Story structure. There are four parts (three if you’re talking about a play… three acts). Each part has its own reason for being there and its own place in the story. Each part tells you what it needs to contain.
I can already hear you screaming generic and formula. Stop it. Stop jumping up and down. Stop holding your breath… you’re turning red. Every art form has structure. Every one. Even writing. Even abstract painting. Without the proper structure, we humans just don’t react to it properly. We don’t gaze into the depths of the painting, we lose interest quickly and move on. We don’t get lost in the book and want to live in it, we drop it in a corner and forget about it. Have you noticed the similarities between the words generic and genre? Yeah. Same root. Genre fiction lives on in bestselling books the world over, and often has fairly rigid structures for authors to follow (read a good mystery lately?). So take a deep breath and read on.
Before you throw around that generic label, look at yourself. You’re a human. A torso, a head, two legs, two arms. Pretty generic, right? That could describe any one of us seven billion people on the planet. However, none of us is exactly like another. Our stories are different. Our lives diverge and change. Our experiences change how we react, what we choose to do. So it is with story structure. The structure is the body, but what you do with it makes it unique. The characters, the situations, how the plot affects the characters, how they react… that’s what makes it your story. The structure is what helps us readers stay glued to the pages until we reach the end. Think about that for a while. I’ll wait.
Ready to proceed? Here’s a box. You can put all the parts of your story in it. Words. Sentences. Plot points. Characters. Scenes. Now close the box and shake it up. There’s your story. Did it work out the way you hoped? Oh. Not quite, huh? Well, you can pour all that stuff out and try again. Maybe it will work better this time. I know writers who do it this way. It does eventually work out for them, but it’s a lot of work. Every time they need to rework something, they have to wade through to find the part that isn’t working.
What if I told you there’s an easier way? This is where story structure comes in. Sneaky, aren’t I? Oh, you saw that coming? Well, I did kind of give it away by the title, didn’t I? Okay, think of your big box filled with four smaller boxes. Ta da! Each of those smaller boxes holds 1/4 of your story. Each quarter of your story contains exactly what it needs to feed into the next quarter of the story, so say box #1 only has scenes that are designed to introduce and lead up to what happens in box #2. Now if you need to fix something, not only is it easy to find, you can probably pinpoint it exactly.
Not only that, but each of these four parts has a mission, so you know what goes in each box. Not only will the story be easier to tell, you’ll be able to pick out if something crucial is missing, and your character arcs will all fall into place. I don’t know about you, but when I first discovered this, the light bulb definitely went on.
But wait. Even with the boxes, it’s so easy to mess things up. Writers put box one stuff in box four, box two stuff in box three… argh! Stop the madness! No matter how good the idea is, it’s not going to be as good as it could be as long as this happens! If you get this right, your stories will work… every time. So are you ready? Next week… we explore those boxes one by one.