I recently decided to undertake my own version of “plot boot camp.” I collected a stack of novels and another stack of books on novel structure. I spent a few months alternating between the two stacks, analyzing the novels according to what I read in the books on structure.
I read “The Plot Whisperer” by Martha Alderson, “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks, and “Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell. Looking at structure from three different perspectives allowed me to see common patterns in the advice, and I concluded that novel structure is all about four quarters and two doors.
1. The First Quarter
In the first quarter we learn who the protagonist is. This is the character who is most changed by the novel. The internal issues that hold the protagonist back are established here. Back story and flash backs should be used sparingly at this point. The reader needs to care about the character first. Hinting at a larger back story can draw people into the story.
The beginning is the ideal place to introduce themes. Also, if you want the character to have access to something later, plant it at the beginning. A secret key that shows up in the third quarter feels convenient and coincidental unless it was planted at the beginning.
A disturbance should be introduced early on, a police car on the corner or a friend acting strangely. However, the main problem for the protagonist doesn’t become clear until the end of the first quarter.
All three of the books about structure place a door at the end of the first quarter. In Plot and Structure, Bell calls it the first door, after which the protagonist cannot turn back. In Story Engineering, Brooks says that the protagonist transitions at this point from an orphan without a quest to a wanderer, chasing his new found task. In The Plot Whisperer, Alderson says that the protagonist separates from all that is familiar, turning into the story world. There is no turning back.
2. The Second Quarter
The conflict builds throughout the second quarter. The protagonist should find herself in situations beyond her control, and each of these scenes should be linked by cause and effect. It is the causal linkages that pull the reader along.
Don’t be afraid to let the character fail. The reader needs to see how his internal flaws are preventing him from succeeding in the dramatic action plot. By the second quarter, the reader is attached to the protagonist and therefore more willing to stay on her side throughout the protagonist’s mistakes and failures.
It is only at the end of the second quarter when the protagonist begins to suspect the role she may play in her own failures. At the end of the second quarter, the protagonist recommits to her cause, but she still lacks complete understanding. She hasn’t completely faced up to herself and to the true source of her problems. The midpoint is a catalyst for the inner epiphany, but it is not complete until the end of the third quarter. Despite the lead’s recommitment, things will only get more difficult at the beginning of the third quarter.
3. The Third Quarter
At the beginning of the third quarter things become more difficult for the main character. She has some increased understanding of her role, which, according to Brooks, moves the protagonist from a wanderer to a warrior.
Towards the end of the third quarter things get as bad as they can get for the protagonist; he experiences a crisis. It is through being knocked down by the crisis that he comes to fully understand the source of his problems. The trauma of the crisis brings wisdom and the understanding that he needs in order to confront the dramatic action plot. Often, this understanding comes through quiet reflection scenes, which follow the crisis.
Due to the transformation at the three quarter mark, the character may be offered what he thought that he wanted only to realize that it isn’t the answer. The long term goal can change, as the lead learns more. The three quarter mark can also be a good place to reveal concealed back story.
According to Alderson, some authors find it helpful to write the crisis first. This allows the writer to know what strengths the lead will need so that she can show the absence of these strengths in the first quarter.
Bell calls the three quarter mark the second door; after this door, the final conflict is unavoidable. This is the key turning point in the story; nothing will ever be the same after this. According to Brooks, at the three quarter mark the protagonist transforms from warrior to martyr. She doesn’t have to die for her cause, but she has to be willing to. [Note: 'death' may translate to some other form of ultimate sacrifice.]
4. The Fourth Quarter
Armed with the knowledge gained from the crisis, the protagonist heads towards an ultimate climax in the fourth quarter. This climax will involve the clash of all major forces, and the lead will use the knowledge gained from the crisis to overcome her antagonists in ways that she would not have been able to at any earlier point in the novel. The final climax demonstrates the complete transformation of the lead character, and it must have meaning for the overall story.
Other characters can accompany the protagonist in the climax, but the hero must make his victory for himself. He cannot be saved by someone else or by a lucky coincidence.
According to Brooks, no new information should be introduced in the fourth quarter. This doesn’t mean that you can’t surprise the reader, but you must use elements that were planted earlier.
After the climax, all tension is drained from the story. You can leave a few unanswered questions in order to keep the reader’s attention, resolving these items in the final scene after the climax. It is important not to continue the story for too far after the climax is resolved or the reader will lose interest.
Does this structure ring true for you? Do you normally notice the structure when you read a novel? I look forward to your comments.