Tag Archives: narrative structure

The Structure Game

A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not.  Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?

Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line.  The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically.  So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train.  But how?

Who are the heroes?  I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train.  A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center.  A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie.  Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.

Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains.  But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress.  The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.



Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

The last two weeks, my mind has been preoccupied with the science fiction short story I’m working on.  All sorts of problems so far and I’m not yet finished with the first draft.  The biggest problem was its structure.  I have to think about structure for a short story?  Sure.  Any story, no matter how long, needs a solid structure.  OK.  What is the structure of my science fiction short story?

Freytag Pyramid for narrative structure

Freytag Pyramid for narrative structure

I learned about structure when I studied screenwriting. In the class I took, we studied two structures: 3-Act Dramatic and Sequenced. The first is probably the most common story structure.  The second can actually be broken into 3 Acts  as well as standing on its own and isn’t as common.  The story I always think of for sequenced structure is the 1995 movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.  For a while I was thinking that maybe my sci fi short story was a sequenced narrative structure until my imagination finally handed me the solution to one of the other problems it had. Now I know that it’s a 3-Act Dramatic narrative structure.  So, what’s the difference between the two?

Sequenced  narrative structure begins at a relative low point in terms of plot and story. The reader is dropped into the story in media res or in the middle of action albeit not necessarily crucial action in which a character makes a defining decision or sets a specific goal to achieve. There is very little set-up or exposition. From there, the character(s) encounter one obstacle after another, one conflict after another, in escalating intensity until the climax and resolution.

In 3-Act Dramatic structure, there are three sections or acts weighted approximately as 1-2-1 or 25%-50%-25%.  The acts are defined as follows:

  1.  The Exposition Act or Set-Up: in the beginning there was the introduction of characters, setting, time, and the situation. There is a rising tension until the main character makes a decision or sets a goal to achieve, i.e. a turning point.  This is sometimes also described as the main character’s primary desire.  What does the main character want and what will he do to get it?
  2. The Conflict Act: in the middle is one conflict after another, one obstacle set in the main character’s way after another, one development after another.  In this act, the reader often finds out what the villain wants and what he’ll do to get it, working against the main character.  The difficulty of the obstacles/conflicts increases until at the end of this act, when the main character is in crisis — it looks like all is lost for the main character and he has no way of achieving what he wants.
  3. The Climax Act: at the beginning of this act, the main character learns something or realizes something from an accumulation of information/detail during Act 2 that gives him what he needs to    achieve his goal or not (the climax).  Then there can be a short “resolution” that ties up any loose ends or provides explanations.

Readers expect conflict in a story.  It can be a conflict of the main character vs. another character or group of characters; the main character vs. Nature; the main character vs. him or herself; or the main character vs. God (which is rare).  The first two conflicts are the most common. There can also be peripheral conflicts that function as obstacles.  But there must be conflict.

In my sci fi short story, I realized that I didn’t know what my main character wanted.  Then it hit me what she wanted, that she’d been actually telling me throughout what I’d already written and I just hadn’t been paying attention.  And then I felt that exquisite physical sensation of cascading tingling from head to toes that tells me YES! THAT’S IT!  Now I know that this story has a 3-Act Dramatic structure.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net




Marathon Novels

Why do some novels endure for decades or centuries and others burst out as blockbusters then disappear? What makes a great novel, great?  Is there a formula?  Will J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels stand the test of time?  What are some examples of novels that are classics and great?

Whew.  I’m not certain that I’m up to writing about great novels, but I want to give it a try.  First of all, I believe great novels transcend individual literary taste.  A great novel tells a compelling story that applies not only to the individual but the human condition in general.  It’s not preachy but has a message or theme that’s clear.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’s message is the very first sentence of the novel: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  That begs the question: Are there really any happy families?  Tolstoy then proceeds to illustrate this theme in a compelling story of one woman’s struggle to find happiness.  He explores human passion, deception, betrayal and loyalty in the stylized society of 19th century Russia, giving the reader a tapestry of the time and culture as well as showing that wealth has nothing to do with happiness.

