A Case For Story Structure
I can almost hear the pantsers groaning.
Take it easy, gang, I'm not going to lecture anyone on whether it's better to be a pantser or a plotter.
Today, I want to talk about story structure. According to editor Theresa Stevens (who gives a fantastic workshop on this topic), structure "is the organization of the component parts of a story and the way that those component parts interrelate. Structure takes plot, character, theme, symbolism, diction, pacing, dialogue, setting, point of view, and every other component of story and narrative and braids them into an integrated whole in which each piece bolsters every other piece."
I like to think of structure as the bones that make up the story. Just like bones in the body, if one of them is broken, it slows things down.
When I write, I like to follow the three-act structure used by screenwriters. Very briefly, three-act structure contains three different sections of a story linked by milestones. Act one contains all the set-up (character introductions, conflict, etc.) information. Then at around the 25 percent mark of the story, there will be a milestone (known as a turning point) that will spin your story in a new direction. This turning point catapults your story into act two.
In the middle of act two there will be another turning point. This is the mid-point of the story where your character is completely entrenched in his journey and can't turn back. At about the 75 percent mark you'll have another turning point that sends the story into act three. This turning point will be a major set-back known as the black moment. Here your characters will fear all is lost and they will have to fight their way back so they can destroy the antagonist.
If you are like me and are a visual person, click here to see a chart of what three-act structure looks like.
I can hear you pantsers moaning at the mere mention of a chart! J
Hang with me here, pantsers because I'm about to say something that might shock you. I'm a combination pantser and plotter. Yep, more than half of my story is usually done a la pantsing. I like to have a general idea of the beginning, middle and end of my story so I don't stray. I once wrote a book that was 135,000 words. I couldn't control the word hog inside me. If I have an outline, the beast is controlled and I can let the rest of the story come organically.
Once I finish a solid draft of the book, I go back and fill in a scene chart (oh, the pantsers are really groaning now!) that shows every scene in the manuscript.
Stay with me, pantsers!
Even if you hate the idea of a chart, I think you are really going to like this concept. Once I have my scene chart filled in, I check where all my turning points are. Are they somewhere around the 25, 50 and 75 percent mark? If not, I take a look at those areas to see if the story is dragging. In the book I'm working on now, one of my critique partners had an issue with the pacing in the last third of the book. After filling in the scene chart, I realized what should have been my 75 percent mark was actually at 85 percent, which was making that last third of the book drag.
So, yes, more than half of my book was done using the "pantsing" method, but I was still able to apply the elements of story structure to it and, in turn, discovered a pacing issue.
Here's the really exciting part. You don't have to fill in a chart to check if your turning points are in the right spot. You can simply go to the 25, 50 and 75 percent mark of your manuscript. Is there a major milestone in the vicinity? If not, you might want to revisit that section.
Really, structure doesn't care if you are a pantser or a plotter. Structure doesn't care if you write the book standing on your head. Structure doesn't care what your writing process is, but the framework should still be there. We wouldn't build an airplane without diagrams would we? Can you picture that? J
I will make one final plea for story structure and I think it's one many of you will relate to. I received a lot of rejection letters on my road to getting published. In all of those rejections, I never had an agent or an editor tell me my book's pacing was off. I credit that to my attention to story structure.
Assignment: Go to the 25, 50 or 75 percent mark in your work in progress. Do you have a turning point there?
Thank you to Nas and Riya for inviting me to blog today. If you would like to study story structure, here are a few of my favorite resources:
Storyfix.Com – Larry Brooks does deconstructions of popular books and movies. Click here for the one he did on Shutter Island.
Storymastery.com – Michael Hauge offers wonderful workshops on plot structure. He also has DVD's available. I have the DVD he did with Christopher Vogler and found it extremely helpful.
And speaking of Christopher Vogler, I highly recommend his book The Writer's Journey. Excellent resource!
Adrienne's books available at: