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?

What makes a good story ending?

Having covered story beginnings and middles in previous blogs, it seems only natural to cover story endings. Whether a story ending is right or not can ultimately only be judged by the reader. If the ending is not consistent with the direction the story is taking the reader, they may well feel disappointed and let down. After all, the reader has invested his time, and emotional energy in the characters of the story.

So what makes a story ending consistent with the direction of the story? Ultimately it depends on the type of story and the expectation it generates about the ending. That isn’t to say the author can’t surprise the reader with an ending (a twist); but the twist ending should be consistent with the type of ending the reader expects.

In Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Booker discusses a ‘universal plot’ in which the conflict in any story revolves around a component of human nature symbolised by a ‘dark power’. How the hero/heroine responds to the ‘dark power’ determines the outcome of the story.  In the beginning of the story a hero or heroine is in some way undeveloped, frustrated or incomplete. In the middle of the story they fall under the shadow of some ‘dark power’. The ending depends on whether the hero learns to overcome his weakness, defeat the ‘dark power’ and reach his goal (positive ending); or whether he fails to change and ends in his own destruction (negative ending). Thus the universal plot is based on moral sense of justice.

The universal plot is easy to identify in many of the tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. These were basically noble men whose tragic flaws led to their own destruction. Tragedies are less popular today, as Hollywood seems to have a preference for positive endings. In the positive ending, the hero overcomes his weaknesses, defeats the antagonist and achieves his goal, even if the rest of the cast die in the process (e.g. Alien).

In a recent Blog on Goodreads, many of the participants complained about Hollywood’s preference for ‘happy endings’ in many Sci Fi movies. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywod didn’t understand ‘real’ science fiction. Some eulogised over some of the more depressing endings provided by some dystopian Sci Fi literature. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of this type of  science fiction. But I think the role of science fiction is to entertain the reader and not to prophesy. China Mieville would seem to agree:

“I think the role of science fiction is not at all to prophesy. I think it is to tell interesting, vivid, strange stories that at their best are dreamlike intense versions and visions of today.”

Those movies that I have seen with depressing endings I have found disappointing. Most tanked at the box office (at least Hollywood understands money). Personally, I want to see endings that show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be ‘happy’. It may well be sad if that’s what fits the storyline.

For example, in Space Cowboys (2000) Corvin and Hawkins discover that the Soviet Communications satellite that is about to come out of orbit has six nuclear missiles onboard. To stop the missiles re-entering the rockets have to be fired manually. Hawkins fires the rockets and takes them to the moon. He saves the world and achieves his wish of going to the moon, only to die on the moon’s surface. Not exactly a ‘happy ending’, but a sad one, and the right one for the movie.

An author has to have a good beginning, a good middle and a good end to his story to satisfy his reader. A bad opening and the reader will not pick the book up. A bad middle and the reader will put the book down in the middle. A bad ending and he/she probably won’t look at a book from the same author again.

Does your middle sag?

I don’t mean your waist line that might be suffering from that late night snack attack. I mean that author’s graveyard – the middle of your story when enthusiasm wains and your characters wonder what they’re doing, and you wonder why you ever started the story. Unless you’re one of the literary giants like Stephen King, Dan Brown etc. most authors experience some self-doubt about at this stage. You’ve done the easy introduction bit, now it’s all uphill and hard work.

In one of my previous blogs, I discussed the three-act story structure and what happens in the first Act. The first Act is all about introducing the main character in his/her normal world, and then hitting them with some problem or opportunity that will change their world forever. At the end of Act one, something happens to propel the main characters forward towards a goal (the first turning point). Think of Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan and Hans Solo escaping from the space centre in the millennium falcon – now they are committed to a course of action: there’s no going back and its onward to rescue the princess. In other types of stories the first turning point may be less spectacular, but just as important in propelling our main character along a course of action towards their goal.

The middle of the story (Act two) is all about what our main character tries to do to overcome that problem or exploit the opportunity to reach their goal. Each obstacle he/she encounters should make it more difficult for them to succeed, and the stakes of losing should become increasingly more severe. By the end of Act two, the main character should have grown in character and learnt what he/she is doing wrong and commit to a new course of action (the second turning point). Act three is then all about the final confrontation and climax to the story.

It all sound so very simple; it’s not. If it were we would all be writing best sellers. The middle section of a 300 page novel is probably 200 pages. Knowing you’re in the middle doesn’t help much unless you have some kind of plan. What are the obstacles you’re going to throw at the main character? How will he/she cope? How does the character need to change during the course of the act? Think Skywalker, from farm boy to jedi knight; think Scrooge from miser to reformed philanthropist. In most stories (but not all) the main character or one of the main characters need to change in order to reach their goal. What is the cause of that change? How does it affect them?

