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Approaches to Structuring a Novel

I’ve been having a devil of a time shaping my novel in progress (in slooow progress). In revisiting resources, I’ve come to realize that all roads lead to Athens, that is, to Aristotle.

In his Poetics Aristotle tells us that story, by which he means narrative literature, must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Born in the fourth-century B.C., Aristotle focused on dramatic narrative. The first novel, generally identified as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, didn’t appear until the early seventeenth-century.) Within his overarching framework, Aristotle laid out the movement of narrative in terms that may be off-putting to current fiction writers.

To the rescue—with clarification, updates, and details—come craft teachers like Larry Brooks and Christopher Vogler.

For detail, I looked at Larry Brooks’s Story Structure–Demystified. Here Brooks divides the novel into four parts:

Brooks’s Part One (Aristotle’s beginning) consists of an opening scene, a hooking moment, and an inciting incident. Also called Plot Point One, the inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist’s goals change. Something important is now in jeopardy. (Aristotle’s calls this development peripeteia or reversal of fortune.)

Brooks’s Parts Two and Three comprise the Aristotelian middle.

Part Two contains 12-15 scenes:

-a scene or two of immediate reaction to the high drama of the inciting incident

-a scene or two in which the protagonist regroups and takes stock of options

-a scene that sets up what Brooks calls the Pinch Point scene, which delivers a direct, dramatic example of the antagonistic force in action

-the Pinch Point scene itself

-a scene or two responding to the Pinch Point scene

-a few scenes leading up to the Mid-Point scene, where the protagonist establishes a new goal.

Brooks’s Part Three contains another 12-15 scenes, beginning with the Mid-point scene and ending with the Second Plot Point Scene, which supplies a major twist.

– The Mid-Point is a critical scene that changes the context of the story experience for the reader, the protagonist, or both. Events are seen in a new light.

– Pinch Point Two occurs in the middle of Part Three. This scene exists to show us, once again, what stands in the protagonist’s way. At the end of Pinch Point Two, there is an all-hope-is-lost lull, the Black Moment.

-A Second Plot Point Scene injects a final piece of new information that changes the story once again; this is the last big reveal. The protagonist learns something that will take her the final step toward doing whatever needs to be done in Part 4 to bring the story to a satisfactory close. The Climax of the novel occurs at the end of this scene.

Brooks’s Part Four (otherwise known as . . . you guessed it . . . the end) encompasses 10-12 scenes. No new information may enter the story.

These scenes must show the protagonist as the primary catalyst in the resolution of the story, one who has conquered the inner conflict that stood in her way in the past. The protagonist is now ready to apply what she has learned over the course of the novel to launch a successful attack on the external conflict.

The same structural underpinnings can be found in Christopher Vogler’s three-act approach to story form: In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Vogler adapts Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey motif into sections named Separation (the beginning), Initiation (the middle), and Return (the end). I’ve laid out below the structural parallels between Vogler and Brooks:

ACT I-Separation


Vogler Brooks
1-Ordinary world Opening scene
2-Call to adventure Inciting Incident
3-Refusal of the call Set-Up Scene for Plot Point One
4-Meeting the mentor A 2nd Set-Up Scene for Plot Point One
5-Crossing the first threshold Plot Point One

 

ACT II-Initiation

 

Vogler Brooks
6-Tests, Allies, Enemies Pinch Point One
7-Approach to the inmost cave (terror) Mid-point
8-Supreme ordeal Pinch Point Two and Black Moment
9-Reward Set-Up for Resolution

 

ACT III-Return

 

Vogler Brooks
10-The Road Back Plot Point Two and Climax
11-Resurrection Resolution scene
12-Return with the Elixir Another Resolution scene

 

Aristotle, Brooks, and Vogler are resources to which I turn repeatedly when I get stuck in a creative rut and can’t move forward. They give me the push I need to make some real progress. Could be they’ll do the same for you. (Disclaimer: I’m getting nothing, nada, for my plug. I’ve never met Vogler, nor Brooks, nor Aristotle. Honest.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Plot’s the Thing

Plot has always been a particular challenge for me, and I know I’m not struggling alone. For step-by-step guidance on the process of plotting, I turn this month to John Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction. For this post, I excerpted and paraphrased pertinent passages while taking some superficial liberties with Gardner’s text. For example,… Continue Reading