writing fiction with the 1-3-1 method

English classes use this method to teach students how to write five paragraph essays, but I’ve found the philosophy behind the 1-3-1 method to be just as useful with writing fiction. With an essay, the writer attempts to convince a reader of a specific viewpoint. Fiction is really no different in that the writer is trying to make the reader believe in a world or person that doesn’t exist in order to illustrate a theme. Both forms of writing are about communicating viewpoints and facts to influence a reader’s thinking.

Why bother using the 1-3-1 for fiction? I’ve found that by applying a variation of the 1-3-1 method for fiction, I’ve been able to work more efficiently, especially in terms of writing my synopsis.

If you’ve never heard of 1-3-1 before, here’s how it works for essays:

1 – The introductory paragraph. This paragraph outlines the three points the writer intends to discuss.

3 – Generally speaking, in an essay, the writer wants to cover three points (hence the three) with one paragraph devoted to each point. The writer is by no means restricted to three points; however, more than three points can sometimes be a lot for most casual readers to remember.

1 – The concluding paragraph. This is where the writer summarizes the three points and essentially draws his or her opinion on the subject to a close.

Easy, huh?

So how do you apply it to fiction? First, don’t look at 1-3-1 as each number representing a specific paragraph like a writer would for an essay. With fiction, each number represents a technique for moving the story forward.

Chapters

Let’s look at the chapter:

1 – In every chapter, a writer needs to set the stage with setting, characterization, and conflict. Think of these three things as your introductory paragraph.

3 – Choose one, two, or three points that will move the story forward and make those points the focal issues of the chapter. For example: the first chapter should answer these questions: Who is your protagonist or antagonist? What is the conflict? What circumstances change to move the protagonist or antagonist toward their goal?

1 – The hook that will lead the reader into the next chapter. This can be one or more paragraphs that will lead your reader into wanting to immediately flip the page and see what happens next. Stephen King is the master of the end-chapter hook.

But that’s too restrictive!

Not really. If you like writing by the seat of your pants, you can make this work for you too. Write you chapter and let it flow, then when you’re doing your edits, go back and re-examine the chapter and ask these questions:

  • Ask yourself about setting, characterization, and conflict. Are these points clear?
  • Did I bombard my reader with too much to remember by utilizing more than three plot developments?
  • Do my last few paragraphs lead into my next chapter?

Outlines

I ain’t doing no stinking outline . . .

Now, now, contempt prior to investigation can cheat you if you’re not careful. Also, you may have to do a chapter-by-chapter outline as part of a submission package. It’s perfectly acceptable to go back and write a detailed outline after the novel is written. Either way you approach a chapter-by-chapter outline, the 1-3-1 can be helpful.

Here’s where you strip your chapter down to its very essence by using the same method as I listed above for chapters. Use the 1-3-1 to focus on those plot developments that move the story forward.

I’ve read several writers who advise reducing each page of the manuscript to one sentence. For example: if the chapter is ten pages, the outline of that chapter should be roughly ten sentences.

Synopsis

I ain’t doing no stinking synopsis . . .

Ahem.

Like the chapter-by-chapter outline, you may very well have to produce a synopsis for your query package. A writer can follow the same guidelines whether the synopsis is written before or after the novel is completed.

I use the three-act method for my novels, but there are many other techniques for constructing a story. No matter which method you choose, the 1-3-1 really comes in handy for the synopsis.

1 – World-building (if you write fantasy/science fiction) and introduce your main characters.

3 – The major issues that propel the plot forward. This is another place where the number three might be larger or smaller.

1 – The conclusion where the writer touches on the novel’s theme.

Here’s the beauty of the 1-3-1: if you have been successful in applying the 1-3-1 to your chapter, the distillation process of reducing your seventy-plus-thousand word novel into a chapter-by-chapter outline, then into a synopsis becomes easier. With the chapter-by-chapter outline and synopsis, you strip away dialogue and setting to reduce the novel to the very core of your story. By using a version of the 1-3-1 method, I’ve found that I’ve diminished the difficulty of siphoning the extraneous matter away from my story.

I intend to use the 1-3-1 for writing my chapter-by-chapter outline and synopsis for my next novel. Like my blogging friend, Jonathan Danz, I want to eliminate some of the wandering I’ve experience with my current WIP and make my writing time more efficient. Jonathan has a nice post on how he intends to do his outlines for his next novel here. If you like writing by the seat of your pants, you might find Jonathan’s method more relaxing.

What about you? What have you learned from writing your current WIP? Have you developed ways to work more efficiently in your writing?

