WRITING THE SIX ACT TWO-GOAL NOVEL
Master Reference Guide For Creating and Structuring Plot - All Genres
Links: Field's Three Act Structure Siegal's Nine Act Structure The Plot Outline
The "Plot Point" is sometimes defined a bit differently depending on who you read. At Author Salon we define it as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In an average novel of any genre, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax but a surprise happens that resolves it differently
- Michael Neff
Author Salon has developed the Six Act Two-Goal novel structure for writers of book-length fiction and nonfiction. The point here is to understand and utilize a tightly plotted act structure, similar to that used by screenplay writers, to effectively brainstorm and outline a very competitive and suspenseful plot for the genre novel, i.e., fantasy, SF, YA/MG, mystery, and so forth. Upmarket or literary fiction with a strong plot also benefits.
We combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure becomes the "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story, and we concur with this.
In the opening of a story, the protagonist(s) are focused on a major goal begun by the first major plot point that starts the second act (in the Field model), but by the middle of the second act or later, they realize they have pursued the wrong goal. The protagonist(s) are forced to alter their course and struggle for a new, more accurate goal.
The fusion of the Siegal and Field models we outline below thus becomes a tighter six act model for the novel or narrative nonfiction. Here is a plot outline guide developed by Author Salon for approaching the integration of the model: THE PSCO GUIDE.
Note that pages referenced are double-spaced and approximate for each act, overlap and variation always likely, and for an average 400 page manuscript ("+" notes the possibility of a somewhat higher page number).
Before you begin, take note that your most important elements to sketch and produce from the onset are:
NOTE: we use examples of novels, stories and films below that will likely be familiar to the widest range of readers. These include ANTIGONE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE HUNGER GAMES, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, GLADIATOR, THE GREAT GATSBY, WAR OF THE WORLDS, CATCHER IN THE RYE, CITIZEN KANE, HARRY POTTER, DA VINCI CODE, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE SUN ALSO RISES, COLD MOUNTAIN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and MISERY. But make no mistake, the rules governing the art of fiction, or good storytelling, remain steady regardless of genre, and have pretty much been fixed since Apollonius of Rhodes wrote about the Argonauts. And if you happen to be one of those writers who believes that writing a novel "your way" or simply "from the heart" or "only with my character's direction" means avoiding or denying the critical elements of commercial fiction and good storytelling found below, it's best to move on quickly from this page and seek the Elysium of your desire. All best wishes to you.
NOTE 2: The "Plot Point" is sometimes defined a bit differently depending on who you read. At Author Salon we define it as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In an average novel of any genre, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax but a surprise happens that resolves it differently. Bonus.
Backstory to Set Up The Tale
You must carefully forge your backstory before you begin. Understand the issues below. This does not directly appear in the story except by use of flashback and via other methods to deliver EXPOSITION:
ACT ONE (Page 1 - 30+)
Issues of The Hook: Protagonist Intro - Antagonist First? - Inciting Incident - Extreme Importance of Setting - Establishment of Characters - The MacGuffin - In Media Res - Crucial Sympathy Factors - Something Bad Happens - Exposition - Theme?
What needs to be done from the start? Why is the hook of Act I critical to this novel and to being taken seriously as a writer?
ACT TWO (Page 10+ - 50+)
More Hook: Write the Story Statement - Establishment of Major Goal - Primary External Conflict or Complication Begins - First Major Plot Point and Plot Line - Protagonist Psychology - Rising Action
What's the mission? The goal? What must be done? Created? Accomplished? Defeated?
Defy the dictator of the city and bury brother's body (ANTIGONE)? Place a bet that will shake up the asylum (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST)? Do whatever it takes to recover lost love (THE GREAT GATSBY)? Save the farm and live to tell the story (COLD MOUNTAIN)? Find the wizard and a way home to Kansas (WIZARD OF OZ)? Note that all of these are books with strong antagonists who drive or catalyze the plot line going forward.
Note to Writer: If you can't write a simple story statement like above (which builds into your hook/log line) then you don't have a work of commercial fiction. Keep in mind that the PLOT LINE is an elaboration of the statement, of the primary complication. Also, look over the brief summaries of these novels in the Author Connect Deal News. These contain the simple statement, but more elaborated into a short hook.
Necessary Preparation Steps for the Author:
The FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT therefore takes place that establishes your protagonist's overall goal. In other words, the course of the action or plot changes, often drastically, and usually with a change of setting. Success seems possible.
The RISING ACTION of the story truly begins with the launch of the primary external conflict or complication. A means to achieve the goal is decided. The work begins, the war begins, the feet hit the bricks, the plan to reunite the lovers is initiated. The graph has begun to rise and it won't stop until after the CLIMAX.
