The Publishing Room
Maintained by Raymond Long. Disclaimer: any information on this website could be wrong.
Story is structure. Structure is built through arranging scenes into sequences and sequences into acts.
A scene should build in dramatic intensity along its length, and end with a scene climax
near its end which is the most dramatic part of the scene. The scene climax should have a
dramatic reversal. In an up-ending scene, a dramatic value is
negative through most of the scene but turns to positive at the end, eg. the protagonist is
in danger during the scene, but it ends with the protagonist safe (having escaped or conquered).
In a down-ending scene, a dramatic value is positive through most of the scene but turns to
negative at the end, eg. Jack and Jill are falling in love, they finally admit their love for
one another, but then at the end Jill's father tells her that he's arranged her marriage with a fat
rich old man.
A sequence is a number of scenes, typically 5 or 7. Like a scene but on a bigger scale,
the sequence builds in emotional intensity to a sequence climax during the last scene of
The scenes in a sequence alternate in dramatic value. An up-ending scene is followed by a
down-ending scene. A down-ending scene is followed by an up-ending scene. The dramatic value (up- or
down-ending) of a sequence is the dramatic value of its climacitc final scene.
The scenes at the start of a sequence should be less emotionally intense and longer.
As the sequence progresses, make each subsequent scene more intense and shorter. The final scene of the
sequence is the sequence climax. This should be the most emotionally intense scene in the sequence, but
it should be longer than the short scenes which built up to it.
Word count of scenes. The ideal for a sequence of 5 scenes is this:
Scene 1: 1,800 words
Scene 2: 1,500 words
Scene 3: 1,200 words
Scene 4: 900 words
Scene 5: 1,800 words
Sequence total: 7,200 words in 5 scenes
Average scene length: 14,400 words
I must stress that these are only rough targets, but when you're doing this for the first time it
really helps to try to stick to these word count limits.
Changing the scene lengths is the fundamental tool of changing story pace. You could write the
same sequence with each scene only having half the words, giving twice the pace. Having lots of long
scenes means a dragging pace. But beware of going too fast as well of going too slowly.
Your audience needs to draw breath sometimes, which is why we have slower, less intense starts to sequences.
Drafting scenes. When writing first draft, only write 2/3 of the target word count,
because you'll always need to add more words. Write only the "meat" of the scene, which is relevant to the plot.
In the second draft, you add, delete and re-order scenes as required to make the story work.
Once you have all the scenes you need in the right order, you can add linking text to get the story from
the end of one scene to the start of the next.
The dramatic value (up- or down-ending) of a sequence's climax scene is the dramatic value of the
The Three Act Structure
As alternating up- and down-ending scenes build into sequences, so alternating up- and down-ending
sequences build into acts. The classical model for building a story that keeps the audience gripped
is the three act structure. This isn't the only way to build a story, but if you've never built
a story before this is a good place to start.
This is the archetype of an up-ending three act story:
FIRST ACT: up-ending
The Protagnoist goes through some bad times, but ends up with short-term victory.
- Before the plot begins: The Protagonist starts with a life that isn't that great
but isn't that bad either, and is stable.
- Inciting Incident: The Threat is introduced. In The Lord of the Rings, this is
Frodo inheriting the Ring from Bilbo. The inherent danger of bearing the Ring will soon plunge
Frodo into danger.
- Point of No Return: The Protagonist's life loses its stability - things cannot go back to
how they were. In The Lord of the Rings, this is the Black Riders coming to the Shire to find the Ring.
Once the Riders appear, staying in the Shire isn't a viable option.
The Inciting Incident and Point of No Return can be identical, eg. the Protagonist loses his job.
- First Act Climax: The Protagonist gains temporary freedom/respite/safety (up-ending).
In The Lord of the Rings, this is Frodo getting the Ring safely to Rivendell.
In Star Wars, this is Luke and Obi-Wan escaping Tatooine aboard Millennium Falcon.
SECOND ACT: down-ending
Protagonist and Threat struggle against each other, coming up with strategies and counter-strategies.
- The Big Surprise (also called Mid-Act Climax):
Something new and shocking is revealed which sends the story off in an unexpected direction.
This will typically be a down-ending sequence climax. It should make things seem worse.
It should be a genuine surprise, not a predictable plot-iceberg visible from afar.
- Second Act Climax: Things are left looking very bleak, as if there is no way that they
Protagonist can prevail against the Threat. This is the climax of the last sequence of the Second Act.
FINAL ACT: up-ending
The Protagonist comes up with a strategy to defeat the Threat once and for all. This is an active
Protagonist taking the initiative. The stategy could be brilliant or insanely brave, but in any case should
be risky. This is the last desperate throw of the dice. If it fails, the Threat will win.
- Final Act Climax: The Protagonist ends up squarely facing the Threat in a confrontation which must
leave either the Protagonist or the Threat clearly victorious over the other. They struggle and the
The First Act sets up the whole story and the Final Act clears up the whole story.
The Second Act is for everything else, and is usually the longest act. Get everything that the book needs to do
- the "meat" of the plot -
done by the end of the Second Act, so that the Final Act is clear to deal with its main business: giving
the story a satisfactory ending.
By the end of the First Act, you should be into what the book is really about: the central conflict between
Protagonist and Threat. The nature of this conflict will generally appear in the blurb of a book, so don't try
to put a big surprise in before the nature of the central conflict has been revealed. For instance,
if your book is about fighting vampires, it will be sold as a book about fighting vampires. You can't make it
a surprise to the audience that vampires exist.
The Two Act Structure
A shorter piece such as a novella
may not have space for the full three acts, so there are only two: the down-ending First Act
and the up-ending Final Act. Here the First Act Climax must be down-ending, so the short-term victory of the
three act structure is absent. Instead the First Act Climax takes on the function of the three act structure's
Second Act Climax, with disaster seeming inevitable. This low then acts as the spur for the Final Act involving
the Protagonists's desperate gamble to win, just like in the three act structure.
The down-ending First Act Climax can also be a Big Surprise, making things seem worse than previously thought,
and can be the Point of No Return. It can be both.