by Sione Aeschliman
What is structure?
When we talk about the structure of a novel, we're describing the order of the major plot points, the work that needs to be done by the major plot points and between those plot points, and the timing of the major plot points, with the goals of ensuring that the story 1) hooks the reader, 2) sets up accurate expectations in the first fifty pages about what the story's about, 3) maintains forward momentum, and 4) delivers an appropriately intense emotional payoff.
My approach to narrative structure is influenced primarily by
the three-act structure as explained to me by my friend Diane Gilman,
who wrote screenplays for many years, and by Viki King's description of
the nine plot points in her book How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Influenced being the operative word; what I offer here is not a simple mash-up
of those two approaches but rather my own interpretation of them with modifications to fit commercial and upmarket fiction for today's readers.
Act I: The Beginning
This is The
Beginning of your story, starting on on Page 1. It introduces the
novel's setting, tone, characters, and theme(s) and includes two
inciting incidents: the one that happens within the first five or six pages, and the one that heralds the end of Act I, around page 50.
Yes, that's right: Act I is only 50 pages long, if that. Here's a post that discusses Act I in detail.
people might argue that if your book is longer than average,
your first act can be longer. I would advise against that, and here's
why: Act I is about hooking the reader on your story. If it takes more
than 50 pages to get to your second inciting incident, that means it
takes more than 50 pages for your story to get underway, and you're more
likely to lose readers. If your book is longer, then your middle
and/or resolution can be longer, but not, I would argue, your first act.
the flip side of the coin, if your book is shorter than 50K words, I'd
argue that your 2nd inciting incident should come before p. 50, so Act I
can certainly be shorter than 50 pages.
Act II: The Descent into Hell
This section of
the novel begins with the 2nd inciting incident and ends with the
Darkest Moment. The Middle of the book is about things going from bad to
worse, what my friend Diane calls "dwelling in hell." It is the longest
act by far and includes a series of challenges (dark moments) and
The primary purpose of each scene in Act II
needs to be clearly
related to the main plot and driven by your MC's goal. But it's not a
path for your MC to their goal; they have to fight for it. They
probably have to make sacrifices. There will be ups and downs along
the way and multiple inducements for the MC to give up on or recommit
to their goal.
The Middle also includes a Turning Point
for the MC, where they've grown enough from the events that they let go
of what they thought they wanted in the beginning and articulate a new
goal. If the 2nd
inciting incident swept your MC up in a series of events beyond their
control, there will come a point in Act II, probably around the
middle of the book (and no earlier than the 50% mark), where your MC
decides to take control of the situation and aim for an outcome they
Act II may or may not contain your book's climax, but it definitely contains your book's Darkest Moment (DM), and the end of the DM marks the end of Act II.
is the most emotionally charged moment in your story, and it shows up
late in your story, either toward the end of Act II or in Act III. It
can happen before the DM, in the same scene as the DM, or after the DM.
The Wizard of Oz
Climax: Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch (before the DM)
The Lord of the Rings (whole trilogy)
Golem attacks Frodo at the same time that Aragorn et al battle Sauron's
army at the Black Gates (same-ish time as the DM)
The Princess Bride
Westley, Iñigo and Fezzik storm the castle during Prince Humperdink and
Buttercup's wedding, and Iñigo kills Count Rugen (post-DM, during
Act III: The Resolution
Resolution is about how your MC responds to the Darkest Moment. It's called the Resolution because it's here that your MC either
gets what they were after or doesn't. In a
book with a happy(ish) ending and a long-ish Resolution, this act has
the feel of an upward climb because it's about the MC recommitting to
the goal, coming up with a plan to achieve it, and carrying out that
If the climax of
your book corresponds with The Resolution, this is where the MC has to
triumph over their inner conflict or fatal flaw in order to be
victorious over the primary conflict. In a tragedy, The Resolution is
about the MC not changing enough, not changing at all, or changing too
late and not achieving their goal.
The length of your
Resolution will depend on several factors, including how long your
book's middle is and how much work it'll take for your MC to achieve
their goal. But remember this: the Darkest Moment should come no sooner
than 75% of the way through your book, which means that your Resolution
should account for no more than 25% of your book. For example, if your
book is 300 pages total, then your Resolution can be up to 75 pages long
if you have no denouement. Generally speaking, a long Resolution works
best when your story has multiple POVs and some of the characters' DMs
happen within it (as is the case with The Princess Bride).
Act IV (optional): The Denouement
finally, your book may include a denouement that ties up all the loose
ends and shows what the new normal looks like. This is hands-down the
shortest act of the book. It's a place to wrap up any loose threads and
give readers a moment to revel in the MC's victory (or mourn their
defeat). It is by definition anti-climactic because it's the release
after all the build-up of emotion and tension, but if it goes on very
long, it starts to feel anti-climactic in a bad way.
