The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Over here, in my part of the world, it is winter. Which means flu season. Which, when you have a toddler in daycare, means lots of sniffly days on the lounge under blankets watching kids shows ad nauseum.

It’s not as bad as it sounds – there’s a lot of quality kids series out there these days and most only go for fifteen minutes. That means a distinct, wholly-contained, discrete narrative in fifteen minutes. And, as a bonus, the really good ones are perfect examples of the four act structure boiled down to its essentials.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the four act structure and have seen me break it down and assess it in detail before – so go ahead, you can skip this paragraph. For the newer readers, the four act structure is (at its core) a three-act structure that has its second act broken up into two components. The second act is still the middle – it’s just a middle of two parts – Act 2A and Act 2B. You can read more about the four act structure (and my take on it) here: go ahead, we’ll still be here when you get back.

So here I was, on another chilled out evening, rugged up in my favourite Basotho blanket with my favourite little man watching another episode of Rusty Rivets. Rusty Rivets is a series about a young inventor, Rusty, and his best friend, Ruby, who invent things and then get into trouble when those inventions don’t go as planned, and then have to use their creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness to get themselves out of trouble.

Rusty Rivets

As I was watching tonight’s episode I thought to myself how I really liked that each episode always showed Rusty and Ruby thinking up new ideas, testing them, refining them, and then coming up with new ideas when the others didn’t work (a life lesson I’m always trying to teach my son). And that was when I realised, each episode is a quick lesson in the four act structure.

And what I really like, is that each episode is a lesson in using the four act structure in a medium that needs to hook attention early and keep it throughout. Something that novelists are being challenged with in an era of countless books, short attention spans, and lower tolerances for books that don’t grab readers by the throat and keep the pressure til the end.

So, what does this lesson in the four act structure look like – and what does it mean for us who use it in longer forms of narrative (like novels and scripts)?

Hook comes before the Status Quo

In my interpretation of the four act structure, each story (and act) begins with the status quo before moving to the disturbance. And that still holds true – but rather than locate the story’s hook with the disturbance, this new approach puts it up front in the status quo. In this approach, the hook is a point of interest that happens in the world of the status quo. It is interesting, but not unexpected or unusual.

In the  Rusty Rivets episode where a robot skunk is on the loose, Rusty is attending a flower show festival with his mum. The festival a point of interest within his usual world. It’s noteworthy – it stands out from the regular routine – but it’s not unusual or out of the comfort zone. It’s the difference between a festival (lots of fun and excitement, but in a comfortable/’I’ve seen this before’/’I know what this is about’ event) and an alien invasion (exciting, but also terrifying in a ‘I’m completely out of my depth’ kind of way). One’s the hook, the other’s the disturbance.

In Hunger Games – the hook is the day of the reaping. It’s noteworthy and interesting, but not unfamiliar. Compare that to Prim being called and Katniss volunteering – that’s noteworthy, interesting, terrifying, and something that upsets the status quo and sends things on a new trajectory.

And that’s kind of the point:

  • The hook is something interesting about the status quo/normal/business-as-usual world – it’s a bright point but it doesn’t change the status quo and doesn’t elicit any change or need for development in the protagonist. It serves three purposes – i) to get us interested in the story, ii) to hint at the disturbance and/or story conflict, and iii) to show the story world and the status quo and the protagonist’s characteristic moment.
  • Unlike the disturbance, which is the thing that interrupts the status quo and threatens to throw the normal world off balance and the protagonist out of their comfort zone.

In the Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character, Major Cage, getting deployed to active combat is the hook. And one that really pushes the envelope as far as hooks are concerned – because it does seem to teeter on the edge (no pun intended) of becoming a disturbance. It is a dramatic shift in the status quo and normal world of the protagonist and it pushes the protagonist out of his comfort zone.

edge of tomorrow

And maybe, if the story was a war drama, it would have been the disturbance. Except this is is a sci-fi movie, so we know that things haven’t really disrupted the status quo. A military desk officer being deployed to active combat is still within the realms of possibility in this story world – the event is an annoyance to the protagonist and threatens his comfort zone, but doesn’t threaten his worldview of what is or isn’t possible. That comes when kills an alpha alien and gains the ability to reset time every time he is killed. That’s the disturbance.

LESSON: Put your hook up front and use it to show the normal world and the protagonist’s motivation and armour/critical flaw.

 

Keep the initial response short

The initial response to the disturbance (typically a refusal of the call to action) in the long form of the four act structure is designed to show the protagonist’s inner conflict – to show that engaging with the disturbance/story problem is not an easy decision or one within their comfort zone.

There a hundreds of reasons why a protagonist won’t engage with a disturbance – it doesn’t directly affect them, the personal stakes aren’t high enough, they don’t have the skills or resources or opportunity to engage, the risks of engaging outweigh the risks of avoidance, etc, etc.

If you’ve done your job in establishing the hook and status quo, you shouldn’t need to spend too much time on this initial response. The refusal should be logical/reasonable given all that has come before.

In Rusty Rivets, Rusty doesn’t engage because his mum steps in to deal with the skunk. In the episode about the super sticky glue, he doesn’t engage because he is literally unable to move. Both reactions are brief and quickly followed by a push towards the first plot point/the point of no return/the undeniable push for protagonist engagement.

In Edge of Tomorrow, the initial response by Major Cage is to become a passive spectator. He gets reset and reacts to the same scenario and dies and gets reset again. It’s shown in a kind of montage – emphasising that he is stuck in this new reality and that his reacting isn’t getting him anywhere. It quickly changes when he meets Emily Blunt’s character, the Angel of Verdun,  and we get the sense that now the real story is starting.

The ‘passive spectator’/’react only’ characterisation that is at the core of the initial response. It’s only when the protagonist starts to actively engage that we move into Act 2. Readers and audiences want to get to this part quickly – they like warming up to a story, but once they get a feel for the world, the protagonist, and the story problem, they start getting impatient to get to the ‘real story’ – to know what thread, out of all the many possible threads there are, will be followed. Don’t hold out on them – get to Act 2 quickly.

