In this article I will teach you a set of techniques that will allow you to bring cohesion and a meaningful narrative arc to the structure of your novel. The techniques will allow you to avoid producing confusing, and emotionally disappointing story narratives. Ultimately, these techniques will allow you to produce a novel that stands a far better chance of getting published.
It is easy to mock and dismiss the ‘science’ behind story writing. Hey, I used to do it a lot (though I was unpublished at the time). It was not until I learned more about the technical nature of writing and how a narrative can be constructed from scratch, that I finally lifted my own writing from a mediocre level, up to a level where publishers were prepared to take a gamble on my books.
The Five Act Structure
Dramatic Structure is a narrative structure that is taken from the Ancient Greeks and was used with great success by Shakespeare. In fact, Dramatic Stricture remains the basic narrative framework on which the majority of successful novels, plays and films are based. In its very simplest terms this is the idea of a start, a middle and an end.
In 1863 German playwright Gustav Freytag set out what was to become known as the ‘dramatic arc’. Freytag identified a five act structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. He produced a pyramid to demonstrate this idea, this is known as the Freytag pyramid. The five acts can be broken down as follows:
- 1. Exposition: Sets up the story providing any contextual background the reader needs, but most importantly it contains the inciting moment. This is the incident that sets the story in motion. It is an incident that forces the protagonist to react and requires resolution, producing narrative tension. In a crime novel the inciting moment maybe the discovery of a body, setting up the story for the main protagonist to find and capture the murderer.
- 2. Rising Action: On a simplistic level this is the obstacles that are placed in the way of the protagonists as they attempt to resolve the inciting moment.
- 3. Climax: This is the turning point of the story. It is the point of the highest tension. In many modern narratives, this is the big battle or showdown.
- 4. Falling Action: The falling action is that part of the story in which the main part (the climax) has finished and you’re heading to the conclusion. This is the calm after the tension of the climax.
- Dénouement: This is the resolution of the story where conflicts are resolved and loose ends tied up. This is the moment of emotional release for the reader.
Perhaps the most famous example of the Five Act Structure is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Here’s a summary of the five acts:
- Exposition - The exposition is very vague since the characters are introduced throughout the first part of the play. It can be considered that the entire first act is the exposition. Inciting incident - The three witches start the play off with a prophecy that Macbeth will become king and that Banquo’s children will become kings after Macbeth.
- Rising action - The rising action is when some of the prophecies are coming true and Lady Macbeth is trying to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan.
- Crisis / Climax - The climax is the actual murder of Duncan.
- Falling action - The falling action is all the events occurring after the murder where Macbeth tries to hide his crime and cement his position as king by killing other would-be kings. Lady Macbeth goes insane.
- Denouement - Lady Macbeth dies and Macbeth is executed. Malcolm becomes the King.
The Five Act Structure is a very classical interpretation of dramatic structure. The start of the 19th Century (and the rise of the film) saw a more simple, but very similar narrative structure increasing in popularity: the Three Act Structure.
The Three Act Structure
- 1. Set Up: This is the introduction of the characters, plus any information the reader needs as context for the upcoming events. This also contains the inciting moment, which establishes narrative tension and spurs the protagonist into action.
- 2. Confrontation: The act sees the protagonist facing conflict to resolve the situation. Each time they appear to have found a solution, they are faced with increased more intense problems.
- Resolution: This act sees resolution of the inciting moment and ties up any loose ends that have been unravelled. This is a mixture of climax and Dénouement from the Five Act Structure.
A good example of the Three Act Structure is Star Wars. This flow diagram from William P. Coleman’s blog offers an excellent simplification of the narrative arc.
How To Write Using Structure
The theory behind story is long established, but applying it to your writing is not an easy task. As a starting point I would suggest you ask (and answer) these three questions:
- 1. What is the inciting incident in your book? This incident must have such an impact on the protagonist that they are left permanently altered and have no choice but to act to resolve the incident.
- 2. What conflict does your protagonist face? Conflict can be Inner (internal, in the mind), Personal (with family and friends) or Extra-Personal (with Society as a whole). Conflict is the fuel that drives your narrative.
- 3. How is the Inciting Incident resolved? The resolution to the inciting incident must overcome the conflict and leave the protagonist permanently changed.
The answer to these questions will give you the framework on which you can build your three or five act story. However, to actually build the structure, you need to understand how acts are formed.
The building blocks of an act are scenes. In its simplest form a scene is an event that forces the protagonist to act, altering them in the process.
To examine further… the scene will begin with the protagonist in a certain state. This may be as simple as happy or sad, or something far more complex as being perceived as a hero or villain. An event will occur that will force the protagonist to react. In reacting to the event, the protagonist is faced with conflict, which they overcome. In this process their state is altered.
For example; the protagonist of a novel is driving his car late at night along a seemingly deserted street. He is returning from a date with his girlfriend, where he proposed and she said yes. He is happy and content, his world seems to be falling into place. Suddenly, a drunken man stumbles out in front of his car. The protagonist can’t stop in time and he hits the man. The protagonist halts the car and can see the drunken man lying in the road. The protagonist looks around. There is no one else about. No one has seen him hit the man. What should he do? The right thing would be to phone the police and ambulance services, but he has had a drink and might be arrested [conflict]. He stares at his phone and glances at the man in the road before finally speeding away.
This scene sees the protagonist moving from a state of happiness and contentment to one of confusion. In a split second his world has changed from blissful peace to chaotic pain. One thing to note is that this scenes sets up the chance to examine another layer of writing, and that is the difference between a character’s thoughts and their actions.
Imagine in writing this novel you had developed a backstory where the protagonist was a ‘great guy’. You had even included a scene where he goes to great lengths to comment about his ‘ethics’. You have a side character commenting on him being a “nice guy” and an “honest person.” This one scene suddenly exposes a chasm between the protagonist’s thoughts and words and his actions, demonstrating a difference between his internal dialogue and his external actions. This is a good example of why events in themselves are of little interest, but the way characters react to these events is fascinating.
An act is constructed by linking a number of scenes. The act, in itself, will have its own narrative arc with the same rules as the scene. An act will see the protagonist changing state as he overcomes conflict. Each scene will see the protagonist moving in a stepwise fashion from one state to the other.
When considering an act structure for your novel, my tip is to start with the sweeping narrative of your story, then to build into this the Three or Five Act Structure. Once you have these acts in place, you can then pencil in the key events turning these into scenes. You can then sketch out the event, conflict and change in state for each scene before finally writing.
What To Do Now…
The Three and Five Act Structures are just two of many act structures, but they are, especially the Three Act, by far the most common form of storytelling. I would urge you to go back to the novel you are currently writing and determine if you are applying an act structure to your narrative. If not, then it’s time to act.
My final note is a plea… don’t fall into the trap of thinking at your writing is beyond the need for the act structure. It is true that there are examples of unstructured novels and films. They exist, but to be honest they are rare. Most successful novelists and screenwriters will have paved the way with classic Three and Five Act works, long before they drum up the confidence to break the rules. If you are looking to apply an act structure to your novel, start with the Three Act Structure, it is the easiest to understand and will give you the best results with the least amount of effort. A well written novel, that falls into a three or five act framework, has a far better chance of being published than one that is written with an unstructured narrative.