The craft book I’m reading this month is Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, part of the “Write Great Fiction” series by Writer’s Digest Books. I’m just starting Chapter 3, but have already learned some real techniques to apply to my writing. Chapter 2 is about the three-act structure and it got to me to thinking.
You’re probably familiar with the three-act structure and this may be old news for you. But in case you aren’t – or, as in my case, don’t know as much about it as you think you do – here’s an overview of how Bell explains it. A story (whether a movie, play or book) should be broken into three parts. Act 1 sets up the protag’s world and a disturbance to that world (inciting incident), and ends with a “doorway” – when the protag makes a decision or does something that is irreversible. It’s the first point of no return. This doorway leads into Act 2, where the protag faces confrontations and obstacles that move her to the second “doorway,” another point of no return. Act 3 is the climax when everything comes to a head and explodes.
You often see books split into three parts, following this three-act structure and those parts are usually pretty equal in length. In a live play production, you’re given intermission between acts and those intermissions are evenly spaced apart. According to Bell, however, the acts shouldn’t be even.
In a movie, Act 1 is about the first 1/4 of the movie and Act 3 begins with about 1/4 of the movie left. So the middle, Act 2, is about 1/2 the story. For books, he says, Act 1 should be over even sooner – about 1/5 in. We need to get to that first doorway sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the book seems to drag.
This made me think about my book Promise. Although the majority of readers say they’re hooked from page 1 and can’t put it down, a few – those who are the hardest to impress, to suck them in – have said that the first 70-100 pages drag or, simply, “it’s hard to get into at first,” but the rest is un-put-down-able. In my mind, my three-act structure broke the story into three even parts. The first mini-climax, where Part 1 leads into Part 2, is when Alexis learns about Tristan’s secrets. That part starts at page 98. See the correlation?
However, with Bell’s point that Part 1 ends at the first doorway, that really happens when Alexis decides to give Tristan the benefit of the doubt. Her point of no return is really on page 63. And of a 355-page book, that’s just within Bell’s suggested 1/5 mark. So why do the hard-to-capture readers say it drags? Apparently because I didn’t emphasize enough that she’d passed through that doorway. Or that it was even a major threshold for her to cross. I can easily see this now.
So all of this got me to thinking…is this why agents ask for 60-75 page partials? That’s 1/5 through a 300-400 page novel. That’s enough for them to get to know the narrator’s voice, the author’s writing style and the premise of the book. But maybe it’s that specific number of pages because they want to see that the author has taken them through that first doorway by this time. And they want that doorway to be clear and exciting. After all, agents are going to be the hardest-to-capture readers. If you can impress them, you’re on the right path.
Just something to think about as you’re crafting your story and when you think you’re ready to query (or self-publish). Look at those first 60-75 pages and ask yourself if your protag has gone through that first doorway yet and if it’s obvious that he’s crossed a point of no return. I could be wrong about this being the reason agents ask for 60-75 page partials – I’m certainly not an agent – but, really, it should be your goal to suck them (and readers) in by then anyway. To get them beyond that point of no return so they’ll keep reading to the last page.
What do you think? Do you think this is why agents ask for that many pages? Have you followed Bell’s structure when planning your novels? Can you think of a book you love that doesn’t have the first doorway in the first 1/5-1/4 of the book?