The House That Structure Built

Terribleminds superfan John “Jacob Wrestling With An Angel” Hornor writes:

“Hey, fuckneck. You think you’re so smart? Then why haven’t you written anything about structure in terms of writing, huh? What about that, asshands? You’re sitting over there on your shiny pile of writing advice, and you’ve written both screenplays and novels, and yet, nothing about structure. Oh, oh, now I bet you’re going to go and — poof! — suddenly write about structure, aren’t you? Goddamnit. And you’re probably going to call me a ‘superfan’ again, right? Shit. You’re an asshole. Love and the ebola virus, JHJ.”

Thanks for writing in, superfan!

(Before we go any further, I’ll note that so-called superfan JHJ went ahead and wrote his own post on structure because suddenly he was too impatient to wait for my throbbing genius. And by “throbbing genius,” I mean, “meandering waffle.” Check his post out, it’s good stuff.)

So. Structure. You want my thoughts? It’s easy.

You need it.

“It,” though, is vague. And I like it that way. I want it vague. See, if we were go to ahead and say, “The structure is like the blueprint of the house you’re building,” we’d all agree that yes, smart money says having a blueprint is a dang fine idea. You go in without a blueprint, you’re going to build yourself a meth trailer or a the crazy Winchester House. What we wouldn’t all agree on is the basic structure expressed in that blueprint. Right? Cape cod? Two-story, three-story, rancher? Victorian? Edwardian? Shakespearean? Spielbergian? (Wait, those last two aren’t house types? Shut up. My house is Spielbergian. It was built to look like Jurassic Park. Two words: “Dinosaur paddock.” Yeah, bitches. I got a T-Rex and a room full of goats. Whatchoo got? Whatchoo got?)

What I’m saying is, the structure of a house is not a universal thing. You build into the home a certain structure based on the need of the occupants, the style of the area, the layout of the area, or the need to confuse ghosts in your labyrinthine halls and chambers.

So, if we’re talking novel, the same thing applies. Yes, you need a structure, and that deserves quite a bit of consideration. But you don’t need any one particular structure.

Let’s think about your options.

Structure 101

At the very core of any story are two structural elements: Something Gets Fucked Up, and Somebody Fixes The Thing That Got Fucked Up. Or, more plainly, you have your inciting incident and the resolution of the inciting incident. Zombie Donkeys invade the capital (fucked up), and Captain Brigadier Burton P. Redbone has to lead his squad of Congressional Ninjas into the heart of darkness to defeat them (fixing the fuck-up). Princess Leia’s dick-shaped space corvette gets captured by the Empire (fucked up), and a smuggler and a monkey and a farmboy and a cryptic old dude must get Leia back because she’s all awesome and shit (fixing the fuck-up). Coyote is hungry as usual and Wildcat wants to steal his prairie dog meat (fucked up), so Coyote tricks Wildcat into cooking and eating his own rectum (fixing the fuck-up).

Then from there it builds to the traditional pyramid of “Exposition -> Rising Action -> Climax -> Falling Action -> Denouement.” This is Freytag’s Triangle, if you care. (Or, as Douglas Rushkoff calls it, the “male ejaculatory arc.”) It’s simple. It’s a good place to start. It’s not necessarily a good place to end, unless you want your house to have, I dunno, three rooms. The oven’s the toilet. The couch is the dining room table.

Really, though, what this translates to is: “Beginning, Middle, End.”

A-duh.

Size Breeds Complexity

The bigger your story, the more complicated your structure needs to be.

If you’re writing flash fiction, for instance, then you might as well take a razor and slice off the very tip of that Freytag Triangle. You’re giving a hair of the rising action, the climax, and maybe a sliver (a sentence or three?) of falling action or denouement. It’s actually why a lot of flash fiction fails for me — the writers write it more as a vignette, a glimpsed scene, rather than “shit happens, and somebody handles the shit that just happened.” A lot of flash fiction fails to have a story. As the saying goes, “there’s no ‘there’ there.”

