Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day 22: Mastering Story Structure


Despite talking about story structure in several of my previous posts, I've really felt unsteady about it.  Sometimes I find myself getting lost in terminology like turning points and plot points or denouements and resolutions, so today I decided to tackle this head on.  I sat my little bum down on my bed and have been pouring over all the story structure books I own until I FINALLY feel like I've got the hang of it.  (I even created the little pie chart below to better visualize the way all of these pieces fit together).

So now I turn to you.  I'm going to offer up my interpretation of what story structure is, and then you're going to comment and tell me if it looks right or if I'm totally off the mark.  *deep breath*  Here goes.

Your story should begin with a hook.  In the past I wasn't sure if the hook was just another term for the inciting incident but I've concluded that they serve different functions, despite occasionally being presented in the same scene.  The hook is whatever draws a reader in.  This could be the story's concept (a civilization has 24 of its children fight to the death on live television, as in The Hunger Games), its language ("Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies..." - G.K Chesterton in The Blue Cross), its humor ("A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience." - John Updike, Assorted Prose), or any other number of openings that compel the reader to keep reading.  

Your story should also have an inciting incident, but here's where things got even more complicated for me.  In Writing Great Books for Young Adults I read that the inciting incident should take place almost on page one, absolutely as soon as you can introduce it.  In Story Structure -- Demystified I read that the inciting incident should take place within the first 25 pages of your novel, but that some "life as usual" scenes should be exposed first to showcase just how much the inciting incident will change your character's world.  Then in Hooked, Les Edgerton suggests that a good hook will involve the inciting incident, thrusting the character into trouble and egging the audience to continue reading.  The conclusion I've reached from these varying sources is that the inciting incident of your story can be introduced at different times, depending on the style of book you're writing.  For example, most young adults have accustomed themselves to the fast-paced world of instant messaging, instant microwaving, and instant gratification.  If they have to wade through pretty prose and petty backstory your book won't stand a chance.  On the other hand, my mother isn't interested in reading a book if it lacks a sense of poetry and a deep understanding of character early on the in story.  I would say the best advice for the point of introducing the inciting incident is to study examples from your genre.

After including the obvious necessities of introducing your hero, showing life as usual (or how the inciting incident has changed life as usual), dropping bits of backstory, and foreshadowing things to come, you will end Act I with the first plot point.  (Plot points can also be referred to as turning points, so don't get confused by that).  Plot point one is when the main problem, or "initial surface problem," for the character is introduced.
"[It] occurs as a direct result of the inciting incident.  And while it may seem at first glance that solving this problem is what the story is really about, it's not.  ...[E]very story is about solving the deeper, more complicated story-worthy problem that is slowly revealed as the story progresses," (Hooked, Les Edgerton, page 26).

The beginning of Act II is all about responding to the first plot point.  Often a character will need a bit of time to sit and plan out how to best overcome (or secure if it's a romance) these recent changes.  Larry Brooks suggests that any attempts the hero makes to fight his antagonist in these scenes cannot succeed, but that each failure slowly helps to strengthen him, preparing him to overcome the antagonist in Act III.

At about the 3/8ths mark of your novel you should consider including a pinch point, allowing the reader to see firsthand how strong the antagonist is.  This helps increase suspense as it causes a reader to wonder just how the hero really will come off conqueror when his foe is so capable.  Larry Brooks offers that, 
"Pinch points can be very simple and quick.  It can be one character reminding the other of what's going on.  A glimpse of an approaching storm - take that literally or metaphorically...  The simpler and more direct it is, the more effective it is" (Story Structure -- Demystified, locations 1393-1399 on Kindle).
The midpoint occurs halfway through your novel.  It is the point at which the main character is allowed to conquer their adversary momentarily.  This is where the temporary triumphs that I wrote about previously come into play.

At about the 5/8ths mark it's time to include pinch point two.  This serves the same function as the first pinch point - reminding readers of the power of the antagonistic force - only this time the antagonist has gotten stronger.  Just as the hero has grown and evolved with every failed attempt to rectify the problem, so has the antagonist evolved after being defeated by the hero's temporary triumph.

The reversal is what puts the "temporary" in temporary triumph.  Victoria Lynn Schmidt's Book in a Month shows the reversal of the hero's temporary triumph occurring near the end of Act II, Part 2, but that is subject to interpretation.  Depending on the style of story you are writing, the reversal may come at any point after the temporary triumph; (In my story it comes almost immediately after).  The advantage of putting the reversal off until the end of Act II is that it functions well as a catalyst for the "dark moment."

Not a necessary part of a story, but certainly one that increases dramatic tension, near the end of Act II is the "Dark Moment" (or as Larry Brooks calls it, the pre-second plot point lull).  This is the point at which things really can't get any worse for the hero.  All hope seems lost and the audience is left wondering how in the heck the hero will get himself out of this jam.

The dark moment now plays the role of catalyst, spurring us into the second plot point.  Occurring 75% of the way through, this is the point at which the final bit of new information is introduced, giving the hero all the knowledge he'll need to conquer the villain in Act III.  After having gone through her toughest trial yet the heroine has reflected on how committed she really is to this goal.  The second plot point shows her renewed commitment to solve this problem.  
            An interesting note:  In David Warfield's article on story structure he points out that the second plot point often answers the surface problem, or as he terms it, the "dramatic question."  The problem that was plaguing the hero from the beginning, the one that kept readers wondering "Will he ever be able to solve this?" gets solved right here.  The hero is inevitably given a new set of goals as a new dramatic question is posed.
"Example[s]: In Seven, at the end of Act II the Serial Killer comes to the police station and turns himself in!  Mystery solved!  Dramatic Question (will the detectives stop the Serial Killer?) answered.  Story over? Not quite… In Wedding Crashers, the hero’s sins are exposed (by the antagonist fianc√©) and the girl he loves now hates him: she’s sure to marry the fianc√©!" (Story Structure in 17 StepsWarfield).

Act III is all about your main man getting his hero on.  He's been doing what he can to solve the problem up till now, but he was lacking some skill or personality trait that would allow him to succeed.  After having gone through a series of challenges and failures your hero has grown and developed and is ready to take on the antagonist.

The climax is the most important scene in Act III (arguably the whole book).  A good portion of Act III should be spent building up the tension and stacking the odds against your main character to make his triumph all the greater.  The climax is the height of dramatic tension where the reader still questions if the hero will win or not.

It is only in the resolution (as a direct result of the climax) that the hero's victory or defeat is certain.  Now we see all of the loose ends tied up as the hero's life moves to a new state of normalcy.  The best resolutions are often brief, 
"provid[ing] a... 'coming down' period to emotionally center the audience to the idea that ORDER HAS BEEN RESTORED in the world of the protagonist," (Story Structure in 17 Steps, Warfield)
So tell me, did I get it right?  Did I forget anything or mix terms or roles together?

MY DAY 22:  This was a hard day for me.  Up to then I'd been writing in the female perspective but, having duel-narrators, I made my first attempt at writing from the male perspective.  If my man were verbose and semi-charming it would have been a bit easier, but he's a complete realist who isn't going to get all flowery in his descriptions of a scene.  I'm not totally sure how to convey detailed goings-on when they're being told by this minimalist.


  1. Very good job!! I learned a lot of useful information.

  2. Thank you Traci for leaving a comment! It's always nice to know all of the hard work I put into these articles is beneficial to others :)