The third post in my #52WritingTips project, because there’s 52 weeks in a year and I really need to get better at updating this blog. Across the year, I’ll be pulling together 52 writing tips to help you get your dream on paper, edit that manuscript or summon the courage to submit your work. I’ll then be chatting it through on my podcast, 52 Writing Tips.
Last week we looked at ideas: how to find them, what to do with them once you get hold of them, how to expand them if they feel too small or compress them if they feel too big.
This week, we’re looking at how to structure your story – which is a pretty large undertaking for one post, so that’s why we’re going to focus on the overall structure of a story, what that looks like and how to get familiar with it if you’re new (or new-ish) to writing books.
Stories, as a rule, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you’ve ever studied story structure before you’ll also know that the diagrams will tell you that narrative structures come in a variety of shapes and sizes: from triangles, to mountain peaks to circles to odd, squiggly lines but they all, effectively say the same thing: and that thing is what we’re going to unpack today.
Now if you’re new to the mechanics of story writing, don’t worry. Whilst dissecting story structure might sound too technical or too academic or – worse – boring, it’s actually relatively straightforward and chances are you already know a lot of it. That’s because we can intuit a lot of what a story requires (and when) by having read a tonne of books, watched a whole load movies, or the glorious combination of the two.
Ultimately, a grasp of story structure will not only help you expand your idea into something truly exciting, it’ll help take your novel to the next level and help worm out some of those plot holes before you get too far in to see the wood from the trees.
Why is story structure important?
Have you ever picked up a new book, started reading and found yourself, some chapters in, asking: where is this going?
That feeling of meandering is not something we writers really want to bring out in our readers – especially not in the cut-throat world that it writing today, whereby a lot rests on the hook we use to bring readers into our story and keep them reading.
Understanding the skeleton that sits behind a story can help prevent that meandering feeling from wandering into your writing which in turn will make it (in theory) more readable.
Why is this the case? Because narratives tend to fit a repeating set of beats that we subconsciously look for to understand how the story is progressing. When those beats are missing it can feel like the story is plodding along with no real excitement behind it or, worse, it can feel like there is no direction to the story.
So let’s take a look at that story skeleton shall we?
The basics of story structure
You can break nearly any story into three parts, or ‘acts’: the beginning, the middle and the end. Anyone that’s ever read a book, written an essay or composed a too-long email to their boss knows the value of splitting something into three.
That’s the easy part.
The hard part is knowing the role of each of those sections, the kinds of things that need to happen for your story to move forwards and how that feeds into your general idea / plan.
So let’s take them one at a time, shall we? Now, the caveat here is obviously it’s opening a lot of doors of stuff to talk about, and as you’re reading you might be thinking: er, Sophie. What about the character’s lie? Their truth? What about the pinch points? What about your sub-plots, your B-roll? To which I say: we have a year of tips, and each of those should have the space to discuss them fully on their own.
For now, let’s just sketch the skeleton so we have a great foundation before diving any further into the ocean that is writing.
A simple, three-act story structure
You want to think of your novel as having three unequally sized sections labelled 1, 2 and 3 (unequal because Act II is a monster and comes in 2 parts. You will see why…)
Act I: The Normal World
The first act is your character’s normal world. In the Lord of the Rings, this is the Shire. In Good Will Hunting, this is Will’s life as an unassuming janitor. The first act is spent drawing your character into the main conflict of the novel using a series of dominoes:
- Your hook, right at the beginning of the story
- Your inciting incident, halfway through the first act
- Your first turning plot (/first plot point) at the end of the first act
You have a lot to cover off in the first act of your story, but I don’t want to make the overview an overwhemling cacophany of information just yet – we’re still trying to sketch out the skeleton here, trying to get to grips with the role of each act. I’ll take a deep dive into each section in later weeks so as to do each of the major plot points justice.
