Understanding Story Structure – Part 2: Macro Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Earlier this week I began discussing story structure – looking at the macro structure of entire novels and their component Acts.

You’ll remember from the last post that I described story structure as a Russian Doll – the novel structure replicating itself in miniature with each of the smaller dolls it held inside. With that being said, now is probably a good time to reflect on that structure and pull out the key elements that form a clear beginning, middle and end:

1. An indication of what is normal or usual in the world of the protagonist

2. A trigger event that shakes up the protagonist’s world and gives them a new objective

3. Rising conflict and tension cause by obstacles of increasing significance, preventing the protagonist from achieving their objective

4. A major challenge that demands the protagonist make a decision

5. The response of the protagonist to this question

6. The outcome that flows from the protagonist’s decision and response

Looking at these elements we can identify the: (1) Status Quo, (2) Call to Action, (3) Engagement, (4) Crisis Point (5) Directed Action, and (6) Outcome.

Before I explore this structure is mirrored in Sequences, Scenes and Beats – Let’s review in more detail how these six elements play out in each of the acts in the Three Act Structure.

 

The Acts

Act 1:

1. STATUS QUO: The opening scene(s) that introduce the world and the protagonist.

2. CALL TO ACTION: The disturbance (also known as the Inciting Incident)

3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Zero. The reluctance of the protagonist to engage due to the call not being strong enough, or personal enough.

4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the moment where the protagonist can no longer ignore the call to action. The question posed: Do I run away or Do I engage? To be or not to be?

5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages. James Scott Bell calls this the First Doorway – the first point of no return for our protagonist. It’s the “We’re not in Kansas, anymore” moment – where the world will never be the same again, regardless of what subsequent decisions the protagonist makes.

6. OUTCOME: The entry into the story of ACT II – PART II…

Act II:

1. STATUS QUO: The new world the protagonist now finds themselves in – the one brought about by their Act I decision, action and its outcome. (ACT II – PART I)

2. CALL TO ACTION: The new objective the protagonist has, now that they have chosen to accept their mission. This is usually overly-simplified – e.g. beat the baddie. It signals the protagonist’s Plan A. (ACT II – PART I)

3. ENGAGE: Engagement Status = Pathetic. The inability of the protagonist to do anything useful due to them being a total noob in this strange and threatening world. Cue subplot and fun & games… (ACT II – PART I)

4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the culmination of urgency, growing strength of the baddie and developing skills and expertise of our protagonist. The question posed: Am I ready to trade my defense strategy for an attack strategy? Am I ready to flex my newly-formed muscle and take the fight to the bad guy? (MIDPOINT)

5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages more fully and with more focus. It signals the protagonist’s Plan B – which is either a complete re-imagining of the Act II – Part I objective or a more detailed version – e.g. I don’t want to beat the baddie, I want to convert them to the light! or I want to beat the baddie by amassing an army of flying monkeys. The protagonist has a better plan and more skills to implement it. But the antagonist isn’t resting on their laurels – they come to the party. Cue ramping up of tension… (ACT II – PART II)

6. OUTCOME: The Darkest Moment. The protagonist is so close to victory, only to have it snatched from their grasp and their greatest weakness laid bare before the greatest strength of the antagonist. The quest is over. The protagonist has failed. (ACT II – PART II)

Act III:

1. STATUS QUO: The new world of pain and hurt and bruised ego and despair the protagonist now finds themself in.

2. CALL TO ACTION: The Glimmer of Hope. That thing whose use becomes suddenly apparent, that grumpy old hag that is now seen as a wise old mentor, the useless hunk of metal that is recognised a key. All is not lost – victory can still be the protagonist’s! This signals the protagonist’s Plan C. Not as vague as Plan A, not as ambitious or ignorant as Plan B.

3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Reinvigorated. The protagonist is not holding back. They are throwing all they have at the antagonist. They are not going down without a full-on Rocky IV fight.

