Jack Reacher Violates The Principle Of Aristotle
Since the time of Aristotle the writers of the world have struggled with three things:
1) The Dreaded Writer’s Block
2) Dramatic Structure
3) Finding time to write while still working their “day job”
(For the record: Aristotle’s “day job” was teaching. And believe me… he spent every second of his time tutoring that little brat Alexander wishing he was back in his study writing.)
Three epic struggles. But today I want to talk about the second one: Dramatic Structure.
What writer hasn’t Googled the infamous “three act structure” (thank you Aristotle) or the less infamous “Freytag Pyramid” (thank you Freytag)?
I’ll tell you the answer. Every writer who lived before the Internet was invented. How could they Google something before the Internet? But I promise you that they still spent some considerable amount of time thinking about the structure of the stories that they were writing.
So… what is the answer to the age old question of: How long should it take a book to really get to the good stuff? The main action? The second act?
The conventional wisdom on this seems to be that the first act of your three-act story should occupy the first 25%. From my own writing experience I can tell you that I’ve (unknowingly) violated this principle on a few occasions. From top to bottom through my books thus far the breakdown is as follows:
The Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency Book #1: the main action starts at (gasp!) approximately 30. 04% of the way into the book.
The Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency Book #2: main action at 30.35% (another gasp!)
The Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency Book #3: main action at 30.35% (and yet another gasp!)
The Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency Book #4: main action at 16.67%
The Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency Book #5: main action at 9.35%
The Wizards of Waterfire Book#1: main action at 17.67%
The Dragon of the Month Club Book #1: main action at 20.00%
(I didn’t plan to sit down this morning and perform detailed computations on my books, but there it is.)
And what have I learned from all of this? Well, other than my surprise at the fact that the first three Kitty Hawk books have a surprisingly consistent percentage starting point for the main action, I have also learned that numbers mean nothing. If you had told me this morning that my first Kitty Hawk book had the same percentage starting point for the main action as the two books that followed it, I would have said you were crazy. And that’s because it FEELS much longer in the first book, when, in fact, by the numbers it actually occurs earlier.
Which (finally) brings me to the point of this whole blog post. (I should have followed the three-act structure here, huh?)
So…. what do I personally think is the right time for a story to hit the main action? What feels right to me?
I suppose it depends on the story, but come close and I’ll tell you a little secret… I can tell you this because we’re friends now, right?
Lately I’ve been binge-reading Jack Reacher books and one of the things I love about them is that they get to the point almost immediately. And by “immediately” I mean sometimes literally immediately – like in the first or second sentence. (At 0.01% in other words.)
This completely violates the Aristotelian principles (not to mention the graphs and pyramids) and yet I love it. And I totally plan to do the same in some up-coming Kitty Hawk book.
Lesson learned. Forget the numbers. Forget percentages, graphs, pyramids and every other thing that tries to constrict how you want to tell your story. Because I promise you that no matter what you do, some people will love it, some will hate it, and some won’t even care. You can’t win. But you also can’t lose.
Go with what feels right.
And maybe THAT is the true Aristotelian principle.
About the Author
Iain Reading is passionate about Root Beer, music, and writing. He is Canadian, but currently resides in the Netherlands working for the United Nations.
Iain writes middle grade and young adult books. His published works include the Kitty Hawk Flying Detective Agency Series, The Wizards of Waterfire Series, and the dragon of the month club. To learn more, go to http://www.amazon.com/Iain-Reading/e/B00B0NGI6Q/
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