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The Six Act Two-Goal Novel

What makes for good drama is a constant.

To begin, we combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure joins "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story. We concur. 

NOTE: "Plot Point" is defined here as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In the genre novel as a whole, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: a first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax, but a surprise happens that resolves it in a way not expected.

Algonkian Writer Conferences developed the Six Act Two-Goal novel planning outline for all writers of novel-length dramatic fiction, regardless of genre, as well as narrative non-fiction. The point is to utilize a tightly plotted act structure, similar to that used by screenplay writers, to effectively brainstorm competitive and suspenseful plots for the genre novel (fantasy, SF, YA/MG, mystery, thriller, crime, historical, women's fiction, etc.). Upmarket or literary fiction utilizing strong plot lines also benefit (see examples below).

In the opening of a story ignited directly or indirectly by the antagonist, the protagonist(s) are focused to embark on their primary task, challenge, journey, or struggle (first major plot point), and thus follows a "first major goal" to win that struggle, thereby initiating the second act of the story (Syd Field model); however, by the middle of the second act or later, the protagonist(s) realize they have pursued the wrong goal. A second goal is now needed. The protagonist(s) are therefore forced to alter their course and struggle to accomplish a new and presumably more productive means-to-an-end. 

To put it simply, storming the walls didn't work and now the Trojan Horse solution is needed. Finding the wizard wasn't sufficient, now the little band of heroes must steal the Wicked Witch's broom. Acquiring a reasonably priced rest home for her mentally unstable father failed, now the impoverished daughter must prepare a room in her basement. Attempting to flee got his knees pulped by a sledge hammer, now the captive author must connive a more subtle and deceptive means of escape.

The fusion of the Siegal and Field models we outline below thus becomes a tighter six act model for the novel or narrative nonfiction. However, before you begin using the SATG, take note that your most important elements to sketch and produce from the onset are your:
 BTW, keep in mind that you construct your novel in units of scene, and every scene drives the plot line(s) forward.

NOTE: we use examples of novels, stories and films below that will likely be familiar to the widest range of readers. These include ANTIGONE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE HUNGER GAMES, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, GLADIATOR, THE GREAT GATSBY, WAR OF THE WORLDS, CATCHER IN THE RYE, CITIZEN KANE, HARRY POTTER, DA VINCI CODE, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE SUN ALSO RISES, COLD MOUNTAIN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and MISERY. But make no mistake, the rules governing the art of fiction, or good storytelling, remain steady regardless of genre, and have pretty much been fixed since Apollonius of Rhodes wrote about the Argonauts. And if you happen to be one of those writers who believes that writing a novel "your way" or simply "from the heart" or "only with my character's direction" means avoiding or denying the critical elements of commercial fiction and good storytelling found below, it‘s best to move on quickly from this page and seek the Elysium of your desire. All best wishes to you. 


Backstory to Set Up the Tale

You must carefully forge your backstory before you begin. Understand the issues below. This does not directly appear in the story except by use of flashback and via other methods to DELIVER EXPOSITION:
  • Writers set up the disaster that is coming in the story.
  • Forces need to already be in motion in order to create conflict for the characters.
  • Usually the emphasis for the backstory will be on the antagonist, but even protagonists carry baggage into the story.
  • Years and years of planning might have gone into the collision course.

ACT ONE (Page 1 - 30+)

Issues of The Hook: Protagonist Intro - Antagonist First? - Inciting Incident - Extreme Importance of Setting - Establishment of Characters - The MacGuffin - In Media Res - Crucial Sympathy Factors - Something Bad Happens - Exposition - Theme?

What needs to be done from the start? Why is the hook of Act I critical to this novel and to being taken seriously as a writer?
  • The author showcases their BEST PROSE AND NARRATIVE SKILLS. Opening scenes clearly use show-don't-tell effects to render the protagonist and major characters as necessary. Scenes themselves have clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Point of view is rendered masterfully on both a distant and close level. Narrative and story progression don't feel overly derivative, but rather fresh and suspenseful, definitely engaging. And btw, Algonkian Writer Conferences recommend you consider utilizing the SCENE STORYBOARD GUIDE at this point to sketch important scenes ahead of time (crucial).

  • Act I foreshadows the primary external conflict or complication (related to the protagonist goal in ACT II) to come.

  • SYMPATHY FACTORS in the first 20 pages, or fewer, are critical for connecting the reader with your protagonist. We must see the character playing out their role in active scenes. We learn about them, their strengths and weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and flaws, and we learn these things by virtue of their actions, various internal concerns and conflict, and in the way other characters react to them in real time (vital--set up SECONDARY CHARACTERS whose role, at least in part, it is to reveal the traits and inclinations of the protagonist).