4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the part in the battle between the protagonist and antagonist where it is looking pretty dicey. It’s the All is Lost moment, when it seems the hero has finally run out of luck. In the Karate Kid, it is that moment when Daniel San falls victim to Cobra Kai’s dirty tactics – a cowardly leg sweep by the jerk Johnny that exacerbates Daniel San’s already-weakened leg. The question posed: Do I surrender? Have I given everything? Is there something left in the dregs of this frail and beaten body/mind/soul that I can still draw on.

5. DIRECTED ACTION: The protagonist identifies that last bastion of hope and in a singular display of courage, strength, integrity (and all the other noble adjectives we can throw at them), plays their final card to defeat the antagonist.

6. OUTCOME: The tying up of loose ends. Defeating the antagonist should always be a means to an end – not the end itself. In winning the battle, did the protagonist win the war? Did they achieve their real, true goal? It’s the: “You’re alright, Larusso”. (you’re still a jerk, Johnny).

 

So, that’s the detailed look at Acts. Stay tuned for a detailed look at LITTLE STRUCTURE – the story of Sequences, Scenes and Beats. 

 

(Featured Images courtesy of a) evil_mel via Flickr Creative Commons, and b) Colombia Pictures Corporation)

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Understanding Story Structure – Part 2: Macro Structure

Understanding Story Structure – Part 1: Global Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

If there is one thing you should learn before embarking on writing your first novel, it is story structure. Bookstores and the internet abound with all sorts of guidance on how to structure your novel, build your plot, engineer your story.

With all of that information, sometimes it is a good idea to take a step back and put it all in terms that you, as the unique author you are, can understand and implement. Which is what I am about to do, with the aims of:

* Exploring the different levels of structure – from macro (the novel and its component acts) to micro (sequences, scenes and beats)

* Re-imagining the necessary story elements that give structure to each of the levels

 

I’ll attempt to explore and discuss these points over the course of the next few posts – and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

For those who want a ticket on this magical, mystery tour, please note the following:

* These posts are just the cerebral ramblings of an author with her own unique understanding and take on the story structure world.

* Also, this is a really long post. Feel free to read a bit and come back later to read a bit more.

* Finally, these musings are the culmination of my own learning from great mentors such as Blake Snyder, Larry Brooks, Janice Hardy, James Scott Bell, Shawn Coyne… the list goes on.

And so, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s start big…

 

Big Structure – Engineering Your Novel and its Acts

Let’s imagine a novel like a Russian Doll. The big doll has smaller and smaller dolls inside, each a mini replica of the original. The Novel Russian Doll has five dolls. The overall novel is the big mama – it’s structure is replicated, in miniature, by the Acts, Sequences, Scenes and Beats. Note, I said STRUCTURE, not detail. The details (and impact) will vary between the levels (or dolls), but the structure will essentially remain the same – the skeleton will be shared, but the painted features complimentary but unique.

Russian Dolls

 

So, what structure does a novel follow? The simple answer is:

Beginning, Middle & End

Human brains have been hardwired to tell and respond to this simple story structure.

Once upon a time, there lived a queen who was haunted daily by the spectre of her dead rival. Desperate to rid herself of this menace, the queen issued a royal challenge, that whoever could banish this ghost would be granted any object of their desire within the castle walls. A young knight, brash and full of confidence, accepted the challenge and used her wiles to successfully exorcise the ghost. When the queen asked this young knight what she desired most within the castle, the knave answered brightly: “Your throne”. And so it came to pass that a young and clever and roguish knight became the new queen. 

Beginning – the haunted queen and her quest to rid herself of the ghost.

Middle – the challenge begins and the young knight successfully banishes the ghost.

End – the knight makes good on the queen’s promise, demanding the throne and ousting her as regent.

This essentially translates to the famous Three Act Structure, with one distinction…

 

The Three Act Structure

The Three Act Structure is pretty much a fancy name for Beginning, Middle & End – except that it recognises the natural partition of the Middle, thus separating it into Act II – Part I and Act II – Part II.

