Many new writers I encounter chafe at the idea of having to “fit their story into a structure”. “Why can’t I just write and see if it fits later?” they ask. That question shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what story structure really is. When editors, teachers, and other experts in the literary field talk about “structure” what they’re talking about isn’t some set of rules you have to comply with; they’re talking about the underpinnings of how stories function and have functioned since the earliest days of storytelling.
There are arguments about whether structures have three arcs or five arcs or more (or less). However, the foundations are the same, even if the numbers change. Overall, good storytelling has a specific rhythm of rising and falling action. It has to do with building tension and releasing it at key intervals to keep readers engaged. While the “three-act structure” is often used in playwriting and screenwriting, you’ll find it’s just as applicable to novel writing (or even short stories). It’s about the nature of storytelling rather than the medium.
Let’s start our exploration of structure with “Freytag’s Pyramid”.
Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the most common story structures taught to students. It breaks your story into five acts with each act landing at a different point in the pyramid. This structure is most often applied to classical literature rather than modern, but it still holds valid there. Now, I’m going to venture into the realm of opinion here, but I believe that this method is folly to use as a barometer for writing because it has the climax in the middle of the book which means the latter half of the book has breaking tension all the way down. You’ll lose steam in your storytelling and lose readers. But, in the interests of full disclosure I thought it important to cover.
The second structure I’m going to lay out to you is the one I employ and believe in. It’s called the “Three-Act Structure”, and it’s one of the most fundamental and important structures you can learn as a writer.
As you can see, in contrast to Freytag’s Pyramid, the tension doesn’t fall until the very end of the novel which keeps readers (viewers etc.) engaged until the last moment of the story. In my opinion this is a far more effective structure than Freytag’s Pyramid due to the use of rising and falling beats through the whole piece. The Three-Act Structure epitomizes the way most novels, plays, and screenplays operate. You can fit most of them into the format with relative ease, though certain people still believe there are five or more acts (which some stories may use, depending on who you ask).
Both are valid forms of structure, but you will also see a resemblance between the two forms of structure—they both have rising and falling action, albeit at different points of time.
Structure is what will make or break your book. Now, structure isn’t a set of rules so much as it is a set of push and pull points of rising tension, as you can see in the pictures earlier in this post. When writing your work, chances are you’ll employ these structures instinctively because it’s what most of the media we consume uses. Anyone who has spent time reading or devouring media of most flavors will have internalized this structure because it’s what works.
Storytelling has a rhythm to it. In some ways, it’s like exercise. You start out slowly to warm up, then you jog for awhile, drop back to a walk, jog for awhile, drop back to a walk, and then sprint through the finish. That’s what a story is like. You’ll find this rhythm as you write, and when you’re done and look back, chances are you’ll be able to see the three-act structure come to life.
My favorite form of utilizing the three-act structure is from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. He calls it the “Beat Sheet”. It’s a fantastic resource you can use to organize your plot points into the act structure, and it helps you think of roughly where you are going to be in the story at what time. I’ve found it incredibly useful.
If you’ve found the Beat Sheet and are curious about what it looks like in use, check out this link. It’s from Blake Snyder, and it shows the way various films employ it. Of course, if you haven’t seen the film you’ll probably spoiler yourself, so think before you click!