Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: Now write it again

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Previously I discussed the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, a fiction writer’s treatment is a way to prepare yourself for producing a rough outline. The treatment asks direct questions about your story and force you to start thinking about its skeletal structure. The eight questions of the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy?
  • Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character now faces?
  • Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
  • Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
  • Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

Although it looks like a lot of work, as I mentioned before, you should only be answering each question with one to two sentences. Remember, the treatment is for you and no one else—it’s to get creative juice out of your head, where your story is ethereal and plastic, and put it on the page, where it hardens and takes shape.

Writing down answers to these questions commits you to something. It puts a stake in the ground rather than allow your loosely-connected story ideas to jounce about in your skull. The treatment isn’t a hard contract, but it does dare you to commit to something regarding your story.

I assume some people reading this will already be skeptical about this process. I assume some will resist any process at all, in fact. But if you’ve come this far with me, I’m asking you come a little farther and see what happens to your creativity when you expend a little effort organizing it.

As I said, answering the above eight questions—on paper—is a kind of commitment on your part. Let me assure you: You’re not committing to anything. You’re free to write whatever story you want, or even not to write this story at all. For a little effort you can get an idea of just how much you have in the bank—and how much more you need to develop to finish your story.

A treatment is not saying “This is what the story is about.” Rather, it asks, “What if the story was about this?”

Also know that writing a treatment isn’t the end goal of this process. When you’ve finished answering the above eight questions, you’re not really finished. There’s two more steps to writing a fiction writer’s treatment.

First, walk away

That’s right, walk away from the treatment (and your entire story) for a while. Take an hour, a day, even a week. Keep your treatment with you or handy so you can review it during this duration.

If you feel the urge to write a chapter or a paragraph of your story, go ahead, but resist the temptation to jump in and write with abandon. It’s important to let your creative juices stew.

If you can get your head away from your nascent story for a period of time, you might discover later you’re surprised by what you wrote. That’s a good sign. You also might find yourself bored by what you wrote. What seemed exciting or fresh when answering these questions may become boring or predictable later. That’s important too.

You might discover that, out of the blue, new ideas arrive in this interim to supplement or replace your old direction. The plane crash on the nightly news might turn into an auto pile-up happening before your protagonist’s eyes. The widow who arrives in town with shocking revelations might become a widower with a long-lost will. And so on.

Be open to fresh inspiration and new ideas. Don’t dismiss new directions that don’t neatly fit into your initial notions of what the story is about. Receive them warmly—they may lead you in surprising directions.

Second, write another treatment

That’s right, after a brief period of time, sit down and write another treatment. Don’t look at the old one. Don’t revise the old one either. Write a fresh treatment, answering all the questions I listed above.

If you find yourself answering questions more-or-less the same as before, that’s fine. That likely indicates you’re happy with the answer and should continue pressing forward. (It may indicate you’ve run out of ideas on the topic—be sensitive to that as well, it may portend trouble ahead.)

As before, you’re not committing to this second treatment, but by externalizing your ideas, you’re putting a stake in the ground.

Rinse & repeat

There’s a third, perhaps obvious, step: Do this all again. Yes, wait a bit of time to ponder and consider—and then write another treatment.

Once you’ve done a few treatments, they shouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes to produce. (Be thoughtful. Don’t rush through it.) That strikes me as a pretty good bargain considering the novel I write might take years to complete.

Next: A case study in writing treatments

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: Completing the treatment

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Last post I explained the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, the first four questions you should ask yourself for the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy? (Sometimes this is the Inciting Incident, but often it is not.)

Answering those four questions puts you at the halfway mark for writing your story’s treatment. Now I’ll go over the treatment’s final four questions.

Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character faces?
Your answer to the prior two questions (Inciting Incident and Plot Point #1) should suggest an answer to this question. You might find yourself going back to re-answer this question later, when the story is firmer in your mind and the characters’ conflict better defined. For example, although Raisin in the Sun‘s core conflict would appear to be racism, a close reading of the play suggests the conflict is the family’s response to racism—will they keep their heads’ down or will they walk proud?

Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
So far, the main character has experienced some kind of disruption (the Inciting Incident) and then an event that ensures they cannot walk away from that disruption (Plot Point #1). Whatever your character’s desires or motivations, they will still want to resolve their situation as quickly as possible. What action would they take?

I’ve learned that, in many ways, this is a crucial hinge to the success of a story. The Inciting Incident is often—almost always—out of the main character’s control. The no-going-back event (Plot Point #1) may be of their device, but it often is not. The Assessment is the main character locking into a course of action. This decision often determines the trajectory, shape, and flavor of the rest of the story.

Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
As the name implies, this is an event which occurs approximately halfway through your story. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, this is often where the main character’s true antagonist is revealed or discovered, but that’s not a requirement. The purpose of this question is, in many ways, to keep the plates spinning—to prevent the character from getting too comfortable in this new situation, and to prevent you, the author, from digressing too far from the core conflict (which is terribly easy to do with longer forms, such as the novel).

Syd Field (the creator of the paradigm I’m riffing off of) explained in The Screenwriter’s Workbook that he “discovered” the Midpoint while analyzing Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown. Field recognized that in Chinatown (and many other movies), something significant was happening around the middle of the film, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what the event was, or why it was significant. In Chinatown, after much analysis, he realized the Midpoint was when the protagonist (private detective J. J. Gittes) discovers that the head of Los Angeles’ water company is married to the daughter of the founder of the water company.

At this Midpoint moment, almost all the questions and complications in the film have been introduced: an unsolved murder, the taint of corruption in Southern California’s water politics, and the detective himself being setup to unwittingly smear an innocent man in the press. At the Midpoint, we think we’re watching a murder mystery against the backdrop of 1930s city politics. J. J. Gittes discovery of the true relationship of the three central characters transforms Chinatown into a drama of a highly dysfunctional family. That’s what Syd Field (and this process) is asking for you to consider for your own story’s Midpoint. It’s the moment when you’ve laid all your cards out for the reader, the moment when the reader now recognizes what’s really at stake for your main character.

The Midpoint is more than a new complication. It’s a chance for you, the writer, to reveal that the story so far is not the whole story. Jim Thompson said there was only one kind of story: “Things are not what they seem.” The Midpoint is where you introduce revelations and reversals that open up the story in larger ways.

Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

This part of the treatment is the furthest removed from the beginning of your story, and therefore one of the hardest to commit to paper.

Often when I’m writing I have a crystal-clear view of the story’s opening and a hazy idea how I want it to conclude. Finding the path between those two moments is what the process of writing is about. Plot Point #2 is where you make a statement about the final actions and decisions before the end of the story.

To make this easier, go back to what you wrote for Conflict (above) and re-read it closely. Then ask yourself how you think the story will end. You don’t have to commit to this, just get it down to see the words staring up at you from the page. But remember: this isn’t Plot Point #2. It’s where Plot Point #2 is leading toward.

Between those two points—the Conflict and your idea for an ending, however sharp or hazy—lies Plot Point #2. Like the reversal in the Midpoint, a story rarely arouses the reader when it’s predictable. Look for another reversal here: an unexpected shift that leads your protagonist from the middle of your story (Act Two) into the third act, where the final confrontation lies.

An illustration might help here. (Warning: spoiler alert.) Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle has many unexpected twists and turns—it’s easily Vonnegut’s most unpredictable novel—but the reversal that sets up the novel’s conclusion is when the protagonist is declared the San Lorenzo’s next Presidente by the dying dictator. This is not the conclusion of the novel, it’s the final complication in the character’s dramatic journey. (It’s important to realize that some complications are welcome by the protagonist, even though they might come back to bite him or her later.) With the protagonist’s ascension to El Presidente, all the bowling pins are in place, ready to be knocked down with godlike force in the novel’s stunning final chapters. This final complication is Plot Point #2.

