Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Using the narrative funnel

with 3 comments

A funnel

Good stories, whether the length of a joke or an epic fantasy series, tend to fall naturally into threes. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something satisfying about the basic structure of a beginning, middle, and end that makes it useful even for narratives that don’t follow conventional plots in other ways, which is why I tend to structure everything I write, from the level of an entire novel to individual scenes, with a threefold structure in mind. This also appeals to my obsessive, orderly side, which loves all forms of symmetry—hence the fact that nearly every post on this blog falls neatly into four paragraphs of roughly equal length. Yet it’s a mistake to think of a story as a neat triptych, in which every section takes up approximately the same number of pages. Such a structure might look good in an outline, or on a stack of index cards, but in practice, a reader reaching the end of a long novel is likely to be grateful when the final section moves quickly to its conclusion. Even if Part III is exactly the same length as Part I, when it’s being experienced by a reader looking forward to the last page, it tends to feel much longer.

Instead, it’s often best to structure a novel like a funnel, with a relatively lengthy opening followed by a shorter second act, topped off by a swift climax. Planning a novel using this kind of structure—which shouldn’t be confused with the inverted pyramid—has a number of benefits. A good book, at least in the suspense genre, ought to feel as if it’s accelerating with every page, and a funnel structure bakes this kind of momentum into the shape of the story itself. The funnel forces you to be more concise when it matters most: by the end of the novel, there isn’t time for digressions or diversions from the main line of action. It keeps you from wasting too much time on denouement. And it brings the story more rapidly to the last page at a time when even a sympathetic reader is likely to be feeling a little tired. This is why many of the best suspense novels become increasingly compressed as the story unfolds, not just in terms of raw page count, but in narrative time: the first part may cover a period of many days or weeks, while the conclusion takes place over the course of a few hours, so that events, rather than unfolding successively, seem to be happening all at once.

Funnel physics

This kind of structure is beautifully obvious in a novel like The Day of the Jackal, which remains, on most levels, the single best template for any suspense novelist to follow: the second and third parts are each about half the length of the one before, and its conclusion unfolds across forty tense pages. The same structure works in all kinds of genres: you see it in novels as different as The Collector and Pet Sematary. It’s also standard in screenplay format, in which about thirty pages tend to be spent on Act I, fifty on Act II, and something like twenty-five on Act III, although for novels, I’ve found that it’s usually best if your second act is a little shorter. (After all, everyone has second act problems.) And even if you’re more of a gardener than an architect, it’s usually a good idea to look back at a manuscript to see if it can be nudged into this sort of shape. If nothing else, it helps to give the story the appearance of momentum, and as in most other forms of faking it, once you’ve done what you can to impose this structure from the outside, you’ll often find the story shifting to accommodate it in subtle ways.

As a result, this is the structure I’ve ended up using for all of my novels, initially by accident, but increasingly in a more systematic fashion. The Icon Thief fell naturally into this kind of form: Part I covers about ten days of narrative time, Part II slightly less, and Part III only one day, not counting the epilogue. City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire both do the same, partially because I reverse engineered them to look and move more or less like their predecessors, but also because the structure just works. It also has surprising benefits for the novelist. After wading through hundreds of pages of material in various drafts, the writer, even more than the reader, is likely to want to wrap things up as soon as possible, and I can tell you from experience that it’s nice to know that you only have ten chapters left to write, rather than twenty-five, once you reach Part III. In short, the funnel structure in fiction works a lot like a funnel in real life: it gathers up a large amount of material and concentrates it down to a nice tight line. It’s a useful thing to have in your bag of tools.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. why do action movies so often have interminable third acts, with chase and fight scenes piling on top of each other until you’re finally just bored with the whole thing?


    January 9, 2013 at 4:14 pm

  2. The only thing more common than a second-act problem is a third-act problem.


    January 9, 2013 at 4:57 pm

  3. Thank you. I was trying to explain this the other day. Your point, ‘When there isn’t really any time for that nonsense…” at the conclusion, made all the difference in the world. dp

    Daniel Pearse

    December 12, 2018 at 9:34 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: