Structuring Your Story
Conflict & Tension: The Engines of your story
Conflict must be the umbrella that is always present in your story. This could be internal or external (such as an evil genius or weighing options for a decision)
·Tension, like conflict, drives the story, but this is your accelerator / brake; tension (or lack thereof) will guide the pace for your story, and will keep the reader turning the page
Basic 3-Act Structure
·The great majority of stories follow a 3-act structure (few exceptions exist, such as nonfiction, historical fiction or nonfiction, and epics like Gilgamesh or the Bible). It is important to at least understand this type of story structure because if your story is commissioned for a screenplay, it must follow this structure strictly.
Act 1 - The Backstory
· The first thing you must achieve as a writer is provide the reader with a hook - something that will interest the reader and make them want to read your story. Make sure your hook is more than just a gimmick, though, or your reader will not be interested. Know the difference.
· The first act helps to establish the daily routine of your characters, their backstories, and the setting
· In this first act you must establish the beliefs of your primary and secondary characters to set the stage for their development through the story
· You must also set the stage for what is at stake once the character is drawn into the story
· What sparks the STORY (not the protagonist) is the inciting event. This is something the protagonist will eventually be engulfed in, but he or she may not know it at first.
· The event that triggers your protagonist's involvement is the key event - also known as your 1st plot point.
· The inciting event can happen before your story begins (bank robbery, fire, death in the family, divorce) - this is called in medias res.
· This act takes up about 25% of your story. Too much Act 1 and your reader will be bored, and too little will make your reader not care about your characters so be careful!
Act 2 - The Meat
· The key event ends the first act and begins the second act. The characters' daily routines are changed by the event, and they try as best they could to deal with the new circumstances.
· The characters' reactions must move the story forward, and along the way the antagonistic force (character's ethical conviction, evildoer, fire, etc) will have several small victories that both show off its power and raise the stakes, pushing the protagonist to try new things to be able to win.
· The antagonistic force has another major victory over the protagonist. This event raises the stakes even higher for the protagonist and causes him or her to change from simply reacting to circumstance to taking charge and seeking out the antagonistic force. This is known as the 2nd plot point or midpoint.
· After the midpoint, the protagonist starts a series of aggressive actions to defeat the antagonistic force.
· The antagonistic force has another minor win.
· Some of the subplots are resolved
· The protagonist has a eureka! moment (read Isaac Asimov). The best example is probably in The Matrix, where Neo finally realizes he is the one.
· The lowest point for the protagonist is the biggest victory for the antagonistic force (brother dies in the fire, girl is humiliated by all her classmates in front of the boy she wants to win over, protagonist is kidnapped or trapped). This is the 3rd plot point.
· This act takes up 50% of your story, so it is the meat of your story.
Act 3 - Climax
· The third plot point sets the protagonist into motion on rapid-fire. This is where the protagonist fully embraces his or her new skills to defeat the antagonistic force (The slipper fits in Cinderella, for example). This must be inevitable but unexpected. It must hit the reader from left field, yet not leave them thinking you cheated in some way. For example, in The Hunger Games, the protagonists use poisonous berries they had found earlier in the story to get their way. Avoid doing something like in Stephen King's "It", where the clown was really a giant spider in a cave that the kids kill with a rock. This leaves the reader thinking the author copped out of spending some time to create an intriguing ending.
· The climax proper is a single scene that permanently stops the antagonistic force. It could be a revelation (The Wizard of Oz), a fight to the death (The Dark Knight), overcoming fear (Cyrano de Bergerac)
· Some stories can have a faux climax (popular with horror stories), in which the antagonistic force is not really destroyed, or there is a bigger force behind the whole thing.
· What follows is the resolution, where you must tie off any final loose ends, leaves the characters ready to continue life, but in a slightly different way. The protagonist's change must be obvious, but not spoon-fed to the reader (show don't tell). Also, it must stir emotions in line with the tone of the book (for romance novels, the girl ends up with the guy, for example).
Endcaps: Prologue and Epilogue
· These are not popular sells for new authors, so try to avoid using them early in your career. Some stories demand a prologue and/or epilogue, which are scenes that sit outside of your story.
· Prologues usually work in mystery or detective novels, to show the reader the crime being committed. They can work in historical works as well, and some horror (Dracula).
· Epilogues show the reader what happened to the characters after the resolution. Sometimes these are used to close off a series or to set up a sequel to the story.
Scenes: Building Blocks
· Scenes must be interesting and exciting - and must move the plot forward. Use action, movement, and proper pacing in context with the scene. If it is a mysterious scene, or an educational one, the pace should be slower than a chase scene or a revelation. All scenes must have tension. Even a simple visit to grandma's house can have tension with something like a hint of trouble during her marriage that she slips hints of then refuses to discuss it, a legend about the house being haunted or someone being murdered there before she bought the house, or something embarrassing little Fanny doesn't want grandma to reveal in conversation to her new husband, Rob.
· Scenes need three things: a goal, a conflict, and a "disaster". The disaster does not mean it should be something deadly or large-scale; it is simply something that sets the protagonist or main character within the scene a step back from achieving his or her goal. These dilemmas should not be easy decisions like "Should I have chicken or fish tonight?" - they should be more like, "should I save my mother or my son?" One step forward, two steps back!
· Scenes are followed by scene sequels - these are what captures the reactions of the characters to the disaster of the scene, resolving a dilemma or forcing a decision that builds the character.
· Protagonist and antagonist should share a common goal or motivation, but they approach it differently.
· The protagonist should be flawed, and some of those flaws are corrected at the end of the novel (character development), but not all of them.
· Antagonist should be likeable, and not all evil. He or she should have some level of humanity so that the reader can feel conflicted about rooting for either the antagonist or protagonist.
· Remember to vary your sentence structure
· Vary the pace
· Don't state the obvious or spoon-feed your audience
· Cut or repurpose cliches
· Avoid big words or sentences. Impress your audience with your crafty sentences and sensory detail, not your vocabulary.