Sunday, April 11, 2010

Go to the Movies--And Learn about Structuring Your Book

This week I made soup, because the weather turned unexpectedly cold. It was hot, 89 degrees, in the beginning of the week, but it hit 31 by week's end. We pulled out vegetables and turkey, curry powder and tomato sauce, and let everything simmer until dinner.

After dinner, we watched a movie. It was part of my assignment for the week, as I work on Act 2 of my next novel and a nonfiction book-in-progress. I love movies, but I love them even more when I watch them as a writer. I've always found movies the best way to learn about structure.

We decided to watch The Hours. You might remember it: It's based on the Pulitzer-winning book by Michael Cunningham; Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for her portrayal of writer Virginia Woolf. A complex film, it weaves three separate stories and eras into one amazing whole, a statement on the exquisite pain and beauty of human existence.

Even though I was easily caught up in the story, I have seen it enough times to be able to take notes. I wanted to see how the three stories dealt with Act 2, the hardest section of any book.

Why Act 2 Is So Hard to Do Well
I've edited hundreds of manuscripts over the years. I often find the reason a manuscript doesn't keep my interest is because of a shaky Act 2. The main reason is that the writer gets bored about midway through the book. Enough already, they think. Let's just get through this part--the climax is much more interesting.

But if the tension and complexity isn't accelerated just right in Act 2, readers won't stick around for the climax. It's impossible to hold our interest.

Act 2 is the bridge that connects your opening with your ending. It's the only thing holding us up in the air during the middle of your book. If it has a shaky center support, it will collapse pretty easily.

This is true in all genres. Consider the other favorite film for soup nights: the beautiful documentary, Rivers and Tides, about artist Andy Goldworthy.

Goldworthy "sculpts" with the transitory landscape, making his creations out of tree bark, leaves, rocks, a stream. In Act 1 we are amazed that anyone can do this. By Act 2, the amazement becomes a question: What does this mean to him, the artist? How can someone live with knowing their art will disappear within hours or days?

Act 2 shows us exactly this: Goldworthy's creations become more complex and more difficult as the film progresses. They are also more beautiful, because we listen to him talk about their transitory nature. How their beauty, for him, resides in how they change and die.

Back to The Hours. Soup bowls are empty now, we're on to dessert. Act 2 is meeting its viewer goals in a very satisfying way. Virginia Woolf has backed herself into a life corner and clearly must take action; her 1940s counterpart, Kitty, has booked the motel room and pocketed the sleeping pills; the modern-day poet Richard is sitting on the windowsill over Manhattan. Three possible deaths, impact for a lot of people. Will they go through with it? If not, what will happen instead?

Act 2 is hard because you have to think: How can I, the writer, deliver a new understanding of my story or material? How can I address these big questions:
1. How is the dream or quest manifesting in real time?
2. How is the main question being answered--or not?
3. How is the action of Act 1 taking on new meaning as the story progresses?
4. What bigger test is being imposed on the characters or reader?
5. What deeper challenge is the book's material suggesting, as a take-away?

This Week's Exercise
This week's exercise is a simple one. Pick a movie you love. Watch it again. But watch it from a writer's point of view. Try to answer these questions:

1. Where does Act 1 stop and Act 2 begin? There should be a precipitous moment, when things are newly in question, or when the main characters, having solved one problem, are presented with an even greater one.

2. Where does Act 2 take you, as the viewer? What greater challenge or question is presented during Act 2?

3. Can you tell where Act 2 ends and the final Act begins? What do you experience or feel by the end of Act 2?

Make some notes and apply this to your own writing. If you have a storyboard of your book, consider what you're learning about Act 2. Does it fit what you've designed for your book?


  1. There is always valuable gems in your advice - thanks! I'm going to try this :-)

  2. Thanks, Charmaine! I hope you have fun with the exercise!