The ABC’s of Story Structure
By Stina Lindenblatt
When I first started writing fiction, I knew stories had to start out strong. The middle shouldn’t sag. And endings should rock the reader’s world so that she’s dying to read your next book. I also knew there should be a forward progression to your story, with each conflict being tougher than the last one. Sounded pretty simple to me. Turns out storytelling is more complex than that.
Also turns out screenwriters had the right idea when they created the three act structure. For those of you who are new to the concept of story structure, here are the abbreviated ABC’s to help whip your story into shape.
The goal of the first act is to establish your main characters. The reader will learn the characters’ weaknesses, fears/hopes, needs (goals), and their inner and outer motivations. Backstory is often introduced, but not as info dump. Weave it in as needed. This is also the beginning of your characters’ arcs. In addition to all of this, the setting, story concept, and theme are shown in Act One, as is the inciting incident (the point in the story that gets things rolling). More specifically, each one appears in the first chapter.
By the end of the first act, which is about a quarter of your story, you need to reveal the protagonist’s major problem and force her to make a decision. Think of this decision as the climax of Act One. It’s not a minor problem and decision; it’s the big one. Once the protagonist has committed to it, there’s no going back. In some writing books on story structure, this is the moral dilemma of the story. Make it a good one.
This is the longest part of the story (about half the book) and is based on the concept of building the emotion behind it. If the emotion behind your story doesn’t exist, then your readers will be disappointed.
In the beginning of Act Two, your protagonist will come up with an initial plan. As the story progresses, your character faces all kinds of dilemmas that she works to overcome as she attempts to follow through with the plan. And make those conflicts good. If your character can escape (walk away) from the conflict, then it will lack the emotional impact your reader is hungry for. Also, each conflict needs to be more difficult than the last one. Allow your character some success, but also let her fail. It’s the failures that help her grow. A good rule is to have your character take two steps forward and one step back. This will also force her to rethink her plan. If plan A doesn’t work, remember there’s always plan B (or C or D). This will help build suspense, because the reader has no idea what to expect next. But unlike in the military, your character doesn’t have to come up with the other plans before the journey.
Your main character is going to be forced to face her fear and her faith (I’m not talking religion here). She’s going to struggle, be close to giving up, and wonder what on earth she was thinking when she decided to go on this journey. Her plan will be tested and altered, but as this happens, bit by bit your character is growing (moving through her character arc). And remember, your antagonist will have a plan too, which happens to be in opposition to the protagonist’s goal.
The third act is approximately the same length as the first act, and is where your protagonist’s story is resolved. This is the point in which the greatest conflict will occur—the climax or black moment. The protagonist will overcome her fear and achieve her goal. Or she will fail, but there will still be character growth. If you find your character is the same person she started off as, then you need to go back and change this.
Plot Turning Points
One thing to remember is that you want to have several plot turning points (or major revelations) throughout the story to keep your reader, well, reading. Generally, these are found at the end of the first act, at the middle of the second act (half way mark of the book), near the end of the second act, and the climax in the third act. If you have more, even better. This will create a more complex and richer story.
This summary is obviously a simplified version of the three act structure. There are a number of great books on the topic. I recommend reading at least one of them to get a firm grasp on story structure. It’s definitely worth the time.
Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne
Plot & Structure by Scott Bell
Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!) by Alexandra Sokoloff
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (John doesn’t believe in the three act structure, but it’s a brilliant book. Hence why I included it in the list)
Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge