The Two Pillars of Novel Structure

 

by Michael Mohr

 

I want to talk briefly about novel structure because, as a novel editor, I see all kinds of basic issues from the majority of the aspiring writer-clients I work with. There is a wealth of info out there on the web but I wanted to give you a little taste of what makes a solid novel. Because, especially if you write commercial fiction and hope to land an agent and get published, novel structure is incredibly important to pay attention to.

The basic concept of the three-act novel structure dates back to Aristotle from his “Poetics” (335 BCE) in which he studies dramatic structure in plays of the ancient Greeks. In modern times, the three-act structure has been more sharply defined and explored by Joseph Campbell, author of such classics as “The Hero’s Journey” and “The Power of Myth,” among many others.

Campbell’s three-act novel structure included Act One (the setup); Act Two (the confrontation); and Act Three (the resolution). In Act One is the “inciting” incident, the event which propels the character into the story journey. There is a climax at the end of Act One which pushes the character into Act Two.

In Act Two the MC (Main Character) pushes through obstacles galore, chasing their goal. There is ascending action and there is a mid-point twist, more obstacles, a disaster, and then the climax of Act Two, which forces the MC into Act Three. In Act Three there is the climax and then descending action and the denouement (wrap up) and the end.

Setup, confrontation, and resolution.

And then there is, most recently, James Scott Bell, a master of the modern day thriller and author of such writing how-to books as “Plot and Structure,” “Revision and Self editing,” “The Art of War for Writers,” “Conflict and Suspense,” and many more.

Bell wrote an article a few years back titled “The Two Pillars of Novel Structure.” I am going to give you a rough, general sketch of what that article says and also relate it to my own experience working with writers.

You can’t just “write a book” and be done with it. Not if you expect to sell. Not if you expect to write engaging, suspenseful prose and a book that readers simply cannot put down. There are Reader Expectations that writers need to know about. Readers themselves often don’t know they demand certain things from novels…but they do. And, as a writer, if you don’t know what those demands are…you’ll likely be dead in the water before you even get to page 10.

Bell talks about this idea of writing “hot” and editing/revising “cold.” The first draft is never going to be ready to go anywhere except into a drawer for a few weeks or a month until you reread it as objectively as possible then take the red pen out and revise/rewrite.

So, write that first draft with passion; write hot. But when you pause and return with the sacred (and infuriating!) red pen, write cold; in other words, look at structure. Because in the first draft you were getting sucked into the world (hopefully), focusing instead on character and world-building and dialogue, etc.

Bell uses the metaphor of story structure being like a suspension bridge. The two key foundations are there holding up the bridge, the pillars. He says: “Every story has to begin, and every story has to end. And the middle has to hold the reader’s interest.” Right. The middle. The hardest and longest portion of your novel. Kind of a tall order, huh?

“The craft of structure tells you how to begin with a bang, knock readers out at the end, and keep them turning pages all the way through,” Bell continues. “When you ignore structure, your novel can begin to feel like one of those rope bridges swinging wildly in the wind over a 1,000-foot gorge. Not many readers are going to want to go across.”

 

THE FIRST PILLAR

Bell lets us know that the beginning of a novel should do a few things: Let us know who the protagonist is, introduce the Story Problem/Goal, set the tone/introduce the voice, and set the stakes. Getting to the first pillar is what he calls The Door of No Return. (This is like Campbell’s The Hero’s journey–descent into hell and return). Once the character passes through this door, BEFORE the 1/5th mark of your novel, they cannot return. They have walked through a one-way-only portal.

Bell also mentions that the protagonist must suffer and struggle. I tell this to clients all the time. Readers read for two main reasons: To empathize and to sympathize. They want to relate to your character and feel their pain, and yet also, at the same time, they want to think, “God, I’m sure glad I’m not them!” It’s the irony of the human condition. Bell says, “A successful novel is about high-stakes trouble. True character is revealed only in crisis.” Bell calls the opening issue the “opening disturbance.” The MC should experience this in the opening pages.

Then the first pillar thrusts the MC into Act Two. The character wants to stay in the “ordinary” world but now cannot and is instead, against their will, thrust into the “dark world” of Act Two. From now on their will be major troubles and hurdles/obstacles that the MC must push through and barely survive.

