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.

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.

Write Time, Wrong Time & Writer’s Block

These days I don’t get writer’s block. It’s not that there aren’t times when I can’t write but it doesn’t feel like some mysterious, debilitating block. Instead, I’ve learned that when there is a scene I can’t bring myself to write or some dialogue I dread or a plot inflection that doesn’t flow, it’s a SIGN. A sign of what? A sign that I need to re-think what I have in mind. It’s my sub-conscious telling me that what I planned doesn’t cut it. Put another way, if I don’t want to write it, my readers probably won’t want to read it.

An alternate title for this post  (albeit less catchy) is Write Time, Think Time. By that I mean, there are times when I am are ready to write and times when I need to give the project more thought before setting fingers to keyboard.

Many writer’s resources will tell you to just keep writing. They are correct that you shouldn’t stop writing for long periods of time but writing a bunch of crap isn’t going to help a whole lot. Sometimes, it is crap you can easily rip up in a re-write but all too often, it is crap that leaves it grubby prints on many pages, especially if it relates to key characterization or plot and how much doesn’t? Instead of chaining yourself to the keyboard for an evening, better to grab your iPod and take the dog for a walk. Force yourself to analyze what is making you reluctant to write. Then look for ways to turn it around.

My most recent example was a scene where I envisioned a flying boat surprising the protagonist (hey, I write fantasy). It would look first like a cloud in the distance, then resolve into a boat, then crawl across the sky until it was close enough to hail. I just didn’t want to write it so I went on a walk in the woods. Why didn’t I want to write it? I’ve written “something approaches from the distance and takes a while to arrive” scenes before. They are tedious to write even if you keep the word count down and since they summarize a span of time, not too exciting for the reader. So what to do about it? Simple, I had to make the boat appear suddenly. Flying boats only move so fast so that meant it had to drop into sight- maybe have it rise over a cliff edge or break from obscuring clouds. I didn’t like the cliff idea (very dramatic but not very sensible way to fly your ship). As it happens I wanted to establish that there were clouds of steam and ash in the area so why not combine the two? Clouds boil up, ash falls, when they clear: a ship! No more tedious approach and it covered two points at once: setting and ship arrival.

This is just a little example but the point was not to plod through and write the scene as previously imagined. The thing to do was to recognize that the lack of interest in writing the scene was an indication that I didn’t really like what I had in mind. Time to think then write. Sometimes to think through the blockage, you may also need to completely turn your mind away from writing but for me, most often some music and a change of scenery will do the trick.