  • Conflict begins on one or two of three levels (primary story conflict, inner conflict(s), and interpersonal conflict). THREE LEVELS OF CONFLICT.

  • Setting is established (and it must be one that works TO CREATE VERVE AND OPPORTUNITIES).

  • IN MEDIA RES may be employed here ("beginning in the middle"), ie, beginning where it most benefits the story, at a point of action, turmoil, or during a lively or curious event, etc.

  • Something bad, irritating or tension-causing usually happens (Chief Bromden gets electro-shocked in the CUCKOO'S NEST or Jake debates his impotency with his ex-girlfriend in THE SUN ALSO RISES) or has just happened (murder victim found in the mayor's plum tree).

  • An INCITING INCIDENT may take place that sets in motion events leading to the FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT (see Act II below). In the movie, GLADIATOR, Commodus murders his Emperor father (Inciting Incident) which inevitably leads to the Emperor's general, Maximus, realizing the murder. He defies Commodus and faces execution (Plot Point) as a result. In King's MISERY, the author protagonist gets in a car accident and is rendered helpless (Inciting Incident). Kathy Bates finds him and imprisons him in her house (Plot Point). In ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, McMurphy is sent to the asylum as a result of a fight (Inciting Incident) and later bets the inmates that he can shake up the Big Nurse and not get sent to the shock shop (Plot Point).

  • The author cleverly PARCELS IN EXPOSITION in a variety of ways, via narrative, dialogue, characters, flashbacks, etc. NOTE that all major exposition must be delivered before or during the scene wherein the FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT takes place. All information necessary to understand the story going forward must be known. Pardon the cliche, but exposition horse before the plot point cart at all times. In THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jake delivers the final round of exposition about his love, Brett Ashley, to his rival, Robert Cohn, just as Robert is making it known he wants Brett for himself. Jake reveals Brett's background and future plans (Exposition), and Robert indicates his plans for pursuing her (Plot Point).

  • THE MACGUFFIN, if any, might well be introduced or foreshadowed as an object (or even goal) which catalyzes the plot line, or at least assists creates a source of mystery or tension (THE MALTESE FALCON or the mysterious head scar on HARRY POTTER).

  • Something called THEME might well get a foothold here. Does the author have a message or a bigger point she or he wishes to portray in the plot, or by means of the character struggles, their conflicts and arcs, or perhaps by means of the setting itself? All the above? And theme doesn't have to be the exclusive province of literary or upmarket literature. Regardless, here are some great examples of theme from the dark classics. Please read and consider writing a "theme statement" for your own novel. It can't help but inform your work and make it richer and more relevant to the reader. 

    The ANTAGONIST AND HIS OR HER MINIONS (if any), are introduced to a meaningful degree, along with more characters as necessary, or sidekicks of the protagonist.

    Note to Writer: don't create a minor or major character who doesn't somehow play a role in the development of the plot(s) and/or the protagonist arc. And they must create a presence on the stage of the page, either by virtue of their personality, position, attitude of the moment, or all of the above. You must consider and weigh and sketch each character carefully. Imagine they are all in a film. Will they seem gratuitous or vital to you? Sufficiently energetic or too quiet?
The PRIMARY ANTAGONIST might remain a mystery (Lord Voldemort in HARRY POTTER), or be introduced first (the Big Nurse in CUCKOO'S NEST or the Opus Dei albino in DA VINCI CODE or the Wicked Witch in WIZARD OF OZ) to produce dramatic concern once protagonist accepts the goal.

NOTE: The above is a very important dramatic effect. If you understand to a meaningful degree the power of the antagonist, whoever she or he may be, then instinctive concern for the protagonist enters the reader's mind as soon as she or he accepts the goal in ACT TWO (see below).

ACT TWO (Page 10+ - 50+)

More Hook: Write the Story Statement - Establishment of Major Goal - Primary External Conflict or Complication Begins - First Major Plot Point and Plot Line - Protagonist Psychology - Rising Action

What's the mission? The goal? What must be done? Created? Accomplished? Defeated?

Defy the dictator of the city and bury brother's body (ANTIGONE)? Place a bet that will shake up the asylum (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST)? Do whatever it takes to recover lost love (THE GREAT GATSBY)? Save the farm and live to tell the story (COLD MOUNTAIN)? Find the wizard and a way home to Kansas (WIZARD OF OZ)? Note that all of these are books with strong antagonists who drive or catalyze the plot line going forward.

Note to Writer: If you can't write a simple story statement like above (which builds into your hook/log line) then you don't have a work of commercial fiction. Keep in mind that the PLOT LINE is an elaboration of the statement, of the primary complication. Also, look over the brief summaries of films and novels in the SAMPLE LOG LINES PDF. These contain the simple statement, but more elaborated into a short hook.

