Story structure simplified

Since I started this blog I have often visited the subject of story structure. It’s one of those subjects that excites me. Some writers will throw their hands in the air in horror at the idea of structure. Story is emotion and there is no unique formula that will emote a feeling in reader. It is down to the storycraft of the writer. And writers shouldn’t write to a formula, because it’s too logical and predetermined.

I agree to a point. But it doesn’t mean that it is wrong to look at the underlying structure of the story in the planning stage, editing stage or better still, both. A story with a bad structure probably won’t work. But having a good structure doesn’t guarantee success.

Success in writing of the kind of JK Rowling or Stephen King and the other greats is like a Black Swan event — extremely rare. And success is unlikely to be due to their story structure alone. It’s also unlikely that some of these great writers would even admit that they look at structure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t ingrained into their DNA.

So what is structure.

Story structure mimics the learning process of ordinary life. We have unfilled desires and encounter opportunities/problems during the course of our life. We make choices and act on them. Our choices sometimes have complications and unexpected consequences. We try again. The problem escalates until it reaches a crisis, which is either resolved, defeats us or is abandoned as a goal. And in the course of this process, we learn and change.

Most of the work on story structure comes from the Movie industry, where it has evolved into a quasi science. Each of the story gurus have their own approach to story design, with their own vocabulary to explain it. There is the Three Act Structure, the Four Act Structure, the Six Act Structure, and Nine Act Structure; the Save the Cat Plot Beats; the Sequence Method; the Mini Movie, The Hero’s Journey; Harmon’s Plot Circle, and many more. But when you look into the detail, they all focus on deconstructing the story into a number of defined elements and place a slightly different emphasis of different aspects. So there is a considerable amount of overlap between these ideas.

The oldest form of structure is the Three Act Structure, which dates to the days of Plato. The Three Act Structure is still popular today. The First Act is about the set-up for the story, introducing the main character and setting up the story premise.The second Act is all about the confrontation and is roughly twice the length of the the First Act. The Third Act is about the resolution of the story. Often there is one or more major events at the mid point of the story that breaks the Second Act into two parts. The first half being about how the main character reacts to the central conflict. And the second half being about the character taking control and going on the offensive.

Splitting the Second Act at the mid point is like having four acts of equal length. This to me makes sense from a practical perspective, and I’ve used the approach below to show you how it works. I’ve also broken down the Acts into eight sequences, and have identified the main plot points, character arc, and the protagonist’s escalating interaction with antagonists. The structure below is technically for stories categorised as Comedy (anything other than a Tragedy) — where we have a positive ending. Tragedies on the other hand, have a different pattern where they have a False Triumph at the end of Act 3 and a tragic ending at the end of Act 4.

ACT 1

Act I is all about introducing the main character in his ordinary world and showing how he is drawn into the central conflict, first by the “Call To Adventure” (also called Impetus, Inciting incident, Catalyst, Disturbance), which often the main character initially ignores. For example, where Luke Skywalker gets the message from Leia ‘Help me Obi Wan..” But he refuses to go with Obi Wan to Alderaan.

Later, at turning point (TP1), there is a devastating event, which forces the main character to act. For example, Luke Skywalker discovers his uncle and aunt have been slaughtered by the the imperial guards. This forces him to make an important decsion go with Obi Wan on his quest. At which point he Crosses the Threshold into the New world of Act 2.

Not all stories have a Call to Adventure and a TP1. Sometimes they are the one and same event where the protagonists makes their mind up to act immediately. For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister is chosen from the lottery to be part of the Hunger Games (TP1), and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and goes on the train to the Capital (Crossing the Threshold/ Point of No Return).

Act 1 normally consists of two or three sequences. The first sequence (Character in status quo) is usually about the main character and the ordinary world he/she lives in before the Call to Adventure impacts on their life. The second sequence is normally about the character finding his story goal, and establishing the Central Story Question — will the hero reach his/her goal? The main character often refuses the call and is drawn into accepting by the effects of TP1.

In Star Wars there are three sequences.

The first sequence deals with the Origin of the Conflict before the main character is involved. This is the sequence where Darth Vaders forces invade Leia’s space ship and she hides the battle plans in R2D2 and sends them to Tatooine. It also acts as a powerful Hook — an intensive action sequence to keep the audience’s attention until the main character is introduced.