Don’t worry if you currently lack Vonnegut’s clarity in your own character’s journey. Like the rest of this treatment, the goal here is to get ideas on paper and begin organizing the whirlwind of inspiration now circling your as-yet-unwritten story.

Take a breather

It looks like a lot, but you can craft a treatment in less than an hour. Give yourself time and space to do it. Don’t rush yourself, and don’t do it while distracted—no Internet, no television, no kids. Most importantly, write your treatment down. Like writing a contract, putting pen to paper forces hard decisions, engagement, and thoughtfulness.

When you’re finished, set your pen down and take a deep breath. When I write a treatment I often feel much like I feel after a sustained time writing prose: a bit exhausted, a bit lost, and more than a little exhilarated.

Remember, writing a treatment is writing. Don’t mistake this as an academic exercise. Organizing your thoughts on paper is as important as writing, editing, and polishing the final prose—it’s just a preliminary to those important steps. Writing a treatment is writing.

Next: Now write it again

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: The treatment

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Last post I explained Syd Field’s “paradigm” and how it applied to writing a three-act screenplay. I also explained that I’ve modified his paradigm for writing fiction (short stories and novels). What I’m about to explain is the first step in that process. It’s to write a treatment for your next story or book.

I’m not talking about a Hollywood treatment. In Hollywood, a treatment is a specific document produced near the beginning of the creative process. Different sources give different definitions, even wildly different page counts, for a treatment. For Syd Field’s purposes, a treatment is a brief description of the screenplay—part sales pitch, part outline, part proof-of-concept—three to five pages long, narrated in present tense with little or no dialogue. It lays out the beginning, middle, and end of the film, not shot-for-shot or in terms of scenes, but in broad summary form. Think of it as an overview of the movie script, whether the script is completed or not. Often a strong treatment is the basis for a movie studio to order the full script’s development. (Sometimes one wishes they were, on average, a bit stronger.)

I am not proposing you write a Hollywood-style treatment for your next novel or short story. I gave it that name because that’s my inspiration for this stage in the process. So, when you see that term here, don’t think of a Hollywood pitch. Think of your treatment as the first step in writing your story.

Writing a treatment for fiction is to prepare for writing a full three-act outline. A treatment challenges you with a series of questions that ask you, in sum, to honestly evaluate where your inspiration stands. It only takes a few minutes, but it makes the next steps even easier.

The fiction writer’s treatment

Let’s start by assuming you have an idea for a story. It might be an inkling, it might be an itch that needs to be scratched. It might be a big, bold idea, one you’ve mapped out in your head from a quiet, unpresupposing opening to a monumental, explosive finish. Maybe you’ve already written some notes. Maybe you’ve written a first page or a first chapter. Maybe you’ve written nothing at all. It could be a novel, it could be a short story, or it could be a dud.

Ask yourself the following questions in order. Use a clean sheet of paper or a fresh word processing document to record your answers; don’t do this in your head. Try to limit yourself to one to two sentences to answer each question. The next steps of this process will give you a chance to expound more. Right now the idea is to shake out that story idea and find its core.

Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
In one or two sentences, sum up your idea for the main character. If you don’t have a name for your character, just refer to him or her as “main character” or “protagonist” or “he” or “she”—don’t get hung up on names and ages right now. Don’t write about peripheral characterizing details, use this limited space to really drill down into his or her pertinent information.

Perhaps you have more than one main character in mind. Ask yourself if one of them is, in your mind, the true central character. If not, limit your answer to the bare number of characters central to your story.

Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
In one or two sentences summarize your main character’s situation when the story opens. It might be where she lives, or place of employment, or why she suffers from some limitation. Brevity is important. Limiting yourself to one or two sentences makes you really think what’s truly important about this character, why this character is important to you, and therefore to the reader.

If you think the answer is “None”—that no backstory must be presented to the reader—great, write that down. However, unless you’re Samuel Beckett reincarnated, most stories require some background or scene-setting before the events of the story begin. Even if it’s the name of the main character and where she lives, that’s backstory.

Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
The Inciting Incident catalyzes the narration and launches the story. The disruption is usually external or physical, such as the family in Raisin in the Sun receiving a sizable inheritance, but it can be an internal realization or discovery.

Keep your answer to the disruption itself, not your main character’s reaction to it; that’s the next question.

Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy?
Another way to phrase this question is: What happens to prevent the character from simply ignoring the disruption that has occurred? For Raisin in the Sun, the grandmother uses the money as the down on a home in an all-white neighborhood, committing her 1959 African-American family to a precarious future.

Note that it’s possible for the Inciting Incident to be the first plot point. The nature of the disruption could be something impossible for the main character to ignore. (For example, he’s hit by a bus while crossing the street.) But often the inciting incident is not so monumental, even if it seems that way in your mind. Be honest: is there any way for your character to ignore or avoid the inciting incident? If so, you probably need to find a way to ensure there’s no way for her to turn away from it.

There should be no going back. That’s why I emphasize the word “reverses” in the question—there should be some event or decision, internal or external, that alters the trajectory of the main character’s daily life. If they can ignore the disruption and return to life as it was, most characters will. And there your story ends, most likely unsatisfactorily.

No going back

In my experience, the first three questions (Protagonist, Setup, Inciting Incident) answer themselves. When I’m inspired to write a story, I tend to have some idea of the character, their situation, and the event that launches the story proper. Answering those first three questions is largely an exercise in putting my inspiration onto the page, which is valuable in any case.

The fourth question (Plot Point #1) is usually the first challenging one. This is why I emphasize starting with the treatment. It forces you to honestly evaluate your story’s opening and ensure you’re not shortchanging the main character—or the reader.

Too often, underdeveloped fiction assumes that the main character will eagerly jump in to resolve the inciting incident head-on. It also assumes that the reader is along for the ride, that they won’t question why the character has taken on the challenge so willingly. Superheroes leap into action. More human characters look for ways to avoid leaping into action.

Consider Lolita. Confronted by the law and bouncing in and out of sanatoriums, Humbert Humbert resigns himself to moving in with Mrs. Haze, although he abhors her traditional domesticity. All evidence indicates he will simply abandon her and return to his lascivious ways. It’s when he sets his eyes on Haze’s 12 year-old daughter—the Inciting Incident—that Humbert’s “normal” life is turned over. Although he doesn’t want to return to the rhythm and rituals of his previous life, he has little recourse due to Mrs. Haze’s constant presence. Humbert engineers a chance to tussle with the girl—Plot Point #1—igniting his desires that form the remainder of the novel. Plot Point #1 is why there’s no going back for him.

(“Plot Point #1” is Field’s terminology. So far I’ve been unable to find a word or phrase I’m more comfortable with, so I’ve left it in.)

Here’s another example:

After work, a man goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. She announces that she’s pregnant. The man puts his jacket back on, walks downstairs, and hails a taxi. He goes to the airport, where he flies to Europe to put this unexpected event behind him.

This sounds forced to my ear, but the writer developing the story absolutely believed in it. It took the writer some time to realize he was railroading his main character to Rome in order to get to the juicy, intriguing part of the story that he wanted to tell.

My suggestion? Plot Point #1:

After work, a man goes to his girlfriend’s apartment. She announces that she’s pregnant. The man asks his girlfriend to consider terminating the pregnancy, but she’s committed for religious reasons. He walks downstairs and hails a taxi.

I’m not saying this solves every problem with the story, but it firms up the man’s motivation for his abrupt decision to flee. The girlfriend’s announcement is the Inciting Incident and her unwavering commitment is Plot Point #1. It ensures there’s no easy turning back. Otherwise, if your character can simply return to his or her hum-drum life, why wouldn’t they?

Part four: Completing the treatment

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: The paradigm

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

As mentioned in my first post of this series, Syd Field calls his structure “the paradigm”:

The paradigm is a dramatic structure. It is a tool, a guide, a map through the screenwriting process. As defined in Screenplay, a paradigm is a “model, an example, a conceptual scheme.” … A screenplay is an open system.

That last bit is important. A screenplay—and a novel, and a short story—is an open system. Compare this to an observation made by Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ programming language:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end.

(Emphasis mine.) Although Stroustrup is describing how software is written, I believe his observation applies to writing fiction too, and most creative endeavors.

Think of a story you’re working on right now. Do you really know where your inspiration for it started? Can you enumerate every influence leading up to it? Now think of your last completed story. Are you really finished with it? I’ve discovered recurring themes in my own work that make me wonder if I’m still “writing” older work.

Writing is an iterative and incremental process of inspiration, evaluation, and revision. Each iteration shapes and smooths and revises. Nothing in a story is sacred. Everything in it deserves questioning and challenging.

Proportions

Field’s paradigm asks you to think of a story as three interconnected acts. Each act is unit of drama. It may be a scene or a series of scenes, but in fiction, those scenes are not necessarily “in the moment” of the narration. (For example, Heart of Darkness is entirely narrated by Marlow in England, but the acts of the story are the events along the river in Africa.)

The three acts are not vacuum-sealed. Events in Act One have ramifications that carry into Act Two and even Act Three. Questions posed on the first page may not be answered until the last.

At its simplest, the three-act structure goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is a whole and complete in itself…a thing is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In some ways, that’s all the three acts are: the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

Each act is not the same length. Remember, in movies and theater, time is everything. (In both genres, one manuscript page is considered to be approximately one minute of stage or projection time.) Most films are 90 to 120 minutes long. Theater tends to run closer to three hours, but there’s been a recent trend for ten-minute plays.

As far as page count, fiction is all over the map. What’s more, fiction writers don’t tend to obsess over how long it takes for a reader to read the story. For my interpretation of Field’s paradigm and applying it to fiction, I don’t worry about the length of each act in terms of page count. What’s important is their proportions:

  • Act 1: 25%
  • Act 2: 50%
  • Act 2: 25%

So the middle section of the story is roughly twice as long as the opening and concluding acts—roughly.

If you think about it, that’s not terribly revolutionary news to a fiction writer. We’re taught to watch out for long openings. Exposition, introduction, summary, prologue, and/or excess scene-setting merely serve to delay the start of the narrative. Likewise, we’re told to watch out for ending exposition, long-winded conclusions, and so forth. We’re supposed to be eagle-eyed for when the story “really” starts (in medias res is the phrase usually mentioned here) and when the story “really” ends (think of Gordon Lish cutting the final pages of a Raymond Carver story).

In a nutshell, that’s what Syd Field encapsulates with his observation about act lengths. Trim the opening down, wrap up the ending as concisely as possible, and save the meat of the story for the middle. I would push harder on those numbers—20% / 60% / 20%—but there’s more to Act One and Act Three than the introduction and conclusion of a story. (More on that later.)

Three—no, four—acts

One problem with Field’s original three-act structure in Screenplay was the long haul from the end of Act One to the start of Act Three. Act Two is fifty percent of the story, 60 pages of screenplay manuscript. Since Field’s paradigm was intended to act as a guide or a map, how could he advise how to write a screenplay when half of his map was blank white nothing?

In his later Screenwriter’s Workbook, Field explains a discovery he made after Screenplay‘s publication. In many movies he found there’s a midpoint event that cleaves the second act into two smaller units of drama. This gives the screenwriter a target to shoot for when starting Act Two:

Knowing the midpoint is a tool; with it you have a way of focusing your story line into a specific line of action. You have a direction, a line of development.

(Playwriting defines “action” as a character’s desires and motivations, not shooting guns and car chases. Although Field doesn’t define the word, I believe he uses “action” to mean the results of a character attempting to fulfill those wants—in other words, we see the character trying to get what they want and experiencing the consequences. Aristotle said story “is not an imitation of men but of actions and life.” His use of the term could apply to both definitions.)

Between reading Field’s description of the midpoint, thinking of some examples in film and fiction, and my own experience, I see the midpoint as a Janus point in the story, a moment of looking backward and forward. Even if the storyline has wandered a bit (due to character development or a digression—any reason, really), the midpoint is a stitch connecting the beginning to the end.

With his discovery of the midpoint, Field’s three-act structure looks more like a four-act structure, but the basics are the same. I’ve labeled them with Field’s names, adding my own label for 2A:

  • Act 1: Setup (25%)
  • Act 2A: Complication (25%)
  • Act 2B: Confrontation (25%)
  • Act 3: Resolution (25%)

The labels are to offer the thrust of each act’s purpose. There’s no requirement that every sentence in Setup be setting up your story, or that every scene in Confrontation be confrontational. It’s just a general idea of the direction of that act.

The percentages may look daunting or restrictive, but understand that they’re to indicate rough proportions and not page counts. If your novel’s Act One is only ten percent of the pages, that may be just fine, or even great. But if your Act One is fifty percent of the pages, Field’s paradigm suggests you need to rethink your Setup. I suspect your readers would too.

Part three: the treatment

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure

Syd Field

Syd Field

If you’re a writer, consider if this sounds familiar:

An idea snaps into your head—a character, a situation, a setup, a name—and you dive in, pumping out a promising first chapter in no time at all. You clean it up and bring it in to a workshop or writing group. You get some input and take away some praise and criticism. Back at home you move on to the second chapter, and the third, and then…kaput. You’re out of gas. You make a couple of aborted attempts to keep at it, but it’s just not in you.

Months later you pick up the manuscript, tinker with it, and slide it back in the drawer. And that’s the end of your novel.

The frustration goes beyond hard work being “wasted.” (I don’t think any writing is a waste, it’s merely practice for the next round of writing.) No, the frustration is the hollow feeling that, with just a little more inspiration or skill, you could’ve pushed on and completed that novel. The frustration is the suspicion that, with just a little more planning, you would have a clear path forward.

I’ve not outlined or plotted every story I’ve written. I’ve completed a few stories without any serious planning at all that I would say I’m proud of. I might even say they’re “successful.” But I also know how many failed and false starts I’ve accumulated, a frustrating pile of corpses that simply didn’t pan out. I started thinking about how to outline a story and realized I didn’t have a definite idea of how to do it. I had a couple of notions, but nothing concrete.

Some time ago, when I was first coming to grips with how to write fiction—especially longer forms—I grew interested in the three-act structure screenwriters use. It’s a form Hollywood follows slavishly. Books on screenplay writing are almost entirely devoted to the structure, going deep into the mechanics and timing (that is, the page count) of each act. They detail what questions must be posed in each act and when those question should be answered, even breaking down each act into smaller subunits. It’s much more rigorous than anything I’ve seen in the world of fiction or poetry (which has an encyclopedia’s worth of its own forms).

My experience has been that fiction writers disdain the three-act screenplay structure. Actually, most disdain any manner of plotting or outlining, usually while murmuring something about “plot-driven fiction.” For them, the three-act structure isn’t a revelation, it’s the reason for all the pandering crap Hollywood churns out year after year. Others seem to have the attitude that outlining a novel is somehow “cheating.”

