Monthly Archives: July 2009

Story Structure Series: #1 — Introducing the Four Parts of Story

 Storyfix is proud to bring you a 10-part tutorial on the fundamentals of story structure. 

Today’s post is #1 in that series.

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s a better way. 

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.   

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.  

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate. 

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

The first box: Part 1 of your story… the Set-up.

The first 20 to 25 percent of your story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that is to follow.  That job breaks down into a handful of things it needs to accomplish, all under the umbrella of that singular mission.  It’s not there to fully present the story’s main antagonistic force, only to foreshadow it.  Or, if it does show it at all, it shows only part of it. 

Most importantly, the job of Part 1 is to establish stakes for what happens to the hero after Part 1.  Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care about what happens next.

Part 1’s job is to introduce the hero and show us what she or he has going on in their life… not for the remainder of the story, but before the arrival of the main antagonistic force (the primary conflict of the story). 

The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake – what they need and want in their life, and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict, the more we care about them when all of that changes. 

Which it will at the very end of Part 1.  It’s called the First Plot Point, or sometimes the Inciting Incident.  And inciting it must be.  Because the story really begins at the point at which Part 1 ends.

Part 1’s purpose is to bring the character to that transitionpoint through a series of scenes.  Part 1 ends when the hero is made aware of the arrival of something new in their life, often something very scary or challenging.   Something that creates an obstacle to what they need to accomplish or achieve, even if that quest is completely new and unknown.

The very end of Part 1 is the first full frontal view of the story’s primary antagonistic force.  The bad guy, if you will.  We may have seen it before, but now, at the end of Part 1, we understand what it wants, and how what it wants creates opposition to what our hero wants in response to it.

The rest of the story is about how the hero moves through this new quest.   A new journey begins.  This is where the story really starts.  Everything that happens prior to the end of Part 1 is a SET-UP for what happens to the hero after Part 1.

In Part 1 the hero is like an orphan, unsure of what will happen to them next.  And like orphans, we feel for them, we empathize with them.  We care.

In a novel this should take 50 to 100 pages, the first 25 to 30 pages in a screenplay.  There’s more to know about Part 1 – much more – but this is the basic mission and context of what it delivers. 

The second box: Part 2 of your story… the Response.

At the end of Part 1 you unveiled the real course and destination of the story: the showdown between the hero and the opposing force that stands in the way of what she or he needs to acquire, achieve or change in order to reach their goals.  And not the goals of Part 1, but the new goals created by the presence of the inciting incident.

It could be survival, finding love, getting away from love gone bad, acquiring wealth, healing, attaining justice, stopping or catching the bad guys, preventing disaster, escaping danger, saving someone, saving the entire world, or anything else from the realm of human experience and dreams.

Every story has conflict, or its not a story at all.  That conflict is what stands in the way of what the hero needs or wants in the story. 

Part 2 is the hero’s response to the introduction of this new situation, as represented by the conflict itself.  It’s too early to have them attack the problem; Part 2 is exclusively about a reaction to the antagonistic force.  

The hero is running, hiding, analyzing, observing, recalculating, planning, recruiting or anything else required before she or he can move forward.

Then, at the end of Part 2, just when the hero thinks they have it figured out, when they have a plan, everything changes.

In Part 2, the hero is a wanderer, staggering through a forest of options and risks, not sure where to go or what to do next.  It comprises roughly the next 100 pages of your novel – which means, there’s an entire contextual infrastructure to it… stay tuned – or from page 27ish to 60 in your screenplay.

The third box: Part 3 of your story… the Attack.

By now we’ve had enough of the hero stumbling around, being fearful and hesitant, being clueless, basically trying to figure out how to fix things and move forward and coming up empty.  In fact, the hero may not be remotely heroic at this stage.

In Part 3 the hero begins to try to fix things.  To attain the goal.  They get proactive.  It is here where they attack the obstacles.  They conquer their inner demons to do things differently than before.  They summon courage and apply creative thinking.  They lead.  They move forward.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens – the antagonistic force is moving forward, too –  and what the hero thought would work isn’t quite enough.  They need more.  More courage.  More creativity.  A better plan. 

And that’s the next 100 pages or so of your story (30 pages in a screenplay).  That’s Part 3.

The wanderer has now become a warrior.

And then, the final piece of the puzzle arrives at the end of Part 3 (the Second Plot Point).   And everything changes again.  The chase is on, and the hero is not to be denied.

The fourth box: Part 4 of your story… the Resolution.

The thing to remember about Part 4 is that no new information can enter the story here.  Everything the hero needs to know, to work with, or to work alongside (as in, another character) is already in play.

Part 4 shows how the hero summons the courage and growth to come forward with a solution to the problem, to reach the goal, to save the day or even the world, to attain the fame and riches associated with victory, and to generally beat down and conquer the story’s antagonistic force. 

Sometimes the hero can actually die in the process.  But before they do, they need to have solved at least a major element of the problem they were facing.  When heroes die it is because they must in order to save others.

And that’s why the orphan, then the wanderer, and then the warrior now becomes the martyr.  Because they do what must be done in order to reach the goal.

