Structure

Goals And Who Needs Them

illustration by Carl Offterdinger

The more novels I read, the more I realize those that engage me are ones with characters who have goals–both story and scene goals.

In every story, I suspect the author has goals. To entertain, perhaps, or to show a particular truth. On the scenic level, the writer may wish to convey backstory or to introduce a character or to describe the setting.

Those things do mot make for compelling writing. What matters isn’t the author’s goal but the character’s–both for the story and for each scene. If the character is likable or sympathetic or at least one with whom readers can connect, then they will be cheering for him to achieve what he sets out to do. If the character is despicable, a true villain, then readers will be hoping for his failure and an end to his carefully laid plans. Either way, the story will hold the reader’s interest because the goal turns into a question–will he succeed or fail?

The Shark Tank, one of the many “reality” TV game shows, serves to illustrate how compelling this “will he succeed or fail” set up can be. In the TV show, entrepreneurs with something to sell and in need of marketing or distribution stand before a panel of investors who make offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for a portion of the company. Each person has his or her own goal. Will they or won’t they succeed? The entire hour-long show depends on viewers wanting to know who will come away from the conflict with what they want.

A good many fairy tales also illustrate the importance of goals. Look, for example, at “Puss in Boots,” a tale by the French writer. The story begins with a little set up–common in writing up until the late twentieth century. But before long, the story goal surfaces.

Once upon a time there was a poor miller who had three sons. The years went by and the miller died, leaving nothing but his mill, his donkey, and a cat. The eldest son took the mill, the second-born son rode off on the donkey, and the youngest son inherited the cat .

“Oh, well”, said the youngest son, “I’ll eat this cat, and make some mittens out of his fur. Then I will have nothing left in the world and shall die of hunger.”

The Cat was listening to his master complain like this, but he pretended not to have heard anything. Instead, he put on a serious face and said:

“Do not look so sad, master. Just give me a bag and a pair of boots, and I will show you that you did not receive such a poor inheritance in me.” (emphasis mine)

The character in question is the cat, as the title of the story suggests. The overarching goal is for him to prove to his master that he was not a poor inheritance.

In scene after scene throughout the story, Puss formulates a goal, though the reader may not fully understand how his actions will achieve that for which he’s aiming. Take this scene with an ogre, for example.

The cat has convinced the king that his master is not a penniless fellow, but a generous, loyal, landed aristocrat. The king wishes to go to the man’s (non-existent) castle. The cat asks for an hour to make the place ready. Then this scene:

With that he jumped away and went to the castle of a great ogre and asked to see him saying he could not pass so near his home without having the honor of paying his respects to him.

The ogre received him as civilly as an ogre could do, and made him sit down.

“I have been assured,” said the Cat, “that you have the gift of being able to change yourself into all sorts of creatures as you wish; you can, for example, transform yourself into a lion, or elephant, and the like.”

“That is true,” answered the ogre very briskly; “and to convince you, you shall see me now become a lion.”

Puss was so terrified at the sight of a lion so near him that he immediately climbed up the curtains, not without difficulty, because his boots were no use to him for climbing. A little while after, when Puss saw that the ogre had resumed his natural form, he came down, and admitted he had been very much frightened.

“However,” said the cat, “I fear that you will not be able to save yourself even in the form of a lion, for the king is coming with his army and means to destroy you.”

The ogre looked out of the window and saw the king waiting outside with his soldiers, and said,

“What shall I do? How shall I save myself?”

Puss replied: “If you can also change yourself into something very small, then you can hide”.

And in an instant, the ogre himself into a mouse, and began to run about the floor. Puss no sooner saw this but he fell upon him and ate him up.

Puss, who heard the noise of his Majesty’s coach running over the draw-bridge, ran out, and said to the King:

“Your Majesty is welcome to this castle of my Lord Marquis of Carabas.”

