Story structure and story beats

In some of my previous blogs I’ve talked about the importance of story structure. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me since I first started writing fiction. Some great writers ridicule the idea of an underlying story structure as being too formulaic. They say it’s based too much on the ‘hero’s mythical journey’ or it’s not appropriate for their genre. Yet when we look at their work we see the familiar patterns of story structure are there. For them story structure is instinctive and organic. Obviously, for lesser mortals, following a pre-set story structure will not guarantee the success of a story. But a story without any of the normal structure elements will almost always certainly fail.

At school we learnt to write essays and other narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. However, when writing a 70,000-90,000 word novel, it doesn’t really help to know that we should have a beginning, middle and an end. We need a more detailed breakdown of the underlying story pattern. And to get to this breakdown we need to understand the elements that are common to all stories. In their simplest form, stories are about people and how they react and adapt to a life changing event(s) in their life. The plot is the series of events, actions and revelations that occur in the story; but the real emotional content of the story is how those events, actions and revelations affect the main characters and those about them.

Much of the detailed analysis of stories has been directed at screen writing and the movie industry, but is equally important to all forms of storytelling, including novels. Syd Field, for example, took the classical three-act structure to emphasise the importance of the main turning points that naturally occur at the end of Act 1 and Act 2; and he discovered that something important always seems to occur at the mid point of Act 2. But as Blake Synder later commented in ‘Save the cat goes to the movies’, knowing the need for these turning points  still left a ‘lot of empty space in between’ when writing his scripts. Snyder therefore came up with a more detailed fifteen-point ‘beat sheet’, which he then illustrated by applying it to a number of popular films in each of ten of the most common movie genres.

Blake Snyder is not the only movie guru to look at story structure this way. Each guru seems to have a slightly different way to look at structure, although their differences seem less important than their similarities. For example, John Truby in the ‘Anatomy of Story’ talks about twenty-two step story structure, although not all the steps are considered necessary. Truby emphasises that the steps will not tell you what to write in the way formulas or genres do, but they show the most dramatic way to tell your story. Truby tends to focus on the main character’s development during the course of the story; including the psychological needs and desires of the main character at the start of the story, and how these change with revelations that occur at the turning points of the story.

In the structure below, I have taken the Snyder beat sheet, added some of the flavour of John Truby’s steps, and fused it into my own simplified analysis of the three-act structure. It’s not significantly different from Snyder’s, except I have reduced the number of captions to 11 by combining some. The reason that I do this is more for practical reasons than anything else. I am experimenting with some screenwriting plot software at the moment that will organise my scene cards under these 11 basic plot captions. For reference, I’ve numbered the original 15 Snyder beats so you can still see which ones I’ve combined. The text in italics is there for further explanation.

ACT 1

Opening scene (1)

* Should hook the reader's interest from the outset.

Setup (3)

* Introduce main character in his/her normal story world.
* Reveal main character's weakness/ghost and personal desires.
* Foreshadow.
* Hint at theme of the story (2).

Catalyst (4)/ Inciting event

* Opportunity/problem arises that changes everything for the main character.
* Sets in motion the chain of action and reaction that becomes the story.
* Provides the main character with his principal goal and motivation.

Initial response

* Debate (5). 
* Main character tries to avoid dealing with problem.
* May seek help from ally/fake ally.

Plot Point 1 (6)

* First revelation and decision to act. No going back.
* Thrust into a new world.
* First clash with the primary obstacle in the story.

ACT 2

Act 2 part A

* Sequences of obstacles and challenges for main character. 
* Some 'fun and games' as main characters encounters some success (8).
* Introduce B story (often the love story) (7).

Midpoint  (9)

* May or may not have overcome the primary obstacle.
* But an even larger problem looms, and/or stakes rise.
* Main character's desire/commitment increases.

Act 2 part B

* Sub plots (related to theme of story).
* Bad guys close in (10). Opponents plan finally revealed.
* All is lost (11). Possible betrayal.
* Darkest hour (12)

Plot point 2 (13)

* Epiphany moment. Finally the main character knows what to do.
* Main character now has obsessive desire to see it through.

ACT 3

Climax

* The  finale (14) or final battle

Resolution

* Main character has changed. 
* The world is back to normal

End scene (15)

I’ve said structure is important. It is. But it’s also a very basic required writing skill, like grammar. It won’t write your story for you. Many good writers may have a natural instinct for organic structure without consciously thinking about it. But if you’re like me, and still learning the craft, thinking about structure, both at the planning phase and completion phase of a project, provides an opportunity to step back and look at your story from a high level viewpoint. If a story doesn’t make sense at this level, then it probably doesn’t make any sense at all.

So what is your view of story structure? Do you think it is something intuitive and natural that you feel you don’t need to think consciously about? Or do you think the idea of a beat structure is helpful?

There’s no such thing as writer’s block

That’s what I thought until a young writer contacted me recently asking for ideas of how to get around writer’s block.  She had had some success as a writer and was finding it hard to get started again.  That very success seemed to be the cause of her anxiety, and that was holding her back from starting again.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that if writer’s block exists, it has nothing to do with a shortage of ideas to write, or knowing what words to start with. Quite the opposite.  It’s a form of paralysis caused  by too many ideas to choose from, and a nagging self-doubt that any of those ideas will lead to anything of real quality.

I’m sure all writers have spells where we are distracted for periods. Writing is a solitary activity and it’s easy to get distracted by e-mails, social networking, marketing – anything other than writing.  And I think it is here that we can lose some of the passion to write and let self-doubt creep in. We write a paragraph and it looks like c**p, compared to the work we’ve published before.  We seem to forget that all first drafts are rubbish, and it’s only after the editing and polishing that the draft will begin to shine.

Some of the writing  gurus say that the answer is for all writers to set  word count targets per day, or per week; turn off the e-mail, Facebook etc. and focus on writing the first draft.  They also suggest avoiding redrafting until the first draft is complete. Others have said that they will start the day editing the work finished the day before, but will not go back any further.  This way they can keep up the daily count.

It’s probably all good advice, but it is not for me.  I write when the creative juices are running.  When I’m not happy with a scene,  I sometimes leave it for days to let my subconscious work on it.  Then I go back and redraft the scene, and any further structural changes before moving on.  The time I spend thinking about the problem, for me, is just as valuable as the time spent hitting the keys.  But then again, I’m fortunate, as writing is a hobby for me; it doesn’t have to pay for my board and rations, and I don’t have any publisher’s targets to meet.

If you’re a writer, have you ever experienced writer’s block?  And if so, what was your solution?