Wednesday, February 4, 2009

By the numbers by Mark Troy

I'm a numbers guy. Measurement and statistics is my field. I believe that anything that exists, exists in quantity. Now and then folks ask how I can immerse myself in numbers all day and write fiction at night. Well, they are not incompatible. Measurement and statistics is one way of knowing and understanding people by measuring their attributes. Fiction is a way of knowing and understanding people through the workings of the plot.

That's not to say I don't leave the counting at work when I read or write.

Whenever I pick up a novel, I immediately find the last page number and divide by four. That gives me the location of the three major plot points in the book. Act I takes up the first quarter of a story, so somewhere around the one-fourth mark will be a scene that spins the story into Act II. Some people call it a doorway. I usually mark it with a post-it note. I also put a post-it at the mid-point of the book, which is the middle of Act II, and likewise at the three-quarter point which is where the story spins into Act III.

I'll do this for most books, especially authors that are new to me. If it's a book by an author I know won't disappoint me, such as Michael Connelly, I don't bother with the notes, though I still do the arithmetic in my head.

The spin points are such an integral part of the art of storytelling that you can find them very close to those numbers in any good book. The scenes might not begin exactly at that location, because a scene in a book takes several, perhaps many, pages to work out, but, in my experience, the better the story, the closer the plot elements will be to the numbers. On the other hand, nothing happening where it should happen is an indication of a flawed book and I probably won't finish it.

Let's use The Da Vinci Code, as an example. The book has 489 pages so my first post-it note was stuck on page 122. Page 122 is the first page where the Priory of Scion, the shadowy group at the heart of the story, is mentioned. Langdon, the point of view character, is ready to leave the Louvre and make his escape to the American Embassy when he realizes that the P.S. clue left by the dead man referred to the Priory of Scion. Up until that point, we have had the set-up to the story. Langdon has been trying to get out of this murder investigation and return to his normal life. But, when he discovers the meaning of the code, he heeds the call to adventure and returns to the Louvre, giving up his chance for escape. The doorway between the first and second acts closes and he is irrevocably committed to the adventure. To show us that he cannot go back to his previous existence, the author has Langdon attempt to reach the embassy early in Act II, only to find the police blocking the way.

I put the second post-it on page 244, the middle of the book and roughly the middle of the second act. The first half of the second act is sometimes called the testing phase in which the main character learns what he or she needs to know to survive the adventure. Langdon learns that he can't get back to the embassy and that he and Sophie will have to be partners in this adventure. He also acquires some skills at solving riddles, at deception, and at thinking on his feet. He even learns to drive a stick shift.

At the end of the testing phase, in the middle of Act II comes a revelation of some kind. Indeed, only four pages past the post-it on page 244 comes the story of the grail told by Langdon's mentor in whose home they are seeking refuge. This point in the story is also called the crisis because it initiates a low point for the main characters. Sometimes the entire second half of the second act is called the crisis where the main characters experience the "dark night of the soul." In DVC, Langdon is knocked unconscious by the albino monk and Sophie suffers a crisis of faith on hearing the grail story. All of them have to flee the house where they had sought refuge. During the flight, they continue to struggle with the meaning of the clues in their possession. Sophie struggles with her feelings for her grandfather.

The mid point of the story is also where the main character is likely to go into the cave or the belly of the beast. The reader doesn't know it yet, but when Langdon and Sophie entered the mentor's house, they entered the cave of the beast.

I put the third post-it on page 366 for the plot point which spins the story from the crisis into the resolution. All through the crisis period they have been trying to escape from their pursuers and decode the cryptic poem left by the dead man. On page 362 they make good on their escape and on 366 they deduce that the poem refers to the Templar Church on fleet Street. There are still red herrings and clues to figure out, but now they begin to fall into place when the mentor is revealed to be the bad guy.

Maybe, it's because I'm a numbers guy that I find the symmetry of a story, any story, so compelling. Seeing the underlying architecture of a story is as exciting to me as being swept along in the narrative. Some people say that analyzing a story takes away from the enjoyment. Not me. If anything, it adds to my enjoyment, though often times the experiences seem to go on simultaneously in two separate compartments of my mind. Knowing when the curtain will drop on an act while reading the story is like knowing how much time is left in a football game or how many innings are left. It adds another dimension to the action in front of me.

It's not only novels, either. I count the words in short stories and the minutes in movies to find the plot points.

If I weren't writing stories, I might not be so interested in counting pages. Without question, writing has influenced the way I read. I took to counting pages so that I could learn how to plot my own stories. Not only do I read by the numbers, I write and revise by the numbers. If the doorway to the second act doesn't occur one fourth of the way through, for example, I revise until it does.

What about you? Do you count words and pages when you read?

Mark Troy
Read "Horns" at


Chester Campbell said...

Interesting commentary, Mark. I'm not a page counter. I don't consciously follow the three-act arc when reading or writing. If a story moves along at a nice pace when I'm reading, I keep reading to see what happens. When writing, I just tell the story as it pops out of my head. I checked my new book, The Surest Poison, and found it pretty well follows the plot points you mention. I think this is somewhat subjective, though, and others may see the plot points differently. Thanks for the provocative piece.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Very interesting, Mark. I only count pages and words as I'm writing. But the three-act play, established by Sophocles in the fifth century B.C., is still the writing rule to live by.

Morgan Mandel said...

I can't be that scientific about writing. I just go with the flow and hope it gets me where I want to go.

Maybe because I hate working with numbers.

Morgan Mandel

Mark Troy said...

Hi Chester,
Thanks for forwarding the article to April Hamilton. She's putting it on her site with a link back to MMM, of course.
Re your comments, I think some people are natural storytellers and can instinctively tell a good story. Me, I'm not natural or instinctive about much of anything.

Mark Troy said...

Hi Jean,

Those ancients knew how to tell a good story. I think Sophocles only codified what storytellers already knew about plot. Too bad we can't find anything in the fossil record to tell us when stories acquired three acts.

Mark Troy said...

Going with the flow turns out good stories, Morgan.

Kim Smith said...

I must admit Mark that I never have counted before... but I will now. Now, I am dying to know from every book just where the points fall.
Thanks !!

Earl Staggs said...

I've never counted pages before to pinpoint plot points, Mark, but I'm going to try it now. Thanks for the education, Professor.

Dana Fredsti said...

Never page count. I just read for the pleasure...or not, depending on the book. Then I am NOT a numbers person at all.