Plot Structure: Three-Acts or Pier & Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA a...
The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA at sunset taken from the Marin Headlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you’re driving along a big bridge, ever find yourself automatically registering the bridge piers? “There’s the first pier, I’m driving to it. Now there’s the second one, driving to that. Now it’s just the last bit before the end.” If you do, you may find “Pier and Bridge” a useful mental image for your writing.

When it comes to writing, structure helps. The question is, how can a writer create structure in a useful manner. For me, it’s helpful to have an understanding of plot theory and in particular, I find the three-act structure very effective for me. That said, when I’m actually writing, ideas of act structure are too nebulous for me. They don’t help me go from scene to scene. So what to do? My solution is not to toss out the concept of the three-act structure, it’s to add another representation of the plot, something more concise, something I can use as I write: pier and bridge.

Why care about structure?  Structure is what keeps your story building to a satisfying conclusion. Lack of it is what makes the middle sag. It’s often the ghost lurking behind writer’s block: when you aren’t sure what comes next it may be due to a lack of structure. Much good theory exists from the world of novels, plays and movies around a three act structure (a decent overview is here at wikipedia but there is a lot out there if you want to google.)

Freytag's pyramid
Freytag’s pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The three-act structure is not the only way to craft a story but it offers a good foundation. In it, your first act is about setting up the characters and the world they live in. It ends with an “inciting event”, something big enough and important enough to the protagonist that he needs to deal with it (“will he get the girl?”, “will he save his king?”). Act two is the “rising action”, a series of events where the protagonist finds the situation worsening despite his best efforts. Here he may meet the other characters and acquire the knowledge necessary to ultimately succeed. It typically ends with an epiphany: “Now I know what to do!” In act three, the protagonist resolves the main story and any subplots; this contains the climax. While the acts divide your story into three, typically the middle act is twice as long as the first and third acts. Thinking of it as quarters, act I is the first quarter, act II is the second and third, and the final act is the fourth quarter.

A lot more can be said about the three-act structure and I’ll include a few links below but this is a tried and proven method for creating a good story arc so worth a look if you aren’t familiar with it.

So where do piers and bridges come into this? It’s another way to visualize your book. And for me, a way that is more visceral and, therefore, more useful for when I’m actually typing away. Think about the civil engineer for a moment who has to put a bridge over a river. For a narrow river, he might do a single span: foundation at each end and one arch. In plot terms, this might be your typical short story: opening scene, a middle or two scenes and a climax. No need for sub-plots or elaborate structure. For a wide river, if you try to bridge that long gap without some supports in the middle, the bridge will sag, probably fall down. In story terms, the middle will be flabby, the readers will lose interest and your book will fail.

How do piers help? For a bridge, it’s simple: you sub-divide the span. For long spans, you don’t create an overaching road-deck which is either very expensive or impossible. Instead, you break it up. Think Golden Gate bridge. That middle span is still big (in the three act structure, it is still half your book) but now you have a pier, a support getting you to the middle and another one getting you to the end. In book terms, you have something big that ends act one, the “inciting event”, the thing the protagonist must deal with. And at the end of the middle act, you have the epiphany, the thing the protagonists needs to be successful. Applying the bridge model to writing, you write to the piers: at the start, I need to get to the inciting event. The rest will matter, but not now. After the end of act I, great that pier is complete, now I work on the middle: I have to drive the story to the epiphany point. That’s the next pier, the next mile post. What comes after the post is nothing to worry about now. Once you’ve ended act II, now your pier, your mile post, is the climax.

I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t know what the climax and intermediate piers are. It’s that once you have created these piers (in an outline, a synopsis or just in your head), you can focus on writing to the immediate pier. There’s no need to worry about detail after the next pier, your task is to build a wonderful span to that next milepost. More on this in a later post, but for me knowing the three piers (the end of each act) is all I really need to do to start writing. Once I start working on the immediate scene, I do like to sketch out more detail and here I may outline parts of the act as I work towards that pier. I may also do a synopsis that sketches out the other acts but I also know that it will probably change a lot by the time I get to the end of each pier. It’s the piers that matter, the end of scenes. The rest I work out as the story evolves.

There are many types of writers but if you find yourself wanting some structure, liking the three-act structure, but still struggling for direction, don’t throw away the three-acts but consider visualizing it as three piers, three mile posts that you are going to write to. You may find that by focusing just on that next pier, you build a better structure since you’ll be focused on making it the best pier that you can and the “what comes later” stuff won’t distract you. For me, piers and sagging spans is a great visualization. For you it may be something else but regardless, consider structure!

Next: outline, structure: creating and using these three piers. Tipping my hand a bit, at present while the outline remains in my toolkit, it has been demoted to something used for near-term planning. In civil engineering terms, it is the scaffolding I may use to create the span to the next pier but it is just light falsework, something used only as needed and readily discarded.

Plot versus Character

Warning: Spoiler about Stephen King’s It below.

“The Myth of the Plot-Driven Story” by Allison Brennan in the May RWR (Romance Writers Report) has been on my mind. First off, it’s very well written and the advice is quite good. And I don’t have any specific objection to it yet the piece rubs me wrong. It’s not that I don’t agree a novel rests on characters, it does. I don’t just believe the thing about characters causally (as in “periods are good at the end of sentences now let’s get to the important stuff”), characters really matter to me and I can’t start a writing project until they feel right. But, thing is, I can’t start until setting and plot feel right either.

Allison is multi-published and teaches many seminars so I’m sure she knows her stuff. My suspicion is that she sees a lot more writers getting tripped up over plot when they should be focusing on characters. It’s very easy as a starting writer to focus more on the plot than you should because, after all “that’s the stuff that happens”. And you’ll be pitching plot when it comes time to sell (characters, too, of course but word association, “pitch” –> “plot”). Reviews often focus on plot, especially reader reviews which often pick apart a plot. Your first thought at project start may be to start creating that plot outline. So, very easy to overdo plot to the detriment of characters.

Yet, to call plot-driven stories a myth bothers me. It may be true that writers tend to obsess on plot but you can overdo characters at the expense of plot as well. For that let’s turn to Stephen King, whom Allison quotes in the article:

In On Writing, Stephen King says, “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest… I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character driven.”

Knowing full well I’m putting a gun to my head to criticize such a successful writer, I’m going to do it anyway. And caveat, I haven’t read his more recent works. But this quote is coming from the guy who brought us It. Now, that’s a very good book: I’ve read it three times and enjoyed each read. And honestly, it’s clearly the characters that draw me to this story. Stop here if you don’t a spoiler because here it comes: this wonderful, engaging book with characters that suck me in ends with: a Space Spider as in “I can’t think of anything else but it’s time to end this book, spiders are creepy, let’s go with that.” It was an ending completely unsupported by the narrative to that point. It’s the most slap-in-the-face ending I’ve ever read.

Even knowing the ending, the book pulls me back because the first 800 pages are so fun but this is clearly the work of someone who thinks CHARACTERS and lets plot go where it will. And where it went was, well, stupid. It’s hard to argue with his wild success but imagine what a book like this could have been with the characterization and a better plot? It could have been a classic. This post isn’t about King so just a little more on him before moving on. I think his earlier, much more concise works did have a better character-plot balance and his wild success was based on that. By the mid-80s some of  the meandering and bloat in his works was due to the lack of a good plot infrastructure (and yes, he had serious personal issues at the time, too, which he successfully worked through. I like the man personally.)

As a writer, you absolutely should not get hung up on plot. One of the worst things you can do is to let an outline cripple you, both the daunting task of writing one and writing to it once it exists. But readers want plot AND character, too. Your story isn’t just about the well-drawn characters, it’s about what happens to them. Shrek the movie wouldn’t be Shrek without the ogre, princess and donkey but it wouldn’t be Shrek without the structure of a great plot either. If a plot-driven story is a myth, so is a character-driven one. If you don’t believe me, think back to your favorite books and movies. Now imagine a “Space spider” kind of plot to it. Do you think you would have really enjoyed it as much?

