The Two Pillars of Novel Structure

Even good stories can crumble if they don’t have a strong framework. Use this time-tested structure to transport your readers from exhilarating start to satisfying finish.
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Structure is translation software for your imagination.

You, the writer, have a story you want to tell. You feel it, see it, populate it with characters. But turning all that raw material into a novel isn’t simply a matter of putting it into words on a page or screen. You have to “translate” it into a form that readers can relate to.

That’s what structure does. And if you ignore it or mess with it, you risk frustrating—or worse, losing—readers.

by James Scott Bell

I was amused many years ago when a writing teacher of some repute shouted in front of an auditorium that there was no such thing as structure. He went on and on about this. Later, when I looked at his materials and the terms he had used to designate various story beats, guess how they unfolded? Yep, in a perfect, traditional three-act structure.

When it comes to the writing process, fiction writers tend to fall into two camps: those who prefer to outline before they write, and those who find outlines too constricting. The pillars of structure are equally useful tools for both of these types of writers. If you’re a writer who likes to outline, you can learn to set up a strong story by mapping out a few key structural scenes from the start. And if you like flying by the seat of your pants, you can continue to be as free as you like with your first draft. Write hot. Just understand that later, you will have to think about structuring what you’ve written—because manuscripts that ignore structure are almost always filed under unsold.

But what, you may ask, about authors who purposely play with structure—some to the point their books are called “experimental”? Suffice to say that these authors usually know exactly why they are doing so—and they accept as a consequence that their books might not be as popular with the reading public as novels that have structure working in their favor. At the very least, every author should understand structure fully before playing around with it. (This advice also applies to hand grenades.)

A Bridge to Somewhere

My favorite visual representation of story structure is the suspension bridge:

The key foundational elements here are the two pillars, or pylons. These pillars are set down in bedrock, allowing the suspension cables to support a solid and secure platform—the bridge itself.

Think about it: Every story has to begin, and every story has to end. And the middle has to hold the reader’s interest. The craft of structure tells you how to begin with a bang, knock readers out at the end, and keep them turning pages all the way through. When you ignore structure, your novel can begin to feel like one of those rope bridges swinging wildly in the wind over a 1,000-foot gorge. Not many readers are going to want to go across.

The First Pillar

The beginning of a novel tells us who the main characters are and introduces the situation at hand (the story world). It sets the tone and the stakes. But the novel does not take off or become “the story” until that first pillar is passed. Think of it as a Doorway of No Return. The feeling must be that your lead character, once she passes through, cannot go home again until the major problem of the plot is solved.

Let’s use Gone With the Wind as an example. In the first act, Scarlett O’Hara is sitting on her porch flirting with Brent and Stuart Tarleton. We get to know her as a selfish, scheming, privileged antebellum coquette. She is able to use her charms to enrapture the men around her and play them like carp on a hook. A sister of the Tarleton twins says Scarlett is “a fast piece if ever I saw one.”

If this novel were a thousand pages of Scarlett’s flirtatious ways, we’d never make it past Page 10. A successful novel is about high-stakes trouble. True character is revealed only in crisis, so Margaret Mitchell gives us some opening trouble (what I call the Opening Disturbance): Scarlett learns that Ashley is going to marry Melanie.

That trouble alone might be enough for a category romance, but not for a sprawling epic of the Old South. There must be something that forces Scarlett into a fight for her very way of life, and that’s what the first pillar is about: It thrusts Scarlett into Act 2. That event is, of course, the outbreak of the Civil War.

We first catch sight of this pillar in Gone With the Wind when Charles Hamilton hastens to Scarlett at the big barbecue at Twelve Oaks:

“Have you heard? Paul Wilson just rode over from Jonesboro with the news!”

He paused, breathless, as he came up to her. She said nothing and only stared at him.

“Mr. Lincoln has called for men, soldiers––I mean volunteers––seventy-five thousand of them!”

The South, of course, sees this as provocation. Charles tells Scarlett it will mean fighting. “But don’t you fret, Miss Scarlett, it’ll be over in a month and we’ll have them howling.”

The Civil War is a shattering occurrence that Scarlett cannot ignore or wish away. She would rather stay in the Old South and preserve Tara, her family home, and the way of life she grew up with. In mythic terms, Scarlett would like to remain in the “ordinary world.” But the outbreak of war forces Scarlett into the “dark world” of Act 2.

That’s why it’s useful to think of this as a Doorway of No Return. There is no way back to the old, comfortable world. Scarlett has to face major troubles now—and not just about matters of the heart. She will need to save her family and her land. She will need money and cleverness. She must overcome or be overcome.

In the classic three-act story structure, Act 2 is all about “death stakes.” That is, one of three aspects of death must be on the line: physical, professional or psychological.

For Scarlett, it’s psychological death (though her life is in danger at various points). If she doesn’t preserve Tara and her vision of the Old South, she will “die inside,” so to speak. Gone With the Wind’s story question is: Will Scarlett grow from her old self into the self she needs to be? She doesn’t want this fight. But she is pushed into the death stakes because of
the war.

The timing of the first pillar should be before the 1/5 mark of your book. In movies, it’s common to divide the acts into a 1/4-1/2-1/4 structure. But in novels it’s best to have that first doorway appear earlier. In a fast-moving action novel like The Hunger Games, it can happen quickly. It’s in Chapter 1 that Katniss hears her sister’s name chosen for the games, and in the beginning of Chapter 2 volunteers to take her place.

Gone With the Wind is over 1,000 pages long. The Civil War breaks out at about the 1/10 mark.

Other examples of the first pillar:

■ In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is thrust into a cat-and-mouse game with Hannibal Lecter because it might be the only way to solve a serial killer case.

■ Detective Sam Spade takes on Brigid O’Shaughnessy as a client in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

■ In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch accepts the job of defending a black man accused of raping a white girl. For his daughter, Scout Finch (the story’s narrator), this means events thrust her into a dark world of prejudice and injustice. She can’t remain an innocent.

Look at your own novel-in-progress:

■ Have you given us a character worth following?

■ Have you created a disturbance for that character in the opening pages?

■ Have you established the death stakes of the story?

■ Have you created a scene that will force the character into the confrontation of Act 2?

■ Is that scene strong enough—to the point that the lead character cannot resist going into the battle?

■ Does the first Doorway of No Return occur before the 1/5 mark of your story?

The Second Pillar

The second pillar is another kind of Doorway of No Return: It makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution.

Act 2, between the two pillars, is where the major action takes place. The stakes are death (physical, professional or psychological) and the lead has to fight (literally or figuratively). Remember, the first door has been slammed shut. The second act is a series of actions where the character confronts and resists death, and is opposed by counterforces.

Then the second pillar, or doorway, happens. This is often an event that feels like a major crisis or setback. Or it can be a clue or discovery. Regardless, it pushes the lead character into Act 3. It forces the final battle, the resolution. Indeed, it makes it possible.

Returning to the example of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett has many battles in Act 2. She needs to get out
of Atlanta with Melanie before the Yankees take over. She needs to get money to save Tara from onerous taxes. She needs to figure out how to handle that charmer Rhett Butler, who keeps showing up in her life. These matters relate to the overall story question, the test (and growth) of Scarlett O’Hara’s character.

All of this leads to the second pillar: the crisis that occurs when Scarlett marries Rhett. Scarlett still believes “she belonged to Ashley, forever and ever,” and yet she says yes to Rhett’s proposal. Why? Because it “was almost as if he had willed the word and she had spoken it without her own volition.”

This marriage makes inevitable the final battle in Scarlett’s heart, and the crisis intensifies. Rhett finally realizes Scarlett will never give up on Ashley, and decides to leave the marriage. Scarlett, however, has a realization of her own: that she has been living for a false dream, and that home and Rhett are what she truly needs. But it will, of course, be too late. Rhett doesn’t give a damn, and Scarlett will have to go back to Tara to think about getting him back. Tomorrow.

Other examples of the second pillar:

■ Lecter tells Clarice that Buffalo Bill covets what he sees every day (clue). This information leads her to the killer.

■ The bullet-ridden body of a ship’s captain collapses in Sam Spade’s office. Inside the bundle he was carrying is the black bird (major discovery).

■ Tom Robinson, an innocent black man, is found guilty of rape by an all-white jury, despite the evidence to the contrary (setback).

Look at your own novel-in-progress:

■ Have you created a major final crisis or setback the lead must overcome?

■ Alternatively (or additionally), have you presented a clue or discovery that is key to the story’s resolution?

■ Does this final Doorway of No Return make the resolution possible or inevitable (or both)?

The Other Side

The two pillars of structure will never let you down. In defining the three acts of your story and creating points
of no return for your characters (and your readers), they will guarantee that the platform of your story is strong. And they will free you to be as creative as you like with the elements of your story—characters, voice, scenes—without fear of falling off a rope bridge into the Valley of Unread Novels.

Let the construction begin.

This article on novel writing is by James Scott Bell, who is the author of Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. Click here to order your copy (or click here to download the ebook).

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