LESSON: Do the heavy lifting with your hook and status quo to limit the time you need to dedicate to the initial response. Get to the ‘real story’ of Act 2 as soon as you can. 

The difference between Act 2A and Act 2B

Where the initial response is passive reaction. Act 2 is all about active engagement. The first part (Act 2A) is engagement without growth or change. It’s the protagonist acting the way they would normally act, drawing on the same resources, falling back on what they know and have done in the past.

In Rusty Rivets, this is always Rusty and Ruby trying to solve things without an invention (i.e. running after it, sneaking up on it, trying to catch it themselves, etc) or trying to fix the invention that has malfunctioned by normal means (things that any kid would come up with as a solution).

In Hunger Games, this is Katniss surviving using the skills and knowledge she already had back in District 12 – hunting, trekking, climbing, being stealth.

In Act 2A, the protagonist is engaging, but not growing.

Act 2B the protagonist is both forced to think completely outside the square of their old life and draw on the new knowledge, skills, resources, and comrades (mentors, sidekicks, allies) they have gained in Act 2A to make progress.

In Rusty Rivets, this means Rusty and Ruby combine it and design it to come up with a new invention to fix the problem. Which they continue to refine until they get to their false victory.

In Hunger Games, it’s Katniss no longer relying on herself to survive (as she always has), but teaming up with someone else to win.

It’s still active engagement, but it’s engagement that requires the protagonist to do something new (hinting that protagonist is becoming someone new).

LESSON: Act 1 is passive spectating/reaction, Act 2A is active engagement without change, Act 2B is active engagement by trying something new/becoming someone new 

Act 3 is still the same

Yep, it’s still what follows the false victory and dark night of the soul, where the protagonist must use all that has been learned along the way and shed the final remnants of the old self in order to gain ultimate victory and achieve the final goal. Whereas Act 2B shows the protagonist doing something new, Act 3 is the protagonist emerging as someone new.

This is probably more on the lighter side in kids shows – there’s not as much character development (obviously). In Rusty Rivets, it’s always the same ‘transformation’ – Rusty and Ruby trusting their innovative and creative minds and thinking outside the box to use their latest invention in a new and unexpected way (like using the hot air balloon as a cushion to save Rusty’s mum from crashing into the ground). In Edge of Tomorrow, the transformation is deeper and more complex – Major Cage becomes the hero he ran from being in the beginning of the movie even though he no longer has the ‘reset’ ability to fall back on.

LESSON: Act 4 is the emergence from the chrysalis – the butterfly ready to confront and defeat the antagonist in a way that the caterpillar never could. 

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The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I reached the midpoint in the first draft of Divided Elements (Book 2). As anyone who has read my blog would know, I am not a fan of drafting ‘story middles’. After smashing through 5000-word weeks while drafting the first act, I watched with dismay as my production levels dropped and my indecision set in.

So, I did what I always do – I went back and reviewed my story structure. 

Like most advice on novel plotting, my own story structure model is great for guiding a writer through the first and final act – the breakdown in structure is clear and detailed and logical. But looking at the middle acts and it all breaks down. The gaps between the single turning point (the Midpoint) stretch for too long and the detail of what is required is reduced to ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’. Not very helpful, is it?

I’m not alone in that department, though. Even the legendary Save the Cat (Snyder) only gives us ‘B Story’, ‘Fun and Games’, and ‘Bad Guys Close In’. Story Engineering (Brooks) makes it even simpler, ‘Reaction’ and ‘Attack’.

Looking back on my plot outline, I knew immediately that the ambiguity around my story middle was the issue. Whereas all the other acts had detailed notes and clear plot points, Act 2A and Act 2B were notated with bare, broad-brushed statements – narrative equivalents of ‘Reaction’ and ‘Attack’.

I needed more detailed advice and guidance, so I started to analyse movies to find a common structural breakdown (I tend to find movies easier and quicker to analyse…). And what I discovered was surprising.

All story structure can be broken down into four acts. And those four acts essentially follow the same structure consisting of five elements. 

To draft this story I didn’t need to plot five turning points and the gaps in between, I just needed to write the first act four times.

“What??” I hear you say.
Stay with me…

The Rinse & Repeat Story Structure

So, this is my new and improved model of story structure, which borrows heavily from the old model but re-imagines it from a completely new perspective:

  • There are four acts: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b and Act 3
  • The main story elements still apply – the inciting incident, the plot points (or doorways), the pinch points, the midpoint, the dark night of the soul, the final battle, the denouement – they’re all still there, but they’re framed differently.
  • There are five elements to each act – i) Status Quo, ii) Incident, iii) Initial Response, iv) Escalation -/+, and v) Decision
  • Each act deals with these elements in slightly different ways

The Matrix - Smith Clones

And this is how it plays out when plotting a novel:

Act 1 – NO ACTION or WRONG ACTION | Protagonist Mission: Maintain 

  • Status Quo – The Normal World – Showing the current state of play and hinting at why it shouldn’t (or can’t) continue on the same trajectory…
    • Introduction to protagonist in a characteristic moment that hints at their strengths, their ‘armour’ (what they draw comfort, protection, stability and strength from), and their critical weakness (their ‘fatal flaw’, ‘wound’, ‘misbelief’)
    • Introduction to the story world or environment that hints at its dark underbelly, vulnerability or weakness
    • Early indications, emerging issues and/or opportunities for a potential incident
  • Incident – The ‘Inciting Incident’ – the incident that threatens the status quo or (as is often the case in sequels) exacerbates it, and that calls the protagonist to action
  • Initial Response – Lack of engagement due to avoidance, resistance, ignorance, inability or error
  • Escalation -/+ – Increased Threat (the negative) followed by the Removal of the Obstacle to Action or emergence of a New Incentive for Engagement (the positive).
  • Decision – ‘Plot Point 1’ –
    • Conscious decision to engage, and
    • Articulating the goal or desire that will drive the protagonist forward from this point on.