Everything that comes after the ring being destroyed and the fall of Sauron and his army in Return of the King is the denouement. And, in my opinion,
it's waaaaaaaaay too long, in both the book and the movie. Yes, we want
to make sure all the threads are wrapped up and we feel secure in our
characters' happy ending. And because
LOTR is a trilogy with one continuous story line, the denouement in Return of the King
can absolutely be longer because it's
the denouement of the entire story, not just the third book/movie. But
there's Sam and Frodo being rescued by the Eagles, Frodo's recovery,
Aragorn's crowning ceremony, the return to the Shire (which, in the
book, contains that weird mini-adventure with Saruman and Wormtongue),
and then there's Bilbo and Frodo saying goodbye and sailing off with the
elves.... It just seems to drag on forever. I love you, Tolkien, but
it's too much. At least for today's readers.
In contrast, the denouements in The Wizard of Oz and Hamlet are appropriately short. In Hamlet,
the denouement is Fortinbras's speech wherein he says, "Hey, y'all.
This was really sad. But now I'm gonna take over." (I may have
paraphrased that.) And in The Wizard of Oz, it's Dorothy waking
up in bed, surrounded by friends and family and saying, "And you were
there, and you, and you!" and "There's no place like home!" and really
Do you need a denouement? You do if there
are still loose ends after the Resolution or if for other reasons the
story doesn't feel complete after the Resolution. A denouement is also useful if you want to leave readers on a different
emotional note than the one they're on at the end of the Resolution and/or if your book is a first-in-series and you want to hint at the next book's primary external conflict.
A couple of caveats
I'm incredibly wary of anything prescriptive, especially when it
comes to a creative endeavor. There are no hard-and-fast rules in fiction writing. Having a philosophy for structure is
helpful in identifying what's not working, but that doesn't mean that a
novel will only work when it follows this structure.
also important to note that the structure is pretty flexible in some
places. For example, I don't believe there's a particular Right Place
for the MC's Turning Point. If your MC is particularly stubborn, I could
even see it coming in Act III and still being relevant, so long as
there's appropriate challenge and conflict all throughout Act II.
(Example: Han Solo's turning point doesn't happen until the Act III
climax of A New Hope, when he shows up out of the blue just after
the DM to help them take out the Death Star.) As discussed above, the
placement of your book's climax is also very flexible.
said, there are a few guidelines that I *do* treat as hard-and-fast
rules because I think they provide a really important structure for
pacing: the 2nd inciting incident needs to come before or on p. 50, the
Turning Point can't come before the 50% mark (because otherwise it seems
too easy), and the Darkest Moment has to wait until you're at least 75%
of the way through the story (because otherwise there isn't sufficient
emotional build-up). I fight hard for these beats in my own books and
when editing client work.
Last but certainly not least, I think it's important to establish when it's
appropriate to think about structure (and when it isn't). Appropriate:
in the planning phase of writing a novel and during editing. NOT appropriate: during
drafting. As Ana Pascoe writes in her blog post "The Pressure Cooker of Advice,"
if I try to keep All The Things in mind when I sit down to
create, I become overwhelmed by the pressures and shut down. It's what
Diane Gilman, in her forthcoming nonfiction book tentatively titled How to Not Write a Book,
talks about in terms of barriers: all those rules for good writing and
good storytelling become barriers between ourselves and the page. I've
done this to myself too many times to count. So long story short: I
don't think about structure while I'm writing. But I do use the concepts
during the planning phase to help me think about whether I have enough
conflict and what needs to happen roughly when. In the editing phase,
both of my own and of clients' work, I lean heavily on my understanding
of structure to figure out pacing of the plot and characters arcs.
Other resources on novel structure
After my post about the Darkest Moment, a client also mentioned Larry Brooks's take on plot structure in his book Story Engineering. Following that trail led me to author Jami Gold's website, where she has created and made available several different plot beat sheets, including ones based on Brooks's approach and on Gold's own. I also have clients who have found Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey helpful in thinking about major plot points.
Have questions about your own novel's structure? Join Sione on Friday, July 28th at 8pm on Twitter's #ShoreIndie hashtag for a 60-minute workshop on "Your Novel's Structure."
Sione Aeschliman (pronounced see-OWN ASH-lemon) is an editor and writing coach with a Master's degree in English and over fourteen years of editing experience. Since becoming a full-time freelance editor in 2012, she’s had the honor of working with authors from several countries on a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction projects. Last year she was an editor in the Pitch to Publication Twitter contest and faculty at the inaugural The Work Conference in New York City. This year she’s a #RevPit editor, creator of the ShoreIndie contest, co-editor of an anthology of floating-inspired prose and poetry for Coincidence Control Publishing, and teacher of genre fiction writing at the Show:Tell Workshop for Teen Writers and Artists.
Under her own name Sione writes prose and poetry (and prose poetry) about dusty heart-drawers and being chased by nunchuck-wielding ducks. Under pseudonym she is the indie author of seven books published in the last five years.
Although she lives in Portland, Oregon, she does not own a bicycle and is woefully underprepared for the zombie apocalypse, but her adorkable dog, Milton, is an Expert Urban Forager.