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.