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I gained a lot of momentum from the answers to my first question. I've read a couple of writing books and read a lot of articles online. Although I'm still quite 'green', I have a much better idea as to what writing is all about.

I am currently studying and trying to get a handle on Story Structure. But I'm getting confused with the information I've come across. I've found good info at websites like thescriptlab.com, helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com, and advancedfictionwriting.com.

They talk about 5 plot points, two plot points combined with pinch points, 3 disasters...

I can't find any real consistency, other than everyone agrees with the 3 act structure. I've even reviewed several additional writing books to get more clarity, but most of the descriptions of structure are vague.

As a plotter, I feel I need to get a clear understanding of the important structural / plot components before I can move forward. Can anyone shed some light on this?

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I remember feeling the same frustration and wondering why, if a plot point was such an essential element of fiction, wasn't there a definition that clearly explained the concept? I found cute little charts that showed the tension building until the last act but no explanation of how to put one of the structure models into practice. And even worse, every so often someone would add a new term and never bother to explain it either, just adding to my confusion. Did I need a logline, throughline, one-sentence pitch, theme, dramatic structure, central conflict, etc., and where did I put them?

I agree with a few others here that the key is simply to get to work and let the story sort out most of these issues, but I get that desire to understand the model too.

What helped me was a story structure that James Brooks explains on his website storyfix.com - something he calls the "Beat Sheet." What he suggests is using a four-part structure and begin by arbitrarily adding fifteen scenes in each part. He suggests rough guidelines, and clear definitions, of where the inciting incident, first and second plot points, first and second pinch points, Mid-Point shift, etc., should go and isn't overly anal about the whole thing.

I like the flexibility of the template, and if a section needs detailed, intricate plotting, then I can certainly expand the outline format as much as I want. If less works then a simple phrase or sentence describing the action works just fine.

Bryce Beattie at storyhack.com has a nice post on structure - 'Five Ways to Plan a Story' with helpful links and explanations of some structure styles, including the Beat Sheet I just mentioned.

If you look around those two sites, you will find links to templates, outlines, explanations, definitions, etc. (I can't post more than two links at my current "rep" so you'll have to do some digging.)

These should put you well on your way.

Good Luck!

  • Ha! I'm a friend of Bryce Beattie's! And it's not James Brooks at storyfix.com, it's LARRY Brooks, just FYI. :) Also, Larry's work is all based on Syd Field's screenwriting book. But "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder can help too. :) – Josh Feb 17 '16 at 14:50
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All these analytical schemas are interesting, but I don't think you can rely on them for building a story. It is like dissecting a body. An autopsy may tell you what killed them, but it won't bring them back to life.

I think they can be great tools to figure out why a story is not working. But I don't think they are a scaffolding for building a story. If they were, everybody who read a writing book would be turning out best sellers.

I think the way you write a story is this: You invent a set of characters. You spend time with them until you know them and eventually fall in love with them. Then you torture them until either they break or triumph. It is a cruel business, and emotionally exhausting. I think most stories fail because the writer is not patient enough to fall in love, or not cruel enough to torture, or not tireless enough to see it through.

And when it is all done, if the story works, an analysis may reveal that it fits the common pattern, or, if it fails, that it fails to meet the pattern. But the patterns means nothing without the falling in love and the torturing and the patience unto death.

  • +1 for your "why stories fail" statement! I'm midway through writing an answer of my own and I think we are saying very nearly the same thing! – Henry Taylor Feb 16 '16 at 4:17
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Plots are like skeletons. They're made up of individual bones called plot-points.

You can look at any specific plot-structure and see how its plot-points are arranged. You can perceive where the high and low points are, and with a little study, you can even find out why those points are where they are.

...but that doesn't make any specific plot-structure/skeleton universally right and all other bones arrangements wrong.

You wouldn't use a human skeleton to build a horse, nor would a horse skeleton work for a whale. No plot-structure will serve every writing task, and a body of writing isn't necessarily bad just because it doesn't strictly adhere to your favorite plot-structure.

I would suggest that you plot first and apply structure later. Get the important plot-points out on a sheet of paper, then see which skeleton best fits the resulting story. Once you find a structure that your story can live in, study it closely and follow or ignore its guidelines as your story demands.

Let's say that you are lucky and the story that is growing inside you seems to fit a Hero's Quest plot structure. In a hero's quest, a lone hero leaves a life of normality to find friends, fight enemies, face challenges and finally defeat evil; returning to his normal life with improved wisdom and maybe wealth.

I like to think of the Hero's Quest as a horse skeleton. It has an obvious front where we meet it's character, the kind eyes and a noble long nose.

Climbing aboard near it's shoulders, we are completely divided from our world; literally, our feet can no longer touch the ground.

Lacking both bridle or saddle, we slide down our mount's back, in constant terror that when we run out of horse, we will return violently to the ground. Our quest is to grab the mane and take control of beast before it bucks us off. If we can do that, the horse will take us to whatever destination we desire.