Character plays an important role in making a novel great.  Where would To Kill a Mockingbird be without Atticus Finch, Scout and Jeb?  Or Moby Dick without Captain Ahab’s obsession?  Or the Harry Potter novels without Voldemort and Dumbledore, Harry, Hermoine, Ron and Draco?  The protagonist needs to not only be memorable but flawed, human in a way that most readers can identify with.  The antagonist, as important as the protagonist, also needs to be human (when a person), a worthy adversary.  Characters develop and change in great novels; and by identifying with them, the reader learns something about people or him/herself.

Great novels respect narrative structure and momentum with clarity and a steady pace.  By respect, I mean that the author has given the story a clear structure that serves as a seaworthy vessel in which the reader can journey through the story.  Three-act dramatic structure is the most common, but there are others that can be as effective while reflecting the story’s theme or an underlying conflict. The protagonist drives the dramatic momentum forward while the antagonist or other characters try to derail it.

Back in high school, an English teacher told us that there are only four conflicts in literature: human vs. human, human vs. self, human vs. nature, and human vs. God.  Oh, but the possibilities contained in each!  Great novels have great conflicts.  The characters pull in the reader’s emotional involvement, making the conflicts the reader’s also.  How people create and resolve conflicts reveals their characters, and it’s the same in great novels.

Memorable settings that reveal the human in the time period of the story and the location help make great novels great.  Harper Lee’s Alabama in the 1930’s is an essential element of her story and contributes to characters’ behavior and beliefs.  What would Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain be without the physical landscape and the Civil War?  The descriptive passages in great novels beg the reader to linger in them and a huge reason is….

Language.  Great novels showcase language, challenge the reader as Cormac McCarthy did in The Road.  Not much happens in that novel, but his descriptions and the language he uses reveal a great deal about humans and the human condition.  The conflicts in that novel are both overt and covert — other people and nature are the overt ones, and fear, hunger, commitment and memory are the covert.   The man and boy struggle with each throughout the story.  Harper Lee’s language in To Kill a Mockingbird is conversational, a story-telling voice that mimics Scout’s voice but is the adult looking back.

What’s the formula?  It is the same for writing any novel, but I think great novelists fear nothing in the writing, especially not emotion.  What may set a novel apart could be the emotional element — the characters’ emotions, the conflicts’ emotions, the emotional attachments and identification with the settings and time periods, the beliefs and behaviors with the readers’ emotions.  Unfortunately or fortunately, there’s no way to standardize that into a formula.

I’ve intentionally not mentioned book sales…..

Revision Process — Structure

I swear, how does The Writer know?!  This time, in the July 2011 issue, they’ve provided an entire section on “Revising Your Work” just when I’m gearing up to start revising my work.  It’s uncanny.  And quite welcome.  I needed all the reminders these articles provided for tackling revision.  In thinking about how I begin, I realized that my beginning is with the characters and conflict which for my writing means structure.

The most common narrative structure is 3-act dramatic structure, i.e. beginning, middle and end.  To begin a revision, I read through the story, making notes to myself about where the beginning section changes to the middle section and then the middle to the ending.  The middle, or conflict act, should be at least twice as long as either the beginning or ending sections.  This read-through will expose any problems. 

So what specifically do I look for at the end of each section?  For me, character drives everything, and the main character determines structure.  So, in the beginning, “the set-up,” I introduce my main character in all his glory and warts, establish the characters in his life, and by the end of this section, he needs to face a situation that will force a decision or reveal what he wants.  The main character’s desire propels the action right into the second act.  If this first section seems to be going on and on, the most important question I can ask myself is “What does my main character want?”  Once I have the answer, then I can better correct any issues with this section and the transition to the next act.

The conflict act is the middle of the story, and as its name suggests, it should be chockfull of conflict, of other characters trying to thwart the main character in her attempts or journey to get what she wants.  Each of the other characters also has a desire that needs to be in conflict or opposed to the main character’s.  So, at the beginning of this act, especially if I’m having problems with it, I “interview” all the secondary characters to learn who they are and what they want.  Then I ask this question of each character, including the main character: “What will you do to get what you want?”  The answer for each becomes each character’s strategy for act 2.  In general, there needs to be at least one character diametrically opposed to the main character’s desire and actions to provide enough conflict for the second act, but the more the better.  By the end of act 2, my protagonist’s antagonist(s) haved enjoyed so much success that she is stuck, looking into the face of failure, unless something happens or new information becomes available.  This is followed by….

