Is your book readable? How to write and edit your books. Part one: The 3 act story and the 8 step narrative arc. by Fleur Butler

Writers are the very worst people to be able to look at their work objectively.  We are all so engrossed in our own prose, and our own characters we can’t see the dross and the heavy sentences for the light touch that is needed.  But you can improve your script, both as you write it, and when you come to do the first edit.  The only thing that is certain, is that if you think you don’t need to edit your book, you will never get it published.  Be brave, editing is not rejection but a creative process to be enjoyed.

So how can the blind author SEE their own book in a professional way?  I suggest various tools to help in learning the craft.   The sort of thing you would learn in a writing course about structure.

3 Act Story

The most obvious place is to start at the beginning. Will it grab your reader to get them past the first chapter? Then ask does your story have a good beginning, a solid middle and a satisfying end.  Read around the theory of the 3 act story on Wikipedia. Read the articles that are cited in there, not just Wiki’s take. Then try to divide your book into what chapters define the start, what is in the middle and what is at the end.  Where does the first act end? How long are the surprises in the middle. Is you last act long and slow, cumulating in a satisfying conclusion. Or short and sweet. Or a big bang?

If you can’t even do this, then you need to think why.  The 3 parts of the story do not have to be of the same size, but you should be able to clearly identify them.  If you are struggling have a look at the next tool that writers can use in structuring their stories.

The 8 step narrative arc, courtesy of Nigel Watts ‘s very readable and helpful book. Writing A Novel and Getting Published.  You can even buy his book on Amazon, but in short it goes like this

Act One

  1. Stasis- This is the background to your story and how the current situation look
  2. Trigger- What event sets the story going, the term used is “inciting event”. How does it all begin?

Act Two (if you are following the concept of beginning, middle and end)

  1. The Quest- the Trigger means your characters need to reach a goal or get to an emotional destination. What is their journey going to be in your story?
  2. Surprise- these are where the obstacles get in your characters’ way. They make the up the meat in the middle of your story. How many surprises have you got?
  3. Critical Choice- the story gets the main protagonist to choose a particular path so they complete their quest. Don’t forget to see if this fits in with both the main plot and any sub plot if you have one.
  4. Climax-the choice made should lead the story on to its high point of tension. The climax of the story: Can you identify yours?
  5. Act Three

7. Reversal- the consequences of the critical choice, how this changes your stories tension point

8.Resolution- A new point of stasis is achieved and the main protagonists have changed, or grown is some way.

These structures are what is taught. The modern novel increasingly is expected to follow some obvious arc.  It is how we have trained our readers to read, so don’t give them a nasty shock and follow an unfamiliar or unstructured story. They won’t read your stuff, or even finish the first few chapters. Help your reader by writing in a familiar way.

I wrote all my chapters on to an excel spread sheet, wrote what each chapter was about in a mini synopsis and what characters appeared in each chapter. I then tried to label each chapter both in terms of the 3 act story, and the 8 part narrative arc.  It really helped identify where my story dragged and where it flowed well.  Even though I had loved writing it, I removed a totally purposeless chapter of my character dithering as the story did not move on in it at all.  It served no purpose to the arc so it went.  I found at one point the quest and first surprise both were in the same chapter, which shows the tools can be quite flexible as long as you can show where each chapter is on the 8 stages.

For the dubious, the structure of a story has been debated since the Plato.  It went through a rough patch when the French philosophers Rolandes Barthes and others first tried to define the ultimate structure on modern novels, and then the post modernist existentialists such as Jacques Derrida and Michal Foucault talked it out of existence.

The versions above are the useful tools that ignore the arguments of whether a linear story is better than the non linear story, and which is more intellectually rigorous. This is merely dancing of angels on a pin head.

As a writer we all need to think how to communicate. If you can’t speak the language no one can understand you.  So ignore the debate and use the tools that help you become professional.  To show how valuable it is have a look at

TV tropes wiki, a very useful tool for writers, tv script, film etc

They talk about the stasis, the trigger, the climax etc. So if the professionals use the 8 step arc, so should you.

Thinking about the journey that the reader must go on is vital. We write to entertain and satisfy the reader, not to please ourselves.  So put the work in. It took me about a week.

See also

This entry was posted in Fleur's blogs, writing tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is your book readable? How to write and edit your books. Part one: The 3 act story and the 8 step narrative arc. by Fleur Butler

  1. Marianne Edwards says:

    So thrilled the tv tropes wiki is useful. Brilliantly structured too. I am a periodic table nerd!


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