Category Archives: Plot and Structure

A Satisfying Plot 5: Questions and Puzzles

My favourite Coen brothers’ film is Intolerable Cruelty. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as battling divorce lawyer and divorcee, Miles Massey and Marilyn Rexroth. Following their first courtroom encounter, they meet for dinner:

(MR) What was your performance about this afternoon?
(MM) What did your lawyer say?
Freddie thinks you’re a buffoon. He says you’ve been too successful. You’re bored, complacent and you’re on your way down.
But you don’t think so.
How do you know?
Why would you be here?
Why did you ask me?
Can’t I be curious?
About what?
Do you ever answer questions?
Do you?

Now firstly, what makes this funny is the charm of two comic actors going at a great script. But also, it constantly denies us any sense of resolution. And we do like a resolution. It is said that Mozart’s wife would get him out of bed in the morning by playing the first seven notes of an octave. As if we are in a constant state of willing things to complete. Uncertainty followed by certainty.

In games design, it is called a Ludic Loop. Anyone who has played Tetris will know the great satisfaction when, after sliding and turning a series of shapes, a four-block slides into place and four rows flash on-and-off and then disappear. But more than this, as soon as that puzzle has resolved itself, new ones are immediately created. More loops of anticipation and resolution (or frustration), each accompanied by a thrilling release of dopamine in the brain.

It will be familiar to anyone currently hooked on Candy Crush. There is a story in New Scientist about a woman who was playing it on the toilet, so addicted that when she finally got up after four hours, her legs collapsed beneath her.

Stories constantly set up puzzles or ask questions, and then, often when you least expect it, answer them. Not just once, but constantly throughout the telling. ‘Who is this?’ ‘What is going to happen?’ ‘How will he/she get out of this situation?’ ‘What is x hiding?’ ‘Why did he/she say it in that way?’ A detective story is not just one question of ‘who killed y?’ but a constant flow of questions and puzzles; answers and solutions.
And literary fiction? Spot the uncertainty or anticipation being set up in these first lines:

• It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
• It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
• If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
• They say, when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
• As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from an uneasy dream, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
• All children, except one, grow up.
• It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
• The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
• It was the day my grandmother exploded.
• He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

And then, take your favourite story and follow through the way the author keeps your sense of uncertainty or anticipation alive; occasionally rewarding you with a resolution or a point of certainty, but not before setting up another question or puzzle.

The New Scientist article points out that Candy Crush was created without consciously using the principle of the Ludic Loop and goes on to suggest that once it is properly adopted we’ll all be hooked longer and longer on to more and more video games. I’m not so sure. The distance between adopting a new principle and creating Candy Crush, is about the same as reading a series of posts called, ‘A Satisfying Plot’ and writing Intolerable Cruelty. What is needed are ill-defined qualities like ‘creative ability’ or ‘individual spark’. Science is yet to make much progress there. Though perhaps, when it does, we really will be queuing round the block to get the autograph of Autobot 5.

The quotes are from:
Pride and Prejudice
The Bell Jar
A Catcher in the Rye
Wide Sargasso Sea
Metamorphosis
Peter Pan
Love in a Time of Cholera
Red Badge of Courage
Crow Road
The Old Man and the Sea

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A Satisfying Plot 4: Emotion

A woman is praying as hard as she can. Two minutes later, elsewhere in the crowd, a man is crying. Let me tell you about Atletico Madrid.

I’m not a football fan, but last weekend I happened to be staying in Spain with a friend who is. We watched the end-of-season league decider between AM and Barcelona, and she told me the story. Two seasons ago AM are adrift. A team of talented local boys who cannot hold it together. Their key striker, in particular, will often go off the ball to settle an argument with fists. When their manager leaves, an ex-player puts himself forward to take over for a season – he stays for two. During that time, he pulls them together. As a fellow street-fighter, he teaches the striker to channel his energy. And slowly the team rises. Challenging the eternal dominance of the main two clubs: Barcelona and Real Madrid – who have co-opted all of the broadcasting rights and built up teams with such depth that Barcelona can boast three strikers, each of whom has been the top goal scorer for their separate countries. And this is the team that Atletico Madrid faces.

