Plot is Tech: My Four-Act Formula

Spoilers for: His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik; The Princess Bride, by William Goldman; Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card; Star Wars series

As a writer, I consider myself to be in the journeyman stage of my career. Even though I haven’t really made any money at it yet, I feel like my apprentice years are behind me. I’ve written a couple of books. I no longer find “How to Write” books particularly interesting. I’m sort of in the middle stage of my expertise, even if I’m still in the beginning stages of my professional career.

Part of being a journeyman, I think, is developing your own tricks of the trade, the little knacks and small arts that, along with the philosophies behind them, eventually earn you the title of “master.” One of mine is my Four Act Structure, which I use in plotting a novel. I don’t know if it will work as well for everyone, but I find it a serviceable tool.

Act One: The Challenge Accepted

This takes up maybe a quarter to a third of the book. It’s the part wherein your amateur detective decides to investigate the murder; the young soldier marches off to war; the swineherd decides to kill the dragon so he can claim the princess’s hand.

Except sometimes the challenge seems to be accepted right at the outset of the novel. You’re writing the third book in a detective series, and everyone knows the detective’s going to take the case the moment the client walks in his door. In that case, I think it’s useful to have a secondary challenge, one that can ultimately serve to bring this arc to a close. In the case of the detective series, The Challenge Accepted likely ends when the detective decides to take a personal interest in the case before him, or when he decides to continue pursuing it despite some very persuasive reasons not to.

Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel His Majesty’s Dragon, begins with Captain William Laurence discovering a dragon egg. Over the course of the first thirty pages or so, he determines that the egg will soon hatch, that a member of his crew must make an effort to bond with the dragon and become its rider, and furthermore, that that person must be him. He undertakes this task with dedication, but no enthusiasm, as it will mean the end of his Naval career. And on page 28, there he is, inextricably bonded with his dragon, Temeraire.

But that isn’t where The Challenge Accepted ends. Instead, Laurence spends a good third of the novel learning to see Temeraire as a fellow being, rather than a burden. The Challenge Accepted ends when Laurence accepts the second, hidden Challenge—becoming Temeraire’s true friend and companion.

Act Two: A Grave Setback

This act also takes about a third of the book, maybe a bit less. It involves the characters proceeding along with their efforts, until, bang! A Grave Setback occurs. The prime suspect in your murder mystery turns up as another victim; the young soldier’s unit is mowed down in battle; the swineherd learns that the dragon is not only not the one who’s been terrorizing the peasantry, but is actually a pretty nice guy.

The ideal Grave Setback challenges everything that has gone before it, and makes things immeasurably harder for your heroes. It leaves the reader asking, “Yeesh, what are they going to do now?

In The Princess Bride, the Grave Setback occurs when Westley dies. He dies! The hero dies! That is, as Mercutio might have said, about as grave a setback as you can get. The plot marches forward, and Westley comes back, but in a much-reduced state. Everything he does from this moment on must rely on strengths other than the ones he’s used to get this far.

Note: I know you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t read the book, read the book!

Act Three: All is Revealed

This act takes up most of the remainder of the book. Any mysteries you’ve developed along the way are laid bare here. Here’s where your murderer is unmasked; where the young soldier discovers the betrayal that led his unit to their doom; where the swineherd learns that the king is actually the evil sorceror who has been making the peasants’ lives miserable.

All is Revealed is where all the little pieces click into place, where your reader can finally make sense of what’s come before. It should surprise the reader, yes, but a moment after that surprise registers, he should begin to slowly bob his head, to realize that this is the only way things could have gone. In other words, All is Revealed should grant answers that feel both surprising and inevitable.

In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, this act concludes when we finally learn the reason for the strange and brutal murders committed by the race of aliens called “piggies.” It all makes sense, then: not just why they committed those crimes, but also why their behavior doesn’t sem to gibe with their feelings of respect for the murder victims. A dozen little mysteries are cleared up with one revelation, which winds up seeming inevitable indeed.

Act Four: Someone Wins

This act is basically comprised of the climax and denouement. Note that it’s not called “The Hero Wins.” It is only necessary that someone win. Failing that, you can go for some sort of stable resolution or compromise—but that’s not my style. I like a good, solid victory or defeat.

In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the villain who wins in this act, setting us up for the heroes to be in deep trouble at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. I do feel that letting the villain win works best in a series, where you have room to correct the injustice in later novels. But it can work in standalones, too. One of the members of my writing group has written a standalone literary novel with a bitterly shocking Villain Wins fourth act, which leaves the hero alive but forever diminished.

And so…

Not every book will easily break down into these four acts, or even break down into them at all. Like all writers’ tools, the Four Act Structure is a guide, not a harness. It’s meant to give you a way of thinking about your novel that can help you chart your way through the murky first stages of plot-work.

It works for me, and I imagine will continue to do so. But I won’t be afraid to step away from it if it isn’t serving the needs of a particular novel, and I’ll always be looking for ways to change it up and make it freshly surprising.


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Dragon Maths

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
Publication: Traditional
Genre: Fantasy

In my first post, I blogged about how I rejected Code Name Verity because, while it had a great hook, that’s simply not enough; a book must follow up the hook with a reason for the reader to care.

Ok, great. Gotcha. A reason to care. But, from a technical standpoint, what does a reason to care consist of? And how do you know if you’ve given your readers an adequate one?

There are a lot of possible answers. But one of the most powerful ways of making your readers care is giving them someone to care about.

That’s what Naomi Novik does in His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in her justly famous Temeraire series. It’s narrated by William Laurence, captain of a British Naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and Novik lets us know exactly who he is with efficiency on p. 2, after Laurence has captured a French ship:

Many of [the French sailors] lay dead or dying upon the deck; he shook his head at the waste and eyed the French captain with disapproval; the man should never have offered battle… he ought to have done better by his men than to bring them into so hopeless an action.…

He hooked the captain’s sword on his belt; he did not think the man deserved the compliment of having it returned, though ordinarily he would have done so.

Two things are important here: Laurence’s individuality, and his virtue. His sternness, attention to ceremony, and martial viewpoint comprise the first; they make you feel as though you have met a real, nuanced person. His compassion and his sense of a captain’s duties comprise the second; they make you feel as though the person you have met is worth knowing.

Together these things give the reader someone to care about. Now, all the writer has to do is get him in trouble.

That’s what happens as the sample continues. In short order, Laurence will discover that in capturing the French ship, he has also captured a dragon egg, which will shortly hatch. It becomes clear that one of his officers must attempt to harness the dragon, becoming its rider and ending that man’s Naval career. And when the young man selected for the task proves unequal to it, it is Laurence’s sad duty to step into his place.

And throughout all this, Laurence’s individuality and virtue are fully on display, particularly in the way that he sees it as his duty to sacrifice his own intended future to secure the hatchling for Britain’s war effort. And thus, when the sample leaves off, although the plot is still in its opening stages (indeed, nothing has happened that isn’t revealed on the back cover copy), we are deeply invested in Laurence and in what will happen to him. We care.

So, broken down into a mathematical formula, that leaves us with:

(Individuality + Virtue) + Difficulty = A Reason to Care.

I like math. And also, Temeraire.

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What is Fiction Technician?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how e-books are changing the publishing business. It’s generally agreed that the effects are enormous, but as yet unknown. E-books are having an effect on the profitability of brick-and-mortar stores, on the cost of self-publishing (and therefore its prevalence), on basically every aspect of publishing.

But they’re changing more than that. They’re changing the way we buy books.

For people like me, who do most of their reading on an e-reader, I suspect that the book buying process has become much the same: download a sample of the book and read it. If you get bored, stop. If you get to the end and you’re still interested, buy the book.

For the first time in history, readers have an infinite amount of time to spend with the first pages of a book before they decide to buy. The implications of this for writers are simultaneously completely obvious, and hard to completely get one’s head around. But one thing is clear:

The first ten percent of your book has become your last, and most critical, selling tool.

And that means that you must sustain reader interest at a pretty high level throughout the length of the sample. If it drops off, the reader just isn’t going to hit Buy.

The last book to fall victim to this drop-off, for me, was Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. It’s about a teenage spy who is captured and tortured by Nazis. The book takes the form of the confession they are forcing her to write. In the first pages, she makes it clear that she will confess all.

I was very into the premise, and very into those first few pages, wherein Verity outlines her grim circumstances. Had I been perusing the book in a bookstore, that’s as far as I would have read before I needed to move on with my day. On the strength of those first pages, I would have bought the book.

But as Verity moved into the meat of her confession, my interest waned. And when I got to the end of the sample, there on page 40, I wrinkled up my nose, trying to decide whether it was worth ten bucks to turn the page. I decided it wasn’t. I hit Delete.

For a while, it was hard for me to figure out exactly what it was that made me lose steam on Code Name Verity, until I remembered something Orson Scott Card said when I attended his Literary Boot Camp in 2010.

Forget “hook,” he said. Give us a reason to care.

It was then that I realized that Code Name Verity was all hook, and no reason to care. The hook was top notch: Girl spy! Being tortured! By Nazis! But once we moved past that initial hook, there was nothing to hold me. Her confession dealt with characters who the narrator seemed to find fascinating, but who I frankly did not. In fact, I found them rather typical: plucky girl pilots running about being plucky—without, as yet, any real problems to deal with. I knew they would be recruited into the war effort eventually, but it hadn’t happened yet, and I didn’t know how long it would take. And I didn’t care about any of them.

That hook was enough to get me through 40 pages. But it wasn’t a reason to care, and it wasn’t enough to sell me the book.

And that, essentially, is what Fiction Technician is about: looking at the initial samples of e-books from a writerly point of view. I’ll look at character, pacing, tension, et al, all trying to answer one question: Why is this book selling? Or why isn’t it?

If you’ve recently walked away from a book that couldn’t hold your attention throughout the sample, let me know about it in the comments. How are you buying books these days?

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