Story and structure

book Having just finished the final edit of my second book, I pondered over whether my workflow had improved from my first book. I have always believed in planning my stories, although for me planning and revision continues throughout the writing process. Part of story planning is story structure.

In my view, a good story has to have a structure, but structure alone will not give you a story. Let me explain.

In simple terms, a story is about a character with a problem or opportunity that comes into his/her life and the storyline is driven by his/her desire to resolve it.

All stories therefore need:

  • a main character
  • an important situation (a problem, or opportunity) that comes into the main character’s life, which he/she has to resolve, or suffer the consequences.
  • one or more difficult obstacles and complications that increasingly frustrate the main character from resolving the situation.
  • a setting and context where the story takes place

The actions or events in a story are the result of a process of cause and effect that unfold as the main character tries to resolve the situation and deal with the obstacles in his/her own way. When the main character resolves the situation, the story is over.

For most stories, other than tragedies, there is generally a pattern where matters for the main character go from good to bad, and then from bad worse, until eventually the character reaches rock bottom. At this point the main character usually finds his/her true self and resolves to fight back and succeed in a climatic ending. This is a story with a positive ending.

Of course there are also stories with negative endings (tragedies) where the natural flow is the opposite. But such stories are less popular these days, at least in the movies.

Structure, on the other hand, is the pattern of sign posts along the storyline that mark the different phases that a story normally goes through.

Different gurus use different frameworks (acts, parts, sequences, or beats) to explain story structure, but most of them are remarkably similar. One of the oldest is the three-act structure with a beginning, middle and an end. The difficulty with the three-act structure is usually the problem of working out what happens in the long middle act, where most of the action takes place. However, if we split the middle act into two, we can break the story down into four roughly equally sized parts, each ending in a turning point, a major revelation, or the story ending. Using this approach, the content of each part will broadly be as follows:

Part 1 (or Act 1).

  • The opening scene – should contain a ‘hook’ (raise questions) to keep the reader’s attention.
  • Set up – introduce the main character in his ordinary world and show why we should like him/her. Show his/her weakness and hint at the theme of the story.
  • The inciting incident or catalyst – the main character encounter’s the problem or opportunity for the first time. Initially, he/she may try to avoid it.
  • Turning point 1 – the main character accepts the challenge and follows a goal.

Part 2 (First part of Act 2).

  • The main character encounters the principal obstacle to his goal. He/she may experience initial success as we glimpse the possibility of him/her succeeding. But there is a certain naivety to his/her actions.
  • The B story sub plot develops (the main character’s relationship with love interest, buddy, mentor or sidekick).
  • The main character experiences a more difficult obstacle as the antagonist shows its claws (a pinch point.) This may result in victory or defeat for his/her goal. But in either case it doesn’t resolve the situation.
  • Mid point revelation – the main character realises for the first time what he is now up against. The stakes have risen, his/her goal may have changed substantially, but he/she resolves to continue.

Part 3 (Second part of Act 2).

  • The main character prepares his new plan.
  • More B Story sub-plot interlude as relationships deepen.
  • The plan is put into action.
  • Crisis – The antagonist forces close in with devastating effect and loss (possible betrayal, or loss of mentor).
  • Turning point 2 – a moment of epiphany for the main character in his/her darkest moment. He/she finds their true self, a new way forward, and resolves to try again or die in the process.

Part 4 (Third Act).

  • Main character prepares for final conflict with new insight and determination.
  • Climax sequence (which may include a false climax).
  • Final Scene. We see a wiser main character back in his own world with the challenge resolved.

Do all stories follow this pattern? Clearly not, as some stories can have a negative or indeterminate endings. But it does cover most stories that have positive endings.

Does it include everything that needs to occur in a story? Again, clearly not, different genre have their own typical story beats. But it is helpful nonetheless.

Do you need to use the structure in your stories? Again that’s up to you. Many successful writers write organically without any explicit recognition of structure. But those that do I suspect have it ingrained in their DNA. As I said at the start, good stories have structure, but not all structured stories are good.