I’ve been serious about writing for a number of years now and I’ve read a number of books on story structure. The first time I learnt story structure it was like a bomb going off in my mind (a lightbulb being switched on wasn’t a big enough simile). The long, murky quagmire of novel writing transformed into a well-signposted, tarmacked road.
The unfortunate thing is that story structure is probably the most neglected area of writing craft among fiction writers. It is neglected because people either dismiss it automatically as ‘formulaic’ and ‘creativity stifling’, or because they simply don’t know such a thing even exists.
For the first group I would say to read a book or two on the subject and then decide for yourself whether to reject the principles. Even if you reject all of it you will be the wiser for having an understanding of it. And anyway, I don’t believe you will reject all of it. I do concede that story structure is probably more applicable to writers of genre/commercial fiction, especially if your work is extremely character based (not much plot) and/or experimental.
For the second group I say ‘Welcome. The knowledge you will learn will be life-changing’. I’ll give an introduction to story structure below but after that I recommend you read as much as you can on the subject. I’ve listed a number of recommended books at the end of this article.
Introduction to Story Structure
Films and novels generally use a Three Act Structure. Plan your novel to make sure your novel hits the right milestones and has the Acts in the right proportions. If you’re not much of a planner or your novel is already written or part-written, review your WIP to see if it follows the structure and make changes accordingly.
Act 1 – The first 20 – 25% of the novel. This is the Setup phase where the main character (MC) is living their normal life, before they are thrust into the story ‘world’.
Inciting Incident – During Act 1, something happens that shakes the MC’s world and opens up the story path or sets it in motion. This is the inciting incident. In Star Wars the inciting incident is the moment when Luke Skywalker receives Princess Leia’s message. In The Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is the moment Dorothy and her house are picked up by a cyclone and transplanted in Oz.
First Plot Point – Plot Points are game-changer scenes. The First Plot Point is located anywhere from the 20% mark to the 25% mark. This is where the MC chooses to enter the story ‘world’ and it is the Point of No Return. For example, in Star Wars Luke returns home to find it torched and his uncle and aunt are dead. With the First Plot Point he decides to go with Obi Wan Kenobi and the story begins. Note that if the inciting incident occurs late in Act 1, then the inciting incident and the first plot point can be very close together or even the same moment. For example, in the Hunger Games, the inciting incident is when Prim is chosen as a tribute. The First Plot Point is the moment Katniss volunteers to take her place.
The First Plot Point is where Act 1 ends and Act 2 begins.
Act 2 – The middle half of the novel (from the 25% mark to the 75% mark). The MC is dealing with the conflict(s) of the new story ‘world’. In the first half they are reacting to the problem but in the second half they are acting rather than reacting.
Midpoint – Along with the First and Second Plot points this is the third milestone scene that structurally supports the novel. It is where the MC goes from reaction to action and is where something significant happens that raises the stakes and causes the story to go in a new direction. For example, in the movie Ghost, dead Sam learns that his best friend Carl hired the murderer. A shocking revelation that changes and ramps up the conflict. Now that Sam knows who is behind his murder and that his wife is under attack, he is now shifts from reactive mode and into assertive attack mode to protect.
Second Plot Point – This normally occurs at the 75% mark but with a very long novel it may be as high as the 85% mark. (In longer novels, Act 2 tends to be stretched out i.e. the middle is longer than it otherwise would be. Percentage-wise, the First and Second Plot Points are thus earlier and later respectively). At this point, the MC may be down but it is here where they learn or understand what they must do to resolve the conflict. No new information may enter the story after this point. For example, in Star Wars Luke finds out he has the force and needs to use it if he is going to defeat the Death Star.
The Second Plot Point concludes Act 2 and begins Act 3.
Act 3 – The final 25% of the novel. This is the finale and it is the resolution of the story.
Climax – This occurs close to the end and it is where the plot is at its highest tension. The MC finally succeeds or not but it is here that the MC learns the theme of the story and their character arc is complete, leaving the MC changed in some way. For example in the Climactic Sequence of the Huger Games, Katniss saves Peeta from Cato, the final tribute, later killing him as an act of mercy when he is mauled by mutts. When the Gamemakers try to force Katniss and Peeta to fight to the death, they move to commit suicide instead, maintaining their integrity despite the Capitol’s demands.
That was a quick whistlestop tour of the main elements of story structure. I highly recommend you do some reading on the subject so without further ado…..
Recommended books on Story Structure
The following titles are excellent. I’ve read them all and can state that I found them all incredibly useful. Indeed, they are all considered classic texts in the writing field. Two other books are ‘Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell and ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ by Christopher Vogler. They are both considered classics but I haven’t got round to reading them yet so can’t comment personally.
Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction by Larry Brooks. This contains more than just story structure – It’s a comprehensive bible about all the elements of story writing
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K M Weiland. Comprehensive but easy to understand. The accompanying workbook is also very useful.
Save the Cat!: The Only Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Syder. This is a text on screenwriting (for films) but the principles apply to novel writing. It’s packed full of practical advice, and it contains more than just story structure although that is by far the greatest part.
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing That You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody. This book applies the principles in the original Save the Cat book to novel writing. The greater portion of it is examples of books showing where all the steps in the Save the Cat template appear in each book.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. This was written for screenwriting but the principles apply to all storytelling, including novel writing. Some discretion is required though, because the knowledge isn’t applicable in all areas. This is the book I recommend you leave till last i.e. when you already have a knowledge of story structure.
This concludes my introduction to story structure where I’ve discussed the big picture structural elements of a novel. I’ll have more on story structure in future posts. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!