5

Not all stories follow a 3-act structure. As an example, Les Misérables is rather episodic in its nature: first there's the story of Bishop Myriel and how he meets Jean Valjean, then there's Fantine's story, then Cosette's, then we have Marius who encounters now-adult Cosette, then there are multiple climaxes.

For a film example, there's My Neighbour Totoro, which too is constructed of semi-separate episodes, rather than one overarching story.

(Some more examples include Shmuel Yosef Agnon's Only Yesterday, Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, Marion Zimmer-Bradley's Mists of Avalon, and I suppose quite a few others.)

Some "rules" are maintained even when the 3-act structure is replaced with a more episodic narrative. For example, exposition and setups are kept to approximately the first 30% of the story, while payoffs come later. In quite a few cases, though not universally, there's also rising tension: later "episodes" are tenser and with higher stakes than earlier episodes. (However, each episode would have its own denouement.)

Trouble is, the 3-act structure is very useful in terms of providing a measure of guidance to pacing: I know I should have something dramatic happen by about this point, should have a major turning point by about that point, etc.

What could guide me in similar fashion if I eschew the 3-act structure, and follow instead a more episodic path? Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that I'm trying to write Les Misérables (that's the example that I suppose would be most familiar to people)? How do I keep track of my pacing? How do I "know" when there's something wrong with the pacing and how it could be corrected? (Other than by trial and error and gut-feeling, that is?)

  • Are you maintaining a central question, a central conflict, themes for the story to build around and developed heroes and developed antagonists? – DPT Mar 22 at 18:27
  • 1
    @DPT broadly speaking, yes to all. Themes for the story to build around, developed heroes and developed antagonists - definitely yes. Central conflict and central question - broadly speaking. You could look at Dr. Zhivago's central conflict as "man trying to be himself when tossed about by the revolution", and at Les Misérables as "an ex-criminal's struggle to remain the good man he chose to be". But those broad themes keep throwing challenges in the protagonist's way, there isn't just the one challenge to overcome. In that broad sense, I have a central question and conflict. – Galastel Mar 22 at 18:37
  • 1
    Another question: Are you familiar with the other act structures? Three acts derive from film and other folks have played with other numbers, and some believe the three act structure is absurd for novels. There is also something called the ensemble structure – DPT Mar 22 at 19:19
  • 1
    @DPT I'm familiar with the older five-act structure, but not with the ensemble structure. – Galastel Mar 22 at 19:21
  • 1
    I think there are more formal structures out there; other people on this SE have chatted about them in the past. Here's a decent website describing ensemble casts and the overlap of this with episodic structure: writerunboxed.com/2017/09/11/the-gangs-all-here and the novel How to Stop Time does not feel like three acts, but more like 'a day in the life'--it is episodic; still, one main character and one villain. I recommend picking that up, maybe. – DPT Mar 22 at 19:28
2

For pacing: try subdividing your three acts in more sub-points.

Are you familiar with the Seven-point Story Structure? Dan Wells explains it pretty well in this series of short videos. Basically, it is a 3-act structure where each act is subdivided into more points.

Now, instead of having: "Normal life / Conflict / Resolution", you can structure your plot following these steps:

  • Hook: where the story and characters are at the beginning
  • Plot turn 1: what changes in the life of the character
  • Pinch 1: what pressures the character to change
  • Mid point: the moment the character takes action and crosses the threshold
  • Pinch 2: the moment he fails for the first time
  • Plot turn 2: when he has the information/power to rise again
  • Resolution: where he eventually succeed

Note that Dan Wells does not draw a synopsys following these steps in this order: instead he deconstruct this from the end. For example, if the character ends up rich, then he may begin poor, the midpoint being the MC taking action to be rich (heist, rags-to-riches...). Then he iterates with each subpoint: what pressures the character to change his life, etc.

When each sub-point of your story is defined, it may serve as a good guide for pacing each part.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.