Twenty minutes into the game and AM have lost two of their best players to injury, including the striker. And this is a team of only eleven good players. No depth. All they have to do is draw, but at half-time they are a goal down – with the one glimmer of hope that a Barcelona player has been sent off, reducing them to ten.
When Atletico Madrid return, two of the players are wearing different-coloured boots: one from each of their fellow injured players. And the team plays like a team: energy and commitment. They level the score, then settle in to defend their advantage.

With two minutes to go, a woman in the stands is praying as hard as she can; and, when the whistle goes, a man is crying with relief.

Any good story telling requires an ability to tap into strong emotion. The genres practically announce the emotion to be evoked: romance, thriller, horror. Even literary fiction will have at its core an emotion that is being drawn out, explored.

A quick scan across my books-to-keep shelf shows:

Pride and Prejudice – love
Catch 22 – anger and humour
Code of the Woosters – humour
Sophie’s Choice – loss
Middlemarch – love, loss, thwarted hope

And it’s not just football and novels. When I learnt stand-up comedy, the teacher Jill Edwards told us we could use two techniques. The first, just thinking of set-ups and punchlines. The second, to dig deeper and deeper into a subject using a strong emotion: anger, worry, love; without ever trying to be funny. Just ranting on the same subject. Whatever you may think of him, when Michael McIntyre talks about ‘The Man Drawer’, he doesn’t just think it’s interesting – he LOVES it! Watch him build the obsession: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgUpDGAIdds
So, why is all of this bothering me? Partly because I’m writing a novel that could very easily lose touch with emotion: becoming an exercise in humour and imagination. Emotion is a lodestar that tells any creative person whether or not they are on the right track. The rote of techniques, structures, questionnaires and exercises often lose the fact that emotion is what drives the good writer and draws in the reader.

On Saturday 24 May, Atletico Madrid will attempt the double: finalists in the European Champions League. And who are they up against? Real Madrid. That other titan of Spanish football. This post is being written before the game, but posted after. I could add the result. But I won’t. Partly because if you’re interested you’ll find out. But also there is an argument to be made that the best football teams are not those who win or lose, but those who tell the best stories.

With thanks to Isabella Lawrence. Anyone interested in learning stand-up comedy from Jill Edwards, the person who taught Seann Walsh, Jimmy Carr, Francesca Martinez and others, go to http://jill-edwards.co.uk/

A Satisfying Plot 3 – Movement

At the start of a recent scene in Game of Thrones *mild spoiler* the young
Arya is riding on the same horse as her captor. She complains to him that
she wants her own one. They argue. At the end of the scene, she rides away
on her own horse. I won’t say what earned her this right. But the point is
that plot-wise, she starts in one place and finishes in another.

Movement is what gives us a sense that something has happened. It can be in
a character’s emotion, behaviour, status, physical location, attitude,
possessions, learning, etc. One of the points of the solution to the
mystery of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane is that, for better or worse, it shows
us how far the character has moved since the start of the film.

The problem I’m facing at the moment is that I have an incomplete novel,
with sixteen characters. A lot of time is spent explaining their backstory
– because it’s fun – but they are static portraits, and it leads to an
overall lack of movement. I was trying to look for a solution to this
problem, and remembered Catch-22. The first chapter is eleven pages long,
and ten characters are mentioned. The protagonist, Yossarian, is in a
hospital bed with an unidentifiable condition and no intention of moving.
Then ‘The Texan’ is admitted to the ward who ‘turned out to be good-natured,
generous, and likable. In three days no one could stand him.’
As a result,
Yossarian discharges himself. Movement.

But movement towards or away from what? From what the character wants.
What Yossarian wants is to get out of the war (or just have an easier time
of it). But he is constantly frustrated by the illogic of the US army
system, the behaviour of his fellow soldiers (very rarely the enemy), and
war itself. The more he wants, and the more thoroughly he is frustrated,
the more engaging the plot becomes.

The minor characters also display movement. Often crossing paths and
hindering one another, as well as Yossarian.

There may well be a book in which there is no movement. But even in The
Outsider
the main character moves physically and in action. He may not
change emotionally. But that very lack of change is the point.

Movement can happen anywhere. Greg Mosse points out that it even occurs in
a paragraph. This is from Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie:

There’s no swell to speak of, just the little lapping waves, so landing is
just a matter of running the Zodiacs up onto the stony beach, allowing us to
jump ashore. Not jump exactly: we swing our legs over the sides of the
inflatable, and drop down onto the land, ideally between waves. You don’t
want to get your feet wet, because they’d soon freeze.

