Tag Archives: story structure

Does your story have a plot?

plot chainEvery story has events. Stuff happens. But a group of events happening to the same people doesn’t necessarily constitute a “plot.” For a story to have a plot, the events must be related through cause-and-effect and build to a climax.

Do stories have to have a climax?

If you’re using a linear story structure, the short answer is yes. If you’re using a linear chronology within your story, the answer is double yes.

plot chain labeled
Most stories use a linear structure as well as a linear timeline—the events of the story occur in chronological order.

However, events merely happening in order doesn’t make a plot. The events must also be linked by cause and effect. For example, as E.M. Forster said,

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.

That little phrase, “of grief,” makes a world of difference. Our brains might fill in the causal link between the events of the first “story,” but that’s actually a logical fallacy (one of my faves: post hoc ergo propter hoc, after this therefore because of this). There could be any number of reasons why a couple might die in succession: perhaps they both had the plague or were hit by falling rocks. (Heck, in this single-sentence story, we don’t even know if the events happened close together!)

“Of grief” links the first and second events as cause and effect; it turns the two from coincident events into connected events. The next event occurs because of the previous one.

cadena rotaWithout this cause and effect link, the events of our story don’t build on one another. They don’t move a story forward. They’re just an account of people doing one thing, then another. At some point, a lack of cause-and-effect gets aggravating, since the events of the story don’t actually have logical relationships. They don’t have anything to do with one another except that they’re happening to the same characters.

Using cause and effect to build to a climax

Another integral part of any linear structure is the ultimate climax. Our plot events must be linked in cause-and-effect chains that build the intensity and stakes to the final, ultimate moment of confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic force (external, internal, natural, or any combination of the above).

Cape Disappointment is DisappointingI have read way too many stories that have a series of chronological events that may or may not be causally linked, but that never build to this ultimate moment of the climax. But the climax is indispensable in linear structure. It’s that moment that shows us what our characters are made of, what they’ve learned in our story, how they’ve grown. With the climax, we see the reason why every event in the story was significant. Without a climax, none of them are, and the story just sort of . . . stops. It’s the climax that ultimately gives our story meaning in a linear structure.

But my story jumps around in time.

Awesome! But a nonlinear timeline doesn’t exempt you from the requirements of telling a satisfying story with structure. The vast majority of stories use linear structure, even if they don’t use linear chronology.

Your jumping around in time narrative (time traveling or just nonlinear) can still build toward a climax. Movies like Memento and books such as the Mind Games series by Kiersten White play around with a linear timeline, interspersing scenes from the past. Those scenes from the past build tension and inform—but they don’t get in the way of building to a climax, the final confrontation.

Why structure

Good stories use structure; excellent stories use structure to their advantage. As brilliant author Jennifer Crusie puts it in a blog post that I’ve pondered for years:

Structure isn’t just a way to tell a story, it gives meaning to the story, it informs and intensifies the story, it says “This is what is important here, this is what you need to pay attention to.” Most of the time, most stories need linear structure[.]

Here’s a simple litmus test: if your story isn’t composed of events that are linked by cause-and-effect building to a final confrontation, you may not have a “plot.” Do you need one? If you want to sell commercial fiction and you aren’t a master of alternate story structures, usually.

The good news, however, is that you might be able to revise your way to one! Remember:the best way

Revision is your chance to make the events of your story make sense and carry significance for your character and your readers!

Photo credits: chain—Legozilla, broken chain—Javier, Cape Disappointment—Aaron, map image courtesy of The Journey 1972 (South America “addicted”), all via Flickr/CC

More structural self-editing resources

Yesterday I shared my presentation on structural self-editing from the 2014 LDStorymakers conference, and today I’m sharing some more resources on the subject—enough to keep you busy for quite a while!

Books I referenced

Blog posts

Other resources

Seven-point story structure by Dan Wells on YouTube—each video is about 10 minutes

What are your favorite resources on story structure?

Tomorrow: my presentation on gesture crutches!


Structural self-editing!

