writing fiction with the 1-3-1 method

In the spirit of edits, here's a blast from the past for you. It's an old post that I wrote for a writing blog I used to run. I hope you enjoy it:

English classes use the 1-3-1 method to teach students how to write five paragraph essays, but I’ve found the philosophy behind the 1-3-1 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.

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.


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 just as you normally would, then when you’re doing your edits, re-examine the chapter, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are my setting, characterization, and conflicts clear?
  • Did I bombard my reader by utilizing too many plot developments?
  • Do my last few paragraphs lead into my next chapter?


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.


I ain’t doing no stinking synopsis . . .


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 successfully apply 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.

So what am I doing? Editing The Garden and recalling techniques that I used during my editing process with Miserere.

Be safe and for those in the neighborhood, I'll see you at ConCarolinas!