Most supporters of a three-act structure accept that something  important happens at about the Mid-point of Act two to ratchet up the stakes and force the main character to commit to a new plan. The Mid-Point therefore effectively splits the second Act into two parts.

The first part covers the initial attempts of the main character to deal with obstacles in his/her way. This may be a period which Blake Snyder describes as the ‘fun and games’ period where the main characters seem to be succeeding or making progress. It may also be a period covering the B-story (for example, a love story). But the main character is usually brought back to reality by the Mid-point event. This may be a false victory or a false defeat, but it should provide new motivation for the main character to move forward.

The second part of the second act is usually featured by matters getting worse: the ‘bad guys close in’. There may be an ‘all is lost moment’  followed by ‘the darkest point’ where the main character appears to have lost everything. At this point he/she learns something new (an epiphany) or finds a new way forward that sets him/her on course for the confrontation of the final Act.

Syd Field in his book, ‘The Screenwriters workbook’, says the three elements Plot Point 1, Mid-Point and Plot Point 2 are the structural foundation that holds the second Act in place. He offers the following advice to screenwriters, but it is just as relevant to any storyteller:

1. Decide your ending first

2. Choose your opening

3. Choose Plot Point 1

4. Choose plot Point 2

5. Then determine the Mid-Point

Syd Field also talks about two important story progression sequences that often occur in the middle of the first half and middle of the second half of Act 2 called pinch points.  Pinch 1 drives the story forward onto the Mid-Point event; Pinch 2 drives the story forward towards Plot point 2 at the end of the second Act.

Syd Field’s Three-Act Paradigm:

diagramzz

Maybe you’re a writer that thinks the three-act structure is too formulaic and doesn’t follow your genre, such as romance or comedy. It’s for action type stories isn’t it? You may be right; but analysts have mapped the main turning points onto many of the most successful films and books of all genres. Having a three-act structure isn’t the main reason for their success; to be successful they need to be dam good stories, and dam good writers. But not having a solid structure may be the cause of why so many other stories seem to fail.

If you’re a good writer you might not consciously think about structure when your writing. You’re in the moment. Structure maybe something you notice only when your story is complete, and you want to edit and analyse what you’ve got. It doesn’t matter as long as you get it right.

The End of Act 1

Most people have at least heard of the three act structure. It originated from the stage, but can also be used by writers and screenwriters to analyse their stories. Of course, unlike a play, a book or movie is not broken down into discrete units, and so the act structure is invisible from the reader’s/audience’s perspective.

Under a three act framework, a story can be broken down into a beginning (Act 1), a middle (Act 2), and an ending (Act 3). The convention is that Acts 1 and 3 are normally about 25% of the story length; whereas Act 2, the source of most the story conflict in the story, will amount to about 50% of the story length. On this basis, Act 1 of a 200+ page novel will normally amount to about 50+ pages.

Not all writers and screenwriters necessary accept that a three Act structure is a helpful structure for analysing story. But most agree on the content or beat structure that occurs at the beginning of a story. As I am getting close to reaching this point in drafting my current novel I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the things that a writer needs to include in those first 50+ pages.

The opening scene. This is an important scene. It has to capture the reader’s attention, introduce the main character in his normal environment and reveal something about his character (for example a weakness or personal desire) before the story begins. Usually the scene will include a hook within the first ten pages that grabs the reader’s attention and encourages them to read on.

The setup scenes. These scenes expand on the initial scene to reveal the main character’s world. They may also introduce other important characters that will have an effect on the story, such as the antagonist, side-kick and love interest (if applicable). The set up scenes may also reveal the source of the problem/opportunity that will force the main character to act on at some point. And the set up scenes may well hint at the theme of the story. Theme here is not the subject matter, but is the more about the moral that pervades the story. Not all stories necessarily have a theme.

The inciting event/catalyst. This is the event that brings the problem/opportunity to the main character’s attention and changes their life forever. Not all stories necessarily have an inciting event. The problem/opportunity may have always been there and it’s the main character’s perspective to that problem/opportunity that changes so that he/she needs to respond to it.

The debate. Sometimes the main character doesn’t know how to respond to the problem/opportunity and needs the help of a side kick or some trusted guardian to help him/her to decide to act.

Turning point one. This is the point where the main character resolves to act in response to the problem or opportunity. He/she may have a plan (although not necessarily the right one), or he/she may be floundering; but there is no way of going back.

By the end of Act 1, the main character should have moved out of his/her comfort zone into a new situation that either threatens him/her or challenges him/her in some way. The reader will understand what the story is all about (the story question) and hopefully should be rooting for the main character.