Reading With Attention


Reading for Plot Structure

Whatever book you’re reading right this very minute, take a quick second to look in the back and see how many pages it has. Rounded, I mean.

Find a scrap of paper or a used envelope and jot this down at the bottom: total number of pages.

Now divide that into: 1/8, 1/6, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, 5/6, 7/8. You can knock it right down into all the eighths and sixths if you like, but these are the main divisions. Scribble those numbers vertically above the total.

Now—as you work your way through your current read, every time you come to one of those pages, make a note of what big, important plot point is going on right there. At least within a few pages.

Depending upon the type of novel you’re reading, the climax may be shoved all the way to within spitting distance of the last page. And that’s fine! That’s an excellent way to end a novel. So when you get to the climax, go ahead and scribble that down, too.

Label it at the top with the title of the book. Then throw it on a box on your desk and start a new scrap for the next book.
Eventually, you’re going to have a whole raft of these little lists.

And. They. Are. Priceless.

Take them out every now and then to study. What do you see?

Act 1

Hook (the beginning to 1/8-1/6)

Conflict #1 (1/8-1/6 to 1/4-1/3)

Act 2

Conflict #2 (1/4-1/3 to 1/2-2/3)

Conflict #3 (1/2-2/3 to 2/3-3/4)

Act 3

Faux Resolution (2/3-3/4 to 5/6-7/8)

Climax (5/6-7/8 to the end)

Some writers use a pattern based on quarters, while others prefer a pattern based on thirds. Occasionally, I stumble across someone who skews the 1/2 point to 3/5 (rare) or even 2/3 (even more rare).

That’s why this isn’t formula, it’s structure. A house with many rooms is just as livable as a house with only one room, but a house with no supporting walls at all falls down.

So lick a pencil and scrabble for whatever’s handy. All those novels you’ve been reading all these years?

All structured properly.

You’re going to be amazed.

Reading for Character Development

Now I’m also going to assign you a second exercise for your current reading material. Because I don’t believe in doing things halfway.

Flip over that scrap of paper or used envelope on which you’re jotting down your plot design research and scribble the name of the protagonist of whatever you’re reading on the back. If there’s more than one protagonist, scribble the name of the main one.

Chew your pencil for a few minutes (don’t eat the paint—just destroy the little metal bit that holds the eraser) and ask yourself, “What does this character need more than anything else in the entire world?” When you’ve got it, write it down under their name. “And what do they need that conflicts with this need?” Write that down too. Put a big blocky square all over the whole thing.

Got it?


Now, every time you reach one of those milestones you outlined on the other side of this paper, I want you to jot down on this side what happens to the protagonist and their conflicting needs. I can guarantee something does.

Is one need satisfied in some partial but slightly fulfilling way? Just enough to keep them addicted to the search for total fulfillment?

Is their search for fulfillment of one need thwarted in some way? Enough to freak them out, but not enough to make them think, “This is for the birds. I’m giving up”?

Are their needs ever totally fulfilled?

Are their needs ever totally thwarted?

Scribble, scribble, scribble. Do your scribbling. You’re a scribbler.

Then—you knew I was going to say this—chuck it in that box on your desk. And start the whole thing over again with another book.

When you’re ready, take these scraps out of the box and study them. What patterns do you see? How do all these different authors lead their characters by the nose through the hoops that have been set for them, feeding their needs, denying their needs, feeding their needs again, denying their needs again? How does this rhythm build to a crescendo by the end, driving both character and reader nuts with frustration and anticipation?

How have these authors kept their reader addicted?

Do you ever watch fireworks—for Chinese New Year, Mexican Independence, a hobbit’s eleventy-first birthday?

The next time you do, be thinking how it would feel to have them go off inside your heart. Then think about how your favorite authors make the climaxes of their novels feel…

Exactly. That. Way.

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She co-authored the nonfiction Children and the Internet, published by Prentice Hall in 1996, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. Victoria’s blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, was voted one of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers in 2011. Her first book on writing, The Art and Craft of Fiction, is one of the elite handful recommended by Preditors & Editors, and her second book on writing, The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, was released on September 30, 2011.


  1. Excellent post. I’ve been writing in 1/3rds for the last few years, and then I wrote a book with a 5-act structure. That was a challenge but one I think I mastered successfully.

    I love Victoria, and the character development exercise is fantastic. I always seem to forget the thwarting aspect. Got to work on that.

    Thanks to both of you.

  2. This reminds me of a book I read called Story Engineering

  3. Katie, thank you so much for hosting me! I came up with this exercise for the books I read some years ago, and it’s taught me the basic building blocks of fiction in the most literal, hands-on way. It was Syd Field in his canonical book Screenplay who first set me on the trail.

    Anne, thank you! You’re very kind. It sounds as though you’ve already been here in the world of acts for awhile. Isn’t it fabulous? Five-act structure is a more complex version of all this, but I love it.

    Galadriel, yes, Larry Brooks and I are friends, and we traded books when The Art & Craft of Fiction and Story Engineering first came out. We’ve studied a lot of the same canonical stuff, so it’s lovely that it resonates with you!

    As it happens, Katie has also written a book on structure—Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.

  4. I’m trying to read Cormack McCarthy that way from time to time. He’s probably my main inspiration right now >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. I’m sorry, but this critical, calculating method is no way to write a good story.

  6. All I can say is wow. Too cool!
    : )

  7. Thnx for that article, Victoria.
    I’ve sorta noticed that pattern, but just never spent the time to get into my fingers “dirty” in the details…

  8. I find this very interesting and can’t wait to try it. I agree that stories need to be created and not as calculating, but by understanding the craft, unintentionally you write better.

  9. My story got better once I moved my story into these segments. It’s really a natural storytelling process.

  10. Cold As Heaven, it’s always fascinating to see how our favorite writers use these hidden techniques, isn’t it? So much in there the reader would never have guessed.

    Beth, thank you! Such a brilliant craft in which we work.

    Gideon Reynolds, you’re right, it takes a whole lot of effort, and I don’t do it with everything I read. But it certainly makes a huge difference to know about it when I’m working with writers and shaping my own manuscripts.

    Kristin, it’s absolutely true. There are so many fabulous techniques in the writer’s toolbox! All great stories are created out of a deep, complex understanding of those techniques, and when you have that understanding, as you say, “unintentionally you write better.”

    Mark Landen—yes! Isn’t it amazing how such a simple thing as investigating the natural storytelling process can make revision (and first drafts, too) so much more powerful?

    Oh, you guys are all so thoughtful about this craft. It’s wonderful to meet you!

  11. Thanks so much for sharing with us, Victoria! Since I was lucky enough to get ARC of Art & Craft of Story, I can assure everyone that this second book is just as good as the first and chock full of more of the great information she’s shared in this post. I can also vouch for the value of paying attention to structure while reading novels and watching movies. It’s not about eliminating inspiration and replacing it with “calculation”; it’s actually (and surprisingly) about finding freedom in realizing what it is that makes all stories work.

  12. Thank you for hosting me, Katie! Such a joy it is for all of us to live our lives up to our necks in this wonderful and profound craft.

  13. Thanks for this invaluable advice. It will really make us a good multi-tasker by enjoying the book and learning from in simultaneously 😀

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.