Relief to the tension of the protagonist stuck with nowhere to go — something does happen or more information does become available.  This “event” needs to be organic, not a deus ex machina, with clues or hints or some kind of a set-up occurring throughout the second act.  Armed with renewed desire and a path to gaining what he wants, the protagonist’s actions come to the climax of the story where either he gets what he wants or not.  The final structural questions I ask myself is just that: “Does he get it or not?  If not, why?”  The “why” leads to a resolution to the third act and the end.

I’ve worked with other structures, and in every one, there is always one character whose desire drives the structure and dramatic momentum.  It doesn’t have to be the main character, but it most often is.  When a main character is an anti-hero, as Evan Quinn is, the structure and what drives it is still the same.  Sometimes, the desire is the anti-hero’s, sometimes it’s the character opposing him.

The helpful article in the July The Writer about character and conflict is “Use a checklist to target character & conflict” by Gregory Martin.  Now I’m ready to get to work….

Narrative Structure

Yesterday afternoon, while riding a city bus home, I started thinking about narrative structure.   I couldn’t remember ever studying it in school.  For all the fiction I read in junior high and high school, as well as plays, I cannot remember the teachers ever discussing overall narrative structure.  It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class almost 14 years ago that I learned about 3 Act Dramatic Structure, the most common narrative structure.  The teacher also talked about sequenced structure and non-linear structure, both not that common.  I had a terrible time actually applying 3 Act Dramatic Structure to the screenplay I was writing.  It took about a month for me to truly understand the protagonist’s decision moment that drives him and the rest of the story.  I felt that I should already know this stuff and my mind resisted learning it.  Eventually, with the teacher’s help, I got it.  And I’ve not forgotten it.

The 3 acts are: exposition, conflict/obstacle, and climax/resolution.  It is the structure humans have used for hundreds of years, and we continue to use it whether we’re writing a novel or telling a friend what happened at the mall over the weekend.  I’ve used it for each Perceval novel (at least the first 3, and I expect to use it for the last 2), as well as for the overall structure of the Perceval pentad.

The expostion act, also known as the set-up: introduction of setting, characters, situation, all through action rather than expository writing.  In a novel, it’s also possible to use internal monologues as well.  At the end of this act, the main character faces a situation in which he must act or make a decision which clarifies or defines what he wants.  Some writers call this moment establishing the character’s goal or desire.  The character needs to want something which provides the motivation for his actions.  I often ask myself at this point: what will he do to get what he wants?

The conflict/obstacle act: the longest part of the story (and where it’s easiest to get bogged down), the protagonist acts to get what he wants and deals with any obstacles or conflicts that arise to thwart him.  The best obstacles are people, of course, especially someone working against the protagonist to fulfill his or her own agenda.  The protagonist can also be his or her own obstacle.  But each conflict or obstacle needs to be harder to overcome than the previous one.  This leads to a scene when all looks lost, the protagonist will fail.  But then he gains an insight, discovers something, or another character has something that will help him get what he wants, and this leads immediately into —

The climax/resolution act: this act can be a page long or 10 pages, whatever is needed for the big ending when the protagonist gets what he wants or doesn’t.  Sometimes there’ll be a few pages of resolution to tie up loose ends or set up a continuation.  The climax, however, is directly related to that decision moment at the end of Act 1.  If it’s not, something’s wrong and the whole structure needs to be re-examined for that story.

I enjoy watching movies or reading books and making a note when the decision moment comes.  One of my favorite examples is the movie The Verdict starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer who’s hired for a medical malpractice case involving a young woman on a ventilator in the hospital.  The decision moment in this movie is a silent one, punctuated by the sound of Newman’s Polaroid camera and the ventilator as he takes photos of the young woman.  His face changes, his movements slow down, and suddenly it becomes evident what Newman’s lawyer wants.  Rarely does a character say “I want….” at this decision moment, but it will still be clear.

As an interesting challenge, the screenwriting teacher asked us to outline the structure of the movie Slaughterhouse Five.  The story jumps around in time from present to past to future while the setting changes accordingly for Billy Pilgrim.  It’s interesting that while Billy is the protagonist, he is not the character on which the structure is based, but the object of the character’s goal.  So, 3 Act Dramatic Structure can be used for the structure in a non-linear story as easily as in a straightforward, traditional story.