Structure and character arc

Some writers don’t like the idea of story structure and reject it on the grounds that any such approach would be too rigid for them. Structures like the Hero’s Journey, the Three-Act structure, and the Sequence Method may appeal to some writers,  but not all. But even if you don’t like to write in a structured manner, understanding the rhythms and patterns of stories can provide an insight into understanding the basics of why a story works or doesn’t work.

Recently I have been looking at ways to simplify the approach and connect more with character arc. Here is my simplification which is loosely based on a Three-Act Structure, but without drawing too much attention to the three Acts. Those familiar with the Three-Act Structure will see which blocks fit into each Act, but for now I want to concentrate on the different types of narrative that fit naturally together in a pattern.

The light blue narratives are the setup and main action sequences in the story. The dark blue narratives are the important Plot Points through the story, all of which are outside the control of the Main Character (“MC”). The yellow narratives are periods of reflection when we see into the MC’s persona. Examples and references to Star Wars used below are to Star Wars New Hope.
outlineThe Setup is where the MC is introduced in his ordinary world. We see why we should empathise with him/her as well as their faults and desires.  We may also see or glimpse the antagonist and the ‘McGuffin’ or ‘Object of Desire’, if any. (Eg. the Plans to the Death Star.)

The Catalyst, or Call to Adventure, is the big event that starts the main conflict of the story running. (Eg. In Star Wars,  Luke gets the message from Princess Leia ‘Help me Obi-Wan’.)

After the Catalyst the MC may try to avoid dealing with the new situation or may seek help. (E.g. Luke initially rejects Obi-Wan’s offer to go to Mos Eisley Spaceport.)

Plot Point 1 is a major shock that forces the MC to act. (Eg. Luke finds his uncle and aunt killed and farm torched and goes on the quest with Obi-Wan.)

The first part of Act 2 is taken up by a series of action sequences where the MC is reacting to the new situation.

At the Mid Point the MC may be subject to a new shock or revelation that complicates his/her quest or throws the story into a new direction. (Eg. The Millennium Falcon is caught in the death Star’s tractor beam.)

The Mid Point shock may force the MC to re-examine his commitment to the quest and strengthen his/her resolve. (Eg. Luke finds that Princess Leia is about to be executed and commits to rescuing her.)

The second part of Act 2 is an action sequence about the execution of the MC’s new plan.  (E.g. Luke, Han and Chewbacca rescue the princess and escape the Death Star).

Plot Point 2 is another devastating event that affects the MC. (Eg. Obi-Wan is Killed by Darth Vader).

Sometimes after Plot Point 2, the MC retreats into self examination — the dark night of the soul. (Eg. In Star Wars, this is merely a brief moment of pain for Luke, but it has a profound effect on him).

At the end of the dark night of the soul, the MC usually discovers what he/she needs to do to succeed. (In Star Wars, the ‘discovery’ is the  Death Star’s weakness.)

The final action sequence takes us into he Third Act. It is the final attempt by the MC to complete his/her quest, but there is a new goal. (Eg. In Star Wars, it is to destroy the Death Star.)

Often there will be a Twist before the climax. (Eg. In Star Wars, Luke is at the mercy of Darth Vader, when Hans Solo returns in the Millennium Falcon to save him.)

The Climax is the ‘obligatory scene’ which finally resolves the story. (Eg. when Luke destroys the Death Star.)

The Aftermath is the scene the shows what life is like after the resolution and how the MC has changed. (In Star Wars, it is the scene when Luke, Hans and Chewbacca are given medals. Luke has changed from from farm boy to hero.)

So how is this different from some of my previous blogs I hear you ask — the narrative is pretty much the same? That’s right. But what the analysis shows is that there is a natural pattern that alternates between action scenes/sequences and more reflective scenes/sequences. The yellow text is pretty much where we see the Main Character changing during the course of the story.  That isn’t to say that there are no reflective moments in the blue narrative — there will be. But what the diagram shows is that structure is not just about plot, it’s also about the character arc of the main character.

It also illustrates the importance of pacing. You can’t have a story being just about action sequences. The audience or reader needs time to relax and reflect just like the main character. Stories therefore have to have a natural rhythm to them that alternate between action sequences and reflective scenes that show character insight. I hope the diagram shows that.

Tell me what you think.

 

4 comments on “Structure and character arc

  1. I tried applying this structure to the novel I am writing to see how it fitted. I gave up in confusion and tried it on a 25,000 plus word story I am editing. My conclusion? Up until the mid-point, it fits and after that, there are large discrepancies. The first half has a lot of reflection and steady plot development, and the second half builds up into fast action and is plot centred. Does it distance the reader from the main character? Not if I play up emotion? Should there be reflection? These are the questions I ask myself. I do want to develop her character so will be getting back to the story.
    Thank you for the mind-fodder.

    • Hi Rosamund. The structure I put forward in the blog is mashup of various similar screenwriting structures. I have found that this type of structure can be helpful writing novels. (I’m a novel writer, not a screenwriter). But screenwriters have to write to a very tight time restricted structure so that anything not directly related to the story is cut out. In novel writing, you have far more freedom to develop characters and subplots. Most stories consist of introducing a main character (our hero) and his world, and then throwing a problem at them that they will struggle to overcome and in the process learn something about themselves. Most writers (I think) are good at starting stories and writing the ending. The hard part is that long middle (Act 2) and how to break it down into manageable chunks. The end of Act 2 is usually where everything goes wrong for the main character and they reach a low point (the dark night of the soul) and which should be very emotional.
      If you find the need to inject more emotional into the second half of Act 2 before that point, do whatever works for you. There are no rules here that can’t be broken.

      • My story does fit the standard three-act structure, except the first scene is right into the action. It is sci-fi and the fictional narrator had recorded her diary on a ‘mind-reader’ (from her brain waves), so the detail is vivid; that is until it is taken off her during the darkest depths (although she gets it back later.) I need to add emotion in a different way to stop the vacuum. Thank you for your helpful thoughts.

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