Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: April 2011--Plot and Structure

Week 2: The Three Act Structure

Most writers probably have some inkling about Aristotle and three acts and the rule of three. (And the three musketeers, three little pigs, and three blind mice--I could go on.) What I like about James Scott Bell's take is the way he explains the three acts, and the pretty diagrams he uses to reinforce things.

Bell: "Say we are confronted with a problem. We react. That's Act I. We spend the greater part of our time figuring out how to solve the problem: Act II. After all of that wrestling, hopefully, we get the insight and answer--the resolution of Act III."

Bell goes on to explain, in his usual cogent fashion, what makes a beginning, middle, and end. (If you combine him with Nancy Kress, you have a winner!). He talks about mythic structure a la Joseph Campbell. But what seems purely Bellian is his talk of "a disturbance," (he prefers this term instead of plot point and inciting incident) "and two doorways."

Bell again: "Very early in Act I something has to disturb the status quo... this disturbance does not need to be a major threat, however. It can be anything that disturbs the placid nature of the Lead's ordinary life."

(He lists a bunch of possible disturbances, among them "a phone call in the middle of the night, the boss calling the character into his office, and the Lead winning the lottery.)

To move from the disturbance of Act I  to the complications of Act II (and from Act II to Act III) Bell talks of going through "doorways of no return."

Here's what he says of each doorway: (Before the first doorway) "Lead's normal world, a place of safety and rest. Problems may happen here, but they don't threaten great change. Lead is content to stay here. Something has to happen to push him through the door." (After being shoved through the door) "The outside world, the great unknown, the dark forest. A place where the lead is going to have to dig deep inside and show courage, learn new things, make new allies, etc." [Bell says this should happen 1/5 of the way through the novel.]

The second doorway: "Lead is facing a set of confrontations and challenges. It will go on indefinitely unless some crisis, setback, discovery opens the door to a path that leads to a climax." (After the second doorway opens) "On this side the Lead can gather his forces, inner and outer, for the final battle or final choice that will end the story. There's no going back through the door. The story must end." [Bell says this should happen 3/4 of the way through the novel.]

I'll leave you with one of Bell's chapter-ending exercises: "Using the structure diagram, map out your current plot. Come up with a disturbance scene and events that make up the two doorways of no return. Write these down in summary form. Tweak them to make them original and involving."

Next week: Getting HIP to your scenes! (And please join me on Friday for my new series, "Friday Fabulosities: Inspirational quotes from writers, and anything else that takes my fancy.")


  1. My you're dong an excellent job
    I love this book
    But reading it is one thing
    I have just spent 4 days working and reworking a very short story
    I think by making it "better" I have taken the story out of it...killed it it "reads" nice..but who cares..I want to cry..but I am goes in a drawer..let it sleep

    amateur...pure amateur :-O !!

  2. Some very important stuff here.

  3. suz, give it some drawer time. Crack open the drawer in a week, or a month. You may be surprised to see what has composted.

    rosaria, thanks for your comment!

  4. I'll have to check this out...and this is the second time in one day I've seen Nancy Kress mentioned. I'll take that as a sign to visit Amazon for some Kindle downloading. :)


If comments be the food of love, comment on. Give me excess of them... (With apologies to The Bard)