Structure is key to having a successful story. The word "structure" can be misleading, because it does not mean you are confined, rather that it allows you to express your ideas in a way that your readers will follow. Even though they are not aware of it, readers expect structure.
Think about pop and rock music. The structure goes: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Verse, Chorus. The listener is expecting this. Sometimes people deviate from this structure, but successful pop and rock musicians rarely deviate very far. And yet, the possibilities for creativity within this format is seemingly infinite. The same is true for story structure.
Structure does not need to be followed verbatim. As in music, ou can feel free to deviate from them all you want, but do it consciously. As my bass teacher once said about playing basslines, "Please break the rules... but only after you've learned how to follow them."
There are many different structures, but this one is, as far as I can tell, the most popular. It's a variation on a 3-act format that works well for stories and screenplays. The second act is split in half, making it four different parts to the story. Each of these parts are roughly 25% of your story. Whether you're starting a story from the ground up, or if you already have a completed draft, the following outline will help you clean up your plot line.
Act 1 – The Set-Up
a. What is it?
i. Establishes the stakesb. Begins with a “hook”
ii. Give us the “Right Now” before the true action begins
1. But note that the story is already beginning, it’s not what happens before the story. You should start your story where it gets interestingiii. We only include what is important for the rest of the story to progress.
iv. Foreshadows story to come
v. Introduces characters
vi. No plot twists
i. First line, gives intrigue.c. Has a conversation with the relational character
ii. For example: “I woke up next to a stranger.” So many possible interpretations.
iii. But there are many places for hooks, and the more the merrier
1. End of first paragraph
2. End of first page
3. A few pages in
4. And end of first chapter
i. That describes the theme of the bookd. Ends with the Fateful Decision
i. It is a choice for the MC to have a movie. If they make the other choice, then the movie doesn’t happen.
ii. From here on out, the everything changes for the MC
iii. We have a new goal:
1. Survival, finding love, attaining justice, stopping the bad guys, preventing disaster, escaping danger, saving someone, anything else.iv. Everything we learned in Act 1 is at stake
v. It is here we see the first glimpse at the antagonistic force
1. Alice goes down the rabbit hole
2. Neo (from the Matrix) takes the red pill
a. But he also makes the wrong fateful decision twice before: with the phone call and in the car
- Act II (part 1) – The Reaction
a. What is it?
i. Too early to have the MC be a true hero yetb. Ends with: Mid-plot point
ii. Still adjusting to new goal, new antagonist
1. Fumbling, Hesitant, running, planning, recalculating, recruiting, hiding.iii. Hero is a wanderer, staggering through a forest of options and risks
2. Not trying to succeed, just trying not to fail.
iv. Act II gives us something to care about
v. Always asking questions
vi. Hero faces inner demon for the first time
i. Happens in the smack-dab center of your story.
ii. A new piece of information (often a twist) that turns the whole plot in a new direction (which is the next section, “The Attack”)
iii. Can be known to MC, or only to readers
iv. Can be a gentle whisper to the reader’s ear, or a sledgehammer to their head
- Act II (part 2) – The Attack
a. What is it?
i. Now the MC becomes a true herob. Right before the end of this section: All-Is-Lost Moment
ii. Stops asking questions, starts finding answers to them.
iii. Begins to fix things, attack the problem
iv. Has solutions that almost works
v. But the antagonistic force is getting stronger, too. The hero needs a better plan, more courage and creativity,
i. Farthest from the MC’s goal as possiblec. Ends with: Second Plot Point
ii. Antagonistic force seems to have won
iii. Relational character has disowned MC
iv. The harder MC falls, the more powerful your story
v. Example: We always know James Bond is going to win, but what makes it interesting is how desperate a situation he gets in first
i. Happens at the very end of Act II, part 2
ii. The final piece of the puzzle that is all the hero needs to beat the bad guy
- Act III – The Chase/Final Battle
a. What is it?
i. The final battle where the hero ultimately hunts down the antagonistic force and takes care of it.b. Three goals:
ii. It is the most open structurally of all four sections, but the following three goals must be accomplished.
iii. It does not have to be a literal chase/final battle, but can be a figurative chase/final battle.
i. MC gets what she wantedc. Main character can die here, but only if s/he has completed these three goals
ii. Defeat the antagonist
1. Very common: “The power is in you!” realization that they had the power to defeat the antagonist all along iii. And Reconciliation with the relational character
1. Where the main theme is rearticulated, and the relationship is mendediv. The closer these happen together, the more emotional impact the story has on the reader
d. Example: Die Hard is an Act III movie.
This information is adapted from the podcast "Writing Excuses." Check it out, it's free and has been an invaluable resource for me.
It is also combined with information I learned from Storyfix.com. The link leads to the first post in his story structure series. To see the second post, scroll down to the very bottom of that page.
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