Remember that diagram i showed you last time? Two things matter--the passage of time and the increase of tension.
Now let’s go back to that TV drama you’ve been watching. You’ll find the same elements, although they may be a bit more subtle than our “Three Little Pigs” episode (Or maybe not.)
1. There will be a hero, although she may be a heroine, or a group of heroes, like a SWAT team or an NCIS crew. But even if there are several heroes, they will all have the same goal (saving the patient, getting the bad guy, preventing an accident or crime, winning the court case).
2. There must be a villain like a serial killer or a deranged knife-waving maniac, but it may not be a human being at all. Think about a bomb primed to explode, an epidemic threatening a city, a dangerous storm heading our way, a gang of crooks targeting old folks, a corrupt political machine, or even a war.
3. Once the audience has met the heroes and villains, there will come an “inciting incident,” the first clue that “we have a problem.” And suddenly it’s time for a commercial, probably about 10-15 minutes into the program. Why now? Because you are invested in the story, you like the good guys, and you want to know how they will handle the threat. You’re not going to change the channel.
4. When we return to the program, the solution is fairly quick and easy. Whew! There may even be a bit of comic relief or human interest. But the relief is short-lived because a greater crisis occurs, one that ratchets up the danger level. Whoops! Time for another commercial break at the half-way point, to give you time to worry about the outcome.
5. That pattern will recur at least once, or maybe several times, but if you’re paying close attention, you’ll see that each crisis is worse that the one that came before it. The danger and the tension rise. More ads? Probably.
6. The Point of No Return will come when there are only a few more minutes left in the show. The bomb expert is ready to cut the wire. The surgeon is poised over the tumor with his scappel. The cops enter the room where the murderer awaits them. The jury returns with a verdict. And we pause to bring you a few words. . . because there’s no way you’re leaving now!
7. And then comes the conclusion, wrapped up in as few words as possible. There’s an emotional reaction, a final explosion or gunshot, and it’s all over.
You’ll see the pattern repeated over and over again in your favorite shows, but you’ll keep coming back to watch every week, secure in the knowledge that the good guys will win in the end.
And yes, books work in exactly the same way, although they may take longer to tell the story and there are no commercial breaks. But if you understand the pattern, you’ll spot the critical events just as easily. Effective chapter breaks can often work like commercials.
Does that mean all the stories have been told? Of course not. There are innumerable variations; every story is different. Do you have to follow the formula? No, you can do what you like. But your readers will expect you to follow the rules, and you ignore them at your peril.