Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Three Acts, Two Acts or No Acts?

I've been thinking a lot about structure lately, about the large-scale organization of novels. I have two books in the works at present: one in rough-draft form that I'm about to start revising, and one just starting out with about 11,000 words written. The novel in draft form has a very loose 3-act structure, but only because I was pretending to follow the conventions of the genre (it's a literary detective novel).

There was a time that I leaned very hard on the 3-act structure. It's dependable, for one thing. It works. It gets the job done. There were a few years where, if I thought about the overall sweep of one of my books, I always imagined a three-part story. If I was putting together an outline of a book preparatory to writing a first draft, I'd spend hours tinkering with the plot and character arcs, working the whole thing up into the classic 3-act structure.

A couple of books ago I came up with a variation on the classic 3-act, which was the inner/outer conflict story model. Go here to read about it. That seems a pretty decent way of arranging a narrative, and it's also a sturdy, dependable model. You can write sturdy, dependable stories.

When I was drafting the detective story, I found that my writing was pushing against the 3-act structure. The whole "beginning-middle-ending" thing made sense at one level for what I was doing, but it made no sense at all for some of the other things I was working on. I ended up with a sort of hybrid structure, with a linear 3-act story going on while a bunch of short story type things kept cropping up along the way. Some of these short story things were flashbacks, some of them were almost self-contained stories and some of them were other things. Most of them dealt with the emotional themes of the story that weren't really addressed by the main detective story plot.

Working on the new book, I can see in my imagination how the first half of the book will go: two alternating stories that will join up in the middle of the book. And then, once the two main characters have met, some other stuff will happen. I have no idea what the "story question" is. I have no idea what will happen when my protagonists meet. I do know what each of them thinks they want more than anything else and I can see how their meeting will appear to open doors in their lives, but I don't know how any of that resolves. But I do know that this new novel doesn't fit into the 3-act structure. There isn't an "inciting incident" nor is there a development where the protagonist attempts to solve a problem, nor will there be a third act where the main conflict is resolved. Nope. None of that stuff. Two people move along, they meet, and stuff happens. I have a vague sense of how it will come out on the page, but I can't really see a big structure to it. And you know what? I'm not looking for one.

I think I'm now more interested in a more lifelike, realistic way of building narratives. The transformative hero's journey is wholly inadequate for the type of stories I'm trying to build these days. People->Action->Consequences, possibly, is the real paradigm. Don't talk to me of rising tension, I say.

One of the books I'm reading right now is Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Davin and I have been discussing it while I read it. He loved it and I've been having trouble with it. Today I read page 325 and there's a passage where one character tells the protagonist that he's not insignificant, that he's working on problems for any number of people without even knowing it. On the one hand, this passage bothers me because anyone who's read more than a couple of novels has already figured this out and this novel is thick with handholding statements like this, explaining itself to the reader in a clumsy sort of manner. On the other hand, I saw that Murakami really was presenting a Kafkaesque protagonist who was waffling around in a world that was largely incomprehensible to him (and to the reader) and that the point of the novel was that very incomprehensibility (which Davin told me last week but I didn't quite get it). The protagonist's world--and the narrative itself--are unpredictably shaped. Unexplained events and unlikely coincidences coexist in every chapter; who knows why? Just like reality. Now I'm enjoying the novel and I read a lot of it at lunch. I don't know if any of the story's questions will be answered, but I see that it doesn't matter if they do. What's the "meaning" of most of Kafka's stories? No idea and I don't care.

I'm also reading a lot of Chekhov stories, and Chekhov sort of invented the indeterminate ending, as well as the story where the climax comes at any point and the story might continue for thousands of words past that climax because the climax, the resolution of the primary tension, is not the real point of the stories. What's the organizing principle of a Chekhov story? That's hard to say, really. People. Action. Consequences. Or not.

Anyway, what I find most interesting about all of this is that, when I began writing novels, I struggled hard and long to find a structure around which to build stories. When I figured out how to use the classic 3-act structure, I was relieved and I thought I had that part of writing all figured out and I never had to think about structure again. After using the 3-act structure for a couple of novels, though, the artificiality of the form has made it more or less useless to me and I have to find something else. That "something else" seems at this point to be nothing more than a strong sense of what happens in life, a vague idea of causality, though I am working very hard to steal Davin Malasarn's trick of having unexpected changes of direction come along in the story.

So none of this is particularly useful or interesting, but it's what I've got. I thought I'd have something definite to say about large-scale structure, but it seems that all I've really got to say is that while I used to preach the classic 3-act shape, I no longer do. There are loads of excellent stories to be made using that structure (and almost every movie made follows it), but it's not a necessity. You can find your own way. Sometimes you have to.


  1. A fabulous post. Very interesting. I'm always impressed by how much thought is placed into these things. As a pantser (and congrats on at least attempting it), I don't think about things like structure often. I just go where the story leads me.

  2. I think it shows growth and maturity in your writing that you are expanding into different styles. Your intellect is anything but complacent, so it makes sense that you would feel exhausted with the traditional forms and begin to explore (or invent) other techniques.

    "Will this work?" is a very difficult question when dealing with abstracts. It's much easier to make the hindsight call, "Did this work?"

  3. Interesting notion coming from you, Mr. Bailey. You are so structured, I'm glad to see you loosening your tie, so to speak.

    I've been working with several different kinds of structure this last year. 3-acts primarily for my historicals. 5-acts with two of my contemporaries, but lately I've been working on a piece of women's fiction (trying to keep it novella length) that just really has no structure. It's just the story of two people who meet and spend some time together. I'm not even sure if there will be a climactic moment or not.

    I have to say, it's very liberating to allow myself to write the words and not have to worry about how it ends, or where it goes. Just listening to my characters and typing what they tell me.

  4. I think if a writer faithfully sticks to one thing that works it's pretty lazy of them. Part of this wonderful thing that is writing is discovering new things. Writing BONDED has been a challenge for me because I've had to stick to known structures, but also toss them up a bit depending on where I want the story to go. Scales is going to be one of those interesting stories that I don't think will even really have an ending. That might be uncomfortable for people, but it doesn't matter.

    Oftentimes it's not the climax I even remember in a story - it's the themes the writer probably didn't even think about when they worked themselves in to the story, and they often can be directly related to whatever structure is there, but sometimes not.

    I think it's good to try and see the structure we're building in our stories, but it's also really important to trust your gut, too. More often than not, my instincts take me somewhere very strange. I love that. It's why I keep writing.

  5. This is two, Two, TWO posts in one! My take on your process is that you are transitioning from a writerly tool to writing that comes from observation of the world. At least that's something I've always told myself to try to do, although sometimes I still rely on past writing as a crutch. I think the coolest thing is that you are willing to depart from a strategy that you know works already. That takes courage and confidence. I'll be curious to see if you like this other approach at all.

    I'm also glad you're sticking with Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Mr. Bailey! That's selfish of me, because I really just want to have people to talk about it with, but still. Yay!

  6. I think I've spent far too much time worrying about structure over the years. If you ask me (and even if you don't) it grew out of a crisis I went through after finishing my first novel. I could see that the narrative didn't hang together and was a total mess, but I had no idea how to fix it. After fussing about with it for a couple of years I threw up my hands and declared that I didn't know how to put together a story of novel length. Then I turned my hand to short stories but I didn’t know how to write short stories so they were all failures and I lost all confidence in my fiction. I had no conception of what a “story” even was. Seriously, I put a lot of thought and effort into defining that one word: story. I’d start writing a piece of fiction and abandon it after a page or two because I had no idea what shape it should have or how to develop my ideas. Hold onto that thought: development of ideas; I’ll return to it in a moment.