In doing so, it creates a clear line that separates the first half of the story from the second half. That clear line is the signpost that redirects your story’s traffic. The first half is heading in one direction, the halfway point (also known as the “Midpoint”) presents the need for a detour and sends your story in a slightly different or altogether new direction.

With the Three Act Structure, each Act has its own purpose –

The First Act

Act I is all about the set-up – establishing the world, establishing the protagonist (their strengths and weaknesses), introducing protagonist’s objective as well hinting at the conflict that will plague them in reaching that objective. It’s major elements are:

* The status quo: The usual, the norm. The general workings of the world and the protagonist before…

* The call to action: The disturbance that throws a spanner in the works, that upsets the natural balance and status quo of the world and/or the protagonist. At this stage it can be a minor irritant or impersonal disruption – something to grab the attention of the protagonist but not necessarily engage them in the fight… which leads us to…

* The reluctance of the protagonist to engage: Not having our protagonist immediately whip off their Clark Kent business suit and jet off with their cape and red undies flashing in the sunlight to save the day is important. If the protagonist can easily deal with the problem and encounters no inner turmoil or conflict in doing so leads to a pretty average story.

Compare:

Exhibit A:

The kitten is stuck in the tree. Eloise leaps from branch to branch, whizzing up the tree with nary a glance below. She plucks the kitten effortlessly from the precarious branch and turns a triple twist, double somersault to land with her and the kitten unharmed. The End.

Exhibit B:

The kitten is stuck up the tree. Eloise hates trees. She hates kittens. She hates heights. But Sam is watching her from his backyard trampoline, his eyes travelling from the mewling kitten to Eloise. A grin appears on his face – challenging her to rescue the kitten, doubting that she will be brave enough to do it.

“I’ll show him!”, she thinks as she strides towards the tree. Where she promptly stops. “Wow, that tree is high”, she whispers to herself. Stupid kitten. It got itself up there, surely it can get itself down. And why does she care what Sam thinks of her, anyway? Not counting the massive crush she has had on him for the entire month since he moved in next door and stood up for her in front of the six-grade crew…

First of all, the second one is much longer – there’s so much more to explore and detail.

Second of all, the second one is much more interesting (hopefully). It sets up lots of intrigue about what will happen next – will she climb the tree, if she does will she fall flat on her bum or rescue the kitten, AND if she rescues the kitten, will she earn the admiration and adoration of Sam?

Third of all, the second one amps up the call to action. At first it was just the kitten mewling. Eloise can ignore that. But then Sam is watching and now she has a decision to make…

* The decision of the protagonist to engage: The situation is now dire enough, or personal enough, for the protagonist to throw their hat in the ring.

 

The Second Act – Part I

Act II – Part I is all about the response – detailing the protagonist’s Plan A and their initial reactions and general failings  to adapt and thrive in their new circumstances and get closer to reaching their objective.

Since the protagonist is fairly useless at the major stuff (reaching their objective) in this part, you’ll tend to find that Act II – Part II is all about the sub-plot and fun & games.

The sub-plot is the realm of the secondary or minor objective. If getting Sam’s attention is Eloise’s primary or major objective, then conquering her fear of trees, kittens and heights is her minor or secondary objective. True to form, many subplots are focused on internal challenges and development – which is why you see a lot of romance subplots or personal hardship subplots. In many instances, the protagonist won’t know their secondary objective – but the reader will, and that can also create delicious tension. We’ll cringe and squeal and tap our fingers impatiently – seeing what the protagonist can’t, knowing what they should do, but n0t being able to reach into the story and tell them 🙂

The fun & games is all about ‘fluffy’ stuff. Because the protagonist is currently incapable of gaining any real progress against their objective, you can hold off on all the serious stuff that reaching the objective necessarily demands, and lose yourself (and your protagonist) in the fun stuff. Think car chases, manic shopping sprees, long nights at the carnival, mammoth bar crawls.

