When I first started thinking seriously about writing a novel, I asked the successful local writer whose evening class I was attending how to structure a novel. She said to me, “I always struggle with structure. I’ve got a friend who helps me with it.” It wasn’t the most helpful of responses but because she didn’t give me the answer I needed, I had to look elsewhere. For a long time it felt like there was a conspiracy of silence about structure and novel writing as if novelists are just supposed to know. When I started doing my MA in creative writing I discovered that if I wanted to know about structure then I needed books written for screen writers.
The reason for that is that every Holywood blockbuster you’ve ever seen conforms to the same basic plan. You can dress this up in different ways and call it a three act structure or a five act or Freytag’s pyramid but when you look closely you’ll see that all stories have some key building blocks.
First of all there has to be an inciting incident which is the thing that happens to kickstart the story. In crime fiction, it’s the murder. In a James Bond movie, it’s the discovery that someone evil (either with or without a white cat) is threatening world peace. In romance novels it tends to be something a little less dramatic. In Pride & Prejudice it would be Darcy saying “She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me” at the Mereton assembly. In Sleepless in Seattle it’d be Annie saying ‘magic’ at the same time as Sam. It’s the inciting incident which introduces the protagonist to a new world (for Lizzie, the world of wealth and privilege Darcy inhabits) and starts them on a journey.
The midpoint isn’t just what happens in the middle of the story, it’s the point where the protagonist changes. It’s where they realise that there’s no way back to the old life they used to live. But at this point, the protagonist is pretty confused by their new knowledge and doesn’t know how to handle it correctly. In Skyfall its when Bond has Bardem in his custody and realises the strength of his enemy before Bardem escapes and the tube train crashes through the roof of the M15 hideout (I love that bit!) In Pride & Prejudice the midpoint is when Lizzie gets Darcy’s letter and realises she’s had him wrong all along. But not only does she not know what to do with this new knowledge, she doesn’t realise that she’s falling in love with him.
The crisis is where things go really badly wrong. It’s when all hope passes away. It’s the moment when you’re yelling at the screen ‘Oh no!’ It may be a death (often of someone close to the protagonist) or in a romance the point where it seems the couple can never get together. For Lizzie, it’s when she realises that Darcy is the perfect man for her but through Lydia’s marriage to Wickham, they are forever separated. The function of the crisis is to prompt the protagonist to ask themselves what kind of person they are. It’s a test of character. In Casablanca, it’s when Rick realises he has to change his essentially selfish ways and let Ilsa go.
The climax, as you’d expect, is the final showdown with the antagonist. It’s what the story has been building up to. It’s the moment when the protagonist faces the antagonist and everyone comes out fighting. In Skyfall it’s the battle at Skyfall House with Bardem. In an Agatha Christie it’s when all the suspects are gathered together and Poirot talks them through the investigation and then reveals the identity of the murderer. In Pride & Prejudice it’s the moment Lizzie stands up to Lady Catherine De Burgh and, without realising it, gives Darcy hope that she does actually care for him.
After the climax is the resolution which is the final judgement after the battle (physical or metaphorical) of the climax. James Bond saves the world and gets the girl. In Sleepless in Seattle it’s the moment Annie and Sam finally meet. In romance fiction it’s the happy ever after and Pride & Prejudice gives us a good example of that as we have Darcy’s second proposal and acceptance by Lizzie and also her saying (because she’s learned some things as all good protagonists have to) “She remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin”.
This is a very quick overview, of course but I’ve found it really helpful to break structure down to these building blocks. If you’d like to know more I strongly recommend Into the Woods by John Yorke which is a brilliantly clear book on structure and how stories work. If you’re in Yorkshire then I’m doing a workshop on stories and how to tell them on Sunday 17th September at Owl & Monkey in York and you can find out more about it by clicking here.
Images reproduced courtesy of the BBC, Tristar Pictures, MGM and Warner Bros.