Friend, fellow author and writing coach Barbara Kyle has just released a book called Page Turner: Your Guide to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy. I can attest from first-hand experience that Barbara is an excellent coach on the craft of writing and here’s a taste of what her book will offer.
From the beginning of human society, stories have been told in three parts: an inciting incident, complications, and climax. In our time, thanks to centuries of theater and now of film, this has become known as three-act structure. I believe that three-act structure is how our brains understand story: beginning, middle, end. And I believe that story is how we understand life: we comprehend each event we experience as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This goes very deep. Many experiences we value most, or consider the most profound, occur in three acts. People meet, fall in love, get married. Enemies confront each other, fight, then win or lose. A journey is three acts: you set out, you travel, you arrive. A meal is three acts: appetizer, main course, dessert. Lovemaking? Foreplay, intercourse, climax. The scientific method has three acts: hypothesis, experiment, proof. So does an essay: thesis, development, conclusion. We measure time in three stages: past, present, future. And we measure our very time on earth in three acts: birth, life, death.
Three is a magical number that occurs over and over in myths and fairy tales, and it carries magic because sensing three parts to every experience is how we understand our lives: beginning, middle, end. So, in story, which is a metaphor for life, three-act structure is fundamental. Inciting incident. Complications. Climax.
If you’ve ever told a joke you already know the bare bones of story structure. In fact, every child knows it.
That little drama fulfills the basic requirements of a story: an inciting incident (“Knock, knock”), complications (“Who’s there?” “Ach” “Ach who?”) and a climax (“Bless you!”) that is a small revelation. From earliest childhood and on into adulthood, your brain will have absorbed this essence of story structure from reading stories, hearing stories, and watching stories on screen.
However, absorbing a story is very different from knowing how to create a story. Even among academics and literary critics and who can expertly parse story structure, few can translate that observational skill into an innovative skill: creating something from nothing. Since you’re reading this post, your desire to master the craft suggests you have the creative skill, so you’re likely already using some components of effective story structure in your writing, doing it by instinct. Some people’s instincts for this are finely tuned, and that’s what we call “talent.”
Your instincts and talent, however, will supply only about half of what’s needed in the writing process. Most people stop there. But for the many times when instinct falls short and talent gets stuck, structural analysis shows you how to get moving. If something you’ve written seems flat and lifeless, or poorly focused, and you wonder how to fix it, you go through your checklist of structural components. Is my inciting incident powerful enough to make my protagonist take action? Have I built this scene around a reversal? Does the climax bring my characters into direct confrontation? And so on. The parameters of story structure guide you. It’s a fascinating artistic paradox: total freedom inhibits creativity, whereas strategic limits generate creativity.
The Crucial Components
Sound story structure features these six essential components:
- The Hook
- The Inciting Incident
- The Overarching Story Question
- Turning Points
- The Climax
As writers, our first goal is to create in the reader a desire to read on. We do that by crafting a hook. A hook is a novel’s first sentence or paragraph, and it functions as a promise, an unspoken assurance that excitement lies ahead.
The opening sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is: “Call me Ishmael.” It’s famous, and for good reason. First, it’s an imperative sentence—a command—so it establishes an extraordinarily confident voice. Second, it gives a name, which conjures up a real, flesh-and-blood person. Third, that particular name, Ishmael, resonates with the Biblical character of the same name, establishing a portentous theme. Powerful stuff in just three words.
Jane Austen’s much-loved Pride and Prejudice begins with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” No one reading that sentence can withhold a wry smile. Which was precisely Austen’s intent. She is telling you two things. First, this story is going to have a foundation of gentle humor. Second, it’s going to be about love and marriage: it’s a romance.
Here are some of the most effective ways to wield this essential tool of craft.
1. Name a character. As noted above with “Call me Ishmael,” names have power, because they conjure up a living, breathing person.
2. Raise a question in the reader’s mind. Toni Morrison starts her novel Paradise with these six, arresting words: “They shoot the white girl first.” Instantly, the reader’s mind lurches to ask: Who are “they”? Who’s the girl? Why have they shot her?
3. Plunge straight into the plot. Paul Auster’s City of Glass begins with: “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”
4. Foreshadow an intriguing element of plot. Here’s the opening sentence of Dick Francis’s mystery Straight: “I inherited my brother’s desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.”
5. Show a character’s personality quirk. The opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s ground-breaking Lolita tosses a small bombshell of Humbert Humbert’s quirkiness: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
6. Show a character’s attitude. In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the cockiness of teenage narrator Holden Caulfield is on full-frontal display in the first sentence: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
7. Render a mysterious or suspenseful event. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four starts with: “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
8. Start at the story’s climax. Donna Tartt uses this technique to open her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. Theo Decker is hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, where, he says: “I’d been shut up for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out…” With Theo’s crisis established, the author then loops back to the chronological start of his story years earlier.
Use any of these techniques and you’ll have your reader intrigued, maybe even slightly on edge. In other words, happily hooked.
The above article is an abridged excerpt from Barbara Kyle’s book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel That Publishers Want and Readers Buy.
About Barbara Kyle
Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Thornleigh Saga series of historical novels, and of award-wining thrillers, with over half a million copies sold in seven countries. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto, and is a popular presenter at international writers’ conferences. Her master classes and manuscript evaluations have helped launch many writers to published success. Barbara’s latest book is Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel That Publishers Want and Readers Buy.
Many thanks for your insightful article, Barbara. I’m sure all writers both new and experienced will find it helpful. All best wishes for your new book!
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.