A writer I know has a helpful book titled “Plot Skeleton,” wherein the author divides up the different parts of a fictional story by percentages and—body parts. Hint: If you get to the knees without a good climax, you’re in trouble! But the Plot Skeleton got me thinking about fiction structure, so let’s run with it.
Writing Tip for Today: How can we better understand the most
effective structure for fiction?
Acts of Fiction
Most writers start off hearing about a Three-Act Structure, which is time tested. Three-Act is borrowed from theater and follows a similar trajectory. Tension builds as the protagonist grapples with tougher obstacles and setbacks, culminating in that late second act Climax Scene. The slender Third Act is reserved for a brief resolution or denouement.
New writers (and sometimes more skilled writers) stumble in
a couple of areas. First, there’s a natural tendency to think of each of the
three acts as equal in duration. Yet the most effective stories which follow
the classic structure usually lay down a moderately long set up in Act One, a
beefy and lengthier Act Two (which includes the climax) and then that brief Act
Three for a satisfying resolution. If you set up a tri-fold board and use each
panel for an Act, you should wind up with most of your scene post-its in the
Act Two middle.
A second way to go off track is to use your most gripping or tense scene at the opening. This is sometimes referred to as “burning down the tree” in Act One—meaning you have no higher tension reserved for your climax scene. In Act One, try to write your character’s goal in a compelling way that doesn’t give away the ultimate climax battle.
Plots are Bones
If your overall story or Three-Act structure is the story’s body, your plot is the bones—how your story is able to stand. A story is about a character, a plot is about the events which the character must go through to attain a goal or not. Our human bodies don’t usually display our bones (unless it’s an x-ray), and in the best stories, the plot feels natural and rather invisible. These hidden bones hold up the story so well, readers believe it could not have unfolded any other way.
In constructing your plot, watch out for contrived or convoluted plot points that feel cliché or which are easy solutions to complicated problems. Readers will be quick to judge your story’s events if they feel a lack of authenticity—as in, “That character would never say that, do that or go there.”
Also, with the popularity of historical novels, it’s
important not to paint yourself into a corner with a plot that doesn’t reflect
that era’s reality. I’m currently finishing a novel set in the 1950s, and one
of the most challenging aspects has been to match that era to the current times
without putting a can of Pepsi in the medieval castle as they did in the TV
version of GOT. Historical readers are hawkish about period details.
The story and plot won’t be much more than a nondescript bag
of bones without a strong network of connective tissue. Your scenes are where
the plot gets acted out by your character. Scenes, like connective tissue in
our bodies, help maintain movement. If readers feel the story has stalled, you
may need to revise your scenes to better move your story.
These scenes need movement that is initiated by obstacles but won or lost by your character. Your character’s reactions, dilemmas and decisions as she/he faces each new scene must point toward the climax. A setback can contribute to rising tension and helps readers root for the character by showing resolve for the goal.
Take a look at your scenes in any act of the story. Does
your character lose more than win during the second part of Act I and nearly
all of Act II? Is the tension rising all the way to the (burning tree) climax?
Are you forcing your character to face danger, give her best shot at winning
and when he gets knocked down, get up again? If not, your fiction’s connective
tissue might need a trip to the gym or better yet, some scene rewriting.