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The first thing they tell you in any creative writing class is that all stories are divided into a beginning, a middle, and an end. The reaction the speaker usually gets to this infallible wisdom is an eye roll, a shrug of the shoulders, a muttered ‘duh’. Obviously that’s true. Of course things have to start somewhere and stop somewhere and have a middle part in between. We know this.

The thing is, if you don’t consciously apply this rule to your stories, they have a weird way of not conforming to this ‘obvious’ rule. It is entirely possible to write a story in which the central characters end up in the same place they started. It is also possible for them to change so much, and go from one situation to the next with such chaotic abandon, that there are a hundred beginnings and middles and endings over the course of the book and nothing makes any sense.

Part of the problem it’s so easy to slip up is that when you read books, you aren’t immediately aware of their structure unless you’re looking for it, in the same way that you never get halfway through a great book and say to yourself ‘Gee, I haven’t seen a single spelling mistake yet!’ It works in part because you’re not aware of it.

Even when it’s not there, you’re only aware of its absence in a subconscious way. It arrives as a feeling of indifference to the outcome of the tale, or mild confusion.

The worst offenders are books which are all middle. They start in medias res (in the midst of things), and you dutifully follow the main character through a series of obstacles and problems, all of which he overcomes, and then he meets a girl and they fall in love, and then the book ends with a standing ovation or some bullshit. The characters don’t change or suffer, the stakes remain the same, and the end looks like the beginning because it’s really all the middle. It’s like walking around the block and calling it hiking.

Then you have to consider the length you want each section to be. If you’re a long winded person, you might write sixty thousand words of beginning, panic when you realise nothing has actually happened, and then try to wrap up all one hundred loose ends you’ve laid out in a twenty thousand word sprint.

I had a crazy Scottish lecturer at university. He used to give out free cask wine in class, and we’d spend many lectures drinking beer and eating burgers at the pub, and as far as I’m concerned he was the only guy who really knew what he was talking about. One of his many tricks was this easy way to avoid overly long beginnings: when you edit the first draft, delete the first two or three paragraphs. If it’s a novel, the first two or three chapters. I don’t delete so much these days, but only because doing that showed me how much time I was wasting in the early stages.

So beware of long beginnings and hasty endings. The best approximate distribution for a novel (taken from one of Shawn Coyne’s books) is roughly 25% beginning, 50% middle, 25% end. Only a guide, of course, but one I’ve found extremely valuable.

The middle is longer because you should be spending it ramping up the suspense and tension as much as possible to keep them turning pages. The climax happens at the beginning of the end, and once the climax is done it’s all about closing arcs and trying to get that feeling of lingering resonance that a good book delivers, but that can stale pretty quickly if you spend a hundred pages post-climax describing how characters go about their lives in the aftermath of whatever Big Event they experienced.

And speaking of the Big Event…

Be aware of the climaxes. There’s only one major one, and it should occur around the end of the middle (second act). Have you ever noticed how the good guy always ends up in hand to hand combat with the bad guy? And how, for the first two thirds of the fight, the good guy always gets his ass kicked all over the place? But then at the last minute he has some kind of a realisation, or he sees something he didn’t before, or he changes in some fundamental way? And suddenly he starts kicking major ass? That’s the end of the act two climax in a nutshell. It’s the scene in the matrix where Neo gets shot full of bullets and then realises he can stop them with his mind and fights multiple Agents one handed. God damn that was badass. We love it. How much worse would the movie have been if he could kill agents one handed from the beginning? There would be no story, right?

Act two must belong to the villain. It is his (or its) job to heap horror after horror upon the hero, who is then forced to prove what he or she is made of. The climax is the hero realising something or changing in some way and then using that change to turn the course of events; it is the hinge upon which character development turns.

So to summarise: Act one is all setup. Introduce your characters and give your reader the clearest picture of them that you can without waffling on. Plant them in a setting and establish the current relationships and situations. Most importantly, raise a lot of questions about things, because questions are why people continue to read a book they’ve just started. They want to know what’s going to happen – and they won’t want to know unless you give them a question they need to answer.

