Editorial director of the science fiction/fantasy imprint Pry, Lou Anders, promised the members of his recent writing workshop at FenCon a discussion of the three-act method for structuring their novels. Then he spent the first half of his discussion, based on Dan Decker’s Anatomy of a Screenplay book and classes, instructing us about characters. Did he misspeak?
He insisted he had not -- that the characters must come first in writing a story. “Page counts, events at act breaks, ups and downs are all by-products of proper Character Structure,” Decker wrote. “Putting the by-products first is writing backwards.”
Accordingly, in defining the functions of Act I (read: approximately first quarter of a novel), Anders listed the introduction of the main character, the villain (opponent or antagonist) and relationship character. In a screenplay for a two-hour movie, these occupy the first thirty pages. Within the first eleven to thirteen pages of the screenplay, the main character must make a fateful decision -- a yes or no answer to a choice that determines whether there will be a movie (or novel) or whether we’ll quit and go home.
Although the page numbers are for 120-page screenplays, I’ve noticed that even in 300-400 page novels the main character’s decision arrives almost as quickly as in a screenplay. It was a lesson all the workshop’s participants seemed to have absorbed. With rare exceptions, their protagonists made the fateful choice at least by the end of the first chapter.
The first half of Act II -- up to the story midpoint, whether for screenplay or novel -- consists, Anders said of “asking questions.” The act’s second half begins to answer those questions and ends with the low point that finds the protagonist as far as possible from the goal. The purpose of Act III is for the protagonist to fight from hopelessness to win the goal. The last act’s tension, Anders said, “is not for ‘will she win?’ but for what she goes through to achieve it.”
He reminded us that achieving a goal doesn’t mean the ending is always the happiest one. Using the movie Casablanca as an example, the main character, Rick, doesn’t walk off the screen with his lover Ilsa. He doesn’t get what he wanted. He gets what he needed -- redemption and purpose.
Writing partner Robin Yaklin (see her blog at http://debutauthors.wordpress.com/) and I are on a novel structure jag that includes Randy Ingermanson’s “fractal” approach. There’s so much more that after a break next Wednesday for another topic, I’ll be back with more ways to structure a novel, including additional suggestions from Anders.
(By the way, Anatomy of a Screenplay is temporarily out of stock at http://www.amazon.com but available at another online book source, http://www.alibris.com/ And if you read this before Friday, you’ll get to see a new Halloween skeleton illustration from another one of my favorite sites, http://commons.wikimedia.org/ Or see its link at the bottom of this page for wonderful copyright-free images.)
Correction to Monday’s blog -- The Heard Museum’s Halloween event is this Saturday, October 22, instead of October 29, as originally reported. Tickets are available online for Halloween at the Heard, http://www.heardmuseum.org