Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.
FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 3
Today we wrap up our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. We’ve already covered the four story questions every writer must be able to answer (see post from September 9), and how your protagonist must undergo a transformation (see post from November 4. And now the final point:
ü Use the three-act structure in novels
Most plays and films are written in three acts. It’s a time-proven method to follow when writing any long form fiction, including books, because it provides structure without limiting creativity.
In a novel, Act I begins with Once upon a time and ends around the first crisis, or inciting incident – the event that launches the story. Act II follows and is often divided into two scenes with a second crisis point in the middle. This mid-point crisis lifts up the middle of the story and raises the stakes. Act II ends around the final crisis point, the story’s climax. Act III resolves the climax and takes us to the story’s resolution and ideally, a satisfying ending.
Here is a simple diagram illustrating the three act structure as it appears in novels:
The four segments represent the acts and scenes, divided by vertical lines denoting the three major crisis points, each higher than the previous one. The peaks and valleys track tension, and the horizontal line at the bottom represents the story synopsis.
As the diagram shows, if you write your novel with the three-act structure in mind, it creates a solid foundation, a floor on which to build your novel –the protagonist’s arc, the plot – and a firm base to plant your crisis points. The structure provides guidance in finding where the story needs to be cut and where it needs to be fleshed out. If you want to create well-defined crises, steadily increase the tension throughout, and avoid the dreaded ‘middle act slump’ that dooms so many tales, use the three-act diagram like a map to lay out your first draft or direct you through a revision.
One way to see if your novel fits into the three-act structure is to take a sheet of paper, fold it in half twice lengthwise and twice widthwise. Open it; you’ve created sixteen crease boxes on your paper. See if you can summarize your novel in the sixteen boxes. Ideally the first row would cover the beginning through the inciting incident, the second row would end at the mid-point crisis, the third row would end at the climax, and the fourth row would include the story’s resolution and end. You can see by this exercise that Act II, or the middle of your story should be approximately the same length as the beginning and the end combined. If one section is bloated and another is skimpy, it can indicate your pacing is out of balance. Maybe the beginning drags, or you rushed the ending, or the middle isn’t developed enough. The crease box exercise works like GPS to identify problems in your manuscript.
A related screenplay rule that is especially relevant to short form fiction writers is: Keep the story simple. Unlike novels, where you must have at least three crisis points, in short form fiction there are only two – the inciting incident that launches your story, followed by a steady build-up to the climax and resolution. Don’t overcrowd your flash fiction or short story with too much plot or sub-plot, too many extraneous characters or locations. Instead, add complexity with multifaceted characters, crisp dialogue that drips with subtext, and vivid bites of description. Very short pieces can consist of a single scene – think of a standout commercial on TV as a visual form of flash-fiction.
Here’s a bonus: If you have scraps of ideas floating around but nothing firm enough to write about yet, try planting the idea on the diagram above. Often, when you decide where the idea should fall in the story structure, you ground it enough to work out more details and launch a story concept.
* * * * *
If you have found this series helpful, we Writers in Residence would like to hear from you. If you didn’t, let us know that as well.
13 thoughts on “From Screen to Page, Part 3 by Miko Johnston”
I like your advice about taking an idea that doesn't seem to fit anywhere and placing into the structure. Wow…that could really work.
I have been using the Three Act Structure even before I knew there was one. What it let me understand was where I could build up a scene or pare it down. It works for a short story as well as a novel. Nice to see it laid out in a clear and concise way. Your refresher course has been fun.
Great post, Miko–as always, very helpful. I love your “crease box exercise”–a great visual aid for analyzing where the story needs work. Thanks for sharing!!
Ideas often float around in our brains, but fully formed ideas are rare. When they're placed on the structure, they usually launch or climax the story. Knowing that makes them more useful.
I didn't know what I was doing (in more ways than one) when I wrote my first novel. Later I discovered it followed the three act structure, but at the time I felt it had a good rhythm. I guess using the structure is instinctive in some of us.
I learned that trick at a writers conference years ago. It's a great exercise for studying structure and helpful when writing a synopsis of your novel.
Excellent information, Miko!
Miko, could you give us an example of the structure in a plot we all know or one you make up?
Let's say your idea is to write about a young girl who decides to leave home. Not a fully formed idea, but it can be fleshed out with logic: a young girl decides to leave home, and she does (otherwise there's no story). So leaving home can either be the inciting incident, or the climax.
An example of the former would be The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy wants to leave home, and she does, but then all she can think of is returning. She tries by going to Oz, but fails (midpoint crisis), then tries again by fetching the Wicked Witch's broom (climax) before she succeeds in returning to Kansas.
If her departure is the story's climax, then something drastic has to happen in Act One to make her want to leave. That becomes the inciting incident and the story is about how she tries to get away, fails, keeps trying and finally leaves. Although the heroine is not pro-active in her quest, you could say Cinderella fits the storyline.
Hope that helps.
Thanks, Miko. I'll try to fit the form to different familiar plots to see which ones have that structure.
Good answers! You and Kate Thornton (and Gayle) can come up with ideas just like that (snap fingers)! For me visuals alway work better.
Like Gayle, I have used the Three Act Structure, gleaned the hard way from years working in films and TV. But you did such a great job, explaining it so well – and giving us a clear route to take. Then all of the other wisdom you shared was an added bonus. Good job Thanks, Miriam