Granted the exact balance point between plot and character is very much a matter of personal aesthetic, and granted there are very successful writers who go light on plot, but unless you know you’re one of them don’t forget the plot. And you won’t really know until you’re a published writer with a good following.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not a pantser but I’ve also learned that outlines don’t work for me. It was quite liberating to throw them away (mostly, I do use them sometimes when I’m just about to write a specific scene or or chapter). More on that in a following post.

There’s a lot of other viewpoints out there. Here’s a few.

Writing: What to do when you can’t break the expectations you’ve made

Writers have it easy: we get to throw our own soft pitch and then smash it out of the park. Meaning, we control the story so we get to setup just the right plot inflection for our big fireworks, which usually involve surprising the reader.

This generally means creating an expectation and then breaking it, using surprise to generate reader engagement. The trick of course is to break expectations in a manner that is credible: it must fit the story and, of course, further it. While in a detective story, it might be a surprise to have the protagonist find an alien in the barn that he is searching for clues, you can bet that’s where all your readers will drop your story (and you will get really entertaining reviews, too, if anyone bothers to review). The typical approach is to turn the expectation on its head: the detective does not find a clue in the barn but he finds the suspect instead, subsequent conversation leading to another place to look for clues, perhaps.

But what do you do if the expectation is critical to your story? It might be one of the main plot points that the story is built on. In my case, my fantasy novel relies on the hero meeting a young dragon fairly early in the story whose mother wants him to learn the ways of humans (and more nefarious things, of course). I’d written to the point where the expectation is set that the hero will travel to a certain place and find his new mount. All nice but now I was faced with a chapter where the reader already new what was going to happen. In the end, a novel can tolerate a few such chapters, especially if there’s a big pay-off like a DRAGON, but why build such a chapter into the first draft? There’s almost always a way to heighten the suspense while still serving the story.

Two ways occurred to me to deal with this, both viable.

  1. Re-write the previous chapter to change the expectation that was set. This may yet prove a reasonable way to go but for now, I decided to keep the expectation, partly because I expect that should this ever get published, the jacket pitch will likely mention that the hero rides a dragon so it won’t be a mystery regardless of what expectations exist in the narrative at this point.
  2. Find a way to break the expectation while still keeping it. Sort of a conundrum, at least it felt that way at first. Obviously if the hero is going to end up riding the dragon, the expectation would be met but maybe there were ways to mix it up some so that between the start of the chapter and the dragon “acquisition” expectations could be broken.

I liked the second option better; I could always go back to the first path if it wasn’t fruitful. But where to start? How about an old fashioned brainstorm: for me, that’s a blank piece of paper where I take freeform notes. Of course, being a geek with terrible handwriting, my sheet of paper is MS OneNote but the concept is same (and this way, I can even decipher my own notes! Bonus!). Brainstorming is great in a group but it works fine solo. The method is to jot down any ideas as they occur, without critique. That’s really the trick of a successful brainstorm: you want to let the ideas flow and while any given idea might not be useful, it can often lead to one that is. If you censor your ideas and don’t write it down “because it can’t work” you might pinch off an ultimately productive line.

In this case, I just started writing things down: some ideas, some notes on what I wanted to accomplish in this chapter, some things I didn’t want to happen. It also helped to list the expectations established in the narrative to date. Then I decided it might also be useful to list the “anti” expectations: that started as just logically inverting the expectations but before I’d finished I’d also added a few additional ones that were helpful (anti-expectation: “dragon eats hero.”) To that, I added a few reminders of what I wanted to establish (namely that dragons are dangerous and are not like people, or kitty-cats-with-scales for that matter).

It didn’t take more than ten minutes of this before I had my solution: while the expectation existed that the hero would get the dragon as a mount, I could have the dragon attack him first. For one thing, while the reader was expecting the dragon in the chapter and for the hero to go get him as a mount, the dragon was expecting someone else. This has the virtue of establishing some of the dragon’s personality through showing and as it turns out, in the process of the exercise, I also thought of a way of showing an aspect of the setting I was casting about for a way to handle. In the latter case, chapter one mentions that floating islands were falling from the sky. While that is useful for the plot at that point, it wasn’t really germane to the overall plot and something I did not have happen on-scene in my initial synopsis. But you can’t really mention an island crashing from the sky without having at least one in the story (that might seem like a cheat or misleading to the reader) so I’d been casting about for some plot-relevant way to show one.

