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Conventional Structures for Unconventional stories

What is it that you love about science fiction? The out-of-this-world settings? The nifty gadgets? The weird aliens?

As unconventional as science fiction can get, it almost always follows a conventional structure. Take for example C.J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun trilogy. These books contain the weirdest aliens I’ve come across. The regul are a sentient species that resemble giant slugs. Adults weigh hundreds of pounds and can only move around on powered sleds.

Obese and ugly, yes, but regul inherit the knowledge and memories of their forebearers, which makes them galactic schemers of the first order. They don’t wage war on their own because they can’t. For the past 40 years, a warrior race, the mri, have been fighting the regul’s war against humans.

The trilogy beings shortly after the regul and the mri have lost the war. The planet Kesrith, the title of book one, is about to be handed over to an ambassador from Earth. Humans are arriving, regul are leaving, and the mri are in limbo. Their numbers have been decimated by the war—there are perhaps only a few hundred left in the whole of the regul empire. Stuck in their sleds, the regul are terrified the mri will turn on them. They’re planning to give the People, as the mri call themselves, a good hard shove toward extinction.

A human, Sten Duncan, former soldier and now an aide to the ambassador, catches wind of the plot. He joins with two mir, the warrior Niun and his sister Melein, to help them escape, find the rest of the mri, if any are left, and return to their homeworld, Kutath. If it still exits.

The titles of the books in the trilogy are Kesrith, Shon’jir and Kutath.

Three books, three acts, which is the consensus best structure for science fiction novels. Here’s the breakdown of a three-act structure:

Fichtean-curve-2 - contemporary fiction

Act 1: Exposition. The beginning. Introduction of the characters. The inciting incident occurs, or it has before the story opens. The inciting incident is the story problem.

Act 2: Rising Action/Complication. The Middle. The rising action causes the complication, the monkey wrench you toss in to make it more difficult for your characters to resolve the story problem.

Act 3: Falling Action/Resolution. The End. The action begins to fall toward the end, the denouement, immediately following the climax, which is the resolution of the story problem and occurs at the end of the middle. Or the beginning of the end, depending on how you want to look at it. Doesn’t matter, it’s the same point in the story.


Here’s what the three-act structure looks like in the most common expression of it, Freytag’s pyramid:


The three-act structure of the trilogy is this:

Act 1: Kesrith: The main characters, Duncan, Niun, and Meleine are introduced. The regul plot to destroy the mri is discovered, the pact between the three is cemented. The story problem is finding the rest of the mri and convincing them to return to Kutath.

Act 2: Shon’jir: The search for the remaining mri. Duncan swears allegiance and becomes one of the People. Think samurai. The remaining clans are located.

Act 3: Kutath: The mri reach their home world. The regul reappear, planning to blow the planet to smithereens from space and wipe out the mri forever. The plan backfires with help from the humans, who’ve also tagged along, and the regul, not the mri are exterminated. No one misses them.

Why are we discussing how to structure a trilogy? Because series books are wildly popular in every genre and are frequently sought by publishers. If the first book is successful, they have a guaranteed moneymaker.

The Faded Sun is a very dense and complex story, which is the main reason it’s a trilogy, and makes an excellent example.

Within the structure of the trilogy, there’s the structure of each novel. The Fichtean curve, another three-act pyramid, is a more flexible structure. Here’s what it looks like:


Both sides of Freytag’s pyramid are nearly straight up. That’s the perfect depiction of a trilogy like The Faded Sun. The ascending side of the Fichtean pyramid is more like a ramp, and the descending side isn’t as steep.

I like the four crisis points on the Rising Action side of this pyramid. They work really well in science fiction where it’s common to have a chapter or two with lots of action—the peaking waves—followed by the trough, a lull that gives your characters a chance to regroup and your readers time to catch their breath before the next action peak.

You need a lot of momentum to scale Freytag—the entire first book, Kesrith—but within the novel you have more flexibility in placing your action points along the ascending ramp of the Fichtean Curve.

Next time we’ll discuss characters in science fiction, specifically alien characters, who can be just as troublesome as human ones.


Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”


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