The role of Act I
The most important thing to remember is that your first act is about your character’s normal and the call to adventure. Now I don’t necessarily mean literal, epic adventure on the scale of Indiana Jones or Frodo. It could be:
- The realisation that the man you’re madly in love with is getting engaged to someone else (The Holiday)
- The discovery of a piece of ammunition that works in a very, very weird way (Tenet)
- A man hanging off a Ferris wheel in order to secure a first date (The Notebook)
- Receiving the gift of a seemingly innocuous ring from your uncle and then being told to hide it (Lord of the Rings)
- Being talked off the edge of a boat by a handsome, penniless stranger (Titanic)
- Being forced to take a job in a small town (Hot Fuzz)
- Stepping through the tunnel of what looks like an abandoned theme park and coming out the other side (Spirited Away)
No first act is complete without something dangling at the end of a piece of string, tempting your character away from all the cosy normalness of their everyday life and forcing them out of their comfort zones.
So if you fear your idea meanders in the beginning, ask yourself: is my call to adventure strong enough? Does my character have enough of a reason to want to leave the normal world behind?
The best representation of this I’ve seen recently is in rewatching The Hobbit (lockdown has some benefits) in which Bilbo, one of the most happy-at-home characters you’ll ever meet gets very rudely interrupted by a band of hungry dwarves and when asked to join them on a quest to reclaim lost gold and put the rightful king back on his throne, declines politely and decides to stay at home in his armchair instead.
So now what? Tolkien spends the rest of the book talking about how he likes his tea, how the Sackville-Bagginses are after his silverware and cutesy anecdotes about his nephew, Frodo?
No, of course not. Because that’s not what the story is about! The story is about a quest to reclaim lost gold and put the rightful king back on his throne! So that’s why, when Bilbo wakes up the following morning to a quiet house, an abandoned contract and no signature next to the adventure-riddled word burglar… he has to decide that he’s going on an adventure.
If you fear your story meanders in the beginning, ask yourself: is my call to adventure strong enough? Does my character have enough of a reason to leave the normal world behind?Tweet
SUMMARY OF THE FIRST ACT:
- Meet our hero
- Learn about his ‘normal world’
- Hear the call to adventure
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Act II: Stuff starts to get serious
As someone that’s written three books, Act II feels like the hardest. Not only because it’s doubly long (it includes all of the novel from the 25% mark up to the 75% mark) but because it has so much work to do in really testing, wearing down and re-testing your hero.
Lucky for us writers, the second act is split down the middle and the first half and the second half should feel quite different. That’s because in the middle your character realises a truth, sees a twist or discovers something that changes the state of play.
So we can split up Act II by thinking of it pre-midpoint and post-midpoint.
Pre-midpoint, your character(s) should feel like they are making progress towards their goal. They should be settling into this new world, learning the ropes and making what they believe to be some decent strides.
Then BAM. Midpoint. Earth-shattering, reverse point. The story swings 180 degrees (or at least 90) and starts pointing the character in a whole new direction:
Examples of midpoints:
But before we jump ahead of ourselves, let’s look at some examples of this ground-shattering midpoint (note: I’ve left Tenet out of this list because it’s quite new and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone! I’ll stick to the oldies and goldies).
- Iris has the realisation – thanks to Arthur – that she’s not acting out the part of the leading lady in her own story and that she needs to take charge of her life (The Holiday)
- Allie realises that she still has feelings for Noah when she sees a picture of his house in the paper (The Notebook)
- Frodo realises that his journey won’t end in Rivendell, that he will need to take the ring all the way to Mordor in order to destroy it. (Lord of the Rings)
- Rose tells Jack then when the Titanic docks in New York she’s going with him. The ship hits the ice-berg. (Titanic)
- Sargeant Angel finds a link between the killings and the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance (Hot Fuzz)
- Chihiro, previously tasked with cleaning the grubbiest tub, succeeds with relieving the water spirit of the thorn in his side and receives a powerful gift by way of thanks(Spirited Away)
The important thing about your midpoint is that it should be a 180 swing from where you were at. If the story was going well, it should swing in the other direction (e.g. Titanic) and if it was going badly, it should bring your character a breath of reprieve (e.g. Spirited Away).
Still not sure about what the midpoint is? It’s is the point in the story where the lovers are on their second date, something awful happens and the first decides to never call the other again. It’s where Simba gets rescued by Timone and Pumba and starts ‘a new life’ not as the son of a king but as happy-go-lucky bug-eating body guard. It should bring change, either internally or externally, and it should signal a departure from the relatively positive rising action in the first half of the second act and make way for the negative rising action in the second half of the second act.
The second half of the second act is then built from this moment of realisation, this ‘aha!’ moment where you character suddenly feels like they see the full picture of what’s going on.
This is when you start to really pile the pressure on your character. Your antagonist takes a smack at her, your stakes get raised and everything she thought she knew is crumbling beneath her feet. Sounds tense, right? If you’re doing it right, it should be.
SECOND ACT SUMMARY: Your second act starts with a positive rising action. Your character is getting to grips with the adventure world and making good progress when BAM. A total 180 occurs at the midpoint. Armed with this new truth, your character realises that getting what they want isn’t going to be so easy, after all.
Act III: The beginning of the end starts with a bang
I rewatched Titanic literally last night in a fit of nostalgia and BOY had I forgotten how quickly it goes down (literally and figuratively) after the midpoint. Titanic is actually relatively unique in the sense that from the midpoint it just races and whilst the characters have some wins – Rose freeing Jack, getting through the gates, getting ahold of a life jacket – it just feels like one long, uninterrupted scene and it is TENSE.
This kind of frantic energy is what you want to try and capture in your third act. This is where all the seeds you planted come to bear, this is where your character sinks or swims and the pressure should be on all the way from The Big Defeat to the climax.
Your third act needs to start with a bang because your character needs to step up if they’re going to achieve their goal – and they need to sweat for it.Tweet
Your third act should kick off with a dark moment.
This is sometimes called ‘the death’ or ‘doom’ or ‘the dark point’. It’s where your character reaches for their resolve and finds nothing left in the tank. It’s where they watch their best friend get gunned down before their eyes. It’s when the prince comes a-knocking and they’re locked in the topmost room of a tower.
Your third act needs to start with a bang because your character needs to step up if they’re going to achieve their goal – and they need to sweat for it. You need the reader gripping the pages of your book, tears streaming down their face as they flip the pages in a tension-riddled frenzy to discover whether your character is going to achieve their goal because, by now, by goodness have they suffered for it.
And the biggest point of suffering comes at the beginning of the third act. The dark moment. The moment of despair. Think:
- Jasper turns up in LA at the same time that Miles gets a call from his ex-girlfriend asking him to reconsider (The Holiday)
- Allie has to face up to Lon and confess that she has cheated on him (The Notebook)
- Gandalf stands off against the Balrog and seemingly dies, dragged into the pits of Moria with him (Lord of the Rings)
- The ship’s bow goes under entirely and Rose and Jack realise that they’re soon going to be treading freezing water (Titanic)
- Danny appears and [for all we see] kills Sargeant Angel (Hot Fuzz)
- Chihiro finds Haku in the boiler room and discovers that he’s dying (Spirited Away)
Now the canny amongst you will have noticed there’s a theme here. Death. And that’s because often the hardest way to hit our characters is to kill off someone they love. However, death doesn’t necessarily mean death. After all, whilst a sword through our ally character’s back might be perfect for an epic fantasy novel it would be somewhat too hard-hitting for a feel-good romance. Death simply means the worst has happened – and it needs to! Something within your character needs to die so that they can finally see what they need to do to achieve their goal.
The rest of your third act is spent in hot pursuit of that, in shedding the last of their old snake skin and embracing whatever truth they need to realise in order to get what they need.
THIRD ACT SUMMARY: This one moves fast, so start from the point of ‘Death’, give your character the internal insight they need to hold their goal in their hand and then put them on the path to finally getting it.
In short: how to structure your story
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the beginning, we find the character in their normal world until something calls to them and is enough of a personal pull that they leave their normal world behind in pursuit of a goal. As the second act begins we find the character making some good headway in the new world and thinking they’re getting close to their goal. Then comes the midpoint, a complete 180, and the character has to start again, pick up the pieces of what they know and rally. The third act begins with a moment of darkness that ultimately kicks your character into realising whatever it is they need to know in order to achieve their goal.
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