Last week was the 2014 LDStorymakers conference. I truly can’t pick a “best” moment—it was all fantastic, especially being with my “people.” But definitely among the top 10 would be teaching classes!

Friday at the LDStorymakers writing conference, I taught a class on structural self-editing. I managed to get through all the material and sound fairly coherent, I hope—but the best part was how many people wanted to learn more about the topic! Every seat was full and many wonderful people were willing to sit on the floor and crane their necks.

IF YOU WERE IN THE CLASS AND DID NOT GET THE EMAIL SIGNUP SHEET TO RECEIVE CLASS FILES, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW! I don’t think the signup made it even halfway around the room, and I do really want to share the class files with you! I’ll send the files out this week, but with so many people signed up I’ll have to send out the files in batches.

More about the class:

After a first draft, do you have a solid story or . . . not quite? A structural edit enables you to refine your individual scenes and guide your work on the highest level. Discover how to build strong narrative structure, create a resonant theme, and craft an unputdownable story through the structural self-editing process. Before you start polishing your prose, tap into the power of these vital editing tools to get your whole novel on the right course.

If you couldn’t make it the conference, you can check out my Prezi presentation below:

Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing more resources on structural self-editing!

The Winchester Mystery Story (that lead somewhere!)

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series My writing journey

All stories, says Larry Brooks, have structure. And, to employ my own analogy, so do all buildings. But not all buildings are created equal:

Winchester Mystery House Scary Exterior Tower

You might recognize this place, or the legend behind it. The owner believed that her house must be under construction always, or she would die. But they couldn’t use a master building plan.

Considering that, the Winchester Mystery House is pretty well-built. Yeah, it has stairs that lead to nowhere and doors that open out from the second floor (no stairs on that one—maybe move those first stairs over there?). It’s fun—it’s a blast to explore, and I bet Sarah Winchester had an awesome time throwing in every element she could think of.

It has a decent foundation—instead of leveling it, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake only knocked off the top three stories. After the quake it stood four stories. The remaining structure is a rambling, 160-room, 4.5-acre mansion. It requires more than 20,000 gallons of paint to coat the whole thing once—and once you finish, it’s time to start painting again.

I think we’ve all gotten to the end of a story, looked back and seen our own Winchester Mystery Structure. The Winchester Mystery House has structure. In some sense, it has architecture—but not really. There is no plan, and the closest thing they had to a designer (architect) was a crazy woman.

Winchester Mystery House Stairs to the ceiling

And “rambling” is right. Dead ends, doors and promises that go nowhere, accidental MacGuffins. . . . My real “Winchester Mystery Story” was my second novel. I think I’ve blocked out most of the horrors by now, but I do remember rewriting the last third of the story some three times. Eventually, I got tired of writing stories that looked like they were designed by a crazy woman.

I wish I could say that was my last Winchester Mystery Story, but even in the last few years, with a novel I plotted (though waaay too loosely), I’ve found that same problem of dead ends and lost threads and a plot that meanders without any purpose, etc. While every first draft probably has some ideas that didn’t come to fruition by the end—and they all need editing!—a true “Winchester Mystery Story” might very well be unfixable.

When your first novel is . . . well, your first novel, and your second novel is unfixable, it’d be pretty easy to give up, right? Although I fell out of love with the story LONG before I found a solution to its plot problems, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t realize just how fatally flawed the story was.

winchester mystery house
The whole experience pointed me toward how valuable it could be to actually plan the story in advance. That plotting thing didn’t “kill” my “muse”—instead, plotting helped to strengthen my stories. It seems like a lot of writers experience a “conversion” to plotting once they get over the mystique of the “organic” story. Pantsing does work for some people, but for me, plotting is a much better (and more structurally sound, and less rambling!) way to build a story.

What do you think? Have you ever written a “Winchester Mystery Story”? Are you a converted plotter?

