In Story Structure—Demystified (Amazon), Larry Brooks lays out with clarity and specificity the nuts and bolts of a novel in a blueprint that I find useful and adaptable. I’ve referred to him before as a guide, but I do so now at greater length. I hope you find his framework as useful as I have.
Positing a 300-to-400-page story, Brooks divides the novel into four parts, as follows:
PART ONE (SET-UP)—10-12 scenes—50 to 100 pages
The missions of Part One:
- Establish the hook.
- Introduce the main character somewhere in the first two scenes. Establish some inner dialogue to help the reader empathize. Emotional investment is the single, most important factor that makes your novel work, according to Brooks. Focus on backstory, and show the attitudes, prejudices and fears that define your protagonist, as well as untapped strengths and secrets.
- Establish stakes. The reader must see what your character stands to lose. The danger of losing something valued ramps up the tension.
- Foreshadow events to come. The first major plot point—the Inciting Incident—identifies some opposition to the attainment of the goal. We need to have felt it coming. That is, a sense of foreboding needs to accelerate to the point at which everything suddenly or subtly changes. (A plot point can encompass a series of scenes as well as a single scene.)
PART TWO (RESPONSE)—comprises roughly the next 100 pages of your novel, 12-15 scenes
Part Two is the protagonist’s response to the new situation, a new goal as created by the inciting incident.
Three things to strive for here, says Brooks:
-a retreat and regrouping
-a doomed attempt to take action
-a reminder of the nature of the antagonistic force
These will require a sequence of scenes, each linking logically to the next. Here the inner dialogue in Part One comes into play as a factor that foils your character’s attempt to achieve the new goal.
The 12-15 scenes that comprise Part Two:
-a scene or two of immediate reaction to the Inciting Incident . . . then
-a scene or two in which your protagonist regroups or retreats . . . then
-a scene that sets up what Brooks calls the Pinch Point scene– an unfiltered example of the antagonistic force . . . then
-the Pinch Point scene. This occurs precisely in the middle of Part Two or at the 3/8ths mark (37.5%) . . . then
-a scene or two responding to this scene . . . then
-a few scenes leading up to the Mid-Point scene. This scene occurs precisely in the middle of the novel (50% mark). The Mid-Point is a critical, context-shifting scene for the reader, the protagonist or both. Here new and significant information changes the main characters and/or the reader’s understanding of what’s been going on.
PART THREE (ATTACK)—12-15 scenes, beginning with the Mid-Point scene and leading up to the Second Plot Point scene, 100 pages or so.
In Part 3 the scenes show the hero fighting back, taking the initiative, demonstrating courage. Usually Part 3 shows the inner demon trying for one last moment of supremacy over the psyche of the main character.
A Second Pinch Point scene occurs precisely in the middle of Part 3 or at the 5/8ths mark (62.5%). The novelist must devote an entire scene to show us, once again what stands in the protagonist’s way. That opposition should be pure and dramatic, not filtered by the protagonist’s perception. The antagonist has evolved, too. He or she has learned how the hero or heroine is fighting back, has overcome weaknesses in pursuit of the goal. Tension and pacing increase because everybody’s picking up his game, say Brooks.
Often there is an all-hope-is-lost lull right before a scene called the Second Plot Point scene.
The Second Plot Point scene occurs at about the 75th percentile. This scene injects a final piece of new information that changes the story again. The main character learns something that will take him or her the final step toward doing whatever needs to be done to bring the story to satisfactory closure. This scene acts, then, as the springboard to Part Four. In Part Three the protagonist transitions from an attacking warrior to a selfless champion in terms of solving the dramatic problem.
PART FOUR—RESOLUTION—10-12 scenes, 50 to 100 pages
No new information may enter the story in Part Four. Every character and resource is already in play. Scenes must show the protagonist as the powerful primary catalyst in the resolution of the story.
The protagonist should demonstrate that the inner demons have been conquered. In Part 4 the protagonist understands what must be done differently going forward and demonstrates that this has been learned.