Listen, I’m not the boss of you. You can structure your book any way you like.
That said, certain structures sell better than others. Since the dawn of literature and drama, a small handful of ways for stories to progress have resonated better with humans, and done so across cultures, than others. Nobody’s really sure why. For that matter, nobody’s really sure whether that’s a matter of psychology or familiarity.
What I mean by that is these structures pop up again and again in plays that last the centuries, poems that weather millennia, and movies that bust the box office. That might be because those structures work well with how humans feel and think, so they’ve stood the test of time. Or it might be because those structures have stood the test of time, and humans like them because we keep experiencing them.
Either way, it’s not exactly accurate to say there are right ways and wrong ways to structure your novel…but it’s pretty close. Here are the most common and successful general ways to do it.
The 5 Bestselling Book Structures of All Time
1. 3-Act Classical
Classical plays were divided into three acts, and you can see the same basic structure in literature and on the big screen. This not only works as a time-tested way of gaining and keeping reader/audience attention, but also maps on top of many of the other structures we describe later in this article.
For a three act structure, your story will look like this:
- ACT ONE (The Setup). This establishes the status quo for the protagonist and the world and inserts an inciting incident that gets things moving on the path of the storyline. It moves from to Act Two with the first plot point, during which the protagonist makes a conscious decision to address the challenges of their journey head on.
- ACT TWO (The Confrontation). During this act, an initial confrontation (or series of confrontations) tests, challenges, and grows your protagonist. In the middle of this act, some kind of event throws a monkey wrench into their plans. It transitions to Act Three as the fallout of that event results in some kind of failure, making a happy ending seem unlikely.
- ACT THREE (Resolution). Just as things seem darkest, the protagonist gathers inner strength and outer resources for a last, desperate attempt to accomplish their goals. This leads inexorably to the climax, where they face off against their challenge and ultimately prevail. The act ends with a denouement, in which loose ends get tied up and the new status quo for protagonist and world is set.
Although often the first thing that comes to mind with “confrontation” or “conflict” is some kind of life-and-death struggle against an antagonist, that’s only one of many flavors of conflict. This can just as easily be the “conflict” inherent in winning the heart of a love interest, or overcoming inner demons to do something otherwise trivial. The great thing about this structure is it can work for any story.
2. The Save the Cat Beat Sheet
This structure has been in use for a long time, but got its name from a best-selling book for writers that adapted Hollywood blockbuster script structure for writing in multiple genres. It takes its name from a screenwriting trick where you set up the hero to do something that makes the audience love them (for example, saving a cat who is stuck in a fire).
In the structure I outline below I’m providing page numbers based on a 110,000-word book. That’s just an example. Scale the numbers to suit the length you think your book will end up with.
- Opening Image (page 1) is the opening paragraph or scene that grabs the attention of your reader. Its only job is to get people to read the next paragraph, and ultimately turn the page.
- Setup (words 1-12,000) in which you establish the normal world and routine for the protagonist. It sets up what they do, and what pressures, conflicts, and frustrated desires make the status quo ultimately unsatisfactory. Alternatively, it shows how happy the protagonist is in their status quo, so a threat to it later is meaningful.
- Stated Theme (around the 5,000th word) in the middle of the setup, you hint or foreshadow the main conflict of the story, including any themes you want to explore.
- Catalyst (around the 12,000th word) something happens, the inciting incident, that sets off the action of the story. This might take just one page, or several pages, but should be kept tight.
- Debate (words 12,000 – 25,000) in which the protagonist tries not to heed the call to the story. During this section, they avoid the conflict in one way or another, or they follow the wrong leads in an attempt to address the issue.
- Break Into Act Two (around the 25,000th word) here the protagonist makes the decision to heed the call, or they find the right route to address the conflict. The story begins in earnest here.
- B Story (around the 30,000th word) kicks off some kind of subplot. Often this is the love interest that comes along with the adventure, but it could be anything else. It serves as a distraction or obstacle in the main plot, and can provide additional vulnerabilities for the main character.
