Plot Structure of James Herbert’s The Rats

I stripped James Herbert’s classic horror novel The Rats down to its plot outline, and here’s how I did it.

The edition of Herbert’s novel that I read has 200 pages. Taking a basic plot structure and fitting the page numbers of The Rats into the structure, I knew I’d be looking for plot points at certain page numbers. Well, at about certain page numbers because story structure is not a concrete enclosure but a flexible scaffold.

1-3%, Pages 1-5

The hook, what grabs the reader’s attention?
What lie does the protagonist believe? This could be expressed as a character flaw.

3-12%, Pages 5-24

An inciting incident that impacts the protagonist and draws him or her into the story.
Is there a hint that the lie is a lie and won’t work?
Is there a theme that has appeared?
What is the protagonist’s overall goal?

12-25%, Pages 24-50

The first plot point, the end of Act I, the point of no return in which the protagonist makes a decision that changes his life.
The truth rears its head, and the truth hurts.
Has the protagonist’s goal changed?

25-37%, Pages 50-75

The first pinch point in which the antagonist causes great trouble, ups the stakes, etc.
The protagonist attempts to make the lie work, but there are hints that the truth is stronger.

37-50%, Pages 75-100

The second plot point in which the protagonist turns from his old ways of addressing problems to a new way, aka “the mirror moment,” aka the end of Act II Part 1.
The protagonist realizes the lie is a lie, but in a horror novel, he or she might believe a bigger lie rather than the truth.

50-62%, Pages 100-125

The second pinch point in which the antagonist is more dangerous than ever.
The new, bigger lie is effective but destructive.

62-75%, Pages 125-150

The third plot point in which the protagonist experiences a false victory. Then all is lost, aka the dark night of the soul. This is the end of Act II Part 2.
The protagonist has still not accepted the truth, has failed to see that the bigger lie is a lie, and has failed to reach his goal.

75-88%, Pages 150-175

The climax in which the protagonist rallies for a last ditch, do-or-die effort to defeat antagonist.
The protagonist may also fight people or things associated with the truth, or the protag may have to fight an ally that turns out to be a foe. There may be an outside force he must fight now, too (like the weather, for example).

88-98%, Pages 175-195

Total destruction (this is horror after all) of protagonist’s world.
People or things associated with the truth close in.

98-100%, Pages 195-200

The aftermath, a harkening back to the opening to show how things have changed. In horror, the protagonist may have devolved (or even died) rather than matured.
How did the truth and the protagonist’s erroneous beliefs play out?

When I read the book, I stopped at page 5 and noted if there was something that hooked me and if the protagonist believed some sort of lie. Then I stopped at page 25, and page 50, and so forth. Here’s what I ended up with:

Warning: spoilers below.

1-3%, Pages 1-5

The hook, what grabs the reader’s attention?
What lie does the protagonist believe? This could be expressed as a character flaw.

“Henry Guilfoyle was slowly drinking himself to death.” That was the very first sentence, and I was hooked because I wanted to know what was so horrible about Henry’s life that he was committing slow suicide. No protagonist in sight yet . . .

3-12%, Pages 5-24

An inciting incident that impacts the protagonist and draws him or her into the story.
Is there a hint that the lie is a lie and won’t work?
Is there a theme that has appeared?
What is the protagonist’s overall goal?

The protagonist, Harris, is a teacher, an authority figure. He wants his poverty-stricken students to have a good future, and so his goal is to make a difference in their lives. The inciting incident is when his cherished student is attacked by a giant, mutant rat. A theme emerges: authorities’ responsibility to those beneath them. Harris believes the lie that the rats are just a few big but ordinary rats that the governmental authorities can take care of.

12-25%, Pages 24-50

The first plot point, the end of Act I, the point of no return in which the protagonist makes a decision that changes his life.
The truth rears its head, and the truth hurts.
Has the protagonist’s goal changed?

When asked, Harris makes the decision to help the government authorities exterminate the rats under their supervision. The truth becomes painful and obvious: that the rats are deadly mutants, and the government is having trouble controlling them.
Harris’s new goal is to help the authorities exterminate the dangerous, mutant rats terrorizing the poor town.

25-37%, Pages 50-75

The first pinch point in which the antagonist causes great trouble, ups the stakes, etc.
The protagonist attempts to make the lie work, but there are hints that the truth is stronger.

The rats are multiplying and getting aggressive and more dangerous. Harris tries to make the lie work by showing the authorities the likely rat-infested areas in the poor town. Then Harris takes a vacation out of town, thinking he did what he could and now the rats are “the authorities’ problem.”
Hints of the truth: Not only are the rats big, but also they possess evil intelligence. (Ain’t no little government intervention gonna fix this problem!)

37-50%, Pages 75-100

The second plot point in which the protagonist turns from his old ways of addressing problems to a new way, aka “the mirror moment,” aka the end of Act II Part 1.
The protagonist realizes the lie is a lie, but in a horror novel, he or she might believe a bigger lie rather than the truth.

When Harris’s school is attacked, he realizes he knows more about how to kill the rats than the authorities do. This is his mirror moment, and he takes charge in killing the rats attacking his school, but in doing so, he comes to believe a bigger lie: that advanced strategies using science, combat tactics, or whatever, can defeat all of the rats.

50-62%, Pages 100-125

The second pinch point in which the antagonist is more dangerous than ever.
The new, bigger lie is effective but destructive.

The rat infestation has taken down the town’s infrastructure and threatens the big city of London. When the authorities develop a new extermination plan using a virus, it means puppies will be destroyed, too. (Aw geez, puppies!)

62-75%, Pages 125-150

The third plot point in which the protagonist experiences a false victory. Then all is lost, aka the dark night of the soul. This is the end of Act II Part 2.
The protagonist has still not accepted the truth, has failed to see that the bigger lie is a lie, and has failed to reach his goal.

Harris thinks the virus will work. Yay, the rats are killed . . . but not all of them. The rats adapt to the virus and spread to London.
Taking stock, we see that Harris still thinks the authorities can kill the rats using strategically applied methods, but so far that has failed. The kids from the poverty-stricken area that he wanted to help in the beginning of the novel are all either dead or evacuated. The school is closed.

75-88%, Pages 150-175

The climax in which the protagonist rallies for a last ditch, do-or-die effort to defeat antagonist.
The protagonist may also fight people or things associated with the truth, or the protag may have to fight an ally that turns out to be a foe. There may be an outside force he must fight now, too (like the weather, for example).

Harris devises one last plan: evacuate London, attract rats to central locations using sound waves, and gas them.
Harris must deal with an authority figure (the ex-Minister of Health) who goes astray. In doing so, Harris finds the original rats’ lair and learns the deadly rats were created by a professor doing scientific research on irradiated rats.

88-98%, Pages 175-195

Total destruction (this is horror after all) of protagonist’s world.
People or things associated with the truth close in.

Political in-fighting sends the ex-Minister of Health after the original rats’ lair. Harris gets bit because he tries to rescue the ex-Minister of Health. Not only does Harris fail to save the ex-Minister, but also Harris has to fight and kill the mutant rat king (a two-headed, obese thing that’s immune to sound waves).

98-100%, Pages 195-200

The aftermath, a harkening back to the opening to show how things have changed. In horror, things may have changed for the worse. The protagonist may have devolved (or even died) rather than matured, and the setting might be destroyed.
How did the truth and the protagonist’s erroneous beliefs play out?

There are empty schools now. The very kids Harris wanted to help are either dead or gone. There are dead dogs and people, a lack of working infrastructure, empty streets, and Harris had to deal with the infighting and incompetence of the authorities he once trusted and revered. We learn on the very last page that despite all of Harris’s efforts, a new rat king has been born in a London basement.

I’ve outlined published book plots twice before, but this was the first time I could identify the plot points instead of resorting to chapter summaries. It must mean I’m making progress.:-) Anyway, outlining a traditionally structured novel like The Rats is a super helpful exercise (even if you don’t “get it” the first time you try), and I highly recommend it for fellow newbie writers.

I plan to keep studying things like story structure as I learn to be a better writer, and when I get more adept at recognizing the literary scaffold behind good novels, I will try outlining an experimental, non-traditional novel like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, or Black Dog Eats City, by Chris Kelso. I’m looking forward to it!

Feature Image by Samuel Zeller

33 thoughts on “Plot Structure of James Herbert’s The Rats

    1. I suspect that’s true. Identifying the pinch points made me realize that’s where Herbert made things even worse, and the story was hard to put down. (I really enjoyed it. Can ya tell?) Thanks for commenting, Jacqui!

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  1. oh I love this! This is something I’ve been doing for a while to learn about plot but I still get a little confused about the hook and the incident incident. One of my favorites books to analyze (and agonize over) because it has SO MANY plot points is Harry Potter. After all these years of rereads and rewatchs of the movie, I’m still working on it LOL! I don’t know if the hook is the first scene that shows the theme (muggles vs wizards/real life vs magic] and how neglected he is and the MC’s deepest desire to have a loving family belong somewhere? or is the hook when he goes to the zoo and unintentionally uses his magical power (because HP is about a young wizard learning how to use his magic??) or is it when the Hogwards letter arrives because it shows what the story is about or the letter is more of an inciting incident because it changes the MC’s normal life and kicks the story in motion? or is the inciting incident really when Hagrid arrives to take Harry to Hogwards (Because that is the “portal” of no return that really takes him to this other world? os that is more like the The first plot poin? or is it the The first plot point when he arrives to Hogwards and is sorted in ahouse and starts his life as wizard because that really feels more like the point of no return??? LOL! s you can see, still a mystery to me! 🙂 Great Post Pri!

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    1. I think of the hook as whatever is in the first 5 pages that piques the reader’s interest whether or not it includes the theme or main character. In contemporary books I often see a hook in the first couple of sentences. I’m so glad you commented, Daniela.😀

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  2. Cool beans that you took the time to study like that. Were you just studying this classic book, or will you be doing this for every book you read from now on? Good idea. I do this with movies based on the advice from Save the Cat.

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    1. Analyzing a book like that makes it take a lot longer to read. However, it was so interesting that I didn’t mind. I suspect I’ll do it for a few more books, but not always because sometimes I just want to hide in a quiet corner and read for the sake of reading.:-) Funny that you mentioned movies because Dear Husband and I watched a movie Friday night, and I couldn’t help but pick apart the structure. Thanks for commenting, Yawatta!

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      1. I think I’ll do a couple of horror books, maybe by my favorite authors to study their structure. You’re right–nothing wrong with curling up with a good book and hiding in a corner 🙂

        Keep smiling,
        Yawatta

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  3. It’s always good to learn, and to keep learning, Priscilla. I’ve been randomly watching a series of lectures from screenwriters on YouTube. Even though that isn’t my field, it has some great reminders and pointers. Anyhow, when I first decided to try writing a novel, I went back and re-read all the books I owned, trying to understand what the author did that caused me to like the book. It was hard to keep an analytical mindset, rather than get caught up in the stories. LOL.
    Happy researching! Hugs.

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