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Many Movie scripts use a Structure where there are 3 Acts (Setup, Climax, Resolution) with 2 Plot Points (end of Act 1 and end of Act 2) (Three Act Structure)

I wonder if there are standards for organizing Novels? Most (Fantasy or Sci Fi) Novels that I've read seem to have a lot more Acts and Plot Points and simply a lot more going on, which doesn't surprise me as there is so much more Room for Content in a Novel.

Am I just not looking hard enough, or is Act 2 (The Act after all the main Characters are introduced and we move forward towards the finale) simply extremely long?

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AFAIK the three act structure was proposed by Aristotle, so it long predates movie scripts :) – ggambett Dec 10 '10 at 2:32
I can't remember which musician (I do remember it was bluesman) said it, but "I just play what I feel like playing, let others analyze what I actually played" (paraphrased from hazy memory). Same goes for novels, for me: just write it (and they will come ;-). Write it the way the story demands. That's all you really need to know. IMPAO. – Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 22 '10 at 14:24
@jae - au contraire. 'The unexamined book is not worth writing' -Socrates – jon_darkstar Mar 29 '11 at 22:55
@jae -- that's why most jazz sucks. Only a truly phenomenal talent can produce art of any value without introspection, practice, reflection. When the milieu of some popular art form encourages improvisation, most of the result is unbearable. – Malvolio Apr 17 '11 at 17:34
Jazz doesn't suck; jazz is musician's music. Other musicians understand how the improvisation on top of a structured backbone is artistic, and that the art is in the variation. Writers are looking for words, meaning, structure, a story. I usually can't stand jazz because I think it's boring, but I fully understand why it's considered an art form. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 19 '11 at 16:04

The three-act structure is very common, but for longer works, the traditional second act usually becomes a series of acts similar to two and three in the three-act structure. You'll normally not see that in your average 250 page paperback, but when dealing with large novels like the later works of Neal Stephenson, or lengthy fantasy and sci-fi novels, the act structure begins tending toward this:

  1. Introductory act (TAS Act 1)
  2. First conflict (rising action)
  3. First conflict resolution, set-up of second conflict
  4. Second conflict (rising action)
  5. Second conflict resolution, etc.
  6. (repeat as needed)
  7. Final/main conflict (rising action)
  8. Story resolution (TAS Act 3)

This is very much simplified, given that said longer works usually have several stories threaded through them (like A, B, and C plots in film and TV). Those secondary conflicts handled throughout the novel will usually focus on the main story, but some of them will tie into the other story threads, or even focus on them primarily.

Depending on how you want to look at it, those points 2..7 in the list above could be seen as a very long Act 2, but the truth is, it's more like a series of acts grouped as a super-act than anything else.

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Novels follow that structure, more or less. Following a structure does not mean you have to be its slave. And yes, Act 2 could be that long.

Look at what is important:

  1. Introduction: Introduce your characters in the beginning. Coming up with an important character in the last third of the book is disturbing at best.
  2. Rising action: You do not have to introduce that much, but describing the main conflict, should take a while. Why do you think have the readers bought your book?
  3. Resolution: Your happy end, your sad end, your cliffhanger (well, that's not resolving, but a possibility).

The points sound all straightforward? They are! But you need some structure to keep them in mind. Straightforward things can be easily forgotten.

If you are interested in a more detailed plot structure, maybe you want to have a look at the Hero's journey. I will not describe the details here. Sounds like a different question.

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Your three important points are, in a nutshell, the 3 Act structure. :-) That's why basically every single novel has one. Your first few chapters are intended to grab readers, introduce main characters, and finally hit the first doorway - that's the introduction. The middle is the rising action. The end is that action coming to a resolution. There you have it. A basic structure for you novel, even if you do no other structuring at all. – Nathan Fischer Dec 9 '10 at 14:02
@Nathan: I know, that's why I have listed them. – John Smithers Dec 9 '10 at 15:53
I apologize. When you said "The points sound all straight forward? They are! But you need some structure to keep them in mind." it confused me. I thought you were saying those aren't the structure or something. Sorry about that! – Nathan Fischer Dec 9 '10 at 16:07
I see, @Nathan. I thought it was obvious that I refer to the 3 Act structure. No need to apologise, btw. You are talking to someone who offends people on purpose (even if I did not do it here). – John Smithers Dec 9 '10 at 16:56

To me, the structure comes from the nature of the story you are telling.

Most stories introduce. Even convoluted stories, like the movie Memento, have an Introduction, even if it's fake-ish and multi-headed and meant to misdirect.

Aside: Single novels, technically, are not slaved as much to an Introduction as multi-volume stories. One of my favourites, Jim Butcher, has a small "introduction" somewhere in the beginning of each of his Harry Dresden novels.

  • If you do enough world / plot building, you could theoretically write a novel that jumped right into the action without any setup, many threads going right from beginning. BUT, you'd have to be an absolute genius at making sure it sucked the reader in from the get-go.

The thing is, who would give up the joy of writing the setup / introduction act? Seems like it would be a lot of fun.

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The three-act structure is extremely common in novels, although not universal. I would guess that part of what makes a novel feel different to you is simply the overall length. Even if you are a fast reader and it's a short novel, reading the book will generally take a lot longer than watching a movie.

Because the book is longer, all the acts are stretched out. However, the second act is the "meat" of the story, and it will generally get more than a proportional share of this additional story time. Even in a very large novel, some readers will be frustrated if the setup or resolution are too long. Most novels will have a longer second act (proportionally) than movies.

Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions. Lord of the Rings, for example, has extremely long setup and resolution phases, even in proportion to its impressive length.

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