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Three Act Structure For Novel Writing, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

In my last blog post about writing page turning novels, I touted the use of the three act structure as a useful device some writers use to help create dramatic tension in their stories. I’ve written entire novels myself without realizing I was employing it. Later, I’d look at the story and realize that every element of the three-act structure has been subconsciously inserted into my story. I think this happens because so many stories I’ve read before have followed it. I’ll even go out on a limb to suggest that three act structure existed before anyone knew it existed. It’s a narrative arc that has been deeply embedded in the human psyche since the time before people were writing stories down, when the tales told were legend and myth.

Before I describe the structure, let me clarify one thing that some of you iconoclasts might be thinking: a structure is not the same thing as a formula. A structure creates a framework wherein your characters move within their story. There are some out there who write outside of the common story arc, but most writers, even the great ones, adhere to this ancient narrative form.

Many variations of three act structure can be found on the web, and I encourage you to do some research of your own, but here is a brief outline:

1. The first act sets up your world and your characters. It shows how life is before your inciting incident, which sets your protagonist in motion. Your protagonist, when dealing with this new problem, will be hesitant in some way, but will finally confront a point of no return, where she has committed herself and has no choice but to stay the course.

2. This begins your second act, your rising action, comprised of points and counterpoints between your hero and your antagonist. The second act ends when the absolute worst happens, and all is lost.

3. But wait! Your hero uses her ingenuity and courage, rallies her dwindling resources to do something completely unexpected, and somehow wins the day. This is your climax. Loose ends are tied up, but hopefully not too perfectly, and the reader can finish reading your book then hurry to the bookstore to find more titles by you.

Part of what makes this structure so useful is that it helps the writer keep her characters in charge of the story. You are free to employ the vicissitudes of fate in your plot, but the main pivot points of your story remain in your characters’ hands. This helps hold your reader’s interest, because, in the final analysis, random chance isn’t very interesting. It’s what people do with their circumstances, their choices and their mistakes that makes fiction, and life, interesting.


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Writing Teen Novels

My Novel Writing Process, by Carolyn Meyer

When I begin the first page of a new novel, I’ve already invested months in research, made notes on yellow pads, obsessed about it on my morning walks. I have a mental picture of my characters and I know in a general sort of way what they’re likely to be doing. I’m telling myself the story I hope will become a novel that teens will read fervently, talk about enthusiastically and love forever. At this point nothing is set in stone.

At first I’m talking to myself, describing the story: first she does this, then she does that, then he says and she says, then they do something else. But that’s not a novel, it’s a treatment – a story about the story.

Then comes the real work: turning the story-about-a-story into a sequence of scenes, each building on the last. In that first chapter I must also provide the teen reader with enough information to understand what’s happening. I approach the writing as though I’m making a movie, fully visualizing each scene. If I can picture it, I can write it and the reader will “get” it.

I decided to begin Cleopatra Confesses with Cleopatra’s long-absent father’s return to Egypt. I used a series of scenes and flashbacks to introduce principal characters and establish family relationships, as well as to create tension. The chapters are brief and the scenes move the story along quickly. Here’s how I structured the first chapter:

Scene 1: Cleopatra hears a commotion and goes out to investigate; a messenger brings news that Ptolemy XII is on his way from Rome.

Scene 2: Cleopatra visits her younger sister, plays her with sister’s pet monkey and her sister’s bodyguard is introduced.

Transition: description of Cleopatra’s older sisters, brothers and father.

Scene 3:  Cleopatra, in borrowed servants’ clothes, leaves the palace for the marketplace.

Scene 4 (flashback): Cleopatra with her father before he leaves for Rome.

Scene 5 (flashback): Cleopatra with her jealous sisters.

Then on to the second chapter, with scenes in the marketplace with Cleopatra waiting for father’s ship; then in the palace, dressing for her father’s welcome.

Total pages for first two chapters: thirteen.

Contemporary teen novels usually take place over a relatively short time – days or weeks, rarely covering more than a year. A teen historical novel may span years, even decades, and that requires tracking the passage of time in a way that keeps teen readers oriented. One strategy is to use the day or date in chapter titles, but the calendar in Cleopatra’s era was so confusing that I indicated the time in other ways: “It is the season of the Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks….”, “In the evening of the first day as the royal boat drifts….” or “It is winter now…”

The structure of Cleopatra Confesses evolved as I added and deleted scenes; lengthened, shortened and divided chapters; and changed chapter titles. This process continued through successive drafts and revisions, as it has through all of my teen novels. It may be worth noting that I never get it right the first time but only through trial and error.


