2–3 Thoughts on narrative structure (and The Fault in Our Stars)

I realized that when I write, I write in 6-act structures. This was a bit of a surprise to me since I intended to write in 4-part structures based off the four-act structure proposed by David Bordwell: Setup, Complicating Action, Development, Climax. My own 4-act structure was a little more split. In the first half, a challenge is set, met, and failed; in the second half, the challenge is reset, re-met, and beaten. But already this is six pieces…

I used to recommend the 4-act structure for college essays. In the first half, describe how a situation threatened to define you; in the second, describe you defined the situation. The easiest illustration of the 4-act structure is the classic sports movie.

Act 1, the challenge is set: A ragtag team of hilarious fat kids meet up, play ball, give each other shit, and decide to start their own team by training hard.

Act 2, the challenge is failed: the fat kids go up against a team of Aryan assholes who destroy them with their physical prowess and general assholeness.

Act 3, the challenge is reset: the fat kids, feeling defeated, decide to use their brains instead of brawn to think outside the box… what if their fatness is their strength? They start practicing some new moves.

Act 4, the challenge is fulfilled: the fat kids use their bodies to block and crush the Aryan overlords and defeat them with a hilarious series of one-liners.

Again, the 4-act structure is really a diptych: in acts 1 and 2, the situation defines the characters (they are fat kids and can’t escape that fact); in acts 3 and 4, the characters define the situation (they use their supposed weakness as their strength). The structure is applicable to other stories of personal triumph: 1. Kid finds they have a speech impairment; 2. Kid tries and fails to make friends with discriminating other students; 3. Kid realizes there are so many other ways of communicating; 4. Kid becomes beloved as visual artist.

Isn’t the American dream to have your personal identity forged in such a way that you can claim agency in the world around you — even over the forces that helped forge it in the first place? This, I thought, was the point of the 4-act structure: to show us how out-of-the-box thinking can help us beat unbeatable challenges. But then I started writing and found that in bifurcating stories at the midpoint, I was dividing them into not two, but three reflecting pieces.

I liked the 6-part structure because it allows for a variation on diptychs and triptychs: you can have an abcabc structure (diptych of two triptychs) or an ababab structure (triptych of two diptychs) or an abccba structure (diptych of inverted triptychs), and so on. My own preference was for the abcabc… and so, I discovered when I finally read The Fault of Our Stars in prep for my own YA piece, is John Green’s.

Green’s novel runs 313 pages in my edition, and if you break it into 52–53 page pieces, I think you can just about see the fulcrum points as he switches acts. Here’s the breakdown:

Act 1: Girl meets boy (a slight falling in love)
Act 2: Girl loses boy (slightly again: she pushes him away willfully)
Act 3: An adventure (w/a strange YA author!) brings them together again

Rinse, repeat. This time with feeling:

Act 4: Girl re-falls in love with boy on adventure (full romance now)
Act 5: Girl re-loses boy (this time for good)
Act 6: Girl must reenact the adventure w/strange YA author on her own

There’s a lot that’s exciting and moving about this structure: the way the second half replays the first with far fuller force; the way both halves invert the classic boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-again three-act structure; the way Green has inverted the triumphal diptych so that now they define the situation in the first half and are defined by it in the second; the way the second half doesn’t merely reflect but reverse the first half as if descaling back to its start (first half: independence/romance/adventure; second half: adventure/romance/independence). All of which ignores the subplot of a jilted-lover friend undergoing his own, contrapuntal narrative arcs in reverse of those above.

What’s most impressive, though, is probably just the way Green’s sense of daily suburban intimacies, interests, and challenges can make the story feel like a series of digressions, a chronicle of weekly obstacles met-and-fended-off… the way the lived-in feeling can make these structures seem organic rather than imposed.