Monthly Archives: November 2014

Story Structure for Dummies

A Ceiling-Cracking Epiphany for Newer and Unaware Writers

An Explanation of the Inevitable for Frustrated Practitioners

There was a time, a decade or so, when you couldn’t write a headline like that. Because it seems to say one of two things: if you don’t understand this then you’re a dummy… or… you know you’re not a dummy so you can skip this one.

Both of those are unfortunate misperceptions.

Thanks to the popular line of books that play off this title, we now understand that this means something entirely different. An “X for Dummies” book means you are about to encounter that which is by nature complex explained in simple (or simpler) and more accessible terms compared to the conventional wisdom of that topic.

Income Taxes for Dummies, for example. Doesn’t mean you’re not smart, it just means you haven’t been shown around a Form 1040 to the extent necessary to work with one on a professional level.

And so it is here. You seek to become a professional-level storyteller. This is what, at square one, you need to understand.

Make no mistake, story structure is a can of  worms.

In fact, it is something that can, at times, make all of us, even the best of us, feel like a dummy.

Structure is so complicated because it has so many moving parts, each with rationale and mission-driven contexts behind it, and it is challenging because it is less than completely precise. It’s not math, we’re looking beneath the narrative of a story to see how it works, rather than the specifics of what happens.

So much easier to suggest that we simply step up to the tee and take a swing, you can always hit out of the trees later.

To make this even fuzzier, there are credible writing teachers and guru-types out there that either teach it in an incomplete or imprecise way, or they don’t believe in it at all.

And yet, when you see it, you can’t unsee it.

And you will see it if you look for it.

You will find  a clear and rather simplistic structural model within nearly every publishable novel that you read and every movie that you see.

One model.  With many variable options.  But nonetheless… one model.

Hear this, and hear it clearly: Story does NOT trump structure. Story IS structure.

The guy who wrote a book by that title is highly credible, but the title of that book is toxic. Because he’s talking about how you write, not what you end up writing — or need to end up writing — that becomes publishable. It’s a process thing, style thing, a preference thing… one that leads you to the same outcome as someone who begins the process with structure.

Structure is like bones within a human being… you can preach muscle building and blood pressure and emotional health all you want, because they are important to the building of a whole healthy person, but at the end of the day it’s all hanging on a skeleton. There’s no life at all until that structural base is covered.

That debate is for another post… but at the end of the day it’s not a debate at all.

When your story works – however you got there – it will be, to a great extent, because you nailed the structure. And – here’s what newer writers don’t get – it will be a structure that is waiting for you to find it, a universal story model, rather than something you believe you made up on your own, following the organic demands of the story you are telling.

That’s what happens when you write drafts.

You add pace, increase dramatic tension, build intrigue, demonstrate character within time and place, polish the edges. When those things don’t work as well as they should, you change it up and write another draft. And guess what – that draft will take you closer to the very structural model that has been there waiting all along.

Because the truth is, the proven universal fact of it is, stories work better that way. Exceptions – not in process, but in outcome – are very difficult to find in modern commercial storytelling.

So if you want to play in that game, this stuff is something you need to understand.

Allow me to boil it down into something excruciatingly simple.

If you only get this much, without knowing or caring about what’s behind these three little bullets, you will have crossed over into another realm as a storyteller.  You may, in fact, be able to instinctively construct a novel that works, on this alone.

Because this is what professional story tellers know. No matter how they write, whatever their process, this is where their stories end up.

Here is it:

Your story needs to have at least three major twists — plot twists, or major character arc moments — in its linear structure.

There are names for all three, and entire chapters of illumination explaining all three of them. Let’s skip that. This is the 101 – you need to change the direction of your story, you need to twist it, a minimum of three times for it to work in an optimally effective manner.

Can you have more than three plot twists? Absolutely. Have as many as you want. The Davinci Code, for example, has dozens of plot twists. As do most mysteries and thrillers, even romances. But all of those twists either lead to, or respond to, one of these three major story pillars, which appear at roughly the same spot in any story.

That’s the one — the target placement — the cynics get all sweaty about. But fact is, when you grab any successful story off the shelf, it’ll be there. They will be right there, in those three spots. Donna Tart did in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl, and all of her other novels. Michael Connelly and David Baldacci and Nora Roberts – name your hero – do it in all of their stories.

Are you doing it? This is a wake-up call if you’re not.

Three major story-shifting plot twists. At roughly the same specific places in a story. That’s the difference between a newbie, an amateur, a dreamer… and someone with one foot through the door marked PROFESSIONAL.

The First Plot Twist

Welcome to the most important moment in a story. Allow me use an analogy to introduce it to you.

A flight on an airliner begins with the take-off, right? You would think so, at a glance. But so much needs to happen before the wheels safely leave the runway. If those things don’t happen, the airplane and the people in it may not survive the journey.