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Writing Teen Novels

My Fiction Writing Process, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me when it comes to the process of writing. Everyone’s different, and no doubt you will be too, but here’s a little insight on how I work and how I came to use this process, and with any luck it can help you find your way as well.

I taught myself to write in gradual steps, by need, generally. My first ‘writing’ was my short comic strips. It doesn’t sound like much but writing comic strips is a great boot camp – every strip has a beginning, middle and end, or set up, development and punch line. You’re essentially telling a small story every day. By the time I was working on my Emo Boy comic book, I figured I’d read enough comics and watched enough TV. I knew the basic gist of how a story should look and feel. Some issues had one issue-long story and some issues had story several smaller stories. I’d generally set up the storyline, come up with some events and jokes, then wrap it all up, and if Emo Boy could learn a lesson by the end, all the better.

In 2008, I was working on two projects at once. One was Happyface, a full novel I was writing for Little Brown Books For Young Readers and the other was a screenplay for an Emo Boy movie for Vanguard Films. In 2008, I learned I knew absolutely nothing about storytelling.

The main complaint I kept hearing was: “Where’s the structure?” This was coming from both companies. Having worked on short comic strips and comic books, my stories tended to feel too episodic. Emo Boy, the movie was having multiple adventures stemming from the comic book storylines. Happyface was jumping from month to month and place to place with little arc.

I’ve since become a strong outliner – I often spend as much time, if not more, outlining a book as I do actually writing it. I start in broad strokes and break it down piece by piece. It goes something like this:

  • Have an idea.
  • Give the idea a basic arc – a beginning, middle and end.
  • Flesh those pieces out into 3 acts – so the beginning, middle and end each have a beginning, middle and end.
  • Jot out ideas, scenes, character traits and lines of dialogue. Picture a video trailer for the book. Think up themes arising from big ideas. I ask myself: what is it about this story that excites me and makes me want to write about this in particular? How do I connect with the story? I take all those puzzle pieces and try to fit them together into some kind of loose outline.
  • From there, I start thinking in chapters.
  • For each chapter, I’ll write a beginning, middle and end. I’ll add more dialogue, locations and characters.

My editor says my first draft for a chapter is always very loose, like I’m racing to the end. It’s closer to a comic or a screenplay: this person says this, that person says that, they both do this, the end. I’ll go through it again to add more observation, detail and surroundings. I’ll go through it again and add more mannerisms and movement, what the characters are thinking, sensory details like how something looks, smells or sounds. In final drafts, I pay attention to word choices, how sentences flow and the general feel of the text.

Things change a lot as I write. The outline will bend and sway, characters will reveal themselves to be far more important than I’d anticipated. So, even though I have a blueprint, I’m still discovering along the way. Some people prefer to start blind – they have a germ of an idea in mind and they start writing. I’ve tried this but I just stare at a blank page trying to think of something clever to say. It doesn’t work for me – but we’re all different. This is just my process.

In a more general day-to-day look at my writing process, I like to write outside of my home. I find I’m easily distracted at home, I have all my books there, my TV, video games and, worst of all, house chores. I also find that other places have better lighting. It makes me feel more awake. It could be a library, a cafe, a Panera Bread or a Barnes & Noble. I listen to music while I write – nothing with lyrics or too distracting – or sometime movie scores, and there are some indie bands that do instrumental music. I like jazz, anime soundtracks and, lately, I’ve added hip hop instrumentals into the mix.

Writing is hard. This is an issue for me and I know it is for a lot of people. Sometimes you know you want to write but you think, “I don’t have any ideas. I don’t know what to write.” So you don’t. It takes me a few minutes to get started. My head is racing, full of to-do lists, distractions, it’s been a long day, my brain is fuzz and I just want to tune out, but once I sit and just stare at the blank screen or notebook paper my brain will, one by one, shut off all those distractions. I start to think, one thought leads to another and eventually I’ll be lost in my own little world. Time slips away and I can easily sit there for an hour or two and not even feel it. I imagine it’s what meditation is like.

Anyone can write: you need to find what works best for you. Find that process and put your trust in it, and you’ll be piling up pages before you know it.


Stephen Emond’s author website:

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Writing Teen Novels


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