The following ten key structural ideas underlie just about every novel, film and short story.
1. Three act structure
Virtually all films and novels have three acts. The first act usually introduces the main characters and gives us the set-up. It begins with the inciting incident and ends with the first turning point (see below) The first act is usually short-ish. In most Hollywood films, the first act ends, and the first turning point occurs after around 27 minutes.
Examples: In Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s DeLorean car hits 88 MPH and goes back to 1955 at 27 minutes in. In Witness, detective John Book (Harrison Ford) realises that the murderers are police officers and that he can protect his witnesses (Kelly McGillis and her child) only by hiding out in the Amish community, at 27 minutes in.
The second act is usually the meat of the book or film and takes up the lion’s share, perhaps an hour of so in a film, or 20 to 25 chapters of a 30 chapter book. It is usually characterised by a series of attempts by the main character to restore the equilibrium upset by the inciting incident. But not only do these attempts fail, they make things worse. Such “reversals” take place not once but many times, each time raising the stakes and raising the dramatic tension to crisis point.
The second act is the place where the author can afford to vary the pace and insert some lyrical or literary passages which would simply get in the way of the action in acts one or three. For example the barn raising scene in Witness where Harrison Ford re-connects with nature and people in the countryside.
In fact, variety is essential in act two if it is not to become dull and samey. You can vary the intensity of action (car chase one minute, lyrical love scene the next). The focus (Long shot showing a broad canvas, or close up exposing tiny details). And intensity of emotion. The important thing is that, overall, there is rising tension, and rising drama as the story approaches its climax.
Like the first act, It is brought to an end by a turning point, when a specially dramatic event takes place. In Witness act two ends when the bad police officers discover where Harrison Ford and his witness are hiding and come to kill them. In Back to the future, act two ends when Marty McFly finally manages to get his future mother and father to dance together and kiss at the “Enchantment under the sea dance” and Marty McFly is free to go “back to the future”. (A turning point often makes a good title).
The third act is usually shorter, like the first. Sometimes, in a story with a specially strong second act, it is merely a chapter or two, or only five minutes of film, basically celebrating the resolution of the story and the return to normality.
In Witness, it is Harrison Ford taking on the three bad men and turning the tables on them to win. In Moby Dick, it is when the crew of the Pequod finally encounter the great white whale and Ahab fights to the death.
2. The inciting incident
The inciting incident is the event or emergency that starts the ball rolling in the story and throws everything out of balance.
Examples: In Lord of the Flies, the schoolboys are marooned on the island and so have to shift for themselves. In Pride and Prejudice, it is (arguably) Mrs Bennet’s urgent need to find husbands for her daughters (or Mr Darcy coming to live in the Bennet’s neighbourhood.) In The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, it’s Lucy’s first journey through the wardrobe.
Ideally, the inciting incident, though simple in itself, sets in train all sorts of complications and difficulties later on. When Lucy goes through the wardrobe, for instance, she starts the following:-
Her brothers and sister don’t believe her, so conflict ensues
Mr Tumnus the weak but loveable faun is turned to stone for entertaining her
Edmund follows Lucy through the wardrobe and betrays secrets to the witch
The White Witch is alerted to the presence of humans in Narnia
All four children eventually visit Narnia but their task is made more difficult because of
3. Starting In media res
An important decision is exactly when to start your story. Writers are usually urged to start “in media res” – in the middle of things – because this adds more dramatic tension.
For example, William Golding could have begun Lord of the Flies with the schoolboys taking leave of their parents or schoolteachers and boarding an aircraft, later undergoing the terror of an aircrash. But he chose instead to begin with them having just crashed on the island, as did the TV series Lost.
4. Turning points
The end of act one and act two are marked by turning points – dramatic events that shift the story into a higher gear. Often they also shift the scene. One common structure is to have act one take place in a certain place, for the action to shift to a completely different setting for act two, but in act three to return to the same setting as act one, for everything to be resolved and order or equilibrium to be restored.
Examples: In My Fair Lady, most of act one takes place in Professor Higgins’s house where Liza is trained to be a lady. Act two takes place in a series of external locations where she is put to the test, first at a tea party, second at Ascot and then at the Embassy Ball where she has to pass as a duchess. In act three, Liza returns to professor Higgins’s house.
This basic scheme can also be elaborated on with reversals. In act two, Liza not only goes to posh places like ascot and the embassy, she also goes home to Covent Garden where she’s mistaken for a lady by her ex-friends.