The larger the story gets, the more demanding the story’s needs — meaning, the audience’s needs. Thus, the story might require a more complex structure.

Films almost exclusively have three acts. You can set your watch by it when watching most, if not all, films. Generally comes out as a 30/60/30 break — so, 30 minutes in is the end of the first act, 90 minutes in is the end of the second act, and then the third act carries us to the end of the film at two hours. A 100-minute film would have it closer to 25/50/25, a 90-minute film would have it at 22/45/22 or thereabouts.

So, it looks a little something like that.

Once more, that translates to… drum roll please, Beginning, Middle, End. Like the graphic says.

Thing is, people assume that novel = film, and then they go ahead and do all sorts of stupid shit like try to turn a novel into a film or a film into a novel. Doesn’t work because it’s not a 1:1 ratio. A short story or novella translates handily toward film. Novels have too much, generally speaking, unless it’s a nice lean tale without much meat on its bones. Trying to condense an info-rich 300+ page novel into a 120-minute movie is an exercise in head-asplosion.

What does this mean? Well, it means that your act structure gets more complex with greater length. Just as flash fiction is a tiny morsel representing the whole meal, a long epic novel moves from the standard appetizer -> main course -> dessert structure to a more complicated seven course dinner (aperitif -> appetizer -> main course -> cheese -> dessert -> coffee -> digestif) with palate cleansers inbetwixt. Heck, the dinner can go 20+ courses, from amuse bouche all the way to the petit fours.

Shit, did I just devolve into food metaphors?

I was hoping that wouldn’t happen. Too late.

Actually, the food metaphor isn’t a bad one, because a dinner is all about…

… well. We’ll get back to that.

For now, what I’m saying is: longer or more complicated story? Add more acts.

So, What The Hell Is An Act?

Twelve inches makes a foot (quit your sniggering). Eight pints make a gallon. Seven geese form a gaggle. Three clowns form a terror. And so on.

These are all units of measurement.

And that’s what an act is in terms of your story structure. An act is a unit of measurement in the story — it measures the narrative.

In very loose terms, to me an act is almost like a mini-version of that Freytag’s triangle — you have a rise in action which reaches a climax or a transitional point and then falls into the next act. But each act steps up the escalation and the transitions with each iteration. Which might look a little something like this horrible graphic I just did:

…we’ll call that the Holy Shit -> Holy Fucking Shit -> Holy Goatfucker Shitbomb theory of narrative design. Mmkay? Mmkay. Add in those little semen-squiggle arrows for maximum fun!

Each act has its own (say it with me!) Beginning, Middle, and End.

With this theory, you basically have as many acts as you one. Three to five to seven to ten to whatever you need. Each act is its own thing that builds up the story. If you wanted to define the smaller narrative units that go into an act design, well…

Beats To Scenes To Sequences To Transition

A beat is basically the little things inside a scene. Actions, reactions, moments, considerations. Mary punches John. John weeps. Frank enters. Yells at Mary. Mary punches Frank. Frank weeps. They all die from intestinal parasites.

Beats build to scenes — so, that scene described above between Mary, John, Frank and the Diabolical Tapeworms (new band name) is your scene. Might be the climactic tragic scene at the end of the story, actually — like in Hamlet, they all kill one another, except here, it’s, uhhh, intestinal parasites. Same thing, really. The scene is generally contained to a single location with a single set of characters.

Scenes build to sequences — several scenes work together to culminate in an escalation of action that builds to a climax or conclusion. The D-Day invasion at the fore of Saving Private Ryan is a single sequence as it comprises a number of scenes building up and into that event.

Do you need to know all this? You probably know all this. I just like to ramble, obviously.

What’s most important to me when I think about acts is the transition. The transition is the resolution of one act and a way into the next act.

All Life Is Transitory

… huh?

I dunno.

Point is, an act has to build to something and then, at its peak, pivot. These pivot points keep the narrative changing, it keeps it interesting. This heel-to-toe move stops the action from being a flat ride to the top (though that straight line can be potent enough for a short story, short film, or one-act play).