The second sequence (Character in Status Quo) introduces Luke and ends with the Call to Adventure.

And the third sequence ends with Luke discovering his dead uncle and aunt (TP1).

The other aspect of Act 1 is to show the main character’s flaws and establish the story goal. Luke is a young, and impulsive farm boy that dreams of becoming a space pilot. And by the end of the Act he has a story goal– to take the battleplans of the Deathstar to Alderaan with Obi Wan.

ACT 2

Act 2 is all about the pursuit of the quest. Act 1 gives the main character a goal to pursue, but he/she is dealing with an unfamiliar world. This is the road of trials, where they find new allies and enemies. It is a period of ‘fun and games’ with plenty of action. It is a period of learning and adapting.

In Star Wars, it shows Luke out of his depth in Mos Eisley spaceport, Obi Wan recruiting Hans Sol and Chewbacca with an exciting escape. This is the first sequence.

The second sequence sequence is much shorter – lightsaber training. The second sequence (First Culmination) ends with devastating news. Alderaan is destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam (TP2). This is the Mid Point.

ACT 3

The Mid Point is full of complications. In the first sequence (New Complications), they devise a plan to escape from the Deathstar and find that Leia is scheduled for execution. This gives Luke a new goal — to rescue the princess. They hatch a plan to rescue the princess, but it all goes wrong and they end up in the trash compacter and have to escape from it.

In the second sequence (Crisis & Main Culmination) Obi Wan deactivates the tractor beam, the team get back to the ship, they escape the deathstar, fight off their fighters, and get the plans of the deathstar to the resistance. This sequence has a major turning point TP3 before the end of the sequence, where Luke witnesses the death of Obi Wan at the hands of Darth Vader.

In many stories after this point there is a Low point where the main character reaches rock bottom and wallows in pain, followed by an epiphany moment where he find the means and resource to give it one last shot.

This was not really the case in Star Wars. Luke doesn’t seem to spend too much time getting over the loss of his mentor, and the epiphany moment comes before the Climatic Moment in the Critical Choice of Act 4, where Luke chooses to use the force to destroy the Deathstar.

ACT 4

The first sequence (Climax) is all about the lead up to the climactic moment. In the case of Star Wars, the Climactic Moment is where Luke uses the force to destroy the deathstar.

The second sequence (Conclusion/Denouement) is the resolution of the story. It’s a short sequence to see the heroes get their medals. We find the characters have changed. Luke is the process of becoming a Jedi Knight, and Hans Solo has for once done the heroic thing.

Limitations

Perhaps you’re thinking this structure work only works for action movies and is not really relevant for your type of stories. Or maybe your stories are about romance, or about multiple protagonists. Certainly romance novels have their own tropes and structures, and you might find studying them more beneficial. But what I think you will find that there is a natural flow of ups and downs, and the main turning points, follow to some degree the patterns we see in the sequences above.

Sub Plots

The structure outlined above is about the central conflict in the story. It is a helicopter view of the central conflict in the story and should be seen in that way. There may well be an important B story or even C story that is woven into the story. Sub-plots are usually linked to the theme of the story and main character arc.

In Die Hard, there is an important subplot around JohnMcClane and his estranged wife.

In Lethal Weapon there is an important subplot about the relationship between a suicidal Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh a veteran officer facing retirement.

These subplots are as complex, if not more complex than the underlying central conflict. But without these sub-plots the movies would have been flat and uninteresting. So sub-plots should be broken down and planned in the same way as the central conflict. And then woven into the story in a seamless way.

Sequences and Scenes

It is relatively easy to think of story structure as a series of plot points and turning points in each act. But plot points and turning points also occur in every sequence and every scene although not on the same level.

In each scene the protagonist may have a simple goal in mind, but encounters a problem or opportunity during the scene or sequence. They make a choice and act on it. And their choices have consequences, which in turn lead to new goals, actions and consequences.

So as I have already explained, the underlying pattern of all stories are driven by a process of learning and adapting to change, and in the process character is changed. In Comedies they normally change for the better. However where a character fails to learn and adapt to change the story will normally end in tragedy.

What do you think?

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