I cannot begin to express the value of information I learned this past fall when I participated in the Introduction to Screenwriting workshop with producer/writer Elisa Dimitria Bowman of CINIGI Lighthouse Entertainment. It was during this workshop that Ms. Bowman presented me with a diagram for the structure of a screenplay. I’ve made a few adjustments to apply the same principles to the structure of a novel. I not only use this diagram when writing my own stories, but when I read novels written by others. It’s genius in its simplicity, and so I thought I’d share it this morning.
We are taught from an early point in our education that story has three essential parts – Introduction, climax and ending. However, while that is still a foundational truth, I’d like to fill in some of the other important parts in between those three.
Introduction – The beginning of your novel should set up a few things within the first few chapters like: setting, introduction of the characters, laying of the foundation for the plot, and setting the story into forward motion.
Inciting Scene – This is one of those nuggets of dynamic information I learned from the screenwriting class and has now been ingrained into my understanding. An inciting scene is the scene where the first important change happens in a story – it’s the point of no return – the point where certain decisions or actions by the characters lead down a certain road and to certain consequence. In a screenplay, this usually happens within the first 20 minutes of the movie, or 20 pages of the screenplay. I’ve applied this concept toward a manuscript in terms of the first 20% of the novel. If your novel is around 80,000 words, then your inciting scene should appear around 16,000 words. Or if you go by a chapter scale and your book is 20 chapters, this scene should happen around Chapter 4.
Story Parts/Acts – If you take your novel and divide it into thirds, you’ll have Part 1/Act 1, Part 2/Act 2, and Part 3/Act 3. Certain things should occur in your story within each act, each containing their own mini-stories within itself. On the larger scale, the Introduction and Inciting Scene are parts of Act 1. The Climax and Turning Point are parts of Act 2. The Twist, Resolution and/or Conclusion are parts of Act 3. Again, if your novel is 80,000 words – Act 1 should end around 26-27,000 words. Act 2 should end around 52-54,000 words. Act 3 should end at 80,000 words. In terms of chapters for a 20 chapter novel – Act 1 around Chapter 6 or 7, Act 2 around Chapter 13 or 14, and Act 3 at Chapter 20. Structuring your story to this model will help you greatly with pacing.
Climax – Turning Point – This should happen somewhere in the middle of your story. It could be placed anywhere after the quarter-point of the 2nd Part/2nd Act to the three-quarter point of the 2nd Part/2nd Act. This crucial point of the story is the central point of the entire plot. It contains the ‘point’ of the story. (I love this illustration, because a point is also a tip.) For a novel of 80,000 words, the climax should be between 32,000 and 47,000 words, or Chapter 8 to Chapter 12 for a 20 Chapter book.
Resolution, Twist and Conclusion – This would be where you tie the ends to all the story threads you have sown up to this point. It occurs in the last 1/3 of your novel. This is where the consequences of the previous actions are played out. You can insert a plot twist, which is something vaguely implied or planted in their earlier chapters that changes the resolution of the conclusion, before bringing the story to a close. These happen after 53-54,000 words in an 80,000 word novel, or the last five chapters of a 20 Chapter novel. I try to place my twists and conclusions usually within the last 20% (last 2-4 chapters or after 64,000 words), balancing out the inciting scene, and letting my resolution of plot points come to a graceful and naturally paced end (unless it’s a cliffhanger).
Please keep in mind that this is not an official story structure, but I find that it works really well for me. Movies are simply moving stories, but the concepts are quite the same as literary works. I see my books as written stories, but in my imagination I can see them as movies when I write them. If a story wouldn’t be an interesting movie for me, then it I can’t imagine it being an interesting book. Hopefully, you too will be inspired by this diagram. See how your story compares to it – and perhaps you might just discover a better balance.
Till next time,