I went a small bit of viral over the weekend because of a Twitter post I made for modeling a novel on the game of Texas Hold 'Em. (Rules here: www.texasholdemonline.com/texas-holdem-rules/). Now, I've been prone to saying in the past that I think you can write using any structure, whether that's a structure found in literature or an actual physical structure, like a gas station (narrator POV stays rooted in time and place; characters come and go and have conflict with each other; time of day/customer rush determines where the climax is). By the way, I just made that one up, so if you decide to write a short story, novella, or even a novel based on this structure, do let me know how it works out. Is this a true narrative structure? Not really. Can I map one-to-one each gas pump in the station, the roof overhead, and the convenience store with each part of the story? I cannot. It's more of a gas station in spirit.
Anyway, I started thinking about Hold 'Em because one of my writer chats was talking about structure and 3-acts/Save the Cat, and someone suggested looking at kishoutenketsu, a Japanese 4-act structure (4-acts are also widespread among the other East Asian countries). And on the fly, I suggested writing a story according to the beats of a Texas Hold 'Em game.
This wasn't completely random: I want to steer non-Asians away from kishoutenketsu. Selfishly, or maybe not so selfishly because I know how easily theft occurs in the West, I want Asian authors to use that structure first. I want them to write stories that follow the beats they know so well. The surprise third-act antagonist, new arrival, or out-of-nowhere situation? Kishoutenketsu. So while thinking about Hold 'Em might have been random, wanting to show off already-extant examples of 4-act dramas in the West was not.
(I also enjoy exploring 2-act structures because I love musical theater and opera, and both are by necessity split in half because of intermission, unless there are two intermissions like in Parsifal or Der Rosenkavalier. The mid-point break and subsequent big change in status quo are among my favorite things. See also: the time skip between Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. Anyway, that's a different blog post.)
I started playing Hold 'Em in university, where one of my best friends would invite everyone to his house for poker nights and we'd all throw in twenty bucks, get ridiculously, wildly drunk, and try to outbluff each other on hands we all knew were utter shit (except that one time there was a four of a kind, and boy was I glad I had folded the second I saw my hand). I love the dramatic tension of a Hold 'Em game even through the haze of Southern Comfort (100 proof) and lukewarm Coke. Who at the table is the biggest bluffer? Who at the table plays cautiously and therefore is less likely to bluff? Who at the table is the agent of chaos? Who's the one trying to count cards? And who's the one addicted to pushing all in because their BAC is too high?
In case you missed the thread, here it is. And here's the Thread Reader App unroll.
The four-act structure of Hold 'Em allows for a lot of flexibility as far as character decision and writer herding skills are involved. As long as you hit each of the acts, things should go fine. There's conflict and drama built in because of that reversal of fortune and the consequences of character actions coming back to bite them in the ass. This structure would work very well for mysteries, thrillers, action-adventure, and heists especially. It's a structure designed to crank up tension nonstop until the very end. Think films like Ocean's 11, Inception, The Italian Job, which are all three-act films, if I remember correctly, but in a novel form can be made into four. In fact, you might need four just so you can get all the characters in. Introducing characters in a movie, with makeup and hair and costume design and set design and all that, is much easier than in a book. All that description!
I'm curious to see how well this structure works, so if you ever write a novel using this structure, please think of little ol' me and tell me about what you did. I'd love to see how well it maps to what you're planning.
PS: Once Bitter Medicine is released, I'll do an act breakdown. It's not a three-act but a two-act, and once I made that realization, the editing process came together.
Mia is a musician, teacher, writer, editor, and occasional photographer whose formal education is in music, psychology, and pedagogy. She enjoys reading a lot, thinking while on long drives, finding songs for each moment, and snoozing with her cat.