Guest post by Ian McHugh

When I set out to write a first novel (or, rather, to finish writing a novel for the first time, having started and abandoned several), I had been writing and selling short stories for a number of years and was conscious of the vast difference in breadth and complexity of storytelling from shorts to novels. Perhaps too conscious.

I wanted to write an Australian novel and, specifically, I wanted to set it in a magical, colonial-era alternate Australia that I’d been developing through some of my short stories. So, I started looking at historical events that I could fictionalise. This was a mistake. Why? Because real life is way more complex than fiction.

I had settled on an alternate history of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion, in Ballarat, Victoria in 1854, in large part because of the ready-made set of larger-than-life participants. The problem was that these events had far more players, major and minor, than I – as a first time novelist – could comfortably manage, far more that most writers who aren’t George R. R. Martin would ever create to populate a story that is entirely fiction. The result was that, even after massively cutting and consolidating real-world characters and their interweaving threads for my fictionalised story, I still ended up with a first draft that was 229,000 largely meandering words of a 100,000 word novel.

Which isn’t to say that you should never set out to write a historical novel or, as in my case, a fantasy novel that jumps off from real historical events.  Historical fiction and alternate history are both thriving genres and many writers deliver those stories very well. (Have you noticed how historical novels have a tendency to be big fat books, though? And yes, Mr Rutherfurd, we’re looking at you.) Rather, this was a bad decision for me.

So, what went wrong?

In a word: structure.

In more words: I didn’t have a strong enough structure, or even a strong enough understanding of narrative structure, to keep my story under control. I think it’s very easy to dismiss formalised ideas of narrative, like the 3-act structure (particularly as it tends to be implemented in Hollywood blockbusters) as formulaic. I think that’s a mistake. These formulas and archetypes of story exist because they work. They should be treated as tools, in the same way that the colour wheel is a tool for an artist trying to give balance to a painting, or it’s useful for a musician to know that particular chords or sequences of notes stimulate certain emotional responses.

I’ve written elsewhere about how movies (using the example of Star Wars) use this act structure formula effectively, but just because you’re building your story on a formalised skeleton doesn’t mean your story has to appear formulaic. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is an example that sticks in my head because it presents, for much of its length, as a rambling – albeit very entertaining – pretext for Gaiman to transport his characters around different parts of the American cultural milieu and make social commentary. It was only towards the end, after I suddenly realised that I had just read all of the archetypal dramatic highpoints that mark the close of a second act, that I looked back through the book and found that, yes, it fitted perfectly to a formal 3-act structure. And yet, if I hadn’t been acutely conscious of act structure at the time I read the book, I probably wouldn’t have realised that’s what I was reading.

And, of course, none of this is to say that you must slavishly adhere to the 3-act or any other kind of structure. Even if you use an act structure, there’s a fair degree of elasticity in its application. 3-act novels will often have acts that are closer to 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 of the story. A revenge story like The Count of Monte Christo or Die Hard might dispense with acts one and two within the first 50 pages or 15 minutes and then the rest of the story is just an extended third act – the planning and execution of the final battle. Most short stories skip part or all of act one, and often a chunk of act two. But the point is those decisions to mess with an archetypal structure work best when they’re conscious and the writer has tested them against the needs of their story.

If you plan to write a 100,000-word novel, then planning your story onto a formal structure can be a big help to getting there. For example, you might say, “I’m aiming for 100,000 words to finish this story, so that means if I use a 3-act structure I have about 25-30,000 words to establish my hero’s normal life and then completely trash it. In that 25-30,000 words, I need to establish my hero’s strengths and weaknesses, their wants and needs, what they have to lose and what will hurt them and put it all at risk. I might want to articulate the theme of my story somewhere in there and by about 10,000 words I need to have set my hero on the path to the end of their normality. Righty-o then.” And then you set about doing it.

Similarly, when you come to editing and re-drafting, if you’ve written your first draft and it’s not working, map it onto a 3-act (or 2-act or 5-act or some other) structure and see how well it fits. Put a word count on where you want the story to end and work back from there. In storytelling, ultimately, there’s no escape from having to rely on your own best judgement of what your story does and doesn’t need. But you can equip yourself with tools that make those judgement calls easier, and a formal narrative structure is one of those tools.