In other words, the protagonist commits to the goal(s). But why? What is the motivation? What are the internal and external issues involved? She or he may go willingly into the situation because the alternative is worse, or to help an apparent victim. She or me may undertake the task not realizing the true dangers or complications ahead, out of ignorance. Another character might trick or push the protagonist into situation.
ACT THREE (Page 50+ - 250+)
Plot Line Evolution: Minor Reversals - Complications - Thee Levels of Conflict - Major Reversal Time - Plot Points - The Martians are Winning
The dramatic pursuit of the goal evolves.
The FIRST GOAL (the means to the end) within the master goal (the final desired result) is pursued (see STORY STATEMENT above), but this will eventually lead your protagonist to a firewall or dead end, or what is known as the MAJOR REVERSAL in the parlance of our times (Dorothy gets to Oz, but no Kansas until the broomstick is fetched).
NOTE: This act pulls out all the stops to create tension, angst, conflict, and issues for the protagonist and appropriate characters to resolve:
Note: as a bonus, complications and reversals also assist greatly in maintaining all three levels of conflict (see above).
Also, prior to climax, we may have a smart and strong reversal or complication which serves to introduce a twist or an unexpected event in the story (sometimes called a MIDPOINT CLIMAX).
Pinch Points Reveal the Antagonist Aims Sans Filter
Pinch Points take place: an example or a reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero's experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct form as in a brief cut away scene that describes an impending thunderstorm, a peek into the villain's mind. There should be two and they should be at about the 3/8 mark and the 3/5 mark in the manuscript. In ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST a pinch point took place at the 3/5 mark when the Big Nurse informed the assembled hospital staff just what kind of cruel fate was in store for McMurphy.
Crisis Point or MAJOR REVERSAL = Second Major Plot Point
In general, at this point, backstory issues, mysterious strangers, twists and turns and events all point out that your protagonist is on the wrong track, and the antagonist graph is rising. The Martians are conquering Earth and the Big Nurse is slowly tightening a noose around McMurphy's neck.
Once more, success seems possible.
INTERNAL CONFLICT IS ON THE INCREASE ALSO. Of course, and so is interpersonal conflict. All three levels of conflict are rising! But back to the protagonist for a moment ... Why should she or he turn back now? Why doesn't he/she? What's at stake? Is there a DILEMMA? What makes your protagonist realize the unavoidable importance of her/his original goal? What gives it new meaning? Does someone die? Do the stakes raise? Does reputation suffer or threaten to diminish? We must have a answer. This is true drama. Storytelling at its finest.
ACT FOUR (Page 200+ - 375+)
Second Major Plot Point - New Rising Action and Suspense - Conflict Levels - Climax - Victory at a Cost
Opens with the SECOND MAJOR PLOT POINT as protagonist pursues the new and truly productive goal (the author of MISERY decides to write the novel Kathy wants in order to enact his new scheme to escape). The characters get that final clue, the missing piece to the puzzle, which allows them to make the necessary changes to successfully complete the plot line.
Climax should be the most intense plot point in the story, but the intensity and nature of that intensity depends on the needs of the genre and the nature of the story. While the climax is the moment when the decisive event occurs, plot development is a process that occurs throughout your novel (see above). As we've noted, the reader must see how main character behaves at the start of the novel, and understand how her/his nature is challenged by the main goal. In HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Huck thinks about going against morality of the day and writing Miss Watson where the Phelps family is holding Jim. Instead, he follows his conscience and he and Tom free Jim, and Tom is shot in the leg in the attempt (victory at a cost).
You can also have a double climax. For example, in HARRY POTTER, when the heroes find and escape with a magical hoarcrux, that's a climax, but a climax is when Harry finally defeats the chief antagonist, Lord Voldemort.
After the climax, you must show the reader the outcome, and how it is good or bad for the main character. Important!
ACT FIVE (Page 300+ - 400+)
Denouement - Loose Ends Wrapped - Theme Wrap - Conclusions - Resolutions - A Final Surprise?
Denouement wherein all loose ends resolved, a final surprise perhaps, hint of the sequel perhaps, but readers on their way with the emotions the writer wants them to feel (Fitzgerald actually saved final exposition regarding Gatsby for the denouement following Gatsby's death).
Internal Resolution and With Theme or No
What does the protagonist and possibly other characters learn as a result of climax? How does this manifest itself going forward? How are things different? How are they changed, especially the protagonist?
In CATCHER IN THE RYE, Holden leaves it ambiguous as to whether he's "better" or not, and many would say there is no "better" anyway; he just has to grow up, painfully and with a lot of depression thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, we look to the last line of the novel for another take on the conclusion: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Perhaps then, the conclusion to Holden's initial conflict (the tension between wanting to connect but hating everyone) is that he did in fact connect -- in one way or another -- with everyone he met. The new question isn't whether or not one should connect, but whether or not the pain of inevitable loss is worth the initial gain.
From SPARKNOTES, we have a slice of theme from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
- Michael Neff