Structuring Your Novel: Lessons from Screenwriting
About fifteen years ago I decided to write a screenplay, mainly because I’d never written one before, and it was a new challenge. I immediately set about learning everything I could about writing screenplays. Over the next few years I wrote three screenplays and one teleplay, for The X-Files (I wrote it for the America’s Best contest; I wrote it for the challenge and never expected to get it produced ).
None of the screenplays has yet been produced (although I’m currently in contract negotiations for one of them), but they’ve been read by a variety of producers including the NBC story department, Amblin Entertainment, and George Romero (producer of Night of the Living Dead)–Romero wasn’t able to use the screenplay in question, but he passed it on to New Line Cinema. Two of them were quarter finalists in the America’s Best contest (one of those was my X-Files script).
One thing I took away from my brief stint in screenwriting was a better knowledge of how to structure my novels. It’s called the three-act structure. Most published novelists probably use the three-act structure, but at that time–even though I’d written two novels, both unpublished–I hadn’t been aware of it. I simply tried to write novels like the ones I liked to read. I realized that my novels would have been a lot sharper had I known about the three-act structure when I wrote them.
To structure your novel in three acts, draw a line and divide it into fourths. The first 1/4th is the first act, the second 2/4ths is the second act, and the final 1/4th is the third act.
In the first act introduce the characters and set up the story. In the second act develop the story as your protagonist struggles toward his or her goal. In the third act the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion (or, if you prefer, the hero’s showdown with the villain).
The crucial turning points (there are others, but these are the biggies) are at the end of the first act and at the end of the second. Each turning point commits your protagonist to an unavoidable course of action.
For example, in the film Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is ready to leave the office when she’s called in to interrogate a Russian spy who insinuates that she also is Russian Spy. This is the first turning point. Instead of going home, Salt must escape the building and evade her pursuers while she tries to find the truth; her life has been changed, and she is committed to this course of action. The second turning point is when Salt discovers that there is another mole in the CIA and is thrust into a final confrontation with him/her. (Since this is a current movie, I’m doing my best to be vague, and even fudge on some of the details, so as not to spoil the film for any of you who haven’t seen it).
The protagonist winning or losing comes at the climax, after which is the resolution. The resolution ties up loose ends, but make it as brief as you can. If you end the story with the climax, the reader feels like Wylie Coyote–falling off a cliff and smacking face-first into the ground, with an anvil falling on top of him. The resolution should give the reader some breathing time.
I won’t tell you the resolution of Salt; that would give too much away. An example of a resolution that is so long it becomes anticlimactic is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The novel is a great read; however, the book goes on for 40 pages beyond the end of the story. Unless you’re a history or a symbology geek, you could stop reading after they catch the bad guy (and they always do in Dan Brown novels, so I”m not giving anything away) and you wouldn’t miss any important story elements.
The second act can be tricky. You’ll notice that it consumes roughly one-half the length of the story. This is where–to put it in the simplest terms–the protagonist strives to reach his goal, but he runs into obstacles, then he has to try something else and have another go at it. Until the second turning point where something happens or something is revealed that pits him in a final battle with the antagonist/villain.
The best way for you to learn this basic structure is to apply it whenever you read a novel or see a movie. Ask yourself when the protagonist’s situation has radically changed, and you’ll have your first and second turning points. Also, watch how writers ease their readers out of their stories after the climax. Dan Brown, I love you, Dude, but don’t use The Lost Symbol as an example of how a story should end.