If ever (or, should I be honest and say ‘the next time’?) you’re watching a hokey standard-issue romantic comedy movie and you get to the inevitable scene where boy and girl have a tearful break-up, look at your watch. You now know you are exactly two thirds of the way through and can therefore predict to the minute when the movie will end.
This is because movies like this follow a three-act structure. Act 1: the heroes indicate dissatisfaction with an established status quo and take action to rectify it; the story could end there with their situation slightly improved, or at least the end being in sight. But then, Act 2: it all goes horribly wrong and they reach their lowest point, worse off than when they began. Finally, Act 3: they rally and fight back, and things end even better than before.
The three-act structure is not the only one available; others may apply. This page on Screencraft.org has a pretty useful summary of other choices used in many movies, with examples that you may have seen. The point is that a story must have a structure, in some recognisable form. It’s not just movies; it also applies in writing, though in a book the transitions and turning points can be done far more subtly. Maybe halfway through a chapter or even a paragraph, and certainly more subtly than the requisite tearful break-up two thirds in.
The three-act structure is very easy, both for authors and readers, which is why romcoms use it. No one goes to see one expecting a non-linear Tarantinoesque cerebral workout (although, if Tarantino did make a romcom, I would definitely watch it). But that shouldn’t be held against it. The same trick works for The Lord of the Rings (book and movies), the three original Star Wars movies (both within the individual stories, and the trilogy as a whole) and many more.
Whatever structure the storyteller uses, it can be done well, or it can be done badly, but it must be done somehow.
This is where so many would-be writers come unstuck. Many people think (rightly) that they have an interesting story to tell – maybe fiction, maybe factual, maybe a bit of both, with one based on the other. And so they sit down and start to write. Then they get bogged down, because any story has to be more than just straight reportage of facts.
There must be a sense of purpose that carries you from cover to cover. Scenes must be linked to draw the reader inwards and onwards. Readers don’t read as a favour to writers; writers write as a favour to the readers.
This basic fact of writing can be hard to swallow. Your story is so personally yours that you can’t see how anyone else can fail to grasp the wonder of it. Or, you may feel that you can’t alter the flow of the story, hide facts or elide scenes because it happened this way, dammit!
Which is precisely why it helps to have someone on your side who isn’t quite as invested as you – someone who can take a step back and view it both as a reader and as a writer. An editor will perform this service on the completed manuscript, assuming you ever do get it completed and in front of an editor’s eyes. But why not get someone in at the start who can work alongside you and streamline the whole process of turning in a readable manuscript in the first place?