If you go back to Freytag and the notion behind Greek tragedy, you have a couple ways of moving out of an act — peripeteia, anagnorisis, and catastrophe (that is, if I remember this Aristotelian bullshit correctly). Catastrophe is pretty clear: shit goes wrong. It’s a turning point for the story. Peripeteia is a turning point for a character, and at its core is really just, “the character changes.” The character’s intention shifts. This can lead into or come from the anagnorisis, which is a revelation that the character undergoes. In the Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’ character has his character change with the resolution of the boy’s arc, and from that change (peripeteia) comes the revelation that he’s been dead the whole dang time (anagnorsis — oh, and spoiler alert!).

It needn’t be that haughty, though. The transitional point of an act is: something happens. That “something” probably changes the story — not just in an escalation (which is a rise of existing elements), but in a transition (which creates new elements or pairs old elements in a new way). Television has like, six or seven acts depending on the commercial breaks (the commercial breaks define the acts, which defines the story). At the end of each act in television is what they call an “act out,” which is an oooh-ahhh holy-crap moment specifically designed to bring viewers back through the commercial break. “What? John Locke’s a vampire? And a chick?” “Is that dynamite strapped to Richard’s nipples?” “OH MY GOD SPIDER MONKEYS BROUGHT DOWN OCEANIC FLIGHT 815 ALL CAPS YELLING.”

TV’s a little overblown because the story is driven by commercial interests first and foremost, but there exists a valuable mechanic there: the transition should keep people interested. The transition can answer one question while introducing another. Audiences stay for mystery. They want to solve for X.

Escalation Is King

I want to get back to this point before I forget it. And yes, I know I’ve already gone on too long. Suck it up, Nancy. Walk it off.

Getting back to a dinner, a dinner escalates to the pinnacle of the meal, which is generally the main course. A proper meal builds each course off of the last — then what comes after the main course is meant to bring us back down, a culinary descent.

That’s your story. The story’s structure is an escalation to the climax. Forever rising. That doesn’t mean every beat or scene is an “up” scene, though. In my Holy Goatfucker Shitbomb graphic above, it should be clear that you need those downbeats, too. (It’s a little like climate change trends. Just because this year is cooler doesn’t mean there isn’t an overall trend upwards. That’s what you’re looking for. The overall trend.)

Seems Complex, But It’s Pretty Simple

If you look at a loose mythic seven act structure, you get something like:

Intro -> Problem/Attack -> Initial Struggle -> Complications -> Failed Attempts -> Major Crisis -> Climax and Resolution.

Of course, if you really look at it, it’s just the three-act structure again stretched out.

First Act: Intro, Problem/Attack

Second Act: Initial Struggle, Complications, Failed Attempts

Third Act: Major Crisis, Climax and Resolution

Or, to reiterate? Beginning. Middle. End.

Or, even simpler: Oh Fuck, A Problem, and Shit Gets Worse And Worse Until Our Protagonist Finally Fixes The Fucking Problem.

Ta-da!

That’s that, superfan. Now leave me alone. Stop sending me dead animals in the mail. That’s a biohazard, sir. A biohazard. (Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, I’ll talk about some variant — and perhaps more important — ways of charting the structure of your story. For now, I need a goddamn nap.)

22 comments

  • Thanks for this, Chuck. If you remove the flaming goats, orifices, zombie donkeys, this is quite possibly the perfect little essay on structure that I’ve been waiting for.

    I really like the Oh Fuck, A Problem, and Shit Gets Worse And Worse Until Our Protagonist Finally Fixes The Fucking Problem. I won’t be able to think about it any other way, ever again. You’ve left a skidmark on my brainmeat.

    • I think that’s pretty much my goal here at terribleminds: skidmarks on brainmeats.

      I should get that on a t-shirt.

      And did I put goats aflame? I don’t remember fire-goats. Then again, I don’t remember taking off my pants, either, so sometimes shit just happens.

      — c.

  • Bill Bridges pointed me to a (sadly) out of print book called “Good Scripts, Bad Scripts” by Thomas Pope, which looks at 25 scripts of varying quality and deconstructs them in terms of structure and character, and how they succeeded (and failed). It also looks at films like Pulp Fiction and other unusually structured films. It’s been utterly helpful in taking this fairly esoteric structure and giving it some meat — I highly recommend the book to anyone who can find a copy.

  • So when you’re laying out your plot in, say, a Story Bible, do you divvy up your plot points between the different acts – “This is where Holy Fucking Shit ends and where Holy Goatfucker Shitbomb begins” – or do you just make a mental bookmark as you write?

    • @Josh:

      I don’t lay that kind of stuff out in a story bible, really — the bible is just for the “worldbuilding” stuff around the world, the characters, and so forth. The outline is what coalesces that material into the story and the plot, and in that is where I identify act breaks and transitions.

      In fact, you could make an argument that the only outline you’d need is one detailing the critical moments useful to the acts and the act breaks.

      — c.

  • Ha, I need a band name for my WIP. Can I steal (borrow, mutilate) Diabolical Tapeworms? Great post. Just what I needed (except the spider, but I’m over that).

  • Hey, Chuck! Awesome post about structure. As usual, I’ve learned enough to make my mental diaper sag and weep with an overflow of information. And you said “inbetwixt” which made me giggle. I don’t know why.

    Acts in a book? Who knew?! Not me, that’s for damn sure. When I started writing seriously I purchased a handy-dandy writing program to keep me organized. I really like it. It breaks you book down into Chapters and Scenes and even – dare I say – Acts. Me, like a dummy, tried deleting the Acts option becuz “What the hell do I need THAT breakdown for? I’m not writing a play,” said the former Musical Theatre major. Boy, do I feel dumb. I never thought of a book or movie or even tv shows as having what I considered to be an “Act.”

    You’ve injected a lot of structurally sound (bad pun intended) intel into my brain. Now I’m going to go through my book and try to find my Acts. It might be difficult, though, since I’m not even aware of my plot points or anything else are. I’ve just read a lot of books, know the general way of them, and wrote my own. I’m pretty sure I’ve landed on most of the correct structures on accident, though. I’ve included the outside conflicts, the inner conflicts, the mini-resolutions that then get effed up again, etc. etc. etc.

    It’s amazing to me how blindly I actually went into this writing thing. I’ve actually been told not to take too many classes because it’ll screw up my writing from over analyzing everything. But I think there’s a happy balance in there somewhere. I need to learn more, without overdoing it.

    Hence, my avid following of Terribleminds. 😀

    • All the classes and books are good, as long as they don’t bog you down. It’s like with anything — absorb as much info as you can so you know which stuff applies to you and doesn’t apply. But better to absorb it and be knowledgeable than to keep yourself away from what might be very useful information!

      Glad to help, by the way, in my insane, goat-molesting way.

      🙂

      — c.

  • It’s okay about the spider. One of the ideas in the back of my mind is a magical realism thing with a spider that is the main character’s mother. Yeah, twisted and weird.

  • Well and concisely put. What I like best is the part about not taking this too seriously or literally. I hate–hate–reading books or watching movies where I can see where the writer consciously thought, “This is the beginning of Act II.” The end result is always way too formulaic. The act structure should seem as if it was not thought of and appeared as a serendipitous accident.

    • Dana:

      Right. While it’s okay to conceive of it literally (writing a screenplay, you kind of have to), that isn’t necessarily something the audience should be able to see.

      Though, really, in most movies, I can see the seams showing. The best thing any project can do is be good enough so I don’t care to look.

      — c.

  • Sorry for the delay – nose goblins continue to devour my brainmeats. Bad scripts are movies that should have succeeded but didn’t, like contrasting Havana with Casablanca. A few were also good movies that could have been better. The line between good and bad is fuzzy (and Pope doesn’t always pin it down) but it is breaking down 25 movies and looking closely at what they do wrong and what they do right.

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