The puzzle set up is, where are we? Also, what is this ‘Zodiac’? The
‘inflatable’ tells us, if we didn’t know. And the final line gives us even
more information. The movement is towards resolution of a mystery. It
creates modest drama and tells us more about where we are. If the final
line had been at the start, it would just have been journalism.

Chapters start in one place, finish in another; sub-plots progress in tandem
with the main one. The main movement though, is in characters and what they
want. It must be a movement engaging enough for the reader to want to find
out what happens next. The question for the writer is, does this volition
interest me, drive me, turn me on, appal me, inspire me, horrify me, attract
me, fascinate me, impress me. If not, the fight for it, frustration in
achieving and final resolution are unlikely to interest the reader.

The battle between Arya and her captor will continue until the final
resolution: moving forward, backward, forward again. But always moving.

Satisfying Plot 2: Twists and Turns

The comedian Tony Elvin (young, black) used to start his act by saying, ‘This reminds me of the last time I was in court: an all-white jury, white defence and prosecutor. And me…the Judge!’ Whenever someone tells a joke or starts a routine, a game begins in which the audience tries to guess what the punchline will be. The comedian had better beat the audience to it.

A similar game is played in drama and fiction. At the start of the first episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer *Spoiler* a fearful girl is taken into an empty school at night by an older boy. She asks him if he’s sure they are alone, and when he says yes, she suddenly turns vampire and attacks him. From then on the series will follow this line: defying your expectations; establishing women as powerful.

Creator Joss Whedon delights in second-guessing his viewers’ understanding of dramatic clichés. I’m not going to tell you how he introduces the title to the horror film in Cabin in the Woods, but it’s worth renting just to see how he does it.

But if people have become so sophisticated, how do you write a twist that both surprises and makes sense within the story you’re trying to tell?

It might be worth starting with a list of the few of the typical twists and turns. So, with a little help from Wikipedia, here we go (I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum or at least make them the less significant ones):

Something happens you didn’t expect. Scarlett O’Hara smashes a plate against a wall. Rhett Butler pops his head up from the sofa where he’s been sleeping.

Something happens you did expect but not when you thought. Everyone knows a couple in a romantic comedy are going to get together, the skill is in delaying and then second-guessing the audience’s expectation.

What you think is going to happen, doesn’t happen – but something else does. A red herring leads investigators (and the reader) toward an incorrect solution but, by discounting it, closer to the real one.

What you think happened, wasn’t what actually happened. In retrospect, the same scene can be seen in a different light. Darcy’s snootiness at the first ball is explainable given the behaviour of Elizabeth’s family.

Someone isn’t who you thought they were. The menacing stranger turns out to be an ally; a close friend, your greatest enemy.  For the reader, the narrator themselves may be not who you thought they were: Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Usual Suspects.

The character isn’t who they thought they were. The Greek term for this is Anagnorisis (Discover). The protagonist’s sudden recognition of their true nature. Eg Oedipus or Sixth Sense.

When you think everything is lost, it turns out it isn’t. Almost every Hollywood blockbuster.  Again, the Greek, Peripeteia: the sudden reversal of fortune which arises naturally from the character’s circumstances. Eg Match Point.

When you think everything’s won, it turns out it isn’t. Every other Hollywood blockbuster.

Help or hindrance comes from an unexpected direction. Also known as Chekhov’s gun. A character or plot element is introduced early on, but the usefulness or relevance is not revealed until later e.g. Shawshank Redemption, or all the villains in Scooby-Doo. This also covers those times when a minor character turns out to be more significant/powerful than you thought.

Events are revealed out of order. There are several versions of this:

In Media Res. ‘Into the middle of things.’ The narration starts in the middle of the events, so that characterisation, setting, and motive is revealed through flashbacks. The Prestige.

Non-Linear Narrative. Plot and character are revealed in a non-chronological order, so the reader has to piece together the timeline. Catch-22.

Reverse Chronology. Events revealed in reverse order. Time’s Arrow.

Something happens which you feel is deserved.  Poetic Justice. In which a virtue is ultimately rewarded or a vice punished in way that has a logical connection to the deed. Theatre of Blood in which the critics of a Shakespearean actor die Shakespearean deaths.