- The Promise of the Premise (words 30,000 – 55,000) is a cycle of attempts, adventures, foibles, and fun where you deliver the promise of your genre. In a fantasy story, it’s travel through exotic lands and battle with evil beasts. In a detective story, it’s following a set of clues and rumbles in dark alleys. In a love story, it’s flirtation and first dates.
- Midpoint (around the 55,000th word) enters a plot twist that changes the tale. This might increase the stakes. It might make the protagonist’s goals more difficult to accomplish. It might reveal a new goal that supersedes what went before. It might do all three. The point is to unbalance the reader and the characters with new information.
- Bad Guys Close In (words 55,000 – 75,000) increases the tension. This might be literal bad guys making progress toward stopping a hero, or it might be increased tension, obstacles, and conflict. The details vary as widely as stories do.
- All Is Lost (around the 75,000th word) where the hero is at his lowest point. The bad guys score a major victory, or the romantic interest leaves town for good, or a trusted helper dies. Readers trust that protagonists will win out in the end, but at this point your readers should wonder how you’re going to pull it off.
- Dark Night of the Soul (words 75,000 – 80,000) where the bruised and battered protagonist wallows in discouragement, unsure about how to accomplish their goals. Near the end of this section, new information or other resources appear to help them rally towards final victory. If you’re clever, you can insert the B story here as an integral part of this turnaround.
- Break Into Act Three (around the 85,000th word) where the protagonist, armed and bolstered by their new resources, chooses to try once again and bring the fight.
- Finale (words 85,000 – 110,000) builds up to and resolves the climax of the book, the final confrontation. Done well, it not only wraps up the mail plot, but the B plot, and also some form of character development for your protagonist.
- Final Image (last page) describes a final moment that puts a pin in the story, and shows how the characters, world, or status quo have either changed or been restored.
This structure might feel restrictive, but think about the bewildering array of movies in the world. Almost all of them follow this exact structure, but still provide plenty of room for creativity.
3. The Fichtean Curve
The Fichtean Curve was named by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction. It creates an escalating series of conflicts set at a fast pace. It’s best for action-oriented stories, but with a little spin can create a tense, exciting tale out of more introspective tales.
It works like this:
- INCITING INCIDENT opens the tale, beginning with whatever event begins the story and action. From the first line, it’s all about change and conflict. The reader will learn about the character and their life before in bits and pieces as the story unfolds.
- FIRST CRISIS adds an initial conflict, obstacle, or mystery to overcome. This hints at, but is not really, the main conflict of the story. Here and there throughout this section, flashbacks and comments add color about the characters and setting.
- SECOND CRISIS follows on and results from how the protagonist navigated the first crisis, upping the stakes and raising the tension. The main conflict might be revealed or further hinted at here. Likewise, support characters and relevant background or setting become more fleshed out and involved.
- THIRD CRISIS fully reveals the extent of the main conflict of the book, but does not end in success. If you want to add a low point or reversal in a book with this structure, here is where you do it.
- FOURTH CRISIS is the penultimate battle, the one that unlocks access to the climax. By the end of this crisis, the hero has every tool they need to take the fight to the conflict and (hopefully) win.
- CLIMAX in which the hero puts everything on the line, all is revealed, and victory is claimed.
- FALLING ACTION should be short: just a glimpse of what was gained or protected by the protagonist’s efforts.
You might have noticed that this doesn’t include any sort of establishing scenes where we set up a status quo. This gets right to the action, sticks with the action, and quits early after the last action is resolved. Again, it works great for some stories and genres, but not so well for others.
4. The Hero’s Journey
You’ve probably heard about or read about this one. You might even have studied it in a class, or heard how Star Wars got hung on it wholesale. It’s based on Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”, a pattern of story and protagonist development common through almost every culture.
With this, you focus structure less around the plot and more about stages of growth in your hero. It goes through the following steps:
- The Ordinary World in which you show the protagonist in their normal life, doing their normal things. This can show what they love and want to protect, or what they hate and want to change.
- The Call of Adventure, a/k/a the inciting incident. Something happens that threatens the status quo, or grants an opportunity to change it.