But, beware! Yes, subplots and fun & games are more lighthearted and less urgent than their primary counterparts – but, they still need a purpose. The best executions of subplots and fun & games are those where the subplot develops the character in a way that enables them to get closer to solving the key problem, or gives them the moral fortitude and courage to try a more dangerous, yet effective, means of getting their goal.

Fun & games can similarly be enlightening, providing insight into the character and a light counterpoint to the key themes the novel is exploring – e.g. the emotions a protagonist feels during the car chase and the decisions they make about avoiding street art, yet gleefully crashing into parking metres, can tell us more about the character and about the novel’s theme of “the best things in life are free”.

 

The Second Act – Part II

As with life, all good things must come to an end. The subplot must give way to the primary plot and the fun & games must transition to hard work and steely determination.

This is what Act II – Part II is all about – the protagonist’s resolve and their real progress towards achieving their goal.

The transition isn’t an easy one nor does it come about by coincidence or chance. The barrier between the first part and second part of Act II is the Midpoint. The midpoint is light-bulb moment – where the subplot and fun & games have culminated in a epiphany for the protagonist. Whereas, at the start of the Second Act, they had no clue and no skills, now they have enough of both to approach their goal with gusto – and a real chance at success. Plan A wasn’t working. The protagonist now has a Plan B.

Typically, Act II – Part II focuses on ramping up the tension. It’s two steps forward, one step back. The protagonist gets closer to their goal, but not without challenges. And each challenge is harder – demanding a higher sacrifice, upping the already-high stakes, causing the protagonist to draw deeper on their reserves of skill, courage, knowledge and commitment.

And just when it seems that the protagonist will snatch victory from the jaws of their antagonist, the protagonist’s greatest weakness and the antagonist’s greatest strength are revealed in their true glory. The protagonist has reached their darkest moment and failure is all but assured.

 

The Third Act

And so we start Act III – with our protagonist defeated and ready to give up the fight. But, they don’t. Because the trials and tribulations of Act II – Part II have taught our protagonist something or gifted them with the key to success (a mentor, a key piece of not-so-irrelevant information, an unlikely weapon, or (to be extremely literal) a key). When they realise they have this previously-hidden piece of the puzzle, the darkest moment turns into a glimmer of hope.

They jump on this new chance at success and begin their Plan C. And Plan C is all about the major battle with the antagonist. Which they win.

But, winning isn’t everything, you know? 🙂

The win is the climax – now we need the denouement (a fancy french word for the final outcome). Yes, the protagonist won, but did winning have the impact they thought and hoped it would? Did Eloise defeating the Sixth Grade Crew win over Sam?

Yep, the Third Act is about kicking ass and tying up loose ends. It’s the finale and resolution of both your primary plot and your subplot. The battle AND what comes after.

 

So, that’s BIG STRUCTURE covered. Stay tuned for LITTLE STRUCTURE, where I look at Sequences, Scenes and Beats. 

In the meantime, leave me a comment to let me know whether this helped or whether you have a different take on big structure.

 

(Featured Image courtesy of Shaheer Shahid via Flickr Creative Commons)

Understanding Story Structure – Part 1: Global Structure

The Quick Six – Interviewing Indie Authors on their Self-Publishing Journey

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As you all know, I am keen to self-publish my debut novel, Divided Elements: Resistance. I get a lot of inspiration from other authors who are going down the same path and I thought it would be great if I could tap into (and share) their unique and fascinating forays into the self-publishing world.

And so, The Quick Six was born. Over the next couple of months (and hopefully well into the future), I will be interviewing independent authors on their self-publishing stories, using six quick questions to gain insight into their processes, thoughts and works.

Keep an eye out for the first quick six hitting the Indie Authors page in the next couple of weeks.