I’ve taken a fair number of playwriting classes and workshops. In them I was struck how theater, just like filmmaking, emphasizes structure over any other craft element. We found structure laced through plays as diverse as A Raisin in the Sun, Glengarry Glen Ross, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Noises Off, Cloud 9, and Fences—brilliant work, all of it, and nothing I would call “pandering crap.” But it’s right there on the page: structure, structure, and more structure.

The Headlight Method

Between all the fiction classes, workshops, writing groups, and how-to books I’ve read, it’s rare to find anything approaching screenwriting’s or theater’s level of emphasis on narrative structure. When I have, it’s usually a method for writing thrillers or “guaranteed” bestsellers, something to the effect of putting the character into deeper and deeper holes and forcing him or her to make harder and harder choices. Oh, and be sure to end each chapter with a cliffhanger. In the case of romance novels, structure is defined in terms of the types of motivations and the types of problems the characters will face. Others argue that most (or all) proper stories follow the Hero’s Journey, although I find that dubious, especially looking back on the literature of the last one hundred years. These are not the kinds of narrative structures I’m talking about.

Freytag's PyramidThe only vanilla structure I’ve seen consistently taught in fiction is the classic rising and falling action cliff ledge (also known as Freytag’s Pyramid). There’s tons of criticism of the pyramid out there. For my purposes, I ask if rising/falling action is an organizing principle or an observation. There’s a difference between a cake recipe and a photo of a finished cake sliced in half. In my mind, the cliff ledge is that photo.

Inevitably when discussing fiction and structure or outlining, E. L. Doctorow’s maxim makes an entrance:

Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.

Like opening a story with weather, this quote has become another scrap of writing lore, that body of accepted thought on the shall’s and shall-not’s of writing fiction. But reread that quote. Doctorow isn’t advocating structureless fiction or railing against the idea of outlining a story. All he’s saying is, you’re not going to know every little detail about a book before you start writing it. Even if you can only see as far as the headlight beams, there’s nothing wrong with having a map handy before you set out on your trip.

Last year I got serious about understanding how screenwriters craft a three-act movie script. In the process of researching the topic I molded the three-act screenplay structure into a form geared for fiction (novels and short stories) rather than movies. This process produces a rough guide for your story, disposable, and nothing more. I’ve applied it on a number of projects and found myself surprised at the results. And, yes, my writing has improved for it.

Syd Field

There’s countless guides, how-to’s, manuals, videos, and seminars on successful screenwriting. Syd Field’s Screenplay is, as I understand it, the Bible on the subject. First published in 1979, Field articulated his three-act structure (he calls it “the paradigm”) as a framework for telling a visual story via a series of scenes. Like literary theorists from Aristotle onward, Field recognized that most stories are built from roughly similar narrative architectures, no matter their subject or setting. In Screenplay he set out to diagram that architecture and explain how it applied to film.

Although Screenplay is the Genesis document, I recommend his Screenwriter’s Workbook (1984). It picks up where Screenplay left off, detailing discoveries and new thinking on his three-act structure. Syd Field made a lifetime career out of teaching people how to write movies; these two books are where he started.

Not everything Field discusses directly corresponds to fiction. Film is a different medium, after all. What I’ve tried to do is pare down and re-shape his three-act structure into something more appropriate for writing novels and, to a lesser degree, short stories. I’ve used this modified paradigm to write a four-page story (“The Last Man in San Francisco”), to revise a long novel that I thought was dead and lost (Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People), and now a new novel (tentatively titled Bridge Daughter).

Let me be clear: this is not a robotic recipe for writing fiction. Syd Field did not lay out a formula for writing blockbuster movies, nor am I laying out a formula for fiction, bestselling or otherwise. This isn’t telling you how to write, it’s suggesting a creative process to engage with before you write. Basketball players take practice shots before a game; artists rough out ideas in their sketchpad before approaching the canvas; musicians practice their set before going into the recording studio. What I’m suggesting is for you to get some basic ideas about your story out of your head and on paper before you start writing.

Part two: “The paradigm”