Act Two is all about “death stakes.” Bell explains the three types of death: physical, professional, psychological. Your character must face one of the three or more. Remember (and this is key): Your MC MUST change/transform through the journey. By the end of the novel they must be different than they were on page one, and we must have seen that transformation throughout the novel. Think of your overarching Story Question (also called Premise or Theme).

Bell says, “…in novels, it’s best to have that first doorway appear earlier. In a fast-moving action novel like The Hunger Games, it can happen quickly. It’s in chapter 1 that Katniss hears her sister’s name chosen for the games, and in the beginning of chapter 2 volunteers to take her place.”

Bell uses several examples in his article to demonstrate the passage of the first pillar. One is Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Starling is thrust into a psychological game with Lecter and this might possibly be the only way she can ultimately solve the case.

 

THE SECOND PILLAR

The second pillar is another Doorway of No Return, only this pillar makes the final resolution necessary. This act, in the middle of the two pillars (on the “bridge”) is where all the action happens. “The second act is a series of actions where the character confronts and resists death, and is opposed by counterforces.”

There are obstacles in the MC’s way and the MC must fight. No exceptions. At last the second pillar/doorway opens in the form of a major crisis or setback, clue or discovery. It forces the MC into Act Three and the final battle and resolution.

In Bell’s article, he goes over these points with a fine-tooth comb. He asks simple novel-in-progress questions related to these points, to get you going in the right direction. The main thing to remember is that all good novels that sell (or 99 percent of them) have some type of basic novel structure. Learn it, live it, love it.

If you allow the basic three act structure and the two pillar structure idea to seep into your consciousness, you are that much closer to creating a kick-ass novel that readers won’t be able to put down.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Michael Mohr. Michael is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, Writer Unboxed, and MASH. You can find his writing/editing website here.

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21 thoughts on “The Two Pillars of Novel Structure”

  1. Reblogged this on The Kingdom of the Woodland Realm Trilogy and commented:
    This is classic. If you’ve read Aristotle’s Poetics or any of Joseph Campbell’s work, this combines the two perfectly. I’m alway into the idea of classic katharsis (spelled correctly). I use both The idea of the Aristolian unities of drama with the idea of the contemporary idea of the literary hero and how he/she works within the modern concepts of the heroic perceptions. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a really useful break down, particularly for someone like me who tried and failed to read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – oops! Thanks for sharing, I’ll be bookmarking this for reference 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks so much for posting this. Really helpful and useful advice. Currently my first draft is sat on the coffee table while I look at it morosely wondering how the hell in ever going to get around the rewriting THE ENTIRE THING! Will definitely take onboard your advice while I do a bit of planning in preparation for the big rewrite 🙈

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For some reason I am reminded of something W. Somerset Maugham wrote: “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is because I don’t know what else to call it. I have a little story to tell, and I end it with neither a death or a marriage.” The Razor’s Edge

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think, as in real life, there is always a difficult problem (a problem to solve, an incident), then there is an action or a lack there of (which is in itself is an action) and at last a resolution (an action that resolves the problem or an acceptance of the problem) that is an action also. So, all of life is made up of those three things. I agree with W. Somerset, If one has a story to tell, than just tell it. If one is a really good writer, and can express the problem with finesse, heart and soul, it is bound to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I also want to add that your post, The Two Pillars of Novel Structure, is excellent and it really made me think about what it takes to write a good, compelling story. (I am still working on that part, to be a better writer. Thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Audiences read to empathize and sympathize, very sharp observation.
    And the concept of the 3 deaths (professional, psychological, and physical), that’s another very insightful element.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think the beginning and end are the easiest parts of the novel to write. But the second act always trips up a lot of writers, including myself. It’s probably because most 3-act structure guidelines seem to treat the second act as equal in length to the first and third act when in reality it’s the longest and most difficult to write. At least this bridge metaphor takes that into account.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was very inspiring and helpful! It’s always cool to hear things from an editor’s standpoint. It’s helpful advice too to know that it’s good to reach that call to adventure sooner in the book rather than later, and “writing hot” and “editing cold” might just solve a lot of the problems I’ve been having in writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This was incredibly helpful! A lot of times I was told to write the things as they came to head and worry about the mistakes later when editing came, but I never truly understood how would that work or how to even do it. This did explain it a lot better to me, thank you so much!

    Like

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