Screenshot 2015-02-22 10.30.44

(Featured Image courtesy of Holly Gramazio via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Quick Six – Interviewing Indie Authors on their Self-Publishing Journey

Whose Story Is This, Anyway? : Selecting the right POV for your novel

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Selecting the right Point of View (POV) for your book can be tricky. If you are anything like me, your stories are full of interesting characters who could all tell the tale of your narrative with interesting results. So, how do you select the right character? How do you choose who will be the narrator of your story, the reader’s guide through the world and action you’ll lay on the page?

 

What to consider when selecting your story’s POV

A recent post by Shawn Coyne, over on The Story Grid, gives some great examples of how a change in the POV changes the story. The thing that grabbed me from Shawn’s examples was the way THEME and TONE were the deciding factors for selecting the best POV.

 

How Theme and Tone create emotional differences in your story’s POV

Say, for example, you have a nascent story tumbling in your brain about a young boy who grows up, shaped by his father’s view on money, and a father who is driven to corruption and crime to give his only son the things he wished he had as child. You decide that the theme of this story is “money corrupts” –

Focusing on the son’s POV could provide a redemption twist on the theme – where the son has become shallow and superficial because of his father’s influence, but who finds redemption throughout the course of the book.

Focusing on the father’s POV can provide a classical take on the theme – where we see a Walter White/Breaking Bad transition from a sympathetic character with good intentions to a short-sighted, corrupted individual.

These POVs – whereby the Main Character of the story is also the Protagonist – are the most obvious choices. I make the delineation here to recognise that in some stories the THEME is articulated in the story of the Main Character, but effects change in the story of the Protagonist. Take the example of THE GREAT GATSBY – the story is obviously Gatsby’s, it is through his choices and his actions that we see the Theme (“money doesn’t buy happiness”) unfold, but Gatsby’s character is not transformed by this theme. The character whose arc travels along the intrigued-enamoured-disillusioned path, is Nick Carroway – our narrator and Protagonist.

 

Add further complexity to POV and build deep resonance

In our earlier example, having the son tell the story of his father through his own eyes creates two stories – the primary story of his father and the secondary story of the son. The focus is clearly and solely on the relationship between the two characters and the distinct ways in which the father’s story impacts on the son’s character development. With the son so very aware of his father’s actions, we are able to find complexity and depth to his own actions and thoughts.

Similarly, the father telling the son’s story through his own eyes pushes the son’s story forward, relegating his own story as the B-side. Again, the relationship is the critical part of the narrative. There are no excuses for the father in his actions, given his awareness of his son’s story, and the story immediately becomes more complex because of this awareness.

This option, of having the main character tell the story of the protagonist, pulls the relationship between the two characters into the spotlight – creating a deep resonance as the two characters and their intertwined paths create a feedback loop, feeding off each other and spiralling into deeper intricacies of human behaviour and emotional cause and effect.

 

Or simplify the POV to create a straight telling of Theme

The alternative, and final option for a POV, is having an independent, omniscient narrator tell the story of either character or of both of them. With this POV, the characters and their relationships are related from a distant and objective place left untainted by the characters’ direct interaction and engagement.

The thing that strikes me as I consider these different points of view are how they generate a different TONE for the story they tell. The story of the son will be emotional, sentimental and ultimately uplifting. The story of the father will be dark, gritty and confronting. The story of the son, told by the father, will be soul-wrenching and full of second-guesses and regret. The story of the the father, told by the son, will vacillate between admiration, emulation, disappointment and disgust. And the story of the father and/or son, told by an omniscient narrator, will be allegorical and thought-provoking.

So, forget about which character you think the reader will find most engaging or like the best. Figure out your theme and how you want to explore it. Figure out the tone you want to imbue your story with. And let your answers decide the best POV for your story.

 

 

Which character is telling your story? How does their POV explore the theme of your story and set its tone? 

Leave your comments below!

Whose Story Is This, Anyway? : Selecting the right POV for your novel