- Refusal of the Call, at first, the protagonist does not heed the call to adventure. They’re too scared, too distracted, too ignorant, too…something. They try to stay in the status quo, even one they don’t want.
- Meeting the Mentor in which the protagonist encounters somebody or something that prepares them for the journey. This might be a literal teacher, or it could be an obstacle, circumstance, or resource that prepares them and pushes them forward.
- Crossing the First Threshold, where the protagonist makes a conscious choice to step forward toward adventure. This might be an all-in commitment, or it might be “just to try” or “just this once”. Either way, the true journey begins here.
- Test, Allies, Enemies, a series of scenes or even acts where the protagonist faces initial challenges. Along the way, they learn things, gain resources, and gather allies who help for the rest of the tale.
- Approach the Inmost Cave. Here the protagonist draws near their ultimate goal. This could be physically moving toward the location for the climax, or it could mean gathering information to solve a puzzle, or even moving toward inward growth or epiphany that allows for the next stage.
- The Ordeal where the hero meets and overcomes a major obstacle. Done well, this could be mistaken for the climax, but it is not. It’s a changing moment where this adversity prepares them for what’s to come.
- Reward, where upon surviving the ordeal the protagonist gains an item, insight, or power. Armed with this new resource, ultimate victory is ahead.
- The Road Back. The protagonist realizes they aren’t finished fighting, that in fact their reward may have come at a cost that makes failure more likely. They take lumps and may lose hope at this darkest point thus far.
- Resurrection, in which the final challenge is approached, attacked, and overcome. In this test, all the lessons, resources, friends, and powers the hero has gained come into meaningful play.
- Return With the Elixir, our denouement. The hero returns to their old life or establishes a new one, either way to the accolades of the people of their world.
This is a simplified version of Campbell’s full text, but if you compare it to any book or movie you like you can find its elements right there.
5. 5-Act Shakespearean
If you remember your high school English class, you might recall how Shakespeare’s plays were split into either three or five acts. Thus splits the core elements of your story into three or five satisfying sections, each of approximately equal length, and each with a meaningful threshold that moves from one to the next.
A five act structure follows much of the same course as the three-act structure described earlier, cut more finely:
- ACT ONE introduces main characters, world elements, and back story. It ends with the inciting incident, which either spells out or foreshadows the story’s central conflict.
- ACT TWO sees the conflict increase while the main character or characters try to achieve their goals. This might be a single, significant attempt or a series of smaller iterations. Each might end in failure, or in a small success that gathers resources toward the final confrontation.
- ACT THREE features a major confrontation. In some cases, this is the peak of the story. In others, it’s a big struggle that sets up the action of the following two acts.
- ACT FOUR deals with the fallout from the confrontation in act three. If act three was the peak action, this details the struggles and hardships (or joys and achievements) that come from it. If act three set up for a final confrontation, this act is when the main characters recover from an initial defeat and move toward final victory.
- ACT FIVE resolves all the threads and conflicts of the earlier acts. It might be a climactic final battle, or a satisfying denouement of all story elements. It might be both.
Final fun note. Technically speaking, with this structure you have comedies and tragedies. In tragedies, almost everybody dies by the end. In comedies, almost everybody gets married at the end. You’ll see signs of this in long-running sitcoms to this day.
What If You’re a Pantser?
For those who aren’t sure:
- Plotter (n): a writer who uses an outline or similar structure from the beginning of their writing process.
- Pantser (n): a writer who prefers to write where the story tells them, then apply structure during editing. Also known as a “discovery writer”
Pantsers sometimes resist the idea of a set book structure, feeling that it inhibits their ability to explore and create during the initial drafts. That’s okay. If you prefer that writing experience you have two options.
The first is to write where the story takes you, keeping a preferred structure in the back of your head. Most of the time, you’ll find these simple guiderails enhance your creativity by keeping you focused. The other is to finish your first draft without thought of outline and structure, then apply the structure that fits best onto what you’ve written.
Either way, the advice in today’s article applies to pantsers just as well as it does to plotters.