Necessary Preparation Steps for the Author: (members utilize the AAS technique guides)
  • Write the story statement. Make it clear.
  • Brainstorm necessary complications, reversals, and conflicts on all levels.
  • Write a short synopsis to reveal the major elements and clarify.
  • Sketch the plot line(s) with notes on the proper settings.
  • Write the hook/log line and listen to how it sounds.

The FIRST MAJOR PLOT POINT therefore takes place that establishes your protagonist‘s overall goal. In other words, the course of the action or plot changes, often drastically, and usually with a change of setting. Success seems possible.

The RISING ACTION of the story truly begins with the launch of the primary external conflict or complication. A means to achieve the goal is decided. The work begins, the war begins, the feet hit the bricks, the plan to reunite the lovers is initiated. The graph has begun to rise and it won't stop until after the CLIMAX.

In other words, the protagonist commits to the goal(s). But why? What is the motivation? What are the internal and external issues involved? She or he may go willingly into the situation because the alternative is worse, or to help an apparent victim. She or he may undertake the task not realizing the true dangers or complications ahead, out of ignorance. Another character might trick or push the protagonist into situation.

ACT THREE (Page 50+ - 250+)

Plot Line Evolution: Minor Reversals - Complications - Thee Levels of Conflict - Major Reversal Time - Plot Points - The Martians are Winning

The dramatic pursuit of the goal evolves.

The FIRST GOAL (the means to the end) within the master goal (the final desired result) is pursued (see STORY STATEMENT above), but this will eventually lead your protagonist to a firewall or dead end, or what is known as the MAJOR REVERSAL in the parlance of our times (Dorothy gets to Oz, but no Kansas until the broomstick is fetched). Members should utilize the AAS craft and technique guide modules.

NOTE: This act pulls out all the stops to create tension, angst, conflict, and issues for the protagonist and appropriate characters to resolve:
  • MINOR REVERSALS TAKE PLACE: protagonist(s) struggle, perhaps score small victories of one sort or another, but these are almost always reversed. For example, McMurphy organizes the inmates and theatrically pretends to watch the World Series in defiance of the Big Nurse, but she makes her will known later and punishes him (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST). The Wicked witch makes Dorothy and company take a poppy snooze right on the verge of OZ, and later, the Guard at OZ tells them no one gets in, no way, no how!

  • MINOR COMPLICATIONS TAKE PLACE: in other words, things happen that have a notable negative physical or emotional impact on the protagonist or those he/she cares about. These are not as strong as minor reversals, but action must be taken to overcome them. McMurphy takes the inmates out for a boat ride, but conflict at the dock with the boat captain and a need to make a quick escape takes place (ONE FLEW OVER). Meanwhile, Scarecrow hassles with crows, Tin Man is rusted, Lion overcompensates for cowardice, and Witch throws fireball. And know that "minor complications" can be fairly serious. In WAR OF THE WORLDS the major character had to bludgeon an insane curate to prevent him from giving away their hiding place to the Martians.
You get the picture. But how many of them? Good question. Assignment: open up and read three of the best novels in your genre that you can find. Analyze the scenes and pick out the reversals and complications. Make a list. Report back.

Whether upmarket or genre, MINOR COMPLICATIONS combine with MINOR REVERSALS to continually spike the narrative and story. It can't be easy for the protagonist and/or her companions. If too easy, you inevitably build to classic mid-novel sag. Tension runs out, wheels spin, and an inexperienced writer pads the middle with lumps of dull narrative and quiet situation. Ugh. "Best Wishes" rejection letter on the way. Off to a minor eBook publisher who will publish you if you have more than 100 Facebook members.

Note: as a bonus, complications and reversals also assist greatly in maintaining all three levels of conflict (see above).

Also, prior to climax, we may have a smart and strong reversal or complication which serves to introduce a twist or an unexpected event in the story (sometimes called a MIDPOINT CLIMAX).o

Pinch Points Reveal and Reinforce the Antagonist Aims

Pinch Points: an example or reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force that is not filtered by the hero's experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct way as a scene that provides a glimpse into the villain's mind. The antagonist reaffirms his or her goal to delay, injure, stop, crush, or kill the protagonist. The intent is manifest and the concern for the protagonist is elevated.

There should be two and situated near the 3/8 mark and the 3/5 mark in the manuscript. In ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST a pinch point takes place at the 3/5 mark when the Big Nurse informs the assembled hospital staff just what kind of cruel fate is in store for McMurphy.

Crisis Point or MAJOR REVERSAL = Second Major Plot Point
    We've already noted what happened to Dorothy. In Stephen King's MISERY, after the captive author protagonist has his knees sledge-hammered by Kathy Bates (God, that hurt!) to prevent him from trying to escape again, he knows he's been using the wrong means to pursue the master goal (ie, to escape). He must now reboot and choose another path, a second goal to achieve the master goal (escape). To accomplish, the author conceives a new plan of theatrical cooperation with his captor, the new goal within the master goal being to trick her into passivity and lure her into a trap whereupon he can knock her senseless.

    In general, at this point, backstory issues, mysterious strangers, twists and turns and events all point out that your protagonist is on the wrong track, and the antagonist graph is rising. The Martians are conquering Earth and the Big Nurse is slowly tightening a noose around McMurphy's neck.

    Once more, success seems possible.

    INTERNAL CONFLICT IS ON THE INCREASE ALSO. Of course, and so is interpersonal conflict. All three levels of conflict are rising! But back to the protagonist for a moment ... Why should she or he turn back now? Why doesn't he/she? What's at stake? Is there a DILEMMA? What makes your protagonist realize the unavoidable importance of her/his original goal? What gives it new meaning? Does someone die? Do the stakes raise? Does reputation suffer or threaten to diminish? We must have a answer. This is true drama. Storytelling at its finest.

ACT FOUR (Page 200+ - 375+)

Second Major Plot Point - New Rising Action and Suspense - Conflict Levels - Climax - Victory at a Cost

Opens with the SECOND MAJOR PLOT POINT as protagonist pursues the new and truly productive goal (the author of MISERY decides to write the novel Kathy wants in order to enact his new scheme to escape). The characters get that final clue, the missing piece to the puzzle, which allows them to make the necessary changes to successfully complete the plot line.
  • Success seems more possible than ever despite MINOR REVERSALS OR COMPLICATIONS which may continue to take place.
  • The final clue or missing piece to the puzzle is found.
  • Possible surprise or twist takes place (the traitor is revealed--or this is reserved for CLIMAX or DENOUEMENT)
  • All three conflict levels continue to build, however, some interpersonal conflicts may be resolved by this point.
This builds to CLIMAX, and the protagonist will usually win out over the antagonist, but victory or success must come at a price (such as the death of a favorite character: the sheriff in MISERY is killed by Kathy just before climax).

Climax should be the most intense plot point in the story, but the intensity and nature of that intensity depends on the needs of the genre and the nature of the story. While the climax is the moment when the decisive event occurs, plot development is a process that occurs throughout your novel (see above). As we've noted, the reader must see how main character behaves at the start of the novel, and understand how her/his nature is challenged by the main goal. In HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Huck thinks about going against morality of the day and writing Miss Watson where the Phelps family is holding Jim. Instead, he follows his conscience and he and Tom free Jim, and Tom is shot in the leg in the attempt (victory at a cost).

You can also have a double climax. For example, in HARRY POTTER, when the heroes find and escape with a magical hoarcrux, that's a climax, but a climax is when Harry finally defeats the chief antagonist, Lord Voldemort.

After the climax, you must show the reader the outcome, and how it is good or bad for the main character. Important!

ACT FIVE (Page 300+ - 400+)

Denouement - Loose Ends Wrapped - Theme Wrap - Conclusions - Resolutions - A Final Surprise?

Denouement wherein all loose ends resolved, a final surprise perhaps, hint of the sequel perhaps, but readers on their way with the emotions the writer wants them to feel (Fitzgerald actually saved final exposition regarding Gatsby for the denouement following Gatsby's death).

Internal Resolution and With Theme or No

What does the protagonist and possibly other characters learn as a result of climax? How does this manifest itself going forward? How are things different? How are they changed, especially the protagonist?

In CATCHER IN THE RYE, Holden leaves it ambiguous as to whether he's "better" or not, and many would say there is no "better" anyway; he just has to grow up, painfully and with a lot of depression thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, we look to the last line of the novel for another take on the conclusion: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Perhaps then, the conclusion to Holden's initial conflict (the tension between wanting to connect but hating everyone) is that he did in fact connect – in one way or another – with everyone he met. The new question isn't whether or not one should connect, but whether or not the pain of inevitable loss is worth the initial gain.

From SPARKNOTES, we have a slice of theme from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:
    The most important theme of this novel is the book's exploration of the moral nature of human beings--that is, whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. The novel approaches this question by dramatizing Scout and Jem's transition from a perspective of childhood innocence, in which they assume that people are good because they have never seen evil, to a more adult perspective, in which they have confronted evil and must incorporate it into their understanding of the world. As a result of this portrayal of the transition from innocence to experience, one of the book's important subthemes involves the threat that hatred, prejudice, and ignorance pose to the innocent: people such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are not prepared for the evil that they encounter, and, as a result, they are destroyed. Even Jem is victimized to an extent by his discovery of the evil of racism during and after the trial. Whereas Scout is able to maintain her basic faith in human nature despite Tom's conviction, Jem's faith in justice and in humanity is badly damaged, and he retreats into a state of disillusionment.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.



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