A writer friend and I were chatting last week about the challenges of structuring our novels. We wished for a paint-by-number set--and I said I'd try to create one. Herewith, the analysis of a book leads to this fill-in-the-scenes novel formula:
The Tip of the Iceberg [Act I]
Intro main character and his or her life situation.
The MC’s action in response to an external event hints at the internal conflict.
Action and reaction demonstrate a key personality trait that will drive the character’s decision-making process.
The reader is hooked because it’s clear from the conditions (rules of the story universe) that the story problem is going to be bigger than the temporary resolution adopted by the MC.
Regardless of the character’s desire, he or she cannot avoid the dreaded problem.
The MC prepares to rise to the challenge, but difficulties arise, reinforcing the MC’s apprehension about the size of the iceberg.
Into the Ocean [Act II]
The main story problem delivers the MC into a new world. (The MC may appear to have set aside or escaped from the main problem.)
New characters (allies and enemies) may be introduced.
The MC must learn new skills to complete the next task. His or her key personality trait sometimes helps but may hinder progress. The task may not appear to be aimed at solving the story problem.
Struggle for Survival
Setbacks and achievements give the MC the tools for battling the main problem.
Settings and skills will come into play later.
The MC advances in the new world. More tasks or challenges confront the MC as a result of his choices.
When the main problem looms, the MC chooses a perilous and circuitous path.
The MC now must solve a new problem related to the chosen path.
Again, a key personality trait drives his or her direction.
The mission is nearly thwarted, but the MC persists and self-reinforces the decision to forge ahead on this new path.
A Turn for the Worse
The MC’s choice creates more problems than it solves, and the MC must solve the new problems.
A bigger immediate problems demands the MC’s attention. It’s clear that the MC’s chosen path is flawed, and a new plan is needed.
Still in the Water
Yet another fail forces the MC to try another new solution.
Drowning Appears Inevitable
The obstacles appear unsurmountable. The MC’s actions have forced him or her into a dead end with no way out.
Everything Goes Wrong [Act III]
The MC’s failed efforts force a climax. Consequences apply.
Character Saves Himself by Learning to Swim
MC recognizes the ultimate solution to the main problem, adopts it, and lives happily ever after.
That's all there is to it! Except I don't believe a formula works. In the end, each writer has to walk his or her own path.
What about you? Have you ever tried to create a formula, or follow one?