In the end, the cat not only secures for his master a title, fine clothes, the esteem of the king, and a castle, but also the hand of the princess in marriage. Clearly, he succeeds in his story goal.

Stories that wander about, with things happening to the main character rather than the main character wanting something and going out to get it, scene after scene after scene, are the kind I can easily put down or which might even put me to sleep.

Stories with characters that want something–now that’s a different situation altogether.

So here’s the question: does your character have a goal in each scene? Does mine? I’m in the process of doing a revision, and one of my steps this time around is to identify my point of view character’s scene goal. If I can’t, then I need to do some serious re-writing.


Filed under Characters, Plot, Structure

Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 2

In Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1 we looked at the elements that a scene must have–goal, conflict, and a resulting intensified problem.

Not only do scenes have these specific components, they show the story, verbally unfolding it before readers so that they visualize what’s taking place, as if on the stage of their minds.

How does a writer achieve this level of showing?

As in plays, novels or short stories should paint the scene and highlight the characters, but if that’s all we see on stage, there is no story, only models and artistic backdrops. The key to a good scene, then, is the action of the characters governed by their attempts to achieve their scene goal.

Writers must not neglect the staging, however. Readers need to be able to imagine the scene, and this requires a certain amount of detail. The descriptive elements, when appropriate, should involve all five senses.

Writers should not force sounds or scents into a scene, however. I’ve seen this from time to time in contest entries I’ve judged. For no particular reason other than the writer knows someone is judging to see if description involves all five senses, the sound of someone’s shoes on the floor makes an appearance. Or the smell of the garbage in the bin outside or the taste of the salt on her lips. These details may contribute to the story, but if they don’t they need to be cut.

A scene should feel full and real, but it should not be stuffed with window dressing. The scenery specifics, and the character descriptions, must enhance the action, not overpower it.

Here’s a scene from one of my own contest entries several years ago. Tell me what you think. Is there a character goal? Conflict? Heightened problem? Is the scene painted using the five senses? What would make it better?

The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”

Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”

The gaunt matron scowled. “You’d bring death on me and my family, would you?”

“No one need know I’m working for you. I can come at night—sweep out the common room and the kitchen, wash up your crockery, whatever you have need of.”

Mistress Trent seized her broom and flicked the coarse bristles toward Abi. “I need you to leave my property.”

Abi stepped nearer the door. Cold air seeped from underneath and crawled up her bare legs. She reached for the latch but stopped. Was she really wrong about Mistress Trent? She’d sneaked to the back entrance of The Pilgrims’ Lodge with such high hopes. Something about this tough-acting matron belied her imposing demeanor, but right now she showed no sign of softening.

How could Abi leave empty handed? How could she listen to Bijamin’s whimpering one more night? Her young brother was brave and rarely complained—a credit to all the dissenters—which fueled her determination to complete her task, both parts of it.

“Mistress, I know stitching, of all kinds. I can make you a shawl … or a dress. Whatever you want. No one would even see me.”

The innkeeper shook her head, swatted the air with her broom, and yelled. “Git!”

“Please, Mistress. I can’t let my brother starve.”

The care-worn woman shifted her gaze to the sideboard. “You heard me. Get off my property!” She reached for a pinkish-yellow pomegranate in the fruit bowl and hurled it at Abi.

Abi caught the hard-shelled fruit in one hand. Was this an attack … or a gift? She cocked her head, questioning.

“I don’t want you comin’ back here, is that clear?” Mistress Trent flung another piece of fruit to her.

Abi caught that one as well and tucked both in the pouch at the front of her tunic. “Yes, Mistress.”

“If I so much as see your shadow on the threshold, I’ll send for the constable.”

Abi mouthed a thank you.

Mistress Trent stepped toward her and swung the broom. “Out, or I’ll put you out! Leave my kitchen now!”

With a grin, Abi held up a hand. “I’m going, I’m going.”