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About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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21 Responses to writing fiction with the 1-3-1 method

  1. Hmm. At this point I’m still more of an intuitive writer, but this really made sense to me: the point of an essay is to leave the reader feeling a sense of completion, the end of a chapter of fiction should do quite the opposite.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jan! I like it because even if you’re an intuitive writer, you can use it for assessment when you’re working through edits. I need road maps to keep me on track and this is just one method I use.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Nice demonstration of how to make a method work even if you don’t adhere exactly to the method as it was originally presented. I think a lot of writers get hung up on the specifics and let it keep them from working however they work best.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jonathan, I think that’s why a lot of writers avoid an outline or synopsis. While not everything in my outline or synopsis has fallen into exactly the same place in my novel, all of the original ideas found a home. Flexibility is the key with any of these processes.

  3. Jason Black says:

    Great post. I like how you showed how 1-3-1 applies at many different levels of scale, from scenes to chapters and all the way up to whole-book structure. Great tips!

  4. Gosh, I work really hard NOT to teach this method in my English classroom because it is so boring and formulaic.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Stacy,

      To be honest, I never used the method for my own term papers, because writing always came naturally to me. We try to use it with students who are having difficulty organizing their thoughts. It’s like driving a car for some people, they have to think about their every move to get started, but once they’ve written a couple of papers using the method, they kick off on their own.

      We try to adapt our methods to the student where we can, and this just seems to work for some folks.

      I’m glad you stopped by!

    • Paulo Campos says:

      @ professorstacy:
      I agree with finding that kind of essay restrictive and pretty dull. I used to use that model for talking about fiction because it helped introduce my class to more complicated ideas.

      Then did my best to encourage my students to think in more creative ways about writing.

      Good point though.

  5. Marisa Birns says:

    Haven’t thought about 1-3-1 method in so long, but it makes sense the way you present it.

    I am not an outline person. Nor do I sit and write by the seat in my pants in one go. Rather I write in chunks, go away, and come back to do another chunk.

    Yours are great tips and I think that it might be good for me to try them.

    Thank you.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks, Marisa!

      What I’ve found is that it’s just as easy to use during edits as check-points. With a full-time job and only a few hours in the evening to write, I’ve got to make the most of every minute.

      I love seeing how other authors write and the techniques everyone uses. I’ve found many authors who’ve helped me gain focus on my work by reading their posts on their writing techniques. If that makes any sense . . .

  6. Paulo Campos says:

    @ Teresa:
    I think this is a great way to think about a first draft. One of the things I ask myself when I’m revising is “does everything in the story serve some kind of purpose?” A principle along the lines of a gun introduced in act one should be fired in act three.

    A 1-3-1 structure seems a promising means of keeping myself accountable.

    But even beyond that, it reminds me of James Joyce’s first story in Dubliners “The Sisters.” I’ve taught it several times and thinking back on the structure it shares a 1-3-1 structure. Main concepts are introduced on the first page; there are about three parts to the story proper, and it ends with a flashback that has three elements to it.

    I hadn’t really thought of that story in the terms you’re using before (or in terms of my own writing). But I’m revising my novel now (& am stuck in Chapter Three, but I think this will be a useful way to think about it!)

    I hadn’t read your blog before and am glad to have found it!

    • Teresa says:

      How very nice to meet you, Paulo!

      Now I’m going to have to read “The Sisters” (kick me, but I’ve always had problems following James Joyce’s work).

      I sometimes have such a problem keeping myself focused on my protagonist and his or her story. It’s easy to allow another character to lead me off onto a tangent, so I use any method possible to keep my story on track. I love reading novels and stories that don’t seem to be structured, but when I finish reading them, I realize how the author led me where he or she wanted me to go.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  7. kat magendie says:

    I am a disorganized and seat of pants and chaotic writer . . . I hope to change that one day *laughing* However, usually in the re-writes I try to pay attention to those things, or some of them, or at least one of them …. *sigh*

    Great post!

    • Teresa says:

      I think you pay more attention than you’re admitting! 😉

      Thanks for stopping by!

      PS: I’m enjoying Secret Graces. 😉

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  9. Julie Musil says:

    Great tips. I never thought of the 1-3-1 method this way. Thank you!

  10. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, I haven’t heard of the 1-3-1-method, but I think its important for all writers to have a clear aim in mind whenever they begin a new chapter.

    All the best with your writing.

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  12. saima says:

    I used your method today in my class for writing a short story. My students found it an easy way to plot a story. Thanks a million

    • Saima! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this–I was out of town without Internet access. I’m so happy you found the post useful, and I’m especially happy that your students got something out of it.

      Thanks for sharing that with me, you made my weekend!

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