Tragedy Comes in Threes

I’m a pantser, not a plotter, meaning that I write each page as it comes into my head, with no set plan. I have written all of my novels this way. That’s not to say I don’t do extensive re-writes and heavy editing. I once completely re-wrote a novel from scratch, because I loved the idea and characters but realized I wanted to write the story from a different point of view. But I resist outlines and don’t follow a pre-determined structure when writing a story.

Despite working with no outline, I have noticed a pattern to my stories. I tend to include three tragedies along the way. They often appear something like this:

Tragedy 1: This is a hardship that is apparent from the first page of the first chapter—a difficulty or problem the main character/narrator must overcome or solve. It sets the tone and grabs the reader’s attention (and hopefully empathy) from the outset. 

Tragedy 2: The true tragedy. This bigger tragedy is saved until at least half way through the book (or more) where there is a Big Reveal, and it is the true reason for the suffering of one or more characters.

Tragedy 3: In some ways acting like a red herring, this is an event that happens closer to the end that may impact the trajectory of the plot in a way the reader didn’t see coming. It does not necessarily change the ending, but adds a twist that may lend itself to a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. It keeps the reader guessing.

I may have to look at other novels and see if I notice this pattern anywhere else. I’m sure I’m not breaking any new ground here, but it was interesting for me to notice that despite my aversion to outlines and plotting, there is a general structure that is common among my stories. At the same time, this format is loose enough to leave plenty of room for surprises along the way, as I write and see where my characters lead me.

WritingSandi Ward