Your novel's structure
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
What is structure? When we talk about the structure of a novel, we're describing the order of the major plot points, the work that needs to be done by the major plot points and between those plot points, and the timing of the major plot points, with the goals of ensuring that the story 1) hooks the reader, 2) sets up accurate expectations in the first fifty pages about what the story's about, 3) maintains forward momentum, and 4) delivers an appropriately intense emotional payoff.
My approach to narrative structure is influenced primarily by the three-act structure as explained to me by my friend Diane Gilman, who wrote screenplays for many years, and by Viki King's description of the nine plot points in her book How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Influenced being the operative word; what I offer here is not a simple mash-up of those two approaches but rather my own interpretation of them with modifications to fit commercial and upmarket fiction for today's readers.
Act I: The Beginning This is The Beginning of your story, starting on on Page 1. It introduces the novel's setting, tone, characters, and theme(s) and includes two inciting incidents: the one that happens within the first five or six pages, and the one that heralds the end of Act I, around page 50.
Yes, that's right: Act I is only 50 pages long, if that.
Some people might argue that if your book is longer than average, your first act can be longer. I would advise against that, and here's why: Act I is about hooking the reader on your story. If it takes more than 50 pages to get to your second inciting incident, that means it takes more than 50 pages for your story to get underway, and you're more likely to lose readers. If your book is longer, then your middle and/or resolution can be longer, but not, I would argue, your first act.
On the flip side of the coin, if your book is shorter than 50K words, I'd argue that your 2nd inciting incident should come before p. 50, so Act I can certainly be shorter than 50 pages.
Act II: The Descent into Hell This section of the novel begins with the 2nd inciting incident and ends with the Darkest Moment. The Middle of the book is about things going from bad to worse, what my friend Diane calls "dwelling in hell." It is the longest act by far and includes a series of challenges (dark moments) and victories.
The primary purpose of each scene in Act II needs to be clearly related to the main plot and driven by your MC's goal. But it's not a clear path for your MC to their goal; they have to fight for it. They probably have to make sacrifices. There will be ups and downs along the way and multiple inducements for the MC to give up on or recommit to their goal.
The Middle also includes a Turning Point for the MC, where they've grown enough from the events that they let go of what they thought they wanted in the beginning and articulate a new goal. If the 2nd inciting incident swept your MC up in a series of events beyond their control, there will come a point in Act II, probably around the middle of the book (and no earlier than the 50% mark), where your MC decides to take control of the situation and aim for an outcome they want.
Act II may or may not contain your book's climax, but it definitely contains your book's Darkest Moment (DM), and the end of the DM marks the end of Act II.
The Climax This is the most emotionally charged moment in your story, and it shows up late in your story, either toward the end of Act II or in Act III. It can happen before the DM, in the same scene as the DM, or after the DM.
Examples The Wizard of Oz Climax: Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch (before the DM)
The Lord of the Rings (whole trilogy) Climax: Golem attacks Frodo at the same time that Aragorn et al battle Sauron's army at the Black Gates (same-ish time as the DM)
The Princess Bride Climax: Westley, Iñigo and Fezzik storm the castle during Prince Humperdink and Buttercup's wedding, and Iñigo kills Count Rugen (post-DM, during Resolution)
Act III: The Resolution The Resolution is about how your MC responds to the Darkest Moment. It's called the Resolution because it's here that your MC either gets what they were after or doesn't. In a book with a happy(ish) ending and a long-ish Resolution, this act has the feel of an upward climb because it's about the MC recommitting to the goal, coming up with a plan to achieve it, and carrying out that plan.
If the climax of your book corresponds with The Resolution, this is where the MC has to triumph over their inner conflict or fatal flaw in order to be victorious over the primary conflict. In a tragedy, The Resolution is about the MC not changing enough, not changing at all, or changing too late and not achieving their goal.
The length of your Resolution will depend on several factors, including how long your book's middle is and how much work it'll take for your MC to achieve their goal. But remember this: the Darkest Moment should come no sooner than 75% of the way through your book, which means that your Resolution should account for no more than 25% of your book. For example, if your book is 300 pages total, then your Resolution can be up to 75 pages long if you have no denouement. Generally speaking, a long Resolution works best when your story has multiple POVs and some of the characters' DMs happen within it (as is the case with The Princess Bride).
