Choose your novel’s structure

We’ve completed the Plot segment of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist, and now we move on to Structure.

Traditionally, writing instructors have advocated a structure for novels modeled after that used in theater, which is why this item is on the checklist:

Key events or turning points form a three- or five-act structure.

You could plan your structure before you write, but if you’re not an outliner, this may not be enjoyable or feasible. But we’re editing now, and once you’ve finished first draft, you can examine it to see whether your story fits one of the usual models, and tweak if you choose to.

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Three acts

Act 1: Everything up until the hero chooses to commit to solving the story problem
Act 2: Everything leading from there to the climax
Act 3: Climax and denouement.

You see this structure very clearly in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Act 1 ends at the point where Luke and Obi-Wan board the Millennium Falcon. Act 2 runs through the rescue of Leia, the death of Obi-Wan, and the briefing before the battle. Act 3 is the Death Star battle through the end.

Five acts

Act 1: Setup of the hero’s everyday world
Act 2: The inciting incident and conflicts that push the hero to make a decision
Act 3: Everything leading up to the climax
Act 4: Climax
Act 5: Denouement

For this, have a look at Henry V. Act 1 includes the events leading up to the ambassadors’ visit to the king. In Act 2, the king gathers his troops and goes to France. Act 3 covers a series of battles between the English and French. Act 4 is the Battle of Agincourt, and Act 5 is the aftermath of the battle.

Which structure you choose depends on how many turning points you have. The proverbial “three disasters and a conclusion” would give you three acts. If you have more disasters than that, use the five-act structure.

Or not.

It’s OK if you don’t check this item off because your story doesn’t fit this model.

Steven James, a thriller writer, uses the term “organic writing” for working without an outline—what others call writing by the seat of your pants. James points out, quite rightly, I think, that as long as your plot is based on a series of cause and effect relationships, it will be profluent, which is more important than architecture.

About which more next time.

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1 Comment

  1. […] The traditional three- and five-act structure is great for writers who outline. For those who don’t, not so much which is why it’s not a huge problem if you look at this item on the checklist and can’t really check it off: […]

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