Some years back, I implemented a new system for submissions. I never look at unsolicited manuscripts anymore; I simply get too many, even though no one (okay, few people) would confuse me for a publisher. I had to put in some form of winnowing process. Many freelancers and small presses require a nominal fee, since even a simple five-dollar payment encourages people to make certain their manuscript is in good order before “wasting” their money.

I wanted a different process, one where no one had to send me money if I wasn’t going to definitely give them value in return. I also wanted to encourage writers to clean up certain common mistakes that I kept seeing over and over. (And over, and over . . .) They all had to do with structure. 

I was communicating with two authors yesterday and this morning on the subject. A lot of problems can be fixed by examining your story’s act structure. This is usually presented as three acts, and that’s the number I use in my standard lecture on the topic, but the standard Three Act Structure really looks like four acts, so I don’t usually care how many acts you use in your submission summary. I just care that you use them.

One of those two authors commented, as he went through another rewrite on his own, incorporating suggestions from others, that “It never ceases to amaze me how deviations from the standard story structure always wind up feeling unsatisfying to readers.”

That, right there, is why act structure is important, and why I require all authors to give me an under-400-word plot summary. The number of words wasn’t arbitrary. Since the standard Three Act plotline gives twice as much space to the second act as either the first or the third, you have a hundred words for Act One, two hundred for Act Two, and another hundred for Act Three. It becomes a tight fit for longer novels, but I don’t expect everyone to put every single plot point in the summary. I want to see the overall story before I ever take a look at the manuscript. I often spot problems that way.

Sure, I may not earn any consultation fees, but it’s faster for both me and the author, and the author either goes away happy with a minimum of effort on my part, or I earn his/her trust and we enter into a mutually-beneficial financial arrangement (also known as the Show Me the Money phase). Everybody wins.

I repeat (a lot!) that fiction has a challenge that real life does not. Fiction must make sense. In real life, we have messy stories all the time. Information comes to us out of order. We have unsatisfying endings more often than not. We have things happen that move our lives forward without being terribly dramatic or pivotal.

That’s precisely why fiction must be different. Fiction isn’t messy, because we’re tired of the mess in our lives. We read fiction to gain sense. We read fiction to expressly relax, unwind, and prepare ourselves for our own lives once more. This is what G. K. Chesterton talked about in his book Orthodoxy, in the chapter “Ethics of Elfland,” when he noted that while children can enjoy the same thing over and over, an adult cannot “exult in monotony.” We must escape to things that make sense, and so stories remind us of why the familiar things are important.

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Decades later, Tolkien made the same point:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?
J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

(Or, if you want an even more recent version with a good beat, might I recommend Marian Call’s song “Got to Fly“? If these concepts resonate with you, I think you’ll like it. Seriously, I just paused while writing this to listen to the whole song.)

A story’s structure is important precisely because of the need for escape. That structure isn’t confining, any more than one complains that a ladder is a more rigid shape than a climbing rope while escaping from a pit of snakes; if it gets you where want to go faster, then that’s the whole point. Similarly, an untamed jungle is truly natural, yet often not as relaxing as a well-designed garden.

Structure is important, because while it might be a bit more work for the author, it’s less work for the reader. It’s not because it makes it predictable; it’s because it balances the story and makes things happen with a rhythm.

And I would argue that it is less work for an author, precisely because of this reason. An author’s goal is to tell a story, and hopefully to tell a good story. A painter rarely complains about the frame, and while a sculptor might seek to defy gravity he can never ignore it.

And yet an author has a chance to do something with that structure that other artists rarely get to do. We work with pure words, one step closer to pure ideas. We are limited not by sight or materials, but by our audience’s imagination. Use that structure to invite them in. Understand how it works, and you can get them into unfamiliar territory. A world of pure imagination, as the candy-man said. They’ll climb that ladder into a new and fantastic land; they’ll relax in your garden of fantastic shapes and colors and smells. And they’ll invite their friends to come along and share it with them.