When you first begin your initial research on how to plan and write a book, there are countless useful blogs (listed at the bottom of this post) and articles on the elements that make a good story, in particular:
- The three act structure
- The use of three disasters
- Conflict (of which there are many types)
- Character arc and premise
- Goals (story goals, life goals and scene goals)
In isolation, the theories relating to the above are pretty digestible, however, they do not work on their own. Each theory interweaves with the intention of coming together and creating a well thought out story with a clear purpose. The complexity of this is overwhelming and personally made me want to tear my hair out.
Being a designer, I like to visualize things, so one morning when my head felt like it was going to explode, I whacked out a pen and began to scribble. I was on a mission to work out how each of the following theories slotted together to create the bigger picture, and to find a way to convey this in the simplest way possible. This is what I came up with. (Please note, this is based on the three act structure).
And this is it jazzed up and redesigned a little for you guys…
This graphic aims to give an overall picture and act as reference for those of you who need a friendly reminder of how all your planning fits together. Further planning tools and printables will be provided for each of the sections to further assist your planning process at a later date.
To those of you who are new to the writing world, I will dissect and explain the graphic in more detail below to aid understanding. Those of you who are already familiar with what it all means, feel free to take it and use it whenever you need a little reminder or clarity.
Acts, disasters and scenes
The three act structure is generally the main structure that your novel will follow. It is a well known and respected structure, used often in novels and play writing. Each act has a specific ‘purpose’ which will be discussed in further detail below. Each act is also made up of smaller scenes. Each scene takes the protagonist one step closer to the story goal. Within the three act structure there are the three disasters. The disasters again have a specific purposes.
Act 1 and first disaster– Act one is roughly one quarter of your story and should set up the story and introduce the reader to the characters and the world in which they live in. It should also introduce us to the problems that the protagonist needs to solve.
At the end of act one comes the first disaster. This disaster acts to commit the protagonist to the story (he knows what he wants, his goal and he goes after it) and bring him to the point of no return.
Act 2 and the second and third disaster – Act two takes up approx. 2 quarters of your novel. The first half of act two (the second quarter of your novel) should see your protagonist’s reaction to the first disaster and begin his quest to the goal. The second disaster strikes at the end of the second quarter (half way through the second act). This disaster is bigger than the first one and acts as a major set back to the protagonist reaching his goal. The third and final disaster comes at the end of act two. This forces a decision/ a change of mind-set that will set up the third and final act.
Act 3 – Act three presents the climax, resolution and presents whether the protagonist reaches his story goal. It is not always a bad thing if he doesn’t, as throughout the process he could realise that what he thought he wanted, is not what he needed. Act three ties up lose ends.
There are three kinds of goals; story goals life goals and scene goals.
The story goal is what the protagonist wants the most and the problem that he needs to solve. This could be an external physical achievement such as graduating, or internal such as a change of mind-set or attitude.
The story goal does not only affect the protagonist. it is likely to affect the rest of the characters too. For example, if the protagonists goal is to save the life of his wife, but he fails, her family, friends and children will also suffer the consequences. When the stakes are high, the readers care more about whether he achieves it.
The life goals of the characters can be totally separate to the story goal. For example, the protagonists story goal is to save the life of his wife but his life goal is to become a professional trapeze artist. He has ambitions and goals that make him a memorable and realistic character. He is living in a multi-dimensional world with hopes and dreams of his own before the first disaster strikes.
Each scene within a story must have a purpose. This is where scene goals come in. In each scene your character must want something, which is then met with conflict (see below). Each scene acts as a step towards the story goal.
The role of conflict
As the graphic suggests conflict comes not only as the three major disasters, but is also present at scene level. Scene level conflict is directly related to scene goals, because it acts as the opposing force.
Conflict could be one of two things: internal or external. Internal conflict may mean your character is battling internal emotions or feelings. External means he is up against something physical such as another person, the weather, time etc.
Also bear in mind that conflict does not have to be anything huge. It could be as minor as your protagonist missing the bus – even such a seemingly insignificant event will produce a setback, pulling the character further away from his story goal.
Be sure that your character does not lose or win all battles. There needs to be a mix of both highs and lows to ensure tension and avoid predictability.
Put simply, your characters arc is the journey and changes your character makes between the beginning of the story and the end of the story. Your characters begins at point A, and ends at point B. ‘Stuff’ must happen between these points that incite and create this change. If there is no journey, you will find it hard/impossible to progress your story.
Veronica Sicoe offers a detailed explanation of different types of character arcs here
James R Hull offers an interesting insight into the difference between growth and change here
K.M. Weiland. explains in great detail how to write different types of character arcs here
What is a premise? There are diverging opinions on premise, what it is and how useful it can be. The following explanation is my own interpretation of it and what I see it to be. The premise as I understand it and as I refer to it in the graphic, is what the protagonist learns throughout the book – the end result of his character arc. Examples such as ‘Lifes too short to worry’ ‘If you love her let her go’ or ‘I am good enough’ to name a few.
It is important that you don’t get too bogged down with trying to find a premise that is moral and deep, or forcing your story to fit around a premise from the start. You may start with the premise and go from there, but equally you may not even know exactly what your character learns until you finish the book. What is certain and important is that your character will go through changes throughout the course of the book, and this change is a vital element to consider in the greater context of your novel’s overall structure.
I hope you find the graphic useful, and it would be great to hear your comments!
Everything I know I learnt from a variety of valuable sources (listed below). Undoubtedly, I will be returning to many of these sources time and time again for further guidance. Check them out!.
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy