Author. Creative. Follower.

The 27-Chapter Writing Method

I recently discovered a new method for structuring novels called the 27-Chapter Writing Method. As the name implies, this method encourages writers to structure their stories into 27 key chapters (a term that they apply loosely), which are divided into 3 distinct acts. I won’t go into the exhaustive details, but various chapters have names such as inciting incident, pinch point, new world, midpoint, darkest point, resolution.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because the terminology is borrowed from lots of other existing story structure methods. However, what I like about the 27-chapter method is that it is tailored specifically for novels, which are fundamentally different from other mediums such as screenwriting.

Let me explain. Most modern story structure methods are derived from screenwriting, which is a relatively short medium. Movies typically average around 1.5 to 2 hours, so story structure for a script is understandably short. For example, Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has only fifteen sections. Screenwriting structure is useful when translated to novels, but many methods run into trouble because of novels tend to be a longer medium. The problem is that structure methods derived from screenwriting can be so high-level that you can’t apply them usefully to analyzing a novel on the chapter or scene level basis. To illustrate what I mean: Blake Snyder’s third beat is Set-up, which might be a handful of scenes in a movie as the characters prepare for whatever plot point sets off the story. But in a novel, the set-up could span thousands of words covering multiple chapters, and condensing so much story into a single beat isn’t super-helpful.

To be precise, it’s not that novels can’t follow a method like Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, but rather that with a longer medium, it’s important to divide each beat into smaller, more granular sections. That’s why for novels, the longer the structure, the better. With the 27-chapter method, you have nearly twice as many beats as Snyder’s method, allowing the writer to get more granular. Just as each beat in Snyder’s method can cover multiple scenes, each “chapter” in this method could in fact be 2-3 chapters depending on what the story wants to emphasize. Some novels might even ignore certain beats altogether. The point is however that with the 27-chapter method, you have more ideas to work with.

As I write this, I also find myself asking how I might choose to use such a method. Personally, I think that story structure best suited for a second draft, not the first. The first draft is for yourself as the writer, where you put in all the fun stuff you want to talk about, basing it around the rule of cool. First drafts should be messy, fun, disorganized. Using a story structure at this early stage can risk making the story too formulaic and rigid, causing the author to miss out on new and creative means to tell a story.

During the second draft, the goal is to take the cool things the writer has written, and arrange them in ways that are comprehensible to the reader. The purpose is not to fit your first draft into a structure artificially, the way one might try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Instead, I see story structure more like a transparent overlay that you put ontop of your story, to help you identify where you’ve already organically written in aspects like inciting incident, consequence, midpoint. It can help you identify where each of these points needs to be sharpened and made more evident. The absence of a particular beat in the first draft may also help explain why the story isn’t working quite right. In other words, story structure is not a blueprint, but a diagnostic tool.

One lingering question I have is how well this structure applies to multiple-POV novels. For a single-POV story, its pretty straightforward, but when you have multiple characters with multiple plotlines, do you have to assign each of the 27 beats to each POV character? That seems pretty unwieldy. The other alternative is that in a multi-POV novel, you write each beat in terms of the reader’s reaction. Regardless of which character a chapter is covering, it’s the reader who feels the pinch, the push, the darkest point, the reversal. But that’s for another time.

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