So, how do you go about writing one for yourself? Remembering that your reader is just as clued up on twists and turns as you are. My experience is that it can be done in two ways. In the first, you decide from the start what the twist is going to be. The problem with this is that if you think of it quickly, so will the reader. The Farrelly brothers used to deliberately write their heroes into such impossible situations that they, as writers, had no idea how to get them out of it. Then they’d think about it for a few months. The principle being that if it took them three months to figure it out, it was less likely the viewer would second-guess them.

In the second, a twist emerges after a few drafts of the story – connections you hadn’t seen. I’m just completing a ninth synopsis for my two-years-in-development novel, and new twists are occurring to me as I get to know the characters better.

A good test would be, does it surprise you? Are you pleased with the way it advances or concludes the story? Is it in keeping with the genre, characters, plot, theme of the novel?

A few additional thoughts occur:

You don’t have to have a twist. Typically, with romantic comedy – despite twists in the middle – by the end, you’re just relieved they’ve found each other. Give them something cute to say, and let the kissing begin. Charles Dickens said, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.’ There is something important here. Which is that a lot of good drama/comedy is less about clever twists than – ahem – delaying the climax. The reader needs to feel there has been a sufficient test to the characters’ will. Overspun and you just get bored.

You can get away with loads with a strong character. There are some television programmes where I will enjoy the first series and then stop watching. Because, I know that essentially the same story is going to be told over and over until the ratings drop. There are other series where each programme is a carbon copy of the previous one, and I will happily watch each one. The difference? Character. In House, the twists, are as follows: patient admitted for presenting problem; turns out it’s not what they thought it was; turns out it’s life threatening and they still don’t know what it is; House has breakthrough based on something said in an unconnected conversation; patient cured. But the character – misanthropic healer – is so strong that really, it doesn’t matter. I just want to see him be rude to people and cure them over and over.

The longer you signal a twist, the better it needs to be. The title Sophie’s Choice sets up an expectation. And despite the fact that it is not revealed for a fair proportion of the novel, it lives up to it.

Avoid the ‘Not Fair!’ red flag. Readers and viewers have a finely tuned sense of justice. I still remember the sense of outrage when a new series of Dallas started with Bobby in the shower and it turned out the whole of the previous series had been a fantasy he’d had. My god, the man must have been clean.  Another Greek term: Deus ex Machina, an unexpected, artificial or improbable character device or event introduced suddenly to resolve a situation.

The twist must make sense in terms of the theme, genre, characters. Even better, it should confirm the theme or advance it: consider any number of the twists in Game of Thrones which confirm the theme, ‘You win or you die.’ Romantic books have romantic twists; horror books have horror twists, etc.

In the end, if you choose to include a twist, it’s you in a tennis match with the reader. They think they know which way the ball will be returned. Your task is to surprise them, while staying within the accepted boundaries of the game.

 

 

The Wikipedia page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot_twist

 

A Satisfying Plot: Theme

On my first novel writing course we were asked what we liked in books. I said, ‘Where things happen and people have sex; but they don’t have to have sex as long as things happen.’ Recently, I was delighted to hear that a friend’s child had explained her love of Downton Abbey as, ‘It’s olden times, and things happen.’ Exactly!

What I disliked most was the idea of theme. It sounded so writerly and Hampstead. I was once in a bookshop where there was a reading being given by new novelists. The first stood up and said, ‘There are three themes to this novel.’ I left.

But recently I’ve been wrestling with trying to put some shape to a novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for about two years. There are lots of little mini-stories, a main character, and fairly decent set-up. But it all feels a bit amorphous. Mostly, I experience a slight sinking feeling. I could impose a three-act structure, but it still wouldn’t get to the heart of the problem.

The idea of theme has popped its head up over the horizon, and has been waving at me ever since. Damn.

But recently, I saw Frozen. I’m a sucker for a good cartoon: Kung-Fu Panda, Shrek, even Beauty and the Beast. What struck me particularly about Frozen was that from about halfway through I found myself getting really drawn into the plot. When the ending came, it was fully consistent with the rest of the story and a delightful surprise. There was no getting past it. The whole thing had been developed from a simple theme.

You could sum this up as love and fear; or frozen heart; or simply, Frozen. Everything comes out of it, from the set-up to the resolution. Right down to the jokey character, Olaf, who is completely loving and open, but is made of snow. And it works. The most successful animated film in history.

My argumentative self would say yes, but it’s a cartoon. Based on a fairy tale. Of course it has a strong theme.