Photo credits: exterior shot and stairs to nowhere courtesy of the Winchester Mystery House; rooves—the_photographer; windows to windows—Emily Hoyer

Secret sauce: Story structure

This entry is part 5 of 16 in the series Spilling the secret sauce

Intuitively, we all know when a story has good structure, but we don’t all have an intuitive understanding of how to actually execute (or even explain) that structure. But knowing how to partition your story and how to pace the major events and turning points makes a huge difference between a novel that’s publishable and one that’s not.

Most plotting methods can be helpful in brainstorming types of events, but they don’t often help with the actual pacing. I’ve been using Larry Brooks’s “Story Structure” method for three and a half years and six novels. But it’s also really useful in revisions. I’ve used it on two novels I wrote before I discovered Story Structure—including the novel I took from rejection to offer.

Larry Brooks, author of many, many scripts, four published novels, and the blog StoryFix, published this in a blog series. It’s very much worth it to read the Story Structure full series, but I’ll give a quick overview here.

The structure is in four parts with three turning points separating them (plus two “pinch points”). Each part of the story should be about one quarter of the story.

Part one is the Set-up. In this part of the story, we meet the characters and are introduced to the story question. (If you’re reading this and thinking “Oh, the Ordinary World,” you’re not alone.) Here we also establish what’s at stake, but most of all, we’re working up to the turning point at the end of this part: Plot Point 1.

Brooks says that First Plot Point is the most important moment in your story. Located 20-25% of the way into your story, it’s

the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance. It may be the first full frontal view of it, or it may be the escalation and shifting of something already present.

This is a huge turning point—where the whole world gets turned on its head. (If you like, you can say this is where we formally pose the story question.)

PP1 bridges into Part 2—the Response. The hero/heroine responds to the first plot point. This response can be a refusal, shock, denial, etc., etc. That doesn’t mean they have to do nothing—they have to do something, and something more than sitting and stewing—but their reactions are going to be . . . well, reactive. The hero(ine) isn’t ready to go on the offensive to save the day quite yet—they’re still trying to preserve the status quo.

In the middle of this part (about 3/8s of the way through your story), comes Pinch Point 1. Brooks defines a pinch point as “an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. We see it for ourselves in a direct form.” So it’s something bad that we get to see happen, showing us how bad the bad guy is, raising the stakes.

At the end of the Response comes the Mid-Point. As the name suggests, this is halfway through the story. And here, the hero and/or the reader receives some new bit of information. It’s pretty important, though—this is the kind of revelation that changes how we view the story world, changing the context for all the scenes that come after it.

Then we swing into Part Three, the Attack. Now our hero(ine) is ready to go on the offensive. He’s not going to operate on the bad guy’s terms anymore—he’s taking matters into his own hands, and he’s going after the bad guy. This is the proactive hero’s playing field now.

In the middle of this part (5/8s of the way through the story), comes Pinch Point 2, which is just like PP1—a show of how bad the bad guy is.

Part Three ends with a lull before the Second Plot Point, our last new information in the story. This last revelation is often the key to solving the mystery or fixing the problem—it’s the last piece of info the hero needs to make his world right. This comes 75% of the way into the story.

And now we’re ready for Part Four, the Resolution. Our hero steps up and takes the lead for the final chases, the last showdowns. Here we get to see how much of a hero he really is—he passes his final tests, proves he’s changed and finally, saves the day.

What do you think? Can you see this in place in your writing, or in other works? What advantages do you see to this method?

Photo credits: structure—Christopher Holland; gasp—Becka Spence; attack—D. B. King

Wrapping up the suspense: Act III

This entry is part 10 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

Eventually, all suspense and tension must be released—since anticipation is the source of suspense and tension, it’s probably not fair to readers not to eventually satisfy that anticipation. Naturally, this will happen to some extent throughout the story as we build up anticipation for events along the way. But the overarching suspense of the story reaches its ultimate payoff in the last part of the story, in the final act.

In fact, Raymond Obstfeld refers to Act III as The Payoff in Fiction First Aid. Here, we have to satisfy all that suspense we’ve worked so hard to build—and that payoff had better be commensurate with the anticipation, or our readers will feel cheated.

