How critical is it that you know the Three-Act Structure of your novel before you write it? Can you skip this step and come back to it later — or never do it at all?
Gabriel posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy, I’ve discovered your blog recently and I’ve found it extremely useful – I’m an engineer so I really can relate to your way of thinking and explaining things!
I’ve wrote short stories in my high school years (I actually won the two contests I entered) but it’s been a while since I’ve written. My current goal is to write a publishable novel.
I’m following your snowflake method, but I found I jumped from step 1 (one-sentence summary) to step 4 (one paragraph per disaster), being unable to do step 2 (one sentence per disaster).
My question is, essentially, how important is step 2? I know your advice is to follow the “method” as much as I want, but you also recommend this paragraph to be the back-cover of the book.
I can’t summarize each disaster in a sentence. Could you post examples of one-sentence summaries extended to one-paragraph summaries extended to 5-paragraph summaries?
I apologize if they are indeed somewhere on the site, I couldn’t find them if that’s the case.
FWIW, I write in spanish, my native language. I adjust word counts accordingly but I doubt it has anything to do with my inability to do step 2 🙂
Randy sez: Some background on Gabriel’s question is essential here. Step 2 in the Snowflake method is to write a one-paragraph summary of your story. I recommend that you structure this paragraph as follows:
- Set the stage for the story in one sentence.
- Tell the first quarter of the story up to a disaster that commits the lead character (and the reader) to the rest of the story.
- Tell the second quarter of the story, up to a second disaster that gets the lead character in even more trouble.
- Tell the third quarter of the story, culminating in a third disaster that forces the lead character (and the villain, if there is one) into a final confrontation.
- Tell the ending, which includes the final confrontation, the climax, and then the final wrapup.
While it’s difficult to put all stories into this mold, it’s a useful discipline which many writers find helpful. But do you HAVE to do it?
No, you don’t have to do anything. In principle, you can write the whole story without understanding its deep structure in advance. Many writers find that they do their best work working in “seat-of-the-pants” mode. If that’s your way, then that’s your way. I encourage all writers to work in the way that works best for them. Many Snowflakers jump around among the steps, filling them in as the story comes to them. That’s fine. I do it that way myself.
What intrigues me here is that Gabriel skips from Step 1 (a one-sentence summary) to Step 4 (a full page synopsis). This is definitely not writing by the seat of the pants. Instead, it’s a details-first approach. There’s nothing wrong with doing the details before you know the big picture. Again, it’s a matter of finding the style that works best. But I think that it ought to be possible to go back from the one-page synopsis to the one-paragraph summary without that much work. If you can’t do that, then you might need to get some help from a friend who is more a top-level thinker.
Here’s an example of a one-paragraph summary for the novel THE MATARESE CIRCLE, by Robert Ludlum. This is excerpted from page 154 of my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES (I have permission from my publisher, John Wiley, to use small excerpts online):
- Brandon Scofield is an aging US covert agent who’s been inexplicably pushed out of the service on an idiotic pretext.
- After evading an assassination attempt, he discovers that his own government is trying to kill him and that his only hope is to join forces with Vasili Taleniekov, the ex-KGB agent who murdered Scofield’s wife.
- Forging an uneasy alliance, Scofield and Taleniefkov uncover a shadowy international conspiracy led by corporate billionaires, but the stakes rise when one of the billionaires is murdered by his controller.
- After pursuing leads in Russia, Germany, and England, Scofield must make a hard decision when his girlfriend Toni and his ally Taleniekov are kidnapped by the conspirators, who invite Scofield to surrender to them in Boston.
- Scofield flies to Boston, discovers one final shattering secret, and then walks unarmed into the lair of the conspirators to “surrender.”
THE MATARESE CIRCLE is a complex book, interweaving the big-picture storyline (conspiracy in high places) with the little-picture storyline (Scofield has a second chance at love with this new girlfriend in his life). Despite the complexity, I managed to summarize the core in only five sentences.
Notice that the three disasters each make the main storyline worse. First, our man is on the run from his own government. Second, the Big Bad Guys he thought were the villains turn out to be controlled by somebody even bigger and badder. Third, his ally and his girl are captured, leaving him all on his own.
The first disaster leads to Scofield’s decision to commit to the story. He could run off and hide, but he chooses to join with his enemy and go looking for trouble.
The third disaster leads to Scofield’s decision to end the story. For better or for worse, he’s going to Boston for the final confrontation. Again, he could run and hide, but he wants the girl. He wants the truth. He wants to bring down the bad guys.
THE MATARESE CIRCLE is a great example of Cold War spy fiction. It’s been one of my favorites for a long time. The story is complicated, but the milestones in the Three-Act Structure are absolutely clear.
Without details on Gabriel’s story, I can’t really figure out his Three-Act Structure, but I suspect that he needs help from a good story analyst. Because of massive time constraints in my life, I only do story analyses when I’m at writing conferences. (The good news is that I do it there for free; the bad news is that it costs money to go to a conference.)
Gabriel, do you have a writing friend with good analytical skills? That might be your best bet. Otherwise, you may find that one of the freelance editors listed in the right margin of this blog might be able to help you work out your Three-Act Structure.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.