The Resolution

Welcome back to our discussion on story structure. If you’re joining in for the first time, you can read about the first three parts here, here, and here. Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get to it.

Here we are at the resolution. The second plot point has happened and we’re rushing toward the finish line. Our hero must now step up and be heroic. No new information should enter the story after the second plot point. Our hero should have all the clues s/he needs now to solve the mystery/rescue the person in distress/get the bad guys/win the heart of their true love/save the world.

This is the thing: make sure your hero/heroine is the primary catalyst in the story’s resolution. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but you’ll find that if you give the readers what they crave, they’ll tend to do their part and recommend your book. Put your hero right in the middle of it all, not off to the side as some namby pamby wuss who doesn’t step up and earn their keep.

Can heroes die? Sure they can. It’s up to you whether your hero dies as s/he solves the major dilemma of the story and saves the town from being swept away when the dam bursts, or whatever the crisis is in your story. If your hero dies, make sure its because they saved others and that it has maximum impact on your readers. You don’t want a dry eye in the house. Your hero becomes the martyr in the last act, whether they die or not. They’re willing to die to reach their goal. Most of the time, they don’t… who wants to read a romance that ends with the couple torn apart by death, right? That’s where the willingness comes in handy.

Let’s take one last look at Billie Jean. She faced her mysterious antagonist, put her life on the line, maybe even went to Egypt against his/her direct instructions to get to the bottom of things… and wins. How she does all that– well, I haven’t figured it all out yet. Billie Jean’s story may not really ever make it into a book, but as the protagonist, she can’t just sit on the sidelines and wait for some other person to save her. She has to step up and solve the riddles herself. After all, what would her inspiration, Indiana Jones, do?

The Attack

Okay… part three. If you’re catching up, you can read parts one and two first. Our hero has been stumbling around blindly, responding to the crisis dropped in her lap. Probably not looking much like a hero in any way, shape, or form. You know how you get in life when you finally decide you’ve had enough and it’s time to fix things? This is it. It’s time to fix things. Billie Jean is going to get proactive, get her courage on and get to work.

Is she afraid? Of course she is, but screw that. She’s going to not only conquer her fear, she’s going after this SOB who’s getting in her way. So what makes her change from cowering co-ed to roaring lioness? Some new information has to enter the story as a catalyst. This is the midpoint… the Great Wall of China, if you will, that marks the middle of the story. The plot thickens, the antagonist moves forward with their own devices, and the hero’s minuscule little pushes aren’t enough. She must become Billie Jean, Warrior Princess.

This works in an action thriller, a romance novel, or a mystery. Apply it to your genre and fill in the scenes.

The pursued now becomes the pursuer as she gathers her intel and goes after the antagonist. Suspense builds. Tension mounts. Stakes rise. The story continues as we hurtle headlong at breakneck speed toward the second plot point at the end of part three.

The Response

If you missed Part One, it’s here. Today, we’re talking about Part Two… the response, the second quarter of your story. How does your character respond to the first plot point? All Billie Jean’s dreams and goals were turned upside down when the first plot point occurred at the end of part one. Now… how does she respond? Part two is all about what she does. Does she run away? Hide? Plot? Research? Observe? Ask for help? A combination of these?

Part two is all about your character reacting to the situation that s/he has just been thrown into. S/he shouldn’t have all the answers yet, but now there is a purpose that must be pursued. How your character figures out addressing the issue is what part two is all about.

Let’s say Billie Jean has just started college. She wants to be an archeologist (she just loves Indiana Jones). Suddenly, at the end of part one, she receives a mysterious letter, begging her to change her major, and whatever else she may do, never to go to Egypt. Well, Billie Jean laughs it off at first. Must be a prank, right? But then her apartment is broken into and all her archeology books are stolen. A cryptic message is left in their place, warning her that she’d better take it seriously or she may come to personal harm. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a prank. But who would do such a thing? Why?

So begins part two. How does Billie Jean react? Well, at first, she could be afraid. She could hide. She could rethink her major and consider following the advice of the mysterious letter. She could call the police. Would they shrug it off or take it seriously? She could talk about the situation with her BFF. She could get angry… how dare this unknown person take away her dream! She could get curious… What’s the big deal about going to Egypt? Why shouldn’t she go? Who is this person, anyway?

As you can see, there’s a lot of ground that can be covered in part two. This section lays the infrastructure for what is to come… the midpoint, and Billie Jean’s plan of action. Don’t jump the gun on this… let it play out.

