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John Jenkins April 11


The April column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.

What's the big idea?

by John Jenkins

Ideas for stories begin in many different places:

A snatch of dialogue

A character

A title

Sometimes from a news fragment from TV or newspapers.

Whatever the start point, the crucial question – whether from Aristotle to Shakespeare or Sam Goldwyn to Stephen Spielberg is:

What’s the big idea?

Now comes the point for some extended thinking time. You need a notebook and a pencil. Whatever plan you use - step sheets, building blocks, a sequence of synopses for individual chapters, the three-act module - thinking time is the key to everything, even for those authors who claim they let the characters take over. What’s the big idea?

If you cannot answer that in one succinct sentence you haven’t got a story.

Let’s look at the Three Act Structure

The story arc is the principle narrative thread in a book or script, (although it may also refer to one of several coherent storylines in a game, as for example in TV soaps, or, serialised magazine stories). A story arc is an extended storyline that may weave several consecutive episodes together in narrative terms, while still allowing each individual episode to explore its own storyline.

Recent examples include The Sopranos and West Wing, where the layman will observe that several things are "going on at once." You might know this as a series of sub-plots which help to prevent the story from becoming one-dimensional.

An ‘arc’ evokes the idea of a curve, and with it the sense that the story arc takes the player on an emotional rollercoaster.

In fiction, character arcs - the emotional rollercoaster that the lead character lives through – can be seen in, novels, plays, short stories, films etc. As many authors have solemnly advised: a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end – the three act structure.

In the beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in and their goal.

Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their "normal" life towards some different conflicting situation that the story is about.

(Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1, instead filling it in with back story along the way.)


In the middle the story develops through a series of obstacles, leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises are temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis - the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. Some authors liken this to a series of waves ending with a Tsunami. Others say it is like a series of hurdles ending with Becher’s Brook.

The resolution of the climax is often referred to as Plot Point 2.


In the end, the climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it’s nearly impossible to sustain a reader’s interest very long after the climax. Finish your story and get out.

Tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett O’Hara said – or maybe another book.

The three act structure truly harks back to Aristotle and Greek tragedy.

Before the denouement can take place, there are two key features identified by Aristotle that are still important in any drama: anagnorisis, which can be translated as recognition or discovery, and peripeteia, or a change from one state of affairs to its opposite, a reversal of fortune.

The famous example used by Aristotle to illustrate his theory is that of Oedipus Rex. Once Oedipus, king of Corinth, has recognized that it was he who, unknowingly, killed his father and thus condemned the city to relentless plague, he puts out his own eyes and goes into exile, thus reversing his fortunes.

These dramatic events, or crisis points, can be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience, and the level of tension they feel through engagement with the characters as they ‘live out’ the story:

The Hero’s Journey

Another popular character arc is the Hero’s Journey, articulated by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern. The monomyth describes the structure of many classical myths, and also provides a structural starting point for many science fiction novels.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day-to-day living into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Several scholars, describe narratives of Buddha, Moses, and Christ in terms of the monomyth. The monomyth has influenced any number of artists, musicians, poets, and filmmakers, including Bob Dylan and George Lucas. J R R Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings can be seen as an outstanding example of the monomyth.

There are a vast number of variations on the three act structure. And if you want to explore the structure of the novel follow up Aristotle and Campbell with Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. I know of no better commentary on this subject, and more importantly, no volume which is easier to understand.

As a coda to this, some novelists find that they have arrived at the three act structure unknowingly after years of trial and error.

First steps for advanced participants:

Read a good summary of Aristotle’s Poetics and a selection
of material by a famous American professor, Joseph Campbell.
(note his influence on Dan Brown)


John Jenkins' February column dealt with the important topic - Creating characters.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:


The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.







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