MINNESOTA PEEPS: Owen Laukkanen will be in town talking about his book, CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, which is set in the Twin Cities, at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28th, at Once Upon A Crime Bookstore,604 W 26th St Minneapolis, MN 55405
STRUCTURE IN NOVELS
Kristi and I were emailing a few months back and she mentioned that while writing her (fantastic) first Gabriella Giovanni mystery, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, she studied the structures of other successful crime novels. She asked if I paid attention to that kind of thing in my writing, and whether I structured the novels in my Stevens and Windermere series according to some kind of overarching framework.
My first response was that no, I don’t—I kind of riff away at a story until the bad guys are caught and the good guys go home to their families. But the more I thought about the question, the more I realized that I do hew to a certain framework, even if by this point it’s largely subconscious.
If you’ve ever studied screenwriting (especially Robert McKee), you’ve heard of three-act structure. Me, I learned it from Syd Field. He’s the guy who writes those screenwriting workbooks that promise to lay out a step-by-step template that’ll have you writing blockbusters in no time. The template? Your basic three-act structure.
Basically, the idea is that just about every commercially successful movie in Hollywood can be broken down into three acts, and that for a typical 120 minute movie, you can sit back with a stopwatch and pretty much predict when certain things are going to happen.
In the first few minutes, for instance, our heroes will experience their inciting incident. This is the moment or action that thrusts them into the story. At about the thirty-minute mark, we’ll see our first plot point, which ends the first act and will take the story and twist it in an entirely new direction.
For instance, my debut thriller, THE PROFESSIONALS, features four recent college graduates who can’t find jobs and so turn to kidnapping rich businessmen to survive. The novel opens with my kidnappers pulling a score in Chicago. We read about the kidnapping and the aftermath, and we’re in the criminals’ heads and off to the races. The first act introduces us to the kidnappers, sets up their motivations and the obstacles in their path. But by the time the novel’s about a quarter finished, things will change drastically.
And they do change. A kidnapping goes wrong. Suddenly, my protagonists’ big dreams are facing a hell of a lot more obstacles. Suddenly, my kidnapping college grads are in a race for their survival. The moment where the kidnapping goes wrong is the first plot point, and the ensuing struggle for survival forms the second act of the novel.
The second act, according to McKee and Field, should take up roughly half the story, from the quarter mark to the three-quarter mark, or from thirty minutes into the two-hour flick to ninety minutes in.
In the middle is a midpoint, which tends to throw the protagonist(s) for another loop, but not in so profound a way as the first plot point did. Think that scene in Heat where De Niro and Pacino have a cup of coffee together. It’s a hell of a good scene. It’s the centerpiece of the movie. When it ends, though, De Niro walks away still convinced he’s going to pull one last score before he leaves town, and Pacino walks away convinced he’s going to stop De Niro.
Goose dying midway through Top Gun is another one. The first plot point brought Maverick and Goose to the Top Gun Academy. The second plot point, which begins the third act, will send Maverick back onto an aircraft carrier alone, facing the biggest challenges of his flying career and, really, his life.
If we’re looking at Heat, the second act ends with the bank robbery going south. Now De Niro and his gang are either dead or on the run, and Pacino’s closing in behind them.
As I thought about it, I realized I could pick out a midpoint in The Professionals pretty easily. Ditto a second plot point, though I’m not going to fill you in here for fear of spoiling the whole novel. In any case, the second plot point appears roughly three-quarters through the book, and sets up the climactic third act and the fight to the finish.
In the third act, your protagonists’ odds have never been longer. The fight has never been tougher. The climb has never been steeper. All of that. This is the dogfight at the end of Top Gun, the race to the final confrontation between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. It’s, hell, whatever happens in the last thirty minutes of Twilight.
And in The Professionals, that third act sees my kidnapper protagonists facing the kinds of problems they’d set out explicitly to avoid. Their lives are at stake, their friendships, and it’s anybody’s guess who lives and who dies.
So yeah, I guess I do follow a structure for my work. I don’t write explicitly to a three-act structure, but as I look at the plot of CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, the second book in my Stevens and Windermere series (out now from Putnam!), I can see the same three acts unfolding. An accountant, Carter Tomlin, loses his job (inciting incident). Desperate for money, he decides to rob a bank, then another. Ultimately, he decides he needs a gun, and it’s in the course of obtaining this gun that the first plot point emerges. From there, Tomlin’s set loose on the Twin Cities, and as the story moves along past the midpoint and the second plot point, the stakes keep getting higher, building to that inevitable, explosive climax.
I’m not sure why I write like this. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies, or maybe I internalized that Syd Field’s teachings way more than I should have. Either way, the three-act structure has served me pretty well, and you might consider giving it a try as you tell your own stories. No need to be fanatical about it (we’re not screenwriters here), but it can’t hurt to keep the basic fundamentals in mind. I mean, those Hollywood flicks aren’t blockbusters for nothing, right?
Owen Laukkanen’s 2012 debut, THE PROFESSIONALS earned rave reviews from critics and readers alike. The story of four recent university graduates who turn to kidnapping in a failing job market, The Professionals was hailed as, “a brutally beautiful piece of work” by New York Timesbestseller John Sandford, “a high-octane adrenaline and gunpowder-fueled rocket ride” by bestseller C.J. Box, and, “a first-class thriller by a terrific new voice” by John Lescroart.Mystery Scene Magazine called it one of the year’s best debuts, while Kirkus Reviews named it one of the top 100 novels of the year.
Now, Laukkanen is back with CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, which reunites FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens in another explosive blockbuster. Kirkus Reviews raves, “Fans of crime thrillers shouldn’t miss this or anything else with Laukkanen’s name on the cover. The writing is so crisp, the pages almost turn themselves,” while Booklist writes, “Laukkanen has clearly avoided the sophomore slump.”
A graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program, Laukkanen spent three years in the world of professional poker reporting before turning to fiction. He currently lives in Vancouver, where he’s hard at work on the third and fourth installments in the Stevens and Windermere series.