The Setup

Welcome to the first part of our little series on story structure. Remember those four boxes we mentioned last Friday? Today we’re going to fill up the first one. Box One. Knowing what goes in this box will make your writing easier, it will satisfy your readers, and it will make your work far more marketable.

The first quarter of your story is the setup. This is where we learn the stakes, the backstory, we empathize with your characters, we get a taste of what’s to come. This is where we meet Billie Jean and find out her neat, tidy corner of the world is going to implode. While I fully encourage you to begin the story as late as you can, the first plot point doesn’t arrive until the end of Part One. You can have an inciting incident that sweeps her along for the ride, but don’t confuse it with the first plot point. More on that later. Right now, we want the reader to care about Billie Jean and what happens to her. The more we care about Billie Jean, the better. We need to empathize with what she has at stake. What does she need or want in her life? What does she face before the main conflict arrives? This is what will affect how much we care about her when the caca hits the fan. And why should you care how much we care? Because the more we care, the more effective your story is.

Now that we’re falling all over ourselves with caring, our dashing heroine gets hit in the face with the first plot point, and the reader gets rewarded with meaning. Ta da! Cue the angelic spotlight from the ceiling. The antagonistic force has come into play and either the main character, the reader, or both are hit straight in the eyes with what’s happening. Before this, we don’t know what it all means, even if we’re scared out of our wits or if we find it arousing.

So, what’s the difference between an inciting incident and the first plot point? An inciting incident is definitely something big that happens. It’s huge and dramatic. It can be a game changer. It can also be part of the set up. While a plot point can be all those things, it also defines the changes and the path the character takes. An inciting incident creates an obstacle, but the plot point gives meaning and implications to the hero’s journey.

So, the setup has to bring your character to the transition point. We do that using scenes. This part ends when Billie Jean realizes she needs to step up. Part one has revealed something new… a decision, an action, an obstacle that has created a situation that must be addressed. It may be challenging or scary. She has to accomplish something. If she was already working towards this accomplishment in Part One, the plot point alters it somehow or clarifies what is at stake or the nature of her challenge. Alternatively, the first plot point can be completely unexpected; a moment in which everything changes.

At the very end of Part One, the first plot point, the reader gets the first full look at the antagonist. That doesn’t mean everything is explained about the antagonist, but now the reader gets to understand what his or her desire is and how he or she opposes our hero. Conflict. This is where the story really gets interesting.

4 Parts of Story Structure

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.

Milestones

Does your story have milestone scenes or does it wander all over the place? Milestone scenes serve a specific function in a story and support the structure. These are the points in your story where new information  comes in and changes things up. Maybe the tension grows, or the stakes are higher or the direction takes and about face. You can think of a milestone as a plot twist if you like, though not every plot twist is a milestone.

Think of the milestone scenes as the support poles that hold your story up. For each milestone scene, there are several scenes that lead up to it, and several more that lead away from it. If you have your milestone scenes planned, most of your story is laid out before you. So, just what are the milestone scenes?

  • The opening scene
  • The hook (in the first 20 pages or so)
  • The inciting incident (which in some stories is also the first plot point)
  • First plot point (approximately 20-25% into the story)
  • First pinch point (approximately in the middle of part 2)
  • Midpoint (a shift in the middle of the story)
  • Second pinch point (in the middle of part 3)
  • Second plot point (approximately 75% into the story)
  • Final resolution of the story

These will be the most important scenes in your story. If you plan these moments, if you know what they will be and how they work with the flow of your tale, how to connect them and how to set them up, you’ve got a nice structure for your novel. Structure that will pay off.

All the other moments in your book are either heading towards one of these scenes or reacting to them… these key scenes have a purpose. If you plan your story this way, your first draft can actually be quite good from the start.

So can you do this without planning? Yes, but you’ll end up doing it in one of your later revisions when you realize the story isn’t where it needs to be. You’re still planning, you’re just doing it by writing instead of outlining. Don’t cover your ears and sing ‘la la la.’ It’s true. We all plan our stories, we just use different ways to do it. I’ve tried to pants it, but I end up lost in circles. It’s not for me, just as I’m sure my constant outlining and post it notes aren’t for all of you. Okay. I use Scrivener, because I already have so many post it notes on my desk for client projects that I’d never find the ones intended for my own story. Scrivener gives me index cards and an outlining feature.

