Geeking Out Over the 8-Scene, 3-Act Structure

I’m happy to be here on Eleri’s blog, talking about structure – particularly how I determined the structure of my serial novel, Master of the Opera.

I kind of geeked out over this, because a serial novel has an overall arc, as well as an internal one contained in each episode. I set out to write six episodes of approximately 15,000 words each, for an overall story total of ~90,000 words.

The skeleton of a story is important to me, because I’m not a writer who pre-plots her books. I don’t know exactly what will occur in my stories until I write them. However, I do follow the classic three-act structure. It looks like this:

Act I Climax – 25%
Midpoint – 50%
Act II Climax – 75%
Act III Climax – 90%

For Master of the Opera, I also wanted to draw on previous retellings of the Phantom of the Opera legend – primarily the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. For fun, I went through my version of the Broadway musical soundtrack, figured the length of each track, and calculated their position in overall score. This is what I got:

If you’re a fan, you’ll likely find this fascinating. I did. The major musical crescendos happen right on the Act climaxes or midpoint. I also divided up the score into six episodes, to mirror my six – so I’d have a feel for what should happen in each one.

For each episode, I calculated the internal structure. They all looked pretty much like this:

You can see I have my estimates which I then compare to the actual scene beats when they occur.

I also figured the numbers for the overall arc. For a 90,000 word work, they fall out like this:

Applied against the even divisions of the six episodes, I got this:

If each episode is ~15,000 words, I could pretty reliably predict where in each episode the overall arc beats occurred. Thus, with an overall word count of ~90,000 words, there is no major beat in episode 1 – it’s all intro. The first major beat, the Act I climax, occurs in episode 2, about halfway through, at around 22,500 words. And so forth.

What’s really cool is when the episodic beats are juxtaposed against those for the overall arc:

Thus, the midpoint of Episode 2 is also the Act I Climax overall. The end of Episode 3 occurs at the overall midpoint. The overall Act II and III Climaxes coincide with the Episodes 5 and 6 Act I Climaxes. Each of these overall beats drew thematically on the music occurring in those time frames.

By weaving the rhythm of the individual episodes into the overall framework, I was able to give Master of the Opera a cohesive driving plot for the entire novel, with each component episode containing its own rhythms and playing its melodic thread to contribute to the whole.

*previously published on the blog of Eleri Stone in 2014*