Except, I was once listening to a radio discussion about Middlemarch. Pretty much my favourite book. One of the speakers kept going on about ‘the web.’ What web? I thought. Turned out, it’s the central theme of the book. The way in which people get caught up. An image that is constantly referred back to. I hadn’t noticed. All I knew was that there were several different stories being told, and a sense of intelligence in the telling.

It’s probably about time I defined what is meant by theme. Which I have nicked from a handy video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3_Bb9wGObY): theme is an idea that the author is trying to express to the reader about life or the human condition. It is the underlying meaning behind the whole story. And perhaps it’s this didactic element which put me off i.e. stop trying to tell me things and get on with the plot. Except that it is inevitable that if you tell a strong story you will convey something of your understanding of the world (or even discover what your view might be). A couple of stories in Middlemarch for example look at the way in which great ambition is undermined by relationships – part of the web theme. George Eliot did indeed feel held back by an early relationship.

In Lajos Egri’s classic The Art of Dramatic Writing (written in 1942! Recommended by Moss Hart!) he starts by talking about the importance of what he calls premise. Here, themes are not single words such as love, betrayal, jealousy, but are phrases written to describe a journey. Eg Romeo and Juliet: Great Love Defies Even Death, King Lear: Blind Trust Leads to Destruction, Othello: Jealousy Destroys Itself and the Object of Its Love. The premise or theme is the force that underlies the action. So Frozen would be Love Overcomes Fear.

So, I took this to my novel. First off, the hero is a hypochondriac. I thought about what hypochondria means to me, and came up with self-obsession, torpor, and fear. Then, what the opposite might be: selflessness, energy, confidence. In fact, my notes looked a little like this (if you can imagine them spread out over the page):

Selflessness (altruism) + The relief of love (energising), defeat Torpor + Decay, the mundane, soulless, Decay (disguised as progress) = Despair/Hopelessness.

My first attempt to get this into a manageable premise was Selflessness and Love Defeat Torpor and Decay-Disguised-as-Progress. But there is something about energy which is important to the novel. And even love can’t stop change in the public sector (where the novel is set). Though it might be able to dispel the despair created by it. So, The Energising Effect of Love Dispels Torpor and Despair. Which, with its strange capitalisation, looks like the sub-heading to an 18th-century novel. I like it!

But it’s a bit long. Boiling them down further I had Love Dispels Despair. With the caveat that for the exploration I can open it out to its long form.

Next, for that exploration, I thought up some questions:

In the novel…

  • How does love dispel despair?
  • When did the despair start? (How far back do I need to go?)
  • When did love start? (How far back do I need to go?)
  • How does love energise?
  • Why dispel, rather than defeat, conquer, dissolve etc?
  • What was the first moment when the character began to realise or rediscover the theme?
  • What are the other key moments in that journey?
  • Does the journey inspire me? If not, what’s missing?
  • Is this exploration too simple or too dull? If so, how could I spice it up?
  • How do other characters in the story embody that theme?
  • What forces (inner and outer) oppose this journey? Are they powerful enough? What is the biggest test?
  • Is the journey from despair to love described convincingly enough?
  • Is the ending a big enough firework display to see this theme off in a fitting way?
  • Are there any interesting things I could do with it?
  • What’s the last thing I would expect with a theme like this?

The process, even without answering the questions, took about three days. In attempting it, I began to get inspired by the possibilities, and feel a greater sense of control over the material. My reaction to theme in the past might have been to roll my eyes and think, how clichéd; right now, it’s thank goodness. Here, for my disorganised novel, is a way to bind plot, structure, characters and action, and get them moving. Also, there is plenty of room for exploration and creativity: to open it out while retaining a sense of continuity. Finally, themes can be BIG. Even the smallest, most parochial story can have a big theme. Which is quite inspiring (a good British sentence). I begin to see more clearly why an epic like Titanic would have a love story at its core.

Having said all this, I suspect you still don’t have to have a theme in order to write a successful story. Many authors of popular fiction probably write to plot and character, having taken the central theme for granted (love, horror, danger) – or perhaps they use it each time to reenergise themselves. Writers of literary fiction may only identify a theme after the first or second draft. Leaving the initial writing more open to exploration and spontaneity. Also, just getting your theme, characters, and action all lined up is no guarantee of success, Shark’s Tale stunk the house out.

Egri finishes by saying:

The premise is the conception, the beginning of a play [or story]. The premise is a seed and it grows into a plant that was contained in the original seed; nothing more, nothing less. The premise should not stand out like a sore thumb, turning characters into puppets and the conflicting forces into a mechanical set-up. In a well-constructed play or story, it is impossible to denote just where premise ends and story or character begins.

I’ve reached a point where it’s become a useful tool, and I’m going to explore it more. Though believe me, if anyone asks me what my novel is about, I’ll just tell them what happens.

Plot: No Plot

I was speaking to a writer the other day who had difficulty with the idea of creating a plot, preferring to leave himself open to ambiguity, mystery, and surprise.  For him, it was this that made writing enjoyable.  If there was a plot it came from characters.  Having a separate plan to which he might refer seemed restrictive: a character would have to act a certain way to conform to it, the dialogue would suffer, as would their ability to react spontaneously.  The ideal, for him, was to be as natural as he could while maintaining cohesion.

But half way through the writing of his novel he had got stuck.  He didn’t know where to go next.  His solution was to create a ‘markers’: passages of writing set later in the novel which gave him a direction.  Also, to get clearer on the roles of some of the characters he had created.  Freed up, he started writing again.

I am always fascinated by this kind of approach.  I wrote my first novel by drawing up synopses, and planning the content of chapters.  It enabled me to get from one end of the novel to the other, much as one might climb a mountain, moving from one camp to another.  The fear was that without some kind of structure, the story would just drift off into nothing.

More recently, I have been experimenting with more free-flowing, and experimental methods, trusting that there is an innate creativity that, given the chance, will express itself.  When I have tried to return to plot, it has sometimes felt enervating.

And yet, and yet.  While I was writing this post a new plot element occurred to me.  And I like it.  I know where it will fit, and the problems that it solves.  Also, creating a plot is, in itself, a creative act.

What I’m really talking about here is pleasure and enjoyment.  What gives you a kick when you write.  Also, what works: what will help me to get through the writing of a first draft.  I suspect that I will always move back and forth between plot and spontaneity, and never quite be sure which is appropriate when.   My only guide is that which gives me greatest energy and satisfaction.

Structure: Chase the Cat

Mention the Three-Act structure to novelists and you get one of three reactions: their eyes light up, they look confused, or they start huffing.  All we’re talking about really is that each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Just ask Aristotle.  Even that most novelly of novels Middlemarch is full of them.  In each plot strand two people meet, there is a complication, and a resolution (tragic or otherwise).  Simple.

The problem is that this structure was formalised by Hollywood.  Typically in a US film, there is a brief set-up establishing the main character (Richard Gere is rich but bored).  At ten minutes, or thereabouts, something happens which kicks off the action (he meets Julia Roberts).  The first act ends at 25 minutes in, as the action shifts gear (He asks her to stay).  Halfway through, something happens that shifts the gear again (RG and JR kiss for the first time).  With about 20 minutes to go the second act ends as everything falls apart (she leaves him when he cannot commit).  The third act has the resolution (he asks her to marry him).  It even happens in art house films.  I was watching The Master the other day, and Joaquin Phoenix commits to the movement at exactly 25 minutes in.

Very broadly this means a quarter for the first act, a half for the second act (sometimes divided into two acts: leading up to and away from the midpoint), and a final quarter for the third act. The set-up, the complication, the resolution.  The Hollywood shorthand for this is: chase the cat up the tree, rattle a stick at it, and bring it back down.

And, full disclosure, I’ve used it.  My first and second novel were based on that structure.  My view was, if you’re going to climb Everest (never knowingly under-dramatised), you need to have your base camp and two more to get to the summit.  To put it another way, it works like tent poles, something to drape the story over.

The problem is the formulaic element.  To adopt such a structure could feel like just doing what everybody else does.  Every writer likes to feel unique.  But most use structure.  Even if it is an attempt to subvert the more formulaic one.  They get creative, Louis de Bernieres talks about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin having a structure like walking up a pyramid in a slow spiral.  For more sophisticated writers the idea may be expressed more esoterically; Colm Toibin describes his process as more like mixing chemicals.

But the interesting thing is that even in a novel as episodic and experimental as Life, A User’s Manual, the three-act structure is there.  The main story is about Bartlebooth who devises a plan to travel the world and create 439 paintings and to have them turned into jigsaws by the evil Winckler and then to solve each of the jigsaws in turn.  He does it, and then there is a resolution, one of the best I ever read.