My point is you need to know your key scenes and what they’re going to do for your story. Whether you do this before you write or during your 5th draft is up to you. These milestone scenes will propel your story forward like a bullet train headed for Tokyo station, where it will crash headlong from the track into the crowded platform, causing death and mayhem. Your hero (or heroine) must react in some way and eventually figure out who did it and why. Was it a mechanical failure due to a disgruntled employee? Was it a terrorist attack? Was it planned to take the focus away from an equally evil plot elsewhere? Only you can decide, but unless you understand these milestone scenes and how to make them work for you, your plot may fall flat somewhere along the way.

 

Map Your Course

When you write a story, there are certain things readers expect. They want the story to grow. The main character should be challenged by something to make it interesting, after all, who wants to read about everyday life? We’re already living it. They want the main character to take charge and meet the challenge. Perhaps they solve a murder, or take down a group of terrorists. Or maybe they fall in love. No matter what your story is about, your main character should follow a map that directs the story.

You don’t necessarily need that map already diagrammed out in your head or on paper before you write, but if you don’t, you need to hold your story up to close scrutiny to see where it falls short.

What is the challenge that faces your character? Can they face it alone? Do they need help? Do they doubt themselves? How do they react when this challenge hits them in the face? Is it realistic or does your character solve every new problem by the end of the chapter? Does your pacing match the growing issue in the story?

Do you give your readers a break with something calming between heart-pounding scenes? Sometimes it’s nice to have a little breather so you’re ready to let the suspense build again. Does your character grow and learn? Do they come into their own and take charge? Or do you have someone coming in to rescue them at the last minute?

Going through your story either before or after you’ve written your first draft and mapping out the arc of the story, the characters, the chapters, and so on will give your readers a more satisfying journey.

If you take a look at ancient stories, they still follow the same arc. Story begins. Something happens. Main character reacts. Something else happens. Main character must decide to take charge because they’re the only one who can do it. Main character pursues the murderer, kills the monster, defeats evil, finds true love, etc. Everyone lives happily ever after, or at least, as happy as they can according to their circumstances. The reader finally puts the book down, happy with the journey they’ve just taken.

Subplots can fill any gaps and help tie major scenes together. Mapping out your story will show you where you need to strengthen those weak points or add a key element you forgot.

Mapping out can be done on the computer with a spreadsheet program, on a white board with markers, on a pad of paper or with post-its. Use what works for you. Jot down brief scene descriptions and place them in order. Use colored markers or change colors on the computer if it helps you track various story lines or characters. This will show you if you’ve leaned too heavily on your main character’s best friend or if you made a giant leap from one scene to another and dropped the plot ball.

Post-its or writing on white boards can work wonders for some writers, because it is easy to move scenes around if necessary. The end result is you get a map that leads you through your story so you can tighten it up and make it shine.

What is Your Story Built Upon?

Every story needs structure to be successful. Does your story have it?

Consider a house. To stand, it needs a basic structure. Those 2x4s support the walls, and the trusses support the roof. Your story is no different. It needs structure to stand up. Few stories can succeed when written in an offbeat sequence, just like few houses can stand if the underlying structure is weakened or compromised. Think of all the different housing styles you’ve seen, yet they all have the same underlying structure. Those 2x4s are still there.

Your story needs its structure to do the same thing. Most stories are based upon a four part structure. This structure has been implemented since man started storytelling. Before you complain that using a structure hinders your creativity, think of all those houses that look so different. Think of all the dogs on the planet; they all have the same bone structure, the same digestive systems, the same function, yet they can look as different as a Chihuahua does from a German Shepherd.

Likewise, readers expect a story to progress in a certain way. Let’s take a look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone. In the first part of the book, we are introduced to Harry, our hero. We find out about his circumstances, and we empathize with him. We see that he does have abilities that he isn’t familiar with, and we eagerly go along with him as he goes off to Hogwarts to begin his new life. Then Harry hits some complications. He makes enemies. He must fit in all his schoolwork along with Quidditch practice. He finds out about the stone. Next, he has to find a way to prevent Voldemort from getting the stone, while the stakes get higher. Finally, he confronts Quirrel and Voldemort, prevents them from getting the stone, and life returns to some semblance of normal again.

Along with Harry Potter, other bestsellers follow this basic structure. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Jim Butcher’s Changes, and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer all follow the same basic structure. All of them sold well, and two have been made into movies. They wouldn’t have been half as successful if the authors decided to mess with the basic structure.

So, does your story have structure?

Every story needs structure. If you’re not sure about yours, your editor can help pinpoint it for you so you can plug up holes, rearrange portions if necessary, and make it strong. Please check out our services if you don’t already have an editor.