    At some point, luckily, I remembered Aristotle and decided that a story had to have three things: a beginning, a middle and an end. So I started writing short stories again and concentrated on nothing more than giving them beginnings, middles and ends. That was my only criteria for success. I wrote a bunch of stories, one after another, not caring what they were about at all, only working on giving them a coherent shape. A couple of them got published and I thought, Okay, I see how this works now. Six years ago I was reading “Hamlet” for the billionth time and I had an idea that I knew would take a lot of words to work out. This is a book I can write, I thought, and so I did, and I leaned on my beginning/middle/end structure and told the whole thing in chronological order. Meanwhile, I read as much as I could about story and structure and glommed onto the classic 3-act formula, because I didn’t trust my instincts for developing my ideas about the story; I’d had a bad experience with my first novel and I didn’t want to repeat it, so I forced my narrative to follow the 3-act model as closely as I could. After finishing that book (which got the attention of an agent) I said Hey, that formula works and I’ll use it forever and now I know how to structure a novel.

    The thing is, I’ve always trusted my instincts when it comes to language, but I have had to learn over the years to trust my instincts as a story teller. I’ve been pushing my ideas into a mold and assuming that the mold was more important than the way the ideas felt to me, and with each book I write I give more room for the development of my ideas and I trust my instincts for shape and structure than I used to. So while everyone is saying Yeah, I just let the story tell itself and this is all obvious, Mr Bailey, I’m coming to this after years of hard struggle. I am, as Anne Gallagher says, a very structured person, or at least my art has been very structured and that’s because I have not trusted my own abilities. So now I’m beginning to and that will be a good or a bad thing, as time will tell. I can’t really say.

    Anyway, it’s sort of like writing sonatas or fugues. The best composers never write “proper” sonatas or fugues; they do what sounds good to them. Bach, master of the fugue, never once wrote a textbook-perfect fugue.

  7. Michelle: "Oftentimes it's not the climax I even remember in a story - it's the themes the writer probably didn't even think about when they worked themselves in to the story, and they often can be directly related to whatever structure is there, but sometimes not."

    Yeah, what I remember most about what I read is how I feel when reading it, or after reading it. And as a writer--especially with the ends of stories--I'm working toward leaving the reader with a specific type of feeling. I can't really name that feeling but I know it when I feel it.

    And I still don't really know what a "story" is.

  8. Scott: I don't know what story is either, honestly, and I do exactly what you do - try to leave my reader with a specific type of feeling at the end of a book. I know exactly what it is I want when I start and it takes me the entire book and months and months and months to get there. I think it's that moment when I reach it that I feel the best and why I write in the first place.

    When you look at it from that perspective, structure doesn't even matter. Story doesn't even matter. It's about emotions. This is why I love Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard and Kafka. They really had that all down.

  9. Scott, the greatest thing about you is that you always make me remember why I write. Your posts and talking to you reaches that part of me I forget about all the time. So thanks for that!

  10. Reading Virginia Woolf changed my life. It was an amazing, mind-altering experience.

  11. I've been trying to write more about the experience of writing than about the craft these days. I think who and how we are as people-who-write is as interesting as how we write. Well, I'm not, but you and Davin are interesting as people. I'm dull as dirt.

  12. You are anything but dull. I want to write about a character who looks awful in hats. Think about the possibilities! :)

  13. Rick: "Will this work?" is a very difficult question when dealing with abstracts. It's much easier to make the hindsight call, "Did this work?"

    Sometimes I can't answer either of those questions! And "Did this work?" will have different answers for different readers. It's maddening.

  14. I think of you as someone who knows what they're talking about, and was hugely relieved to hear you talk about suspending, or at least bending, traditional structure, not having all the answers ahead of time, letting the story unfold with guidance but not forced control. That's exactly how I wrote the novel I'm shopping around at the moment, and I hope the publishers agree with me.

  15. Correction: someone who knows what he's talking mom would flutter her ashes if I left that uncorrected.

  16. Jo: I am really thinking a lot these days about letting the materials unfold by themselves--letting my imagination run riot and trying hard to surprise myself--rather than following set patterns. There's a certain type of story you can tell with the classic structures (well, there are a lot of types of stories you can tell that way), but there are certain types of storytelling that don't work with those classic structures. Anyway, I become increasingly interested in the idea of putting more emphasis on the story elements themselves (characters, themes, events and ideas) than on having a specific kind of solid plot structure.

    Good luck with submissions!


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