Act IV (optional): The Denouement And finally, your book may include a denouement that ties up all the loose ends and shows what the new normal looks like. This is hands-down the shortest act of the book. It's a place to wrap up any loose threads and give readers a moment to revel in the MC's victory (or mourn their defeat). It is by definition anti-climactic because it's the release after all the build-up of emotion and tension, but if it goes on very long, it starts to feel anti-climactic in a bad way.
Everything that comes after the ring being destroyed and the fall of Sauron and his army in Return of the King is the denouement. And, in my opinion, it's waaaaaaaaay too long, in both the book and the movie. Yes, we want to make sure all the threads are wrapped up and we feel secure in our characters' happy ending. And because LOTR is a trilogy with one continuous story line, the denouement in Return of the King can absolutely be longer because it's the denouement of the entire story, not just the third book/movie. But there's Sam and Frodo being rescued by the Eagles, Frodo's recovery, Aragorn's crowning ceremony, the return to the Shire (which, in the book, contains that weird mini-adventure with Saruman and Wormtongue), and then there's Bilbo and Frodo saying goodbye and sailing off with the elves.... It just seems to drag on forever. I love you, Tolkien, but it's too much. At least for today's readers.
In contrast, the denouements in The Wizard of Oz and Hamlet are appropriately short. In Hamlet, the denouement is Fortinbras's speech wherein he says, "Hey, y'all. This was really sad. But now I'm gonna take over." (I may have paraphrased that.) And in The Wizard of Oz, it's Dorothy waking up in bed, surrounded by friends and family and saying, "And you were there, and you, and you!" and "There's no place like home!" and really that's it.
Do you need a denouement? You do if there are still loose ends after the Resolution or if for other reasons the story doesn't feel complete after the Resolution. A denouement is also useful if you want to leave readers on a different emotional note than the one they're on at the end of the Resolution and/or if your book is a first-in-series and you want to hint at the next book's primary external conflict.
A couple of caveats I'm incredibly wary of anything prescriptive, especially when it comes to a creative endeavor. There are no hard-and-fast rules in fiction writing. Having a philosophy for structure is helpful in identifying what's not working, but that doesn't mean that a novel will only work when it follows this structure.
It's also important to note that the structure is pretty flexible in some places. For example, I don't believe there's a particular Right Place for the MC's Turning Point. If your MC is particularly stubborn, I could even see it coming in Act III and still being relevant, so long as there's appropriate challenge and conflict all throughout Act II. (Example: Han Solo's turning point doesn't happen until the Act III climax of A New Hope, when he shows up out of the blue just after the DM to help them take out the Death Star.) As discussed above, the placement of your book's climax is also very flexible.
That said, there are a few guidelines that I *do* treat as hard-and-fast rules because I think they provide a really important structure for pacing: the 2nd inciting incident needs to come before or on p. 50, the Turning Point can't come before the 50% mark (because otherwise it seems too easy), and the Darkest Moment has to wait until you're at least 75% of the way through the story (because otherwise there isn't sufficient emotional build-up). I fight hard for these beats in my own books and when editing client work.
Last but certainly not least, I think it's important to establish when it's appropriate to think about structure (and when it isn't). Appropriate: in the planning phase of writing a novel and during editing. NOT appropriate: during drafting. As Ana Pascoe writes in her blog post "The Pressure Cooker of Advice," if I try to keep All The Things in mind when I sit down to create, I become overwhelmed by the pressures and shut down. It's what Diane Gilman, in her forthcoming nonfiction book tentatively titled How to Not Write a Book, talks about in terms of barriers: all those rules for good writing and good storytelling become barriers between ourselves and the page. I've done this to myself too many times to count. So long story short: I don't think about structure while I'm writing. But I do use the concepts during the planning phase to help me think about whether I have enough conflict and what needs to happen roughly when. In the editing phase, both of my own and of clients' work, I lean heavily on my understanding of structure to figure out pacing of the plot and characters arcs.
Other resources on novel structure After my post about the Darkest Moment, a client also mentioned Larry Brooks's take on plot structure in his book Story Engineering. Following that trail led me to author Jami Gold's website, where she has created and made available several different plot beat sheets, including ones based on Brooks's approach and on Gold's own. I also have clients who have found Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey helpful in thinking about major plot points.