Act 2A – ACTION WITHOUT STRATEGY | Protagonist Mission: Survive

  • Status Quo – The New World – Showing the Protagonist challenged by and reacting to the new world they find themselves in
    • Pandora’s Box – Removing the obstacle to action has introduced a whole raft of other obstacles to the protagonist goal
      • Introduction to other players – who assist, distract, antagonise, mentor…
      • Introduction of subplots – to deal with the various new obstacles presented
    • ‘Promise of the Premise’ – Let’s get tropey! – this is what Snyder calls the ‘Fun and Games’, it’s all the stuff you imagine when you hear ‘alien caper film’ or ‘time-travel romance novel’.
  • Incident – ‘Pinch Point 1’ – Hints at the true nature of the threat encountered in Act 1 and raises the level of tension and expectation. Requires a ‘boosted’ effort by the protagonist – i.e. deciding to engage isn’t enough; they need to interact with the threat (note: this is unlikely to be the true antagonist at this stage and more likely to be a manifestation or cronies or similar…)
  • Initial Response – Failed attempts. This is the heart of ‘all action, no thinking’. Everything is reactive, incoherent, unorganised – either because the protagonist and co are acting in the heat of the moment or because they don’t yet have what they need (information, resources, expertise, collaboration, etc) to develop a strategy. In this part of the story, the protagonist is still approaching the new problem the way they would in the old world.
  • Escalation -/+ – Threat of overall failure (the negative) – This needs to be HIGH STAKES! In the face of total failure, the protagonist can not have the option to just walk away. “Failure is not an option!” Immediately followed by a new understanding, revelation, or insight (the positive) that changes everything the protagonist and/or the reader knew (also the ‘Midpoint’)
  • Decision – To take on the antagonist – To deal with the real problem, not just its manifestation.

Act 2B – STRATEGY WITHOUT CHANGE | Protagonist Mission – Win

  • Status Quo – New Imperative – the frenetic action of a new plan coming together. Anticipation, excitement, urgency. Preparation and initial implementation/roll-out.
  • Incident – ‘Pinch Point 2’ – Highlights the underestimated strength of the antagonist and the continued weakness of the protagonist. Sets tone of menace even though the plan seems to be going swimmingly.
  • Initial Response – Continued implementation of the plan, building towards confrontation with antagonist, stringing together small wins, meeting the interim milestones needed for the plan to ultimately be successful. Building towards the False Victory. (This is the opposite of the Initial Response in Act 2A)
  • Escalation -/+ – The plan fails in the worst possible way and all seems lost (the negative) (also the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’). Immediately followed by a reprieve – an indication that success can be obtained, but that it will require facing impossible odds and taking extreme risks.
  • Decision – ‘Plot Point 2’ – The possibility of success is worth the risk / the threat of failure demands that every chance of success is pursued. The greater good takes precedence over personal safety.

Act 3 – CHANGE AND TRANSFORMATION | Protagonist Mission: Resolve

  • Status Quo – Final preparation. Coming to terms with what is being risked. Shedding the ‘armour’ and confronting the ‘misbelief’.
  • Incident – ‘Final Battle’ – Confronting the antagonist in the ultimate battle – a zero sum game – only one can survive.
  • Initial Response – The protagonist stumbles. This is the moment in The Karate Kid when Johnny sweeps the leg, or the moment in Rocky when he’s down for the count, just before the music builds and he lurches himself into one final effort.
  • Escalation -/+ – Threat of overall failure is palpable (the negative), immediately followed by new and extreme resolve (the positive).
  • Decision – The last ditch effort. All-in.

The Decision of Act 3 doesn’t lead into a new act, instead it progresses to:

  • Outcome – the Protagonist defeats the Antagonist (and either survives, or dies (literally or metaphorically) in the process)
  • Impact – the ‘Denouement’ – the resolution of the story. The impact of defeating the Antagonist. The ‘true’ goal of the protagonist is achieved – the intangible, bigger picture, ‘thematic’ goal (e.g. happiness, closure, forgiveness, etc)

 

I hope this helps you with your novel drafting and editing as much as it helped me. Can you see this structure playing out in your own book or favourite movies? Does it work? Let me know in the comments!

 

Liked this? Want more?

Discover the Divided Elements series now with award-winning Resistance (Divided Elements #1) and just-released Rebellion (Divided Elements #2). Available as paperback or ebook on your favourite device. Just click to start reading!

Divided Elements - Award-winning speculative fiction

 

 

Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure

Starting your novel – Your protagonist needs a problem

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I recently had a moment of enlightenment regarding this whole writing a book thing. The start of a story occurs at the start. Yes, you read that correctly. The start of a story occurs at the start. Many of you would argue that it is not much of an enlightenment. But, for me, it was a big leap in understanding story structure…

For a long time, I had thought that the story started at the inciting incident, that everything that came before this point (Gap A) was context and set-up and exposition. This is still true – The Inciting Incident does kickstart your story AND Gap A is all about context and set-up and exposition. The paradox arrives by way of realising that Gap A is also more than this – it is also the beginning of your story.

Lightbulb Moment

 

So this is our conundrum – both the Inciting Incident AND Gap A serve as the story’s beginning.

Some writers deal with this by having the Inciting Incident arrive in the first chapter of their story. I like a longer lead in time for my stories – to really ground the reader in the world and the status quo before launching into the story proper. If you’re like me and locate your Inciting Incident around the 10% mark, then you’ll also be faced with the challenge of crafting two story beginnings – because you can’t have your reader wading through 10% of your book before they can actually start reading the story.

So, how do you start a story twice? The answer lies in understanding that any novel is comprised of two stories – two core conflicts – two key problems – The Story’s Problem and the Protagonist’s Problem.

The Story’s Problem is the conflict that the Inciting Incident catalyses – it is usually external to the protagonist and critical for shaping their actions in response. It is the story that you see in movie trailers, it is the story that could have happened to any other character (even if the results would have been wildly different).

The Protagonist’s Problem is the conflict that the Protagonist brings with them to the story. No protagonist enters a story as a clean slate. They always bring their own story, their own problems, their own baggage. This is important, because the baggage that a protagonist holds is what shapes how they respond to the Inciting Incident and navigate through the rest of the story’s gaps and turning points. The Protagonist’s Problem is, therefore, necessarily internal and dominant in shaping their thoughts, behaviours and emotions. It is the hidden story, the story that is completely unique to the protagonist. Even if the  exact same Story Problem had happened to another character, the personal impact and permutations explored in the Protagonist’s Problem would never be replicated.

The existence of these two stories allows for two beginnings – Gap A can start with the Protagonist’s Problem, and the Inciting Incident can commence the Story’s Problem. Allowing you to start your story at the start!

How do you start your stories? What are the challenges and obstacles you face when crafting a compelling beginning?

 

Image courtesy of Aaronth via Flickr Creative Commons

Starting your novel – Your protagonist needs a problem

How to start your novel – The first part of the first act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Starting a novel is no easy task. The problem with beginnings is that they are all about set-up, and set-up can very easily turn into boring exposition, unnecessary backstory and painful info-dumping. When I think about the beginning of a story, I think about the first part of the first act – what I like to call Gap A.

Gap A is all about setting the context for the story – articulating the status quo of the protagonist and their world – a status quo that will soon be thrown into disarray with the inevitable disturbance (the first story Turning Point) and it subsequent impacts.

A richly-drawn status quo is important for giving the disturbance the punch it needs to throw the protagonist (and the reader) into a spin. Winning a trip to Paris for a seasoned jetsetter who spends every other weekend in France is less of a disturbance than it is for a recent widow who has dreamed of going to Paris for the thirty years since seeing Gigi at her local cinema.

Which brings us to the first necessary component of Gap A – The introduction of your protagonist. Give the reader an understanding of what makes your character tick. Focus on their key traits – their unque quirks that will ultimately drive the story and underscore its conflict. Introduce your protagonist with action, not exposition. Don’t tell me that your widow is shy and defeated and fragile. Show me.

The best way to show what lies at the core of your protagonist is to position them in a characteristic moment. Your widow has finally left the confines of her small flat to do some grocery shopping. She shuns the new, red shoes she bought the week her husband died, she leaves the makeup littering her dressing table untouched, she swipes at a stain on her blouse, but doesn’t bother changing it. At the grocery store a dashing older man pays her a compliment, she blushes at the attention and then is wracked by waves of guilt. She ignores his question, leaves her shopping trolley in the middle of the aisle, half full, and leaves the store in a hurry.

Giving the reader a clear picture of your protagonist gives you the leverage you need as an author to create maximum impact with the Disturbance.

But, in order to give your reader a clear picture of your protagonist – you first need to have a deep understanding of your character and all their complexity. Which is particularly difficult to do at the start of your novel when you are not yet sure how your character is going to react to the challenges and obstacles you throw in their path as your story progresses.

Hmmm. We have a catch 22.

To write a good beginning, you need to know your protagonist. To know your protagonist, you need to have seen how they react to your story points as they progress. 

Oh, Yossarian, what to do?

Thankfully, our solution to this paradox is fairly simple – write a rough draft of your beginning, knowing that you will need to change it after you have finished your first draft (when you will have the understanding you need to write a better beginning).

This is what I am currently doing with Divided Elements. After quite some time apart from this WIP that is loved and hated, I have returned to revisit the beginning. I have a much better understanding of my protagonist, Anaiya, and a much clearer picture of the traits and relationships that both define her and define her conflict with the novel’s main storyline.

What about you? How do you develop a strong understanding of your protagonist? How do you build this into your novel’s beginning to set-up a stronger disturbance with maximum impact? 

Image courtesy of Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons.

How to start your novel – The first part of the first act

Five Turning Points and the Gaps Between – All you need to know about Story Structure in one blog post

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I think about story structure. A lot. I’ve read countless books and studied hundreds of movies to gain a deeper understanding of narrative structure. I’ve reviewed the classic philosophies of act, scene and beat structure – from the Three Act Structure, to the Eight Sequences, and beyond to the 15 Beats. There is a plethora of information out there, in writing guides, on websites and forums, in blog posts, and from seminars and conferences. It can be a lot to take in, and over the past year I have worked my way through them to try and translate them into a language and format my brain can understand. And, this morning, I think I have had my enlightenment moment: Everything you need to know in order to understand narrative structure – whether you write screenplays or novels – can be boiled down to the Five Turning Points and the Gaps Between them.

Five Turning Points and the Gaps Between

Warning – this is going to be long. It would have to be to give you everything you need to know about story structure in one blog post 🙂

The Five Turning Points – A Shift in Direction

The Five Turning Points are the five key events in your story where the narrative shifts direction. It’s worthwhile spending some time discussing what a ‘shift in direction’ actually entails. For me, a shift in direction can be either character-driven or plot-driven.

For character-driven shifts, we see either a shift in technique, in action or in motivation (you can read more about character-driven shifts and how they impact on your second act here)

  • A shift in technique is where a character maintains the same goal (the why) and the same action (the what), but changes their technique in undertaking the action (the how). e.g. My goal is to reach the mountain summit. My action is to trek along the mountain path. My technique changes from doing it alone, to joining a group and sharing the burden.
  • A shift in action, is where a character maintains their goal, but changes their action. e.g. My goal is still to reach the summit, but instead of trekking to get there, I decide to charter a helicopter to drop me off.
  • A shift in goal, is where the character rethinks their entire motivation and finds either a) a more worthy goal or b) the deeper, subconscious goal that had yet to be recognised. e.g. I start to wonder why I want to reach the summit. a) Is it to break the world record and become wildly famous and is that still important when I see the local villages along the way struggling with poverty? OR b) Is it to prove to myself that I am worthy of recognition and is there a better way I can do this?

