Monday, August 06, 2012

Brick by Brick: Three Act Structure, part two

Yesterday I talked about how telephone in essence screwed up a perfectly, foolproof understanding of Hauge's structure. What follows is my version. It's not special or unique. It's the bastardized version of something that is foolproof in my eyes. Yet I use it again and again without fail:

Catalyst: The point in the story where the introduction ends and the story’s core conflict is presented.

The best examples are what you read on the back of every book–the blurb.

Paige Darlington is finally free of the literal boss from hell–Satan. There’s just one hitch: she’s cursed and will soon lose her soul. The only way to reverse this ultimate buzz kill is to skinny dip in one of Heaven’s cleansing moats. But Heaven has defense against girls like Paige...and they typically involve being charred to a crisp.

~Sex and the Immortal Bad Boy by Stephanie Rowe

The bolded portion is the core conflict of the story. Paige has to figure out a way to get there. If she can’t get there, she had to figure out a way to make herself less evil. If all else fails what will she have to do in order to save the world from herself?

Another example:

Secrets she (Emma Corrigan) wouldn’t share with anyone in the world....Until she spills them all to a handsome stranger on a plan. At least she thought he was a stranger...

But come Monday morning, Emma’s office is abuzz about the arrival of Jack Harper, the company’s elusive CEO. Suddenly Emma is face to face with the stranger on the plane, a man who knows every single humiliating detail about her. Things couldn’t possibly get worse. Or could they?

~ Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella

Yes, Paige in Sex and the Immortal Bad Boy had a huge problem already by being Satan’s ex-minion, but then the heroine finds out that she’s a ticking bomb of evil. At this point in the story we've gotten to know the heroine. We want her to succeed.

Can You Keep a Secret? starts off with the heroine sitting in a meeting where she’s only supposed to be there as a bobble-head. Yes, yes, whatever you say. Things go off-course and she ends up making a complete, excuse my language, ass of herself.

All this leads to a hilarious scene where she makes an even bigger ass of herself. That builds up to the moment when Emma realizes the stranger is really her boss. Her boss knows all her secrets. You cringe with the character.

Now imagine for a moment someone knows all of your darkest secrets. The stuff you won’t even tell your best friend, especially if that secret is she knits horribly. It makes your friend happy to give you the things she has made with her hands.

Or that your cousin, who lost her parents at a young age, is the golden child in your family. What if someone knew when you were in desperate need of a job she refused to give you one?  What would you say or do to keep those secrets, well, secret? What would happen if those secrets came out?

So, yes, the core conflict is a narrowed focus on the novel, but that doesn’t mean it can’t act like a crack in a window shield. If you ever had a crack in your windshield you know that small crack, eventually, starts to grow. It gets worse and worse.

The Difference

The Catalyst isn’t any different from a combination of The Opportunity and the New Situation. Emma has to learn to live with what she’s said to her boss. Paige now knows what she needs to do in order to not end mankind. A snafu in understanding that a Catalyst could be broken down in two stages led me to a simplified version, but I still had the same problem. What did it mean to start where the story starts? Wouldn’t that automatically be the Catalyst? It’s where the core conflict is presented, but what about Stage 1: The Set Up?

The Conundrum

A novel is not a movie. You won’t have the benefit of a montage to show who your character is and what their life is like before the Catalyst.

By now I’m sure you’ve been scared to death by the knowledge of an agent or editor deciding your fate by the end of page one. If not by the end of the first paragraph. One page, and the agent/editor has already decided to ask for more or reject you. (Yes, really, go check out some agent and editor blogs if you don't believe me.)

 This knowledge has caused many a writer to pass out. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe into a brown paper bag. It’s a lot of pressure for 250 or so words.

It could tempt even the most secure writer to put their Catalyst on the first page or believe the Catalyst is the first page. If putting the Catalyst on page one fits your story, then go for it. If not, then it can kill the urgency that a proper build-up brings to your novel. Most people don’t keep reading because the plot is interesting. They keep reading to see what happens to the character.

Anyway, below are some examples:

gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

Part of Blurb: When Arlene Fleet heads up north for college, she promises God that she’ll stop fornicating and lying, and never, ever go back to her hometown in Alabama. All she wants from Him is one miracle: make sure the body is never found. Now, ten years later, God breaks the deal when a dark secret from her past lands on her Chicago doorstep.

“There are Gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches.

I made a deal with God two years before I left there. At the time, I thought He made out pretty well. I offered Him a three-for-one–deal: All He had to do was perform a miracle. He fulfilled His end of the bargain, so I kept my three promises faithfully, no matter what cost. I held our deal as sacred for twelve solid years. But that was before God let Rose Mae Lolly show up on my doorstep, dragging my ghosts and her own considerable baggage.”


     The Catalyst is right there on the first page. God breaks his promise to Arlene by allowing Rose Mae Lolly to stand on her doorstep. It works for the novel because the past and the present are told in a way that blends the NOW with the past. The NOW isn’t the prologue and it isn’t the backstory or flashback. It’s what’s happening right at that moment in the character’s life.

Jackson creates a sense of NOW when she goes over the events that made her make that deal with God. She creates a sense of urgency to keep reading. Yet when you look at that first paragraph you can see the character, and it takes you for one hell of a spin. I mean, who would say big tits and Jesus in the same breath?

     Evermore by Alyson Noël

Part of Blurb: After a horrible accident claims the lives of her family, sixteen-year-old Ever Bloom can see people’s auras, her their thoughts and know someone’s entire life story by touching them. Going out of her way to avoid human contact and suppress her abilities, she has been branded a freak at her new high school-but everything changes when she meets Damen Auguste...He’s the only one who can silence the noise and random energy in her head...

     “Guess who?”

     Haven’s warm, clammy palms press hard against my cheeks as the tarnished edge of her silver skull ring leaves a smudge on my skin...”

     This sort of set-up goes on for pages and pages. No catalyst to speak of. Ever doesn’t find out Damen can silence the “noise” until page 25.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Part of Blurb: Workaholic attorney Samantha Sweeting has just done the unthinkable. She’s made a mistake so huge, it’ll wreck any chance of a partnership.

     Would you consider yourself stressed?

     No. I’m not stressed.

     I’m...busy. Plenty of people are busy. I have a high-powered job, my career is important to me, and I enjoy it.

OK. So sometimes I do feel a bit tense. But I’m a lawyer in the City, for God’s sake. What do you expect?


By the time the big mistake happens (page 47), I want to take a vacation for Samantha.

When Does the Catalyst Happen?

From the examples the Catalyst occurs on page 1, 25, and 47. There’s no pattern to speak of, so it would be easier to pin down at what point it doesn’t happen. If you have made it to page 100 and the Catalyst hasn’t occurred, you might have a problem. Unless you are Nora Roberts and can make 150+ pages of backstory work.

Why is it likely to happen in 100 pages or less? It’s the chicken or the egg theory. Partials sent to agents/editors are usually 100 pages or less. Most places that sell books have a sample and it will be, maybe, the first chapter and part of the second. Maybe more, but never 100 pages. (At least none I've read.) The answer: There’s no exact science to where the Catalyst should fall. Put it where it feels most natural.


By now, if you're still actually reading, you're eyeballs have dried out. You might be slumped over half-dead, I'm going to stop now and pick up in the next installment. It's going to continue on with my jacked up version of the Three Act Structure.

 As usual I'm more than open to questions or outright disagreement. Do so in the comments.

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