Filed under Description, Setting or Story World, Structure

Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1

Recently I started to re-read Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham, an old writing instruction book of mine. Mr. Bickham was clearly a believer in the three act structure of a novel–something I’ve become wary of because I tend to think it leads to formulaic stories. However, there’s much to be said about the “scene” part of the book.

What exactly is a scene in a novel? We have a pretty clear idea of what it is in a play. After all, when reading a script, the scenes and acts are marked. When viewing a play the lights on stage go down at the end of a scene, the characters head for the exits, and sometimes the curtain closes while the stage crew effects changes.

In novels, there isn’t any such clear delineation. Mr. Bickham defines a scene as

a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.

Mr. Bickham went on to say that “the scene is the larger element of fiction with an internal structure . . . and rules . . .”

Structure? Rules? In art? Well, yes, in art–the same way music and painting and poetry have structure and rules. In other words, there are patterns that have brought favorable results in the past from which an author may depart if he has a good reason. However, the majority of successful stories today adhere to a set of basics.

Mr. Bickham taught that this structure was a mirror image of the larger, overarching story structure. In other words, it has the same components: goal, conflict, and intensified problem (which he termed disaster).

Stories start with a character formulating a goal to deal with a story problem. In the same way, scenes start with a scene goal to deal with a scene problem.

Using the recent events in the 2012 London Olympics as an example, we can see how this works. Michael Phelps entered the games needing a certain number of medals to be the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. The “character’s” problem was that he was in his last Olympics and was not the most decorated athlete. His goal, then, was to break the Olympic record and win at least three medals.

Such a goal suggests a story question to the reader, or in this case, the viewer: will Michale Phelps break the record?

Each race, and profiles of other athletes or interviews with them, became the scenes that made up this story. Michael swam the preliminaries of his first event and barely qualified. In the finals, he had an outside lane and failed to medal. One attempt down.

The scene goal of that first competition was to win the event or at least to receive a medal. This goal created a question for the viewer: will Michael win this race and draw closer to becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time? Notice how the scene goal was tied to the story goal.

The scene conflict was the race against other athletes in the preliminaries which brought about a result–Michael was the last qualifier to make the event finals. This result caused a new conflict–he was in a bad lane where few swimmers win races. That positioning brought about another result–he finished out of the medals. The end of the “scene” was a disaster, a failed attempt to move closer to achieving the story goal.

In fictitious stories, the end of one scene should lead naturally to a new scene with its own scene goal. It’s important to keep the goals realistic and achievable, the conflict formidable but not impossible, and the failure not always crushing. In other words, some success can be mixed in with the failure. Often it is the hopeful results that suggest the next goal, although when an action fails utterly, a character must re-evaluate and make a dramatic change in strategy as well.

Story goals are not always centered on defeating an opponent. Sometimes they are about a character becoming, and the conflict is his own self doubt or character weakness.

The story of Samson, a figure in Biblical history, offers a good example. He was destined from birth to be a judge, or rescuer, of his people Israel who were under the rule of a foreign power. The story question readers ask is, will Samson free Israel from their oppressors?

When he grew up, he had incredible God-given strength connected to his maintaining a special vow to God which involved not cutting his hair. But he also had a weakness for the wrong kind of women.

Throughout his life story, he defeated bands of the foreign rulers time and again until they decided to come after him. In one such incident–a scene, if you will–they convinced his new love interest to betray him.

Samson’s goal in the scene was to maintain the secret of his great strength. The conflict he faced was from within because he had a second goal–to keep his latest love happy. Since her goal, now that she’d sold out to Samson’s enemies, was to make him reveal his secret, he could not achieve both his goals. He faced disaster of one kind or the other at the end of the scene.

Great scenes, like great stories, involve both an external and an internal goal. They also have conflicts that make goal achievement slow or non-existent, and they end in some way that necessitates a new plan or phase or effort because of the previous failure or minimal success. That is, until the final scene in which the story goal is accomplished or lost forever.

More on writing in scenes another day.


Filed under Scenes, Structure