For plot-driven shifts, we see either an escalation, a de-escalation, or an about-face.

  • An escalation takes a value and increases it. In this instance, an escalation would be a situation that was bad and then became worse, or that was urgent and then became desperate, or that was scary and then became deadly.
  • A de-escalation takes a value and decreases it. In this instance, a de-escalation would be a situation that was impossible and then became difficult (but achievable), or that was awe-inspiring and then became mildly interesting, or that was wildly over-the-top and then became merely eccentric.
  • An about-face takes a value and morphs it into its opposite. In this instance, an about-face would be a situation that was deadly and then became life-giving, that was interesting and then became nauseating, that was mournful and then became joyful.

The Gaps in Between – Action & Reaction

Having established our five turning points as the key shift in direction our narrative takes, we can begin to understand that the gaps in between are the spaces in which we can show how the shift has impacted on our story’s world and characters and how their reactions create the necessary environments for the next turning point (and its impact) to logically (albeit sometimes surprisingly) occur.

Essentially, the gaps present the momentum of the story and set up the tone of action. If the turning points are subtle escalations, increasing only by degrees, then the gaps between will necessarily produce a slower pace involving smaller changes in story world and characters and setting a context that is only slightly different from the one to be presented in the next gap – all of which makes for a very slow (and, possibly, boring) story.

If, however, the turning points are more dramatic, then the gaps will need to work hard to show the significant impacts on the story world and characters and to set-up a sharp contrast between the new world/character state and the state that will be produced by the next turning point – producing lots of tension, conflict and change.

This is all pretty cerebral at the moment, so why don’t we get stuck in and look in detail at each of the five turning points and their impact on the gaps that cushion them…

Turning Point 1 – the DISTURBANCE – and Gap A – the SET-UP

The disturbance is pretty much what it sounds like – something to unsettle the normal state of affairs and foreshadow a bigger change on the horizon. Known also as the Inciting Incident, it is the event that affects your story’s protagonist but does not directly engage them yet in the core conflict.

Here are some examples from popular movies:

  • BACK TO THE FUTURE – Marty McFly sees his friend Doc gunned down by Libyan Terrorists
  • CRAZY STUPID LOVE – Cal Weaver’s wife, Emily, abruptly announces that she wants a divorce
  • DISTRICT 9 – Wikus is sprayed with black alien goop as he carries out his eviction of District 9 residents
  • FINDING NEMO – Marlin watches in horror as his son, Nemo, is captured by divers
  • JUNO – Juno MacGuff sleeps with her boyfriend, Paulie Bleeker
  • OBLIVION – The Hydro rigs are destroyed by the scavengers leading to the discovery of an unknown signal

As you can see from these examples, sometimes the disturbance personally touches the protagonist (Crazy Stupid Love, District 9, Juno), sometimes it happens to a loved one (Finding Nemo, Back to the Future), and sometimes it happens to someone completely unrelated or an inanimate object (Oblivion). Sometimes it is caused by the protagonist (Juno), sometimes it happens to the protagonist (Back to the Future, Crazy Stupid Love, District 9, Finding Nemo) and sometimes it happens to something indirectly related to the protagonist (Oblivion). What they all have in common, is that each Disturbance poses a key question – What will your protagonist do now?

These characterisations are critical for writing the gaps between. With the first turning point (as with all turning points), there are two gaps between. For the Disturbance, there is the gap between the story’s very beginning and the turning point, and there is the gap between the turning point and the next turning point (in this case the Lock In). Let’s focus on Gap A – The Set-Up.

Gap A is all about detailing the current state of play, the status quo, which will provide the context as to why the Disturbance is so unsettling, so full of potential for further problems, so disturbing.

Image courtesy of Matthijs via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Matthijs via Flickr Creative Commons

Let’s take Finding Nemo as our example – if Marlin is always losing his kids to divers, or if he has hundreds of other kids and one lost fish is but a drop in the ocean (*boom, tish*), seeing Nemo captured is likely to be only a mild disturbance – less a disaster and more an irritation. However, this is far from the truth – Marlin is an over-protective and loving father who is still struggling, thanks to a barracuda attack, with the loss of his wife and entire clutch of eggs (besides Nemo). This context is critical for giving depth and sharpness to the Disturbance.

Lesson Learnt: Use your Gap A to build the necessary details that will give your Disturbance maximum impact. 

Gap B – the LACK OF ACTION – and Turning Point 2 – the LOCK IN

After the first turning point, we arrive in Gap B, which is typically characterised by a lack of action. In the Hero’s Journey this is called the Rejection of the Call, but not all Gap B’s are about actively rejecting the call to action a disturbance typically presents. Sometimes there are other motivations that see our protagonist not yet directly engaging with this new conflict – no resources, no skills, no recognition of the disturbance and what it could mean.

Gap B is all about building the story towards the second turning point, the Lock In, where the protagonist is now willing and/or able to directly engage in the core conflict.

Image courtesy of Toni Verdu Carbo via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Toni Verdu Carbo via Flickr Creative Commons

Let’s use Back to the Future as our example – the Lock In is Marty ending up in 1955 with no way of getting back to the future. Gap B sees Marty horrified by Doc’s brutal assassination, but the assassination is not what causes Marty to jump into the delorean. It is only when he is in personal danger of being shot that he needs to flee in the delorean. Marty initially fails to act for two reasons – 1) he doesn’t have the emotional stability to engage (he is in shock) and b) he doesn’t have the personal motivation to engage (he is still relatively safe).

To get Marty into the delorean and back to 1955, the writers needed to take away these two obstacles to action – they turned the gunfire towards Marty, breaking him out of his shock and giving him a reason to get into the delorean.

Lesson Learnt: Identify the obstacles that are stopping your protagonist from responding to the Disturbance (these ideally will have been foreshadowed in Gap A, the Set-Up) and use Gap B to remove them.

