Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Method: Charting Your Novel

A few weeks ago we spoke to novelist Laurel Dewey about her approach to creating the lead character of her acclaimed suspense novel, Protector. That interview got us thinking about the bigger picture: How did Laurel develop her can't-put-it-down, page-turning story? We discovered that Laurel trained as a screenwriter -- and had applied techniques for writing for the silver screen to writing her novel. We asked Laurel to tell us about that, and she graciously shared this detailed -- and invaluable -- conversation with us:

VT: How does screenwriting relate to writing a novel?

Laurel: When I studied screenwriting at the California State University at Northridge, I had incredible professors who wrote Hollywood movies and television docudramas from the 1950's to 1960's. Back then screenwriters were schooled in the narrative of great fiction writing. They had a real understanding of how to tell a story. It was a different reference point than most of today's screenwriters, who are schooled in the conventions of television.

I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be writing novels. My goal was to be a screenwriter. But I've been able to successfully put to work the screenwriting techniques my great professors taught me to writing novels. To explain them, though, I'm going to have to use the dreaded "F" word.

VT: The "F" word?

Laurel: Yes, "Formula." Formula definitely plays into what I'm going to talk about. But this formula works. It might sound like "writing by the numbers" but it's not. It's about "charting a novel" to help the writer make sure the story keeps moving and the reader stays interested.

This is not cookie cutter. In essence, it becomes the vessel into which you pour your creativity. It becomes the framework for your story. People often say they read novels that just keep going on and on and on, there's no point. Well using this technique, which I adapted from screenwriting, you can avoid that.

VT: How does it work?

Laurel: Just like with a screenplay, you break your book down into Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. This creates clear sections for containing the character development and the story arc.

VT: Sounds like you're creating a system to organize your story.

Laurel: Look at any really good classic story, whether it's a novel, a theatre play or a screenplay, and you will see this system in place. Writers who understand how to tell a story might unconsciously utilize the formula. Writers who are struggling with organizing the story peaks and so on can avoid all that by adapting this system to their novel.

When you read a novel that just goes on and on and on and on, then there's no, what I call, "spike points." My approach solves this.

First of all, you have to break Act One, Act Two, and Act Three into percentages. The rule I came up with is 25/55/20. That means, 25% of the story is Act One, 55% of your book is Act Two, and the final 20 % is Act Three. This may be a little off here and there - it's not an exact formula -- but I've found the "25/55/20 rule" really helps me create a strong box to hold my story.

If you use a 400-page manuscript as an example, applying the 25/55/20 rule would mean 100 pages for Act One. One hundred pages is your "magic number," by the way.

VT: Magic number?

Laurel: The first 100 pages are critical since most publishers judge a book on those pages. If you don't grab them within those first 100 pages, they are not going to want to read the rest of the book.

In a 400-page manuscript, Act Two would be 220 pages, and Act Three would come to about 80 pages. I have found that this approach really does work. If your novel's Act Three is around 80 to 90 pages long, you can really kick it into gear and get the reader going, "yeah, yeah" -- and take them on a ride to the end of the book.

There's wiggle room here, give or take 10 or 15 pages either side, but you don't want to go past these marks because it really does make a difference in how people are going to react to your book.

VT: What's next?

Laurel: Okay, Act One must establish your story. You MUST have a person with a problem. That's Number One. I learned this from screenwriting. If you don't have a character with a problem to solve you don't have a story. You establish the main character or the characters in the first ten pages if possible. Look at books that you really like and you'll see that they do this. They establish the main character and they establish that character's problems. It may not be the main problem of the book, it may not be the main focus of the book, but you've got to introduce what that character is trying to solve.

As for the protagonist's central problem, you have to establish that or at least introduce the problem in some way in the first 25 pages of the manuscript. If you're not introducing what this book's about in the first 25 pages, why are you writing it? And whatever this problem is, it HAS to be resolved by the end of the story.

You should outline your story so the main character must have either other characters and/or situations -- preferably both -- that complicate solving their problem. Without the hills to climb, your story will be flat and pointless. Challenges create intrigue and demonstrate the cleverness and/or determination of the protagonist.

Act One establishes the main character, their problem, and creates the obstacles. It lays the groundwork for the entire book. You have to end Act One with a springboard into Act Two because you need to catapult the reader from the section that establishes your story into the meat of the book. The meat is Act Two.

VT: What's the springboard?

Laurel: The springboard is not the major obstacle but a "wow moment" -- a twist or complication or something that propels the main character and the reader into solving the issue at hand. This brings you into Act Two, the core of your story, where everything important takes place. Act Two is where you delve deeper into the main character, creating obstacle after obstacle for them to overcome. You peel away the proverbial onion layer by layer until you hit the center, which is the "sting" or the end of Act Two. You start Act Two at around 40 mph, but you want to end it at 70 mph.

VT: Can you explain "the sting?"

Laurel: It's the "Oh My God moment." It's the guy hanging, literally, off a cliff. It's the character in jeopardy. It's the make or break moment that carries you into Act Three -- and that Act starts at 70 mph. You MUST keep that momentum going. You want to keep those pages turning and turning because what happens -- as we all know from novels we've read -- is the story often falls apart in the last 80 pages. How many times have you heard this: "I loved the book but the writer didn't know how to end it." Well, that's because the book was poorly conceived and poorly outlined. But if you chart your novel, this won't happen -- and it won't take away from your creativity. You still have to write creatively. You still have to know what you're doing as a writer.

