Sorry to disappoint the people that were coming here today expecting Part 3 of my Suspense Series. I had previously been expecting to write about creating suspense in the beginning, or first part of your novel. However, before we look at that, I realized that we have to answer a question first. What IS the beginning of a novel? Aka–when we have the three parts–beginning, middle, and end–how do they fit together and what defines the transition of one part to another? While I contemplated explaining this in the introduction to Part 3 of my series, the more I thought about the task, the more I realized a whole post would have to be given to it. So here we are. We’re taking a short interlude to discuss the three stages of a novel before looking at how to create suspense in those three stages.
So what do the three stages of a novel look like, and where do they come from? Separating a novel into three parts is nothing new. Aristotle was the first to theorize about the three different parts of a novel, but this concept has continued to be discussed in the modern times, with some accepting and others rejecting Aristotle’s claim. Two of the most popular ways of splitting the novel are the Hero’s Journey structure, promoted by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the three-act structure. Personally, I think there are things to value from each of the ways, so while this article will be mostly looking at the three-act structure, I heavily recommend reading into the Hero’s Journey structure. (I personally suggest reading The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, to best understand it.)
The three-act structure is pretty simple: Exposition, Confrontation, and Resolution. We’re going to look at each of these three parts before giving some examples.
1) Exposition. This is the first part of the novel. Basically, the goal of this part is to explain everything to the reader: introduce the setting, introduce the character, and most importantly, introduce the conflict. By the end of this part, the goal is for the reader to understand the basic premise of the book and what it’s going to be about. You don’t want the reader to get to the end of the first act and still have no clue what the goal of the protagonist will be. As you transition to the 2nd Act, you generally want some climactic act to signify the transition. This is often the decision of the MC to leave “home” (or whatever the status quo of safety is for him) in order to accept the challenge and seek to resolve the brewing conflict.
2) Confrontation. This is the second and longest part of the novel. Basically, here the protagonist is slowly trying to accomplish his goal and resolve the conflict. The protagonist will be facing multiple setbacks and obstacles that are getting in the way of his objective. Usually in the middle of this act, there will be some great climactic point/game-changer that will bring the protagonist to his lower points. (For that reason, this act is sometimes split into two). By the end of this part, a climactic event will act as the transition into the climax of the novel.
3) Resolution. The big battle–the big moment–the resolution of the entire book. This part is generally the most intense and with the highest stakes where the protagonist ultimately defeats the antagonist and resolves the conflict before the story slowly winds down. This part is fairly simple. Defeat all the opposition and bask in the victory (assuming you’re not writing a Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy or anything like that…)
So there’s the three stages of a novel. Over the next month, I’ll be looking at each stage and seeing how to put suspense into each part. But let’s move from that to some examples of how this works in actual books. [SPOILER ALERT]
Lord of the Rings, unfortunately, isn’t as simple as just dividing the three stages into the three books. Doesn’t really work that way. Act 1, IMO, runs from the beginning until the Council of Elrond. After the Council, the plot for the book is finally setup (although it was hinted at after Chapter 2) as well as all the main characters. Act 2 runs from there until basically the end of The Two Towers. We possibly have the midpoint twist with the breaking of the fellowship at the end of Book I despite the fact that it isn’t near the middle of the story. Act 2 then (arguably) ends with Frodo taken away by the orcs and all seeming lost. Act 3 is then the destruction of the Ring and the subsequent destruction of Sauron. Although I’m open to debate/discussion on alternate ways to separate LotR into the three acts, that’s my suggestion.
The Hunger Games, likewise, isn’t easily divided by the three parts of the book. IMO, Act 1 runs from the beginning until some point just after they get off the train at the Capitol. Basically, once they both know they’re contestants AND Katniss begins to play mind games about how she should treat Peeta since she’ll have to kill him in the arena. The action is setup, the characters are setup, and Katniss’ internal conflict is set up. Move onto Act 2, which goes through training and the actual Hunger Games. The revelation that two members of the same district can (supposedly) win serves as the mid-point twist. Act 3 begins when Katniss and Peeta resolve to hunt down Cato, with the main climax being when Katniss and Peeta are told that they have to kill each other, with political tension at the Capitol afterward sufficing as a second climax.
And that’s the three act structure, and two examples/suggestions of how to divide books into the three acts. There are many more examples that you could choose from, though. The Marvel movies often rigidly follow this structure, and you can find this structure in many books. Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are, if you disagree with my act divisions, and any other act division suggestions for other books you’ve read.