Anyway, I’m still writing the chapter. It may not work or survive a later re-write but I thought I’d share how a few minutes of brainstorming helped. In the end, the solution as currently settled on isn’t exactly earth shattering but the process was helpful. A few minutes of brainstorming helped me avoid staring at a blank sheet of paper (the dreaded writer’s block) or creating a chapter with a big, red bulls-eye on it for a re-write. It’s not the only arrow in the quiver but in the right places, a brainstorm can help keep things moving. My notes are below, complete with typos and garbled sentences.

The Synopsis: Nemesis or Unexpected Helper?

If you’re like me, you probably dread the synopsis. How am I supposed to boil down my wonderful, intricate novel into a few short pages? What am I supposed to do with the apparently contradictory feedback, “it’s too long” and “you didn’t tell me enough about X”? Answers to those questions elude me but to my surprise while working on my next project the synopsis went from thing of dread and scorn to a useful tool.

For those looking for thoughts on how to write a synopsis for a query or a contest, this isn’t it. Instead, let’s focus on the beginning of the project when you are staring at a blank sheet of paper, maybe with some thoughts on yellow-stickies (or if you are like me lots of OneNote pages). Where to begin? As an engineer, in years past, I’ve turned to detailed outlines: sketch out the story and story writes itself, right? That’s never really worked well for me. I tended to get lost in the minutiae; outlines can have a lot of detail and sub-clauses. They quickly become hard to keep track of and more-over, are hard to digest for the writer with little hope of getting much feedback from someone else.

So my next step was to focus on the main plot inflections (in the bridge metaphor of a novel, the piers that hold up the suspension wires) and only do a detailed outline to the first pier. Once that is reached, outline to the next pier. This is an effective technique but it has its weaknesses, namely; by not doing much detail around the later inflections/piers, it doesn’t force me to think through the end very well. I find myself getting to the piers sooner than planned and still not getting to the end of the story, meaning that much of the novel remains unplanned.

Now, you may be a pantser (aka “seat-of-the-pants” writer who just starts writing and sees where the story goes) but I’m not and if you aren’t published, I’d suggest you too give a lot more thought to where you are going. (If you are published, hey, it works for you, go for it.) So what to do?

Here’s where the synopsis can be a useful tool. Think of it as a narrative outline. You can use it as a summary of your story for the purpose of hashing out the characters and plot at a manageable level of detail and in a narrative format just like your novel. Nice thing is, since it is being used as a personal tool, you don’t have to worry about the usual restrictions on length, or even making it have a particular zing to it. It’s purpose is to help you define your novel, not sell it to some stranger.

Is a synopsis really any different from an outline? In the broadest sense, no, they both sketch out what the story is about. But in a practical sense, very much so: the outline is cold, mechanical, hard to read, generally harder to modify. Oh it seems to have lots of easily movable bits and pieces but this is a novel and plucking one plot point and moving it somewhere else may rip invisible plot strings. More importantly, an outline isn’t written like a story. There’s no narration, no flow to it.

The synopsis on the other hand may have a lot more summary and exposition than your novel but it at least uses the same basic writing techniques. It flows with equal weight to all parts of the story. That is, it is less prone to what you often find in outlines where there is too much detail in some places and not enough in others. Most importantly, you can share your synopsis with friends for some early feedback and since it is written more like a story, you are much more likely to get some useful feedback than with an outline. You may go through many synopsis drafts but that is just a 3-6 page re-write, small effort for a novel writer.

When you have a synopsis you like, you will probably find that each paragraph in the synopsis maps naturally to a chapter, making a perfect guide as you go. I can’t do it but for those folks who can write chapters out of order, this can be a big help. Whether you maintain a current synopsis as the work progress or let it get out of date is your call. Once the novel gets going you may not need the tool anymore.

Finally, as an added bonus, if you start the project with a synopsis, when it comes time to actually write one for a query, you have quite the head start. You probably can’t use your original synopsis anymore but by already summarizing the novel and using that as a guide while writing, the synopsis-for-query becomes much easier to write.

So, don’t fear the synopsis. Conquer it by making it a valuable writing tool.