Our struggles to stay on board and avoid the looming calamity, are the middle plot points. These are the opportunities that yield the minor victories and defeats which make the ride interesting. Finding that a shoulder blade provides a hand-hold. Victory! Discovering that sweaty palms can't hold onto horse hide. Defeat!

The adventure is in the details, not in the destination. But those details can take on many forms. By the time your story is finished, your horse might look more like a camel or maybe even like a centipede, with dozens of bumps which offer your hero hope. The important part isn't how many plot points occupy the back of your horse. It is the constancy of the quest and the turmoil of the ride.

What you can learn from a plot structure is subtler than simple plot point counts. Hidden in the structure is valuable advice on how to handle the transitions between points, a.k.a. the joints. In the case of my own use of the Hero's Quest, I have discovered that hopeful climbs should be slow and carefully-arduous. Falls from hard won heights should be fast and chaotic and hope-shattering. Then in the plains between each mountain (or camel hump), your hero should be quick (but only believably quick) to get back to climbing.

It is the cadence of the story that I get from its plot structure. That is how these valuable tools continue to help me write.

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It seems you have done enough reading/thinking about writing, and should go ahead with writing. You do have your "toolbox", now you need practice. Make outlines and follow through with writing. When you have enough of it, in a split second it'll occur to you when its time. You can always structure your story even during second draft. First drafts are for putting down your story, minus the fancy words, structure, and anything else that isn't story.

Story structure usually happens on itself. You can create a rough outline and start writing, but you can follow a strict structure,it is better if you dont. After all you are writing Fiction. You can't expect to put story inside a formula and churn out a book. Like other's suggest, structure is easy to see after a first draft is finished, and impossible to get to a draft with structure alone.

Story telling comes first, anything else can wait.

2

I have a similar problem to you, in that there are such a vast majority of books to read about how to write that it's difficult to choose which ones to read. And once you have read them, their advice is often conflicting, meaning that if you follow one then you are actively ignoring the advice of another.

However, Writer's SE helped me immensely, because it made me realize from asking questions that even if you get half a dozen answers to a single question, that doesn't mean that any of those answers are wrong: they're just different. You simply need to choose which ones to follow.

Think of it like cooking. If I wanted to make a pot of chili, I could find at least 100 different chili recipes just from a quick internet search. None of them are wrong, they're just different. I just need to find the one I like and follow the recipe.

If I read all 100 recipes and made a chili using a mixture of ingredients from them all, that almost certainly wouldn't work. Certain ones would tell me to put coriander in, whilst others would advise me to leave it out. It's impossible to make a chili based on every recipe, in the same way that it's not possible to adhere to every bit of writing advice that you will read.

That doesn't mean that you have to strictly adhere to the advice or rules that a single book sets out. You can always mix together a couple that you think would work. It might turn out to be a disaster, but you might end up with an interesting result.

I now make great chili because I took the parts I liked from a few recipes and ended up making my own recipe. I also have my own unique style of writing because I follow rules and pointers from a number of authors that I like.

I will also offer a word of caution: you could read every recipe in the world, but that doesn't make you a chef if you've never cooked a meal. You will not know what tastes right together, you'll simply have a theoretical understanding of food.

It's the same with writing. As others here have suggested, you will never know which story structure to use unless you try some out. You might find you love the first one you try, or you might need to spend some time attempting different ones until you find one that works for you.

Also, reading does not make you a better writer. It's difficult to get your head around this, because reading and writing are so obviously linked most people assume they're the same thing, but they're not. I could happily eat a nice meal, but that doesn't mean I can cook it.


As a footnote, consider that anyone who has ever written a book could reasonably then write a book about how to write. There will be thousands of them, so don't venture down that rabbit hole. Most of them will say the same things anyway, so choose some and see if they work. If not, then you can try some more out.

Also, on re-reading my answer, I realize that I really went to town with the food metaphor, so I can only apologize, but hopefully it helped you out.

  • 1
    I think I'm gonna cook me up some chili! – Stu W Feb 17 '16 at 3:09
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I'll be brief as the other answers are thorough and valuable.

1) Novels succeed because they are good stories. Three-act stories are consistently successful, but many books become bestsellers with alternatives. A good story envelops the reader in your built world and makes them care about the outcome. The characters leap off the page.

2) Eventually, a plotter needs to take some risks by unleashing imagination. You can hold to an outline, but between your "data points" the material needs to be fresh, and it should flow with smooth transitions.

3) There is NO replacing just sitting down and writing. Plotting is great, but one must get ideas down on paper as they pop into your head because one will forget later.

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It's intuitive, but also logical. No story lies neatly on a scaffold, but if you follow logic, and intuition, you will find that the scaffold emerges beneath the story as you put it together.

Your story will typically be driven by character and plot. There are exceptions to this. Dan Brown's books are driven by the (unfulfilled) promise of secret knowledge for example, but character and plot will do it in most cases.

