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)

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Understanding Story Structure – Part 1: Global Structure

2 thoughts on “Understanding Story Structure – Part 1: Global Structure

  1. Good analysis and description of the heroine’s/hero’s journey steps without actually taking itself too seriously, which is the major problem I find with most posts/books trying to do describe the journey steps. I loved the signposting you provided starting from the acts and delving down to the actual journey steps.

    My biggest problem with these structures is not the structures themselves but how I interpreted them up to recently: as an absolute guide to starting a story/novel/book/whatever. I understand structure intuitively but if I have to start from the structure I get blocked very quickly. So I changed tactics and I outline and write in parallel, ignoring parts, ignoring chapters and also ignoring the journey steps, focusing only on scenes. After the first draft is finished I plan to get a “bird’s eye view” and feel how the story flows, rearrange scenes if necessary, and do the initial check on the journey steps. Later I plan to separate to chapters and if necessary impose a more formal structure, perhaps adhering to the heroine’s journey structure.

    Having said all that I especially love the books that break the rules and dare to experiment heavily with structure. I’d love to write such a book one day.

    Looking forward to the beats post as the concept is still eluding me. 😀

    Take care,
    Aura

    Like

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