Gap C – the PLAN A – and Turning Point 3 – the MIDPOINT

When your protagonist has no excuse for not responding to the Disturbance (or, alternatively, has no choice but to engage directly with the conflict), you’ve arrived in Gap C – what I call PLAN A and what others call the First Plot Point, and what formally announces the transition between Act One and Act Two of your narrative.

The distinction between no excuse and no choice is an important one. Many people say that the transition from the first act and second act should come from the protagonist actively choosing to engage. I don’t agree. Sometimes the lock in can be a choice, but sometimes it can be forced.

Take Juno, for example. The Lock In is when Juno discovers she is pregnant. There is no choice – it’s a fact. A situation she didn’t choose to be in, but finds herself in, nonetheless. Similarly, there are stories where the Lock In sees the protagonist kidnapped – they don’t choose to be, but are nonetheless.

What defines the Lock In is a situation where the protagonist becomes directly engaged and personally affected by the conflict, whether they choose to be or not.

It is the decision about how they will respond to this fact is what sets up Gap C and forms the basis of their Plan A.

For Juno, she is faced with numerous options for how to deal with this inconvenient and unwelcome news. Her decision to adopt out her baby is what sets her on the path of her Plan A – to give her baby to prospective adoptive parents Mark and Vanessa.

But, there is a reason I call it the Plan A. This plan, while seemingly a good one at the time, is doomed to fail. Why? Because of the Midpoint.

We’ve talked a lot about turning points – well, the Midpoint is the mother of all turning points. It is, in most cases, the most dramatic shift in direction – requiring our protagonist to develop an entirely different plan. As discussed above, the Midpoint shift can be plot-driven or character-driven, but it needs to be big enough to change the direction of your protagonist – not just a tinkering at the edges of what they want to do, but a wholesale re-think of what they are doing and what they should do.

Image courtesy of Daniel Lobo via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Daniel Lobo via Flickr Creative Commons

In Juno, it is the discovery that Mark wants to leave Vanessa and his confession that he is not ready to raise a child.

Like the Disturbance, all Midpoints should have readers/viewers asking – What will the protagonist do now? 

Lesson Learnt: Know your midpoint from the beginning and build a Plan A that: i) given what has happened in Act One, is reasonable at the time, but ii) given what will happen at the Midpoint, is doomed to fail. Use your Gap C to either show i) the Plan A failing at each turn or ii) the Plan going along swimmingly (an unknowingly towards its eventual doom).

Gap D – the PLAN B – and Turning Point 4 – the CULMINATION

So, now your protagonist is faced with a doomed plan – they could either see it coming or it took them completely by surprise. Either way, they need a new plan. Gap D takes the changes to the story’s world and character development that occurred during Gap C and uses them as the necessary motivations, resources and opportunities for your protagonist to develop, and start implementing, their Plan B.

Unfortunately, Plan B is also doomed to fail. Not because it is a bad plan (like Plan A), but because of either a) the protagonist’s debilitating weakness or b) the antagonist’s uncompromising strength (or c) both of the above).

That is the core of what happens at Turning Point 4, the Culmination – it is your protagonist’s darkest moment, the point where they have seemingly given their all, but have been found wanting in the face of the antagonist’s dominance.

Happily, there are two sides to the Culmination – 1) the darkest moment and 2) the silver lining. The silver lining is the moment when the protagonist has an ‘a-ha!’ moment – when all of the lessons they have learnt and skills they have developed along the Plan B journey give them what they need to head towards the fifth Turning Point – the Final Battle.

Image courtesy of Richard West via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Richard West via Flickr Creative Commons

In Crazy Stupid Love, Cal has realised his original plan to get over his wife and get good with the ladies is doomed when he realises he is still in love with his wife and the ladies he got good with are crazy. He quickly shifts to his Plan B – win his wife back. It’s a good plan, but ultimately also doomed to fail because Cal is prone to bad decisions and rash actions (his greatest weakness) – like losing his mind when his daughter turns up with bad boy Jacob, and his antagonist (his failing marriage) gains strength from the arrival of his wife’s romantic interest and a delicate matter involving a lovestruck babysitter.

The role of Gap D, therefore, is to:

  • Foreshadow the protagonist’s weakness and the antagonist’s strength
  • Lull the protagonist into a false sense of security as their Plan B continues to look the winner
  • Provide them with snippets of important knowledge, skills, traits and resources that will be the key to a final battle with the antagonist.

Lesson Learnt: Use your Plan B to pull the wool over your protagonist’s eyes – keep them focused on, and confident in, their Plan B while a) sowing the seeds of currently irrelevant, but potentially crucial knowledge, skills, traits and/or resources, and b) hinting at the depths of the protagonist’s greatest weakness and antagonist’s greatest strength.

GAP E – the RE-AWAKENING – and Turning Point 5 – the FINAL BATTLE

Your protagonist has come through their darkest moment and has seen the silver lining – welcome to Gap E, the Re-Awakening. This Gap is all about taking the little threads of hope you have sprinkled through the Second Act and helping your protagonist piece them together and strengthen them until they form a weapon that is capable of both a) destroying the protagonist’s weakness and b) overcoming the antagonist’s strength.

Image courtesy of Amanda Tipton via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Amanda Tipton via Flickr Creative Commons

The operative word here is capable. This new found personal discovery and growth must give the protagonist (and the reader/viewer) hope that the protagonist will prevail. Hope, but not certainty (because where is the drama in that?).

Building an effective Turning Point 5 – the Final Battle – and a strong Gap E – the Re-Awakening – is fundamentally built upon a sound understanding of the protagonist’s greatest weakness and their growing strengths, the antagonist’s greatest strength and hinted weakness, and the key factors that will bolster the protagonist whilst simultaneously undermining the antagonist.

In Oblivion, the Re-Awakening is Jack #49 reading the Flight Recorder and understanding what had happened to the Odyssey – thus gaining the critical knowledge and resolve he needs to carry through with his final battle plan against Tet –  sacrificing himself and detonating the nuclear bomb aboard his ship to destroy Tet – relying on Sally’s weakness to let the ship in under the impression that it is Julia who is inside.

Lesson Learnt: Build a Final Battle that centres on the protagonist’s recently realised and newly strengthened advantages versus the antagonist’s hinted weakness. Use Gap E to show how the protagonist develops these strengths and hint at how they may be useful against the previously invincible antagonist. 

GAP F – the DENOUEMENT

The protagonist and antagonist face each other in an epic battle. The protagonist digs deep and finds the inner strength to prevail. End of story. Right? Um. No. The protagonist has won, the antagonist is defeated – but has the protagonist achieved their goal? And how has the battle’s outcome created a new status quo?

Image courtesy of Macroscopic Solutions via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Macroscopic Solutions via Flickr Creative Commons

Gap F – the Denouement (a fancy French word that literally means ‘to unknot’, and essentially means the conclusion or resolution of a plot) – answers the question – Okay, so the protagonist won, but…? 

But, did he get the girl? But, did she get to go back home to Kansas? But, did they live happily ever after?

It’s where you wrap up the loose ends and give a sense of finality to the overall story – recognising that the antagonist was just the major/last obstacle in between the protagonist and their goal – and that the protagonist still, at the end of the battle, needs to reach out and grab that goal.

The Denouement should also, ideally, present a hint at what that means – begin to answer the question of what impact will the protagonist achieving their goal have? In this way, the Denouement is like a twisted mirror image of the Set-Up – establishing a new status quo, a new world order that is ripe for other disturbances…

And, there you have it. My complete road map to story structure.
Let me know in the comments whether you’ve found it useful! 

 

Liked this? Want more?

You can grab your own copy of Resistance (Divided Elements #1) to read now. Available as a paperback or ebook on your favourite device. 

RESISTANCE

 

 

Five Turning Points and the Gaps Between – All you need to know about Story Structure in one blog post

Understanding Story Structure – Part 3: Micro Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Over the last couple of weeks I have been looking at story structure – from the global level of the story itself, to the macro level of each act within the story. This week, I am looking at story structure at the micro level – Sequences, Scenes and Beats.

Before we move on into the discussion, let’s do a quick recap:

1. The novel is like a Russian Doll – the biggest doll (our novel) contains smaller replicas of itself within itself. The content won’t necessarily replicate in miniature, but the structure will (as will, to different degrees, the tone and theme).

2. The structure is many things to many people – countless authors and writing gurus have all attempted to distil structure into the key building blocks (Snyder’s Save the Cat, Aristotle’s Three Act Structure, Bell’s LOCK and Two Doorways, Coyne’s Story Grid, Brooks’ Four Boxes) – but sometimes you just have to build something that works for you.

My structural breakdown goes like this:

1. Status Quo

2. Call to Action

3. Engagement

4. Crisis Point

5. Directed Action

6. Outcome

 

So far we have seen this model present across the entire novel and across each of the three acts that a novel comprises.

Today, let’s see how the model presents in the micro components of a novel – sequences, scenes and beats.

Sequences, Scenes and Beats

Sequences, scenes and beats are possibly the hardest parts of structure to bed down – primarily because there are lots of definitions out there on what each of them is, but also because they are more directly associated with films rather than novels.

Let’s look at each in turn…

Sequences

Sequences are the next doll to come out of the shell – the miniature replica of the act.

I find that Wikipedia has the best definition:

In film, a sequence is a series of scenes that form a distinct narrative unit, which is usually connected either by unity of location or unity of time. 

When I first started planning my debut novel, Divided Elements – Resistance, I found that my outlining process consisted entirely of acts and sequences. Sequences are the large chunks of story that give structure to the acts. They’re also likely to be the structural elements people use to summarise your story.

This happens to me all the time – I’ll be talking to someone about a movie I saw on the weekend and the first question they will ask is “What was it about?”

“Well,” I’ll say. “It was this sci-fi movie called Snowpiercer, where there is this train hurtling through the snow and ice, and people are divided into classes and designated to different carriages, and there’s a plot afoot to get to the engine and basically start a revolution – you know, power to the people.”

And then, if they’re not particularly interested in seeing the film, but still a little intrigued, they will ask “What happens?”. And this is where I launch into the rundown of sequences:

“Well! The plebs in the back carriage are receiving revolutionary messages and intel in the soylent green like food bars they get dished up and so they stage a revolt to find the one person who can get them to the engine room. They make it to the jail carriage where they release the drug-addled  mastermind that can get them through the next few carriages and all the way to the engine room – He gets them to the the next carriage but it is filled with murderous guards with some serious technology and killer weapons, leading the charge is  the creepy Prime Minister of the train. She gets captured and forced into helping them get to the front on pain of death…” etc etc

It’s the Cliff Notes version of the story – just enough detail to get a sense of the story and how it unfolds, but not enough detail to get a sense of the world complexities or character motivations and development. In this way, sequences tend to be action-driven – they detail what is happening – the physical/tangible triggers for  story and character development.

The sequences focus on what happens, leaving it to the scenes to answer the more difficult questions of why and how, to explore the more complex story elements of worldbuilding, character development, inner turmoil and tension.

But like their own mama doll, sequences still follow the same structure of status quo, call to action, engagement, crisis point, directed action and outcome.

Let’s take the Snowpiercer example – Sequence 1 would be the “Stage revolt and get to jail carriage”.

The status quo details the conditions of the last carriage and the frustration and fears of its occupants. The call to action is the latest message found in the food bar – it’s time to start this revolution. The engagement is the fight with the guards. The crisis point is where the protagonist is confronted with a gun-bearing guard and he has to decide whether to trust the intel (that the guns aren’t loaded) or back down. The directed action is where he back the intel and his instincts and doesn’t back down. He leads the surge through to the next carriage. The outcome is arriving at the jail carriage and the cell of the key person they are after.

 

Scenes

Scenes are the next doll to emerge. If I could establish a definition for them, I would use something very similar to that of sequences:

A scenes is a collection of beats that form a distinct event, which usually takes place within one location or one time period. 

Think of them like the building blocks you need to achieve the overarching premise of your sequence. The protagonist and his friends need to successfully stage a revolt and make it to the jail carriage. What ingredients are needed to make this cake rise? Well, we will need a scene that shows a kind of ‘tipping point’ of frustration amongst the occupants of the carriage and the introduction of a ‘safe breaker’ – something that will enable them to vent their frustrations. That’s our scene: “Just as the tension is about to turn critical, they receive a secret message that gives them the key to success”.

Like a sequence, it also gets fleshed out with the structural elements. The status quo is the tension. The call to action is the realisation that the tension will hit the tipping point soon and potentially cause a lot of grief – something needs to be done. The engagement is the futile attempts to calm everyone down. The crisis point is when the protagonist considers starting the revolt without knowing it is the right time. The directed action is the protagonist waiting – tense, yet patiently – to receive word before he acts. The outcome is the protagonist being rewarded with the secret message that tells him the time is right.

Building Blocks

Beats

Beats are tricky things. I am wary of approaching them – they seem as if they exist on Planck Scale, where things don’t play according to the normal rules.

Like most of the other dolls that have gone before them, beats are indeed a miniature replica. Unlike the other dolls, they have no additional, smaller doll within them. They are the last component. As such, beats themselves are not further divided into smaller parts – they are the smaller parts.

Film-makers like to break down their scenes into two components – the beat and the shot. Both are like twin atoms – equally representing the smallest unit of the story. The beat refers to the narrative unit, the shot to the visual unit. Both explain what is happening – they literally tell the story.

Let’s use an example: Let’s say that in this paticular scene in your story you want to write about a teenager named Izzy switching on the memory-erasing machine.

Okay, let’s start with the ‘beat’. From what I can understand, there a few types of ‘beats’ – the most common being action beats, dialogue beats and internalisation beats. There are also, from my observation, explanation/exposition beats, description beats and flash-back beats:

The time machine stood gleaming like a metal meerkat, perched on tippy-toes, standing as straight as could be in anticipation of the excitement or danger that could come next [description]. Izzy crept forward, her grin growing wider with each step [action]. “Eliana would be flipping out…”, she whispered to hersel [dialogue]. The thought of her best friend, Eliana – former best friend [internalisation] – draws Izzy up short. Her grin wavers as she recalls their last conversation. Ten years as best friends had fizzled in a space of ten minutes

.

“You are so selfish!” Eliana had raged.
“I’m not selfish,” Izzy had retorted. “
You’re scared!” [flash-back]

Okay, so the above example is a little convoluted – courtesy of trying to fit in all the beat types – but you see the point. There are a lot of beat types and each presents an interesting way of conveying information.

Now, let’s turn to the less popular ‘shot’.

Again, Wikipedia brings the goods with a useful description:

[A] shot is a series of frames, that runs for an uninterrupted period of time. Film shots are an essential aspect of a movie where angles, transition and cuts are used to further express emotion, ideas and movement.

Film shots are typically defined by three criteria – Subject (who or what is predominantly captured); Field Size (how much of the subject and its surrounding environment is captured); and Camera Placement (from what angle or perspective the image is being captured).

Compare the following:

Subject: > Backyard > Fountain > Foliage

Screenshot 2015-03-06 11.38.50

Field Size: Wide Shot > Mid Shot > Close Up

Camera Placement: Aerial > Profile > Behind

Screenshot 2015-03-06 11.39.04

 

Even though, as authors, we are dealing with the narrative (and not the visual) – we can still take some lessons away:

The true importance of beats lies not with them, in and of themselves – but with the juxtaposition of, and transition between, them.

Positioning a wide-shot beat (where we see the chaotic movement of a crowd, which includes the protagonist) next to a close-up beat (where we see in full detail the protagonist’s smile) – conveys a very precise tone and emotion. Without any explanation necessary, we know instinctively that the protagonist is smiling either because she likes the chaos or feels responsible for it.

Positioned deep within the large crowd of frenetic bodies, Jane whirled her limbs in a frenzy, mimicing and leading the replicated chaos around her. Shouts and smells assaulted her senses as she jostled, and was jostled back.

She smiled. 

 

This tone can be sharpened by using a cut-away shot – i.e. juxtaposing a ‘shot’ of the crowd in chaos, with the protagonist nowhere to be seen, and then cutting sharply to a close-up of the protagonist’s smile.

The crowd was an angry mass of frenetic limbs. People of all shapes and sizes jostled and heaved. From the balconies above it appeared as if the large gathering was boiling, bubbling desperately and breaking into large pockets of isolated and connected violence.

Away from the crowd, on the isolated street corner, Jane watched on. Her eyes never wavered from the chaos – taking in every movement, every assault, every climbing degree of violence.

Alone and unwatched, she smiled. 

 

Each beat conveys a very specific tone and emotion. In the first example, seeing Jane in the midst of the chaos from the very beginning, gives us a very different feel to the second example, where we don’t know of Jane yet and don’t know where she is. Finding her alone and isolated from the chaos provides a darker tone. And, even though both examples end with her smiling – one feels more sinister than the other.

Both seem to also serve different purposes for the scene. The first is more likely to be an Engagement beat – it speaks of fun & games. The second appears to be a Directed Action beat – there is something decidedly conscious and calculating about this smile.

Within any given scene, there will be multiple and various beats – some will be status quo beats, some will be call to action beats. You could have multiple call to action beats, all ‘shot’ from different lengths and perspectives and juxtaposed to create the overall mood you are aiming for, and just one outcome beat – a final ‘fullstop’ at the end of the scene.

In that way, beats live up to their musical etymology – stringing together short beats and long beats, loud beats and soft beats, slow beats and fast beats – it’s what gives you the narrative music 🙂

 

So, there you have it – the final look at Story Structure from a micro perspective. I hope you have found it useful!

 

(Featured Image derived from “365/173: Building Blocks” courtesy of Kaytee Riek via Flickr Creative Commons)

Understanding Story Structure – Part 3: Micro 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