VT: It boils down to a good story in the end.

Laurel: Right. Charting your novel works and what's great about it is that once you have this vessel, as I like to call it, then you have the freedom to create. You pour your structured creativity into that vessel.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 13th 2007, 4:06 AM
Comment by: Eric B.
Very practical article, I also write in my spare time and have applied the same three Act structure to my novel.

One great product offering for writers would be to build a visual map (in visual thesaurus hub and spoke format for instance) of the different aspects/steps to follow when writing a novel. Clicking on a node would take you to a particular piece of knowledge or article written on the subject.

I am doing just that for my current project using excel and the linear format of a bus/subway map, where each bus stop/subway station hyperlinks to a Word file or a detailed spreadsheet regarding research, outline, characterization or plot. You end up with an overall map of your project subdivided into smaller, workable pieces that makes it easier to keep track of the whole project and makes it more likely to complete.

Best regards,

Eric Bernard
Wednesday June 13th 2007, 11:21 AM
Comment by: J. R. S.
We help our client corporations establish, maintain and evolve their most valuable asset; their culture(s). Every organization has one, and all of them are unique -- but all cultures have the same "formulaic building blocks: Communication, Sales, Management and Strategy. We teach the use of "spatial templates" to "format" the development of stories, management plans, sales efforts and long term plans -- first because the spatial template makes it easier to conceive than "texting" and second, because the spatial template "makes the formula into a form."

For those who take issue with formulae. we have a simple response: everything in life works from a formula! There's a formula for a bad story: nothing happens, there's no charater development and there are no dramatic peaks and valleys -- the complete absence of color. Bad stories are all following the same formula. A good story formula is just the opposite, and sticking to the formula eliminates those creative failures! The formula leaves room for the nuances that skilled writers, storytellers and corporate consultants all aspire to create!

Wednesday June 13th 2007, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Nur Aysegul G.
extremely practical-loved the article, thanks so much!
Wednesday June 13th 2007, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Danna W.
Great advice! This information will be helpful as I work on my writing projects.


~Danna Suzanne
Wednesday June 13th 2007, 6:19 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I have read Laurel Dewey's "Protector" and loved every bit of it. I found her interview so intriguing that I got her book out and broke it down as she discussed with the 25/55/20 rule she incorporated. Even though it's the published book and not the manuscript, the story peak points and clear Act I, II and III were evident. Her novel was so engaging that it NEVER felt like a formula was being incorporated...just great storytelling that kept me turning the pages. I can't wait to read her next book. When is it coming out??
Wednesday June 13th 2007, 6:27 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
GREAT article. As someone who studied screenwriting back in the day, I can attest that this "formula" works like magic as long as you've got a good writer dropping the right creativity into the vessel. I'm so tired of reading books that either go nowhere, have characters with no real problems, and wrap it all up in a ridiculous manner that defies logic. I often wonder how many authors seriously do not know how to end their stories and just hope that they'll come up with a decent idea by the time they have to send in their manuscript. I've enjoyed all the interviews with Laurel Dewey and I am ordering her "Protector" book today.
Wednesday June 13th 2007, 6:29 PM
Comment by: LT.COL. DON V.
Excellent ! please have more interviews like this -- it
is story-telling in a great teaching way .
it helped my new book in one hour and the numerical
breakdown was superb . You made my month !
Lt.Col. Don Valentine President Society of Vietnamese Rangers
co-author { BLACK TIGERS : Pictorial History of Vietnamese Rangers
and their Advisors }
Thursday June 14th 2007, 1:16 AM
Comment by: Michael B.
Wonderful advice, invaluable direction and just what I needed to understand. It comes at the perfect time for me.

Thank you, Laurel, and thank you folks for interviewing her and asking her these questions.

Thursday June 14th 2007, 5:14 PM
Comment by: Stan M.
Good, practical advice. I use this structure (I prefer not to avoid the "f" word) in my fiction writing.

Stan Mays
Author: Wicked Little Camp Story
Friday June 15th 2007, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Marilyn L.
Great interview, concise, informative and practical. This is a great tool for writers. I will certainly use it on my current project. Thank you for sharing.
Sunday June 17th 2007, 4:20 PM
Comment by: John T.
Best structural path I have ever read. Thank you.
Monday June 18th 2007, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Gary B.
Wednesday July 11th 2007, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Amy W.
I do wonder whether War and Peace, Moby Dick, or Remembrance of Things Past can be broken down in this practical way.
Thursday July 12th 2007, 10:12 AM
Comment by: christopher P.
I don't imagine that Laurel Dewey claims to be offering us the universal structure for all stories of all kinds, but simply something which works for the kind of novel which she writes so successfully.

For something which does claim to be universal, there's Christopher Booker's wonderfully well-informed and entertaining survey: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It deals with plots, not structure, but all the better for that.
Monday September 19th 2011, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Michelle A. (Auckland New Zealand)
This article really worked for me in a huge way. THANKS.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 10:31 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Fascinating interview!
Monday January 23rd 2012, 8:02 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Great interview!
Sunday August 7th 2016, 9:03 PM
Comment by: polymath
Thank you. Thank you. I will store these insights within the pages of Walter Mosley's book, This Year You Write Your Novel. I have never prided myself as a good reader and since my retirement in 2010, I have endeavored to remedy that. In the six years since then, I have jumped in leaps and bounds in the art of reading with the help from great writers and the reading of great literature. Your article here will be added to the tomes the fill my bookshelf.

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