Obstfeld says, “The key to a good payoff is not to give the reader what you think they want” (55). That’s not to say that the hero and heroine shouldn’t get together in a romance (they should), or that the hero can’t catch the villain in a thriller (he should). It does mean that giving the reader exactly what you promised all along and only that is not enough to reward the suspense you’ve created for that goal.

This is a common reason why we don’t like the way a book ends. I read a book last year where the entire book was about the heroine learning about others and herself—but at the end, she went back and did the same thing she’d been planning to all along (and it was rushed). All along, I was promised some revelatory, life-changing experience, but in the end, the character didn’t change.

After spending hundreds of pages with these characters being thwarted in their quests, yes, they have to see some measure of success in the end (unless this is a tragedy, I guess). But that hard-won success probably shouldn’t just be the exact thing they’ve looked for all along. Take Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy is reluctantly dragged into looking for the Holy Grail, which he doesn’t really believe exists. What does he find in the end? (Yeah, he finds the grail—but is that all?)

A good payoff is both unexpected in some way and commensurate with the suspense the author has created.

What do you think? How else do we see suspense in Act III?

Photo and baking credit: Heartlover1717

Keeping the suspense in the middle of your structure

This entry is part 8 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

Oh, the sagging middle. The bane of most Americans’ existence. And also tough for writers 😉 .

The sagging middle is where we can start to feel a little lost. Even if we’ve done a good job establishing conflicts and the stakes in the first part of the story, sometimes the middle has us feeling like we’re running in circles or spinning our wheels. Are our characters making progress, or are all these obstacles we put in their way (because you are putting obstacles in their way, right?) starting to make them wander aimlessly?

In Fiction First Aid, Raymond Obstfeld acknowledges that this part of the book is a challenge—as we try to make the story more difficult for the characters, it’s often more difficult for us.

But he also offers a structural solution. He explains that Act II is The Complication where we “increase [the] suspense by complicating [the] plot through increasing stakes and/or decreasing [the] ability of [the] character to achieve [his/her] goal.”

So in Act I, we established the stakes—whether the character will lose his job or let a killer go free if the hero fails. In Act II, we increase the negative consequences of failure—the character will go to jail or the killer will go on a rampage if the hero fails.

Also, we can “inhibit [the characters’] ability to get what they want.” The guy clinging to his job tries to do something to impress his boss, but it backfires and ruins a major project. The hero after a killer gets suspended from the force/agency/whatever after his drive takes him just a little too far.

Interestingly, many plotting methods and structures have specific events designed to accomplish these things. In Larry Brooks’s Story Structure, for example, Act II contains two “pinch points” that are designed to raise the stakes by showing us just how bad the villain is. Even the Mid-Point is designed to help with this, showing the hero more to the story, changing the way he views the world.

Simply establishing suspense in Act I isn’t enough. We have to build on it in Act II to keep our readers reading—and hooked.

What do you think? What other ways can we increase the suspense and keep the tension high in Act II?

Photo credit: Todd Stadler

Conflict and suspense in structure: Act I

This entry is part 6 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

Yesterday we established that conflict is the source of suspense and tension, and what gives meaning to surprise. Combined with structure, we can create a plot with enough suspense and tension to keep our readers engaged.

In Raymond Obstfeld’s Fiction First Aid, he looks at the intersection of conflict, suspense and plot, taking it act by act in the three-act structure. This week, we’ll take a look at his structure for creating suspense.

Obstfeld defines suspense creation as “a series of . . . promise-payoff scenes.” In act I, the setup, we establish the conflicts and the stakes to create suspense. Says Obstfeld:

  • Plot conflict. This focuses on what the characters are pursuing. It could be a romantic relationship, money, a new job, an education—anything they think will make them happier.
  • Character conflict. This focuses on the internal/emotional problems that get in the way of the characters achieving what they think will make them happier. In fact, this conflict may involve the characters pursuing the wrong goal, one that the reader realizes won’t make them happier.
  • Stakes. This focuses on the intensity with which the plot conflict affects the characters.

Now I’ll turn it over to you. How do these elements work to create suspense in the first quarter of a book?

Photo credit: Damon Brown