5. Show don’t tell
Storytelling is basically explaining things to the audience. But there are two distinct ways of explaining your story – directly by exposition (“Captain Ahab was a tall man with a wooden leg who was obsessed with killing a great white whale.”) and indirectly by communicating a visual image (even if it’s a visual image made with words or sounds.)
For example, we don’t meet Captain Ahab in Moby Dick for some time, even when the ship has put to sea, but we hear the sound of his wooden leg as he paces endlessly and obsessively about his cabin. The rule here is ‘make a scene of it’ to make things visual and dramatic. If the worst comes to the very worst, you can at least have two characters talking about the thing you want to describe. (For example – Old Joe: “It gives me the shivers, the way the cap’n paces up and down all night”. Old Ned: “It ain’t natural. No good will come of it.”)
6. Dialogue is central
This leads on to another fundamental rule, that – as well as communicating information to the audience – dialogue is central to showing what characters are like. The way they speak and the things they choose to say, tell us who they are and what they are “really” like.
One piece of advice that I’ve followed successfully is to draft chapters or scenes in dialogue only at first and add the exposition later. If you get the dialogue really crisp and punchy and meaningful, you don’t need loads of exposition.
7. Action is central
What people say is an important tool for conveying who they are and what they are like. Another equally important tool is action. What people do says volumes about them.
Scott Fitzgerald kept a notice pinned up over his typewriter reading “character is action”.
When your characters have to act, choose actions that not only fit with your plot but which also reveal things about them.
In the beginning of the Cohen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, we meet the main character, The Dude, an ageing hippy loafer played by Jeff Bridges. He gets up late, looks in the fridge, finds the milk is off and wanders sleepily to the supermarket to buy a carton, unshaven and sloppily dressed in shorts and open shirt. This short scene tells us a lot about him with scarcely a line being spoken. He is lazy and doesn’t plan ahead (the milk is off) and yet he is fussy about what he eats and drinks. He is careless of his appearance and what others think of him, and yet must have some standards as he goes to some trouble just to make coffee the way he likes it. Although he’s a slacker, he’s willing to get off his backside and do something, if there is something he cares about at stake.
8. Use metaphor
When choosing characters, incidents, places and objects in your story, keep in mind that everything can have a secondary or metaphorical value and this is useful in conveying additional levels of meaning to the audience – often unconsciously.
Examples: In Lord of the Flies, the tribal society the boys set up on the island is a metaphor for society as a whole, and Piggy’s glasses are a symbol both of scientific endeavour (using them to light a signal fire) and of the animal nature of humans (using them only to light a cooking fire).
In Witness, Kelly McGillis’s Amish girl takes away the bullets from detective Book’s police pistol and hides them in a flour barrel – just as the characters themselves have buried themselves in the rural countryside far from the violence of cities and modern life.
Sometimes a metaphor can be used explicitly as a piece of dialogue or a plot device. In Moby Dick, the first officer observes, “we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike”.
9. Know your characters
One of the biggest difficulties for all writers, whether beginner or experienced, is giving characters depth and making them seem real and interesting. To do this convincingly you need to know your characters intimately so that you know exactly what they will say and do in any given situation.
Note that this is different from simply listing their likes and dislikes or deciding what astrological star sign they were born under. The fact that their favourite jam is strawberry or that their favourite colour is green tells you nothing of real value about them. The fact that a man hates children or that a woman refuses to give a coin to a beggar tells you volumes about them.
Here are three useful ways of getting to know your characters and remembering what they are like: First, find pictures in magazines or newspapers that resemble your mental image. Cut them out and keep them pasted up over your desk as you write. Second, cast your character using a well known actor. Third, put their names in Google Images and see what pictures you get.
There’s an old saying in the theatre: “If you see a gun in act one, it goes off in act three.”
Nothing in a novel or film is without purposes. Everything you see has been put there by the author with a specific purpose in mind. If the heroine starts by being afraid of heights, then she will eventually have to climb a mountain to rescue the leading man. If people are having tea, or playing tennis, or collecting rare butterflies in act one, then the tea, the tennis or the butterflies have some important role to play later on.
The reason the audience or reader is introduced to them earlier, is so that when they assume their importance later, it seems perfectly natural. To suddenly discover the secret code written in microscopic writing on the butterfly’s wing in act three would seem ludicrous if we have previously never heard about a butterfly collection. It would seem to the reader a gratuitous, cheap and arbitrary way of solving the mystery.
Foreshadowing not only removes the arbitrariness of suddenly producing the plot device late in the day, it even makes it seem like a clever piece of plotting by the writer.