Basic example: John is a nerd with an awkward personality. That is a character introduction.

John is a nerd with an awkward personality and he loves the popular cheerleader ice-queen. That’s raising a question: Will he get the girl?

Act two must contain at least the following, (and much more that I haven’t learned yet): 1. Every scene must raise the stakes and make everything more dangerous for the main characters. 2. The hero must suffer as much as possible at the hands of the villain. 3. Almost everything should go the villain’s way. 4. There must come a point of total despair, where it looks as though the hero can’t possibly win. 5. At this point, the hero changes in a fundamental way, or finds just the thing they need, and it must not be done in a contrived or lazy way (hey, I just remembered I hid a gun in my pants and forgot all about it!). 6. The hero will then use this to win the climatic confrontation and turn things in their favour.

And finally we arrive at Act three. Here the hero has beaten (mostly) the villain and the climax has come and gone. The first part of act three is usually the process of the characters returning to a state of normality, and if done well it shouldn’t be easy for them – even if the villain is done. Sauron is destroyed, but Sam and Frodo must still escape from Mount Doom. Indiana Jones has obtained the Holy Grail and healed his father, but now he must escape the crumbling temple.

Once this part is done, the story is over – but at the same time it isn’t, because the story was never really about the story – it was about the characters. So the End is where you need to show how they’ve changed, what the results of their actions were, and try to do it all in such a way that the reader is left with a lingering sense of… something. Sadness or happiness or relief or love or even horror and dread. The extent to which you achieve this resonance is partly skill in terms of how you go about those final scenes – Frodo returning to the Shire – but it is also dependant on the depth of your story leading up to that point. If you didn’t sufficiently raise the stakes and develop the characters over the course of the book, it will be impossible to leave the reader with a sense of resonance at the end.

So, as the Red King said: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop’. Simple advice, no? Ignore it at your peril.

– BP 2/9/17

Caveat (A note from 2019)

Reading this post again, I’m compelled to add that while the three act structure is indeed a very useful tool… at the end of the day it is one tool of many. There are more advanced and diverse ways to structure a book, so it would be a bad idea to take the three acts as gospel and never deviate. That said, I stand by this particular tool as a solid foundation. If you are lost when it comes to structure, the three acts will save you. But always remember that in writing, there is no singular way, no recipe or reliable instruction: there are only tools, and the wisdom to use them (or not). Take Bruce Lee’s advice: adopt what is useful, discard what is not.

It took me ages to understand the importance of structure. When I was a teenager, I wrote a series of fantasy novels called Felix Bones (coolest protagonist name ever, right?), and the main reason they sucked was the utter lack of structure. Allow me to explain.

            So get this: these badboys, four books in total, amounted to one hundred and eighty thousand words, and there was not a paragraph to be found. Each chapter consisted of walls of text thousands of words long, and the sentences were long too, and rarely varying in length. I told the story from third person focussing around the protagonist’s point of view and in chronological order. The chapters were all roughly the same length and weren’t divided into scenes or events. Instead, I would write until I got the feeling the chapter had gone on long enough and then I’d look for an opportune moment for a character to say something dramatic or the next action scene to be over, and then I’d end the chapter.

Why is this bad? Imagine a three hour movie done in a continuous shot from the same angle and focussed on one actor. You miss a lot of stuff, it’s boring, and it’s tiring.

Okay, so Jack Kerouac wrote an entire novel on a single piece of paper in a continuous stream of consciousness. It’s a good novel, but I still wouldn’t recommend the structure. It worked for him because of what the novel actually was, the story of a lost kid on a rambling trek across America with no destination in mind. Remember that: the structure worked because it matched the story. Do not write like Jack Kerouac. That structure will not match your story.

Here’s the thing. The posts I put on here in regards to writing are pretty much descriptions of tools. They are my explanations of how the tools work and how I understand they should be used or not used. In the end, though, they are tools – not commandments or templates or even guidelines. I can’t write a list of character types and say: ‘These are some really good characters to use in a story’, and I’m also not going to say: ‘Your books should always be written with Beginning Middle and End and have logical chapter breaks.’ That is one way structure can be used, it is not the only way.

Point in Case: Isaac Asimov. Ever read that guy’s books? His chapters are all over the place, and I don’t think any of them even play out in chronological order. Some of the initial chapters happen after the last ones, and they jump all over the place, touching on this and then that and then something else. Point is, he used structure for a purpose. His chapters were short because he wanted to show the reader lots of different things, some in the future and some in the past, some on Earth and some on Mars, and ooh look a squirrel! The effect is of a story coming together in bits and pieces, confusing at first and then becoming clearer, and all the while interesting because you know each chapter is about something new.

Structure is a tool, and it should be adapted for your story.

But how do you know what kind of structure to use? Should you follow five different characters and conclude all their arcs at the end? Or jump from villain to hero throughout the book to get two clear persepectives? Or should you have long in depth development and break it up with news reports and diary entries? The best answer I can give you is, it depends.

Structure has power, people, understand this. It can change a novel into a different novel. It doesn’t matter what colour wallpaper you put in your house, it’s the framework that decides whether you’re living in a mansion or a shack. Here’s a fun game: take your favourite novel and ruin it by changing the structure.

Fight Club told in alternating chapters, with each one being first person of Jack, Tyler, Marla, Bob, and the 7-11 guy. And each chapter is longer, with more in depth aspects of their lives. Now you can’t use Jack’s signature bleak tone the whole time, and you have to add details and character arcs that change the path of the story. It would be very hard to maintain any of the mystery and confusion that Jack feels. Probably you’d kill it, because the story is Jack and Tyler. If you give equal page space to other things, you’re neglecting what it’s really about. On the flip side, take Game of Thrones and change the structure so that every chapter concerns the same protagonist. I bet the new version would be unrecognizable.

Before you decide what structure you want to use, ask yourself what your story is. Do you have an original protagonist with an interesting personal philosophy/outlook? Longer chapters in first person would be my choice, advancing the action through his eyes. Are you worried about long sections where not much action takes place? I’d suggest shorter chapters, each with a different focus or point of view. Too many characters? Maybe you can use structure to focus on the most important ones. The others still affect the course of the book, but they do it ‘off screen’, and don’t steal page space.

If you’re still getting the hang of it all, though, you should do what I do: keep it as simple as you damn well can.

The first decent book I wrote had the following structure. Beginning, Middle, End. Each section was divided into about twenty chapters, give or take, and each was divided into three parts. Example: Beginning was: ‘Kid finds book that opens other universes, explores one with his friends, discovers a monster.’ I wrote seven dot points for the first section of Beginning, each outlining a specific event or scene that had to happen concerning the notes. Each dot point became a chapter. Before I started, I had the basic direction for Beginning, Middle and End, but only the sections for Beginning, and only the chapters for the first section. That way, I had a solid direction to head in, but enough freedom of movement that I could change if the book called for it.

I don’t plan on using the same structure for all my novels, but that one was an eye opener. If I was struggling in any chapter, I could just go to my notes and find the reason I was writing that chapter in the first place. Even though I had no idea how the book was going to end until I was about halfway through ‘End’, I always knew how each chapter was going to end, and that was enough to keep me writing day in and out until it was done.

Don’t be deceived: a simple story structure does not necessarily make a simple story. You can use the same three act structure to shape everything: novels, character arcs, subplots, whatever, and come out with something wildly different each time. The simplest structure, the one I used for Book of Worlds, follows the same principle as the rules of grammar: it’s a foundation. You can break rules of grammar, bend them however you want and flip them upside down, but you better not fuck around if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to be certain it’s gonna work out.

Stephen King once said that Grammar is the pole you grab when you’re drowning. Something stable you can fall back on. Simple structure, for me, is the same. When I’m lost in some complex (to me at least) story twist or plotline, I can always sit back and breathe and repeat the three magic words: Beginning, Middle, End.

You keep your experimental continuous narratives and non chronological chapters to yourself, okay? I’m just fine over here in the corner with my three words.

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