The Whole of the Four Parts

Each part of this structure is of roughly the same length, though you do cheat the first and fourth Parts to a fewer number of pages, made up for in the middle two parts.  In 3-act movie structure, Parts 2 and 3 as described here are simply combined – but with the same unique contextual essences – to comprise Act 2, known in Hollywood and beyond as The Confrontation.

Rent some DVDs tonight and watch this 4-part paradigm play out before your eyes.  Sometimes it’s subtle, but I assure you, it’s there.  Same with the books you’re reading.  Four parts, four contexts, four completely separate missions for their scenes.

Clarifying as all this is, it gets even better when you throw in a whole menu of story milestones and mid-Part structural elements that help you along the way.

And that’s tomorrow’s post: Major Milestones Along the 4-Part Story Road.

If you haven’t subscribed to, I encourage you to do so now.  The posts will be delivered daily to your inbox so you can experience each installment in this series without missing a beat.


Filed under Story Structure Series

Story Structure — Just Possibly the Holy Grail of Storytelling

Storyfix is proud to introduce an 11-part series on the fundamentals of story structure.

Following this Introduction, each day will bring a new post in the series.  They’ll be filed in a separate category under Pages for future reference.


One question pops up at nearly every writing workshop I teach: how do I know what to write, and in what order to write it?  Everything we set out to do as novelists and screenwriters is part of the quest to answer that question.

Sometimes the writers in my workshops are surprised when I have an answer.  And then, almost without exception, they become ecstatic when I show it to them.

Storytelling can be as precise a craft as you want it to be. 

You can regard it as a cloud-like amorphous shape-shifting process that defies definition — a great many writers do — or you can blueprint it down to the most minuscule details of plot and characterization.  Interestingly enough, either approach can work. 

Because the central issue here isn’t whether you outline or not, or whether you work your way into your story through a series of drafts.  That’s just a question of sytle and preference, when the central variable, the one that makes or breaks your story no matter how you write it, is really one comprised entirely of substance.

The most basic storytelling issue of all involves a basic understanding of story architecture.  Some writers have never heard of it, they just sit down and write write write, convinced that a lifetime of reading great books has sufficiently prepared their intuitive sensibilities to get it done.  Others simply ignore or reject it, preferring to patch together their stories according to a structure of their own creation.

Which is a little like trying to invent your own airplane without paying attention to something called wings.

Without building our stories on a framework of solid story architecture, writers are blindly exploring  their creative options without really understanding what they are.  This, in a nutshell, is the most common explanation for work that goes unpublished.  Doesn’t matter if you outline your stories or not… because if what you’re outlining or drafting isn’t hitting the page in context to solid and accepted — key word there — story structure, it’s doomed until it does.

You can make up your own structure if you want to, but good luck getting it sold.  The people buying your work –novels and especially screenplays — virtually demand that your story conform to this standard.

So what is that standard? 

That’s the million dollar question.  Literally, in some cases.  And the answer is available right here, over the next 10 posts in this series.

Story structure is actually a sub-set of story architecture. In the building trade, a finished project is more than a blueprint that leads to a big hole in the ground, a lot of concrete and steel and a bunch of pillars strong enough to withstand a tsunami of Speilbergian proportions.  It is also the fine finishes and intricate designs and delicate mouldings, the textures and aesthetics that comprise the heart and soul of a space, the intangibles that make it more than a big box into which you unload furniture.

So it is with stories. 

Story structure is but one of six core competencies that must ultimately come to the party before a novel or screenplay becomes fully empowered.  (The others are concept, character, theme, scene construction and writing voice.) And yet is at once the most complex and the most defineable, the most basic of the basics.  And therefore, one of the first things a writer should endeavor to wrap their head around.

In this series we will introduce a basic 4-part sequential story model…

… that is as universal as it is misunderstood.  Each of the four parts exist for different reasons and offer different contexts for the scenes they house.  We will also look at the major story milestones that separate them, and the various part-specific criteria that help them bring a story to full and glorious life.

In other words, you’ll learn what to write and where to put it in the sequence of your story.

If you want to think of 4-part story structure as a roadmap, even a blueprint, that’s precisely what it is.

Already there are writers who, hearing words like roapmap and blueprint, make the leap to words like formulaic and generic.  But are mysteries generic?  Romance novels?  Thrillers?  They all follow a rigid basic story structure, and they all remain at the front of the bookstore decade after decade.

Four-part story structure is both ancient and universal. 

In screenwriting it’s called a 3-act paradigm, but when you break it down it begins to look almost exactly like the more universal 4-part model upon which it is based, and which applies to novels with equal validity.  Virtually every successful novel you read and every commerical  movie you see (art films get to invent their own structure; do so with your novels and screenplays at your own peril) are built on this trusted and proven structural foundation.

Story structure is to novels and screenplays what wings are to airplanes. 

What mathmatics are to software.  What the human reproductive system is to childbirth… and when you consider that no two human beings come out of the womb exactly alike, even twins, you see the metaphoric wonder of it begin to blossom.  Formulaic… I don’t think so.

It’s just the way it is.  If you want to sell what you write, then you need to understand it and use the principles of basic story structure in your work.

Tomorrow’s post: #1: Introducing and Defining the Four Parts of Your Story.

If you haven’t subscribed to, I encourage you to do so now.  The posts will be delivered daily to your inbox so you can experience each installment in this series without missing a beat.


Filed under Six Core Competencies, Story Structure Series