The structure of your story has to serve the purpose of building your character, and progressing your plot. Insufficient plot makes us disengage from the character because their circumstances are boring. Insufficient character and the plot will have no impact because we don't care about how the events impact on our people.

The story becomes rather like a complex tamagotchi. We have to balance the different variables and advance our characters and plot in a way that makes sense.

At each and point in the story, you need to be thinking things like:

  • Does the reader know the character enough to care that she just died - No? Build the character before the death to help the reader bond.

  • Is the reader invested enough in the plot to care about the character building you are trying to get over? No? Move the backstory further downstream. Perhaps take the story out of order.

  • Is the reader in flow? Yes? Don't mix the story up at this point with cuts to other scenes, keep the momentum. No? Cut to another scene. Make sure you flag the cut somehow.

  • Have we just sat through a lot of fast paced action? Yes? Moderate the pace a little with some emotional depth.

No story fits into a box, each one is unique, but if, at every point, you think critically about all the different 'pulls' on your plot at that moment, you will naturally find a structure emerges that creates emotional depth, reader engagement and modulated pace.

This is true whether you are plotting or pantsing.

1

You will read more expert nonsense on story structure than anything else involving writing. The most common advice is to structure a story in three parts—a beginning, middle, and end. This comes from Aristotle, who never wrote a story in his life, and, in any case, was writing about Greek theatre.

Many of the recent story theories derive from a 19th century German writer named Freytag, who talked about a "story pyramid" with a five-part structure, including an introduction, rising action, a "climax", falling action, and conclusion. These corresponded to acts in a play, but other theories have suggested structures with eight acts, four acts, and the current darling, three acts.

Freytag's system was later adapted into a "story arc" structure, with the climax usually moved closer to the end, because his terms are widely misunderstood. Freytag's version of a climax doesn't refer to the peak of the action, but to a certain turning point in the story where the main character undergoes a change in fortune, and that often happens roughly in the middle of the story. In screenwriting, this is sometimes called the midpoint. Today we think of climax more as the big confrontation at the end.

There is NO simple structure that applies to all works of fiction, although some people have made money peddling such theories. (I'm looking at you, Joseph Campbell!) Many stories have a compound structure, with different stories interweaving. But for a story involving a good protagonist and a happy ending, I've found the following structure useful when actually writing, as opposed to analysing. (It's based closely on Freytag. Many stories follow a structure something like this.)

  • (I) Introduction. Describe a happy, or at least stable situation in a way that you can't help but be interested in the main character. (Show the main character caring deeply about something the audience can understand.)

  • This ends when: Something occurs which shakes things up. A problem. In screenwriting, the first "plot point". In English class, "the inciting incident".

  • (II) The character tries to solve the problem but the situation is confusing. Things get worse and worse and the character's discomfort builds to a peak.

  • This ends when: The character makes a discovery or comes to a realization which changes his attitude. (Typically, this is where they discover the REAL problem, eg, the person behind it all.) This is Freytag's "climax". This phase might be in an act of its own.

  • (III) The character's energies are now focused on dealing with the real problem. Now the character is making steady progress.

  • Which ends with: A final test or confrontation where some unexpected twist brings a satisfying conclusion. The "climax" in the action movie sense. Assault on the Death Star. And, when he's won against all odds...

  • (IV) A conclusion, where things are back to normal, stable, and perhaps better than they were.

Again, this is just one more formula, albeit a common one. Take it all with a pinch of salt.

The hard part is the introduction, the "normal" before the story starts. Many writers are anxious to get into the action, thinking that action is interesting, but without a baseline for normal, it's hard to make people care about something unusual. When an author makes the investment at the start so we connect with the protagonist, readers care deeply when things go wrong and will root for the character's efforts.

  • Thanks for taking the time to provide an answer. I like what you're saying here. – JBP Feb 18 '16 at 0:08
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I have been amazed and impressed by the thoughtful responses everyone has provided. They have helped me greatly. I agree that characters are important and need to jump off the page. After the hook, no one will continue reading based on curiosity alone...they have to be interested and care about the characters. And then, yes, you have to torture them, or there is no story.

My question wasn't meant to negate the importance of character development. It was simply on understanding structure. And I understand from the great responses, that there is no 'golden rule' for structure. There may be traditional and popular structures, but like all true art, you can't just use a colour-by-numbers approach. That was a good revelation for me to learn. I do still believe, however (as some have expressed) that the knowledge I have gained of structure to date does give me a running start to writing my story.

There were also some responses that downplayed the idea of focusing on structure too much in the pre-writing stage. I agree that a solid structure does not automaticlally equate to a great story. However, there is much to be said of the differences between writing paradigms. I.e plotters vs Pantsers. As a true plotter, my strengths lie in planning out the story (as described in the snowflake method). My brain works in such a way that I need to understand the story mile markers, big or small, and to understand the flow of the story and where it is going, before I can begin writing. As such, the mapping of a solid structure into the story outline is a natural progression in my pre-writing planning.

My biggest take away is to not get too hung up on finding a perfect structure. Thanks everyone!

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