You need a flight plan. A destination. An understanding of the weather to be encountered. An awareness of other airplanes along the route. A level of skill on the part of the people flying it. Someone guiding you through the clouds. You need to put fuel in the tanks. You need to be sure all the moving parts of the machine are in working order.

All that, before the journey begins.

So it is with your story. Hopefully the airliner isn’t dealing with a drama before takeoff, but your story needs to.

Your story is ultimately about (but not yet, that’s the point here) a hero’s journey: the pursuit of a goal or a need or an opportunity (often – usually in fact – resulting in something that must be solved, avoided, treated, discovered or otherwise defeated). That’s when the story begins. It’s when the story’s wheels leave the runway.

And as it is within the analogy, so much needs to happen before that moment arrives.

Prior to that moment – the most important moment in your story – you need to setup the launch of that hero’s new path. You introduce the hero doing something else before the specific story itself plops into their lap. We see what will be at stake when it does. We see who and what might be a problem down the road (like, if the story is about a disease, we see symptoms here, before a diagnosis hits the page). We sense the seeds of backstory that may become problematic.

Some writers like to open big, with something massively dramatic and relevant. So be it – that’s called a hook. But be clear,this is not a First Plot Point. Because a properly rendered hook does not launch the full core story, though it may indeed launch it in a preliminary way, or simply preview it, in that case with something new happening later at the FPP, which is the major twist that fully puts the dramatic proposition into play.

Newbies confuse the hook and the First Plot Point. Now you know. They are very different things.

With all this setup narrative in place, then you lower the story-problem onto the shoulders of your hero. Something happens that changes – twists – the story, which until now has been about something else, something prior to and even disconnected to the story you are now telling.

Like, for example, a story about someone winning the lottery. The core dramatic story begins when the hero does, in fact, win the lottery.  All kinds of new pressures and opportunities appear. But the story works better – it works best – when the reader comes to know the character and understand how and why winning the lottery matters – indeed, why the hero bought a ticket in the first place – before the winning numbers are announced. So when it happens, we feel something. We empathize.

This first twist is called The First Plot Point. It is the most important moment in a story.

You’ll see this in virtually every story you encounter, in some recognizable form. Test it, tonight in fact – rent a movie, and notice how the core dramatic story fully manifests about 20 or so minutes in. Prior to that we met the hero, we observed the world she/he lives in, see things that may come into play later, we sense the stakes being built… all prior to the story-bomb going off.

I saw “The Theory of Everything” yesterday. Great story.  Do you think it opens with Stephen Hawking in a wheelchair? Of course not. We get 20 minutes of setup first… coming to know and like him as a fully functional, healthy young genius, chasing his dream, falling in love… and, with the seemingly inconsequential moment or two when his hands shake or he moves awkwardly. We come to care about him as this builds toward – sets-up – something.

The First Plot Point happens when he takes his first fall, a horrific face plant, resulting in his ALS diagnosis.  Which IS the core story – his journey in dealing with that disease. It launches at the First Plot Point.

Every time. Test it.

Are you doing that in your story? If not, then you’re operating outside of the expectations of a professionally-structured story.

Have you seen the film or read the book Gone Girl?   (Spoilers ahead.) The news that the wife is missing hits the story on Page 5. A hook. Easily misunderstood by the newer writer as the first major story twist. No, it is indeed “a” plot twist, but it is only an inciting incident (rather major, but that isn’t the point – it is an element of the setup only), rather than the first plot point itself. Those who would argue otherwise are dealing with semantics.

The First Plot Point occurs later, at about the 25th percentile mark, when the wife confesses in her diary that she believes her husband may try to kill her.  Now, in that moment, it’s on.

It changes everything. It actually fully launches the core story of the novel. Everything prior to this has been a setup for it. The reader/viewer has been sucked in, completely fooled. This facade continues until later (at the second major plot twist), but the core dramatic story is now fully in play, in a way it wasn’t a page/minute earlier.

The Second Plot Twist

This one is easy to nail, and perhaps the most intuitive plot twist of all. It takes place as close to the exact middle of your story as possible. It is when what we thought was going on shifts somehow.  It either changes or is illuminated to an extent it alters the hero’s path going forward.

Look for this, it’s in every story that works. Is it in yours? It needs to be.

In Gone Girl, it is when the point of view switches to that of the missing wife, via her diary entries.  Suddenly we learn about her plans and the means of her deception… something we weren’t even sure was a deception. Until now. Everything changes. It occurs at the 52nd percentile mark in the novel, at at the exact middle of the movie.

Not a coincidence, by the way.

Everything changes.

But notice the hero hasn’t remotely solved the problem or won the day at this point. No, you save that until the end. This midpoint change is there to cause the hero to take new and/or stronger action, to shift from a response mode into a more proactive attack mode in confronting whatever has been in her/his way.

Notice that in the scenes after this midpoint, this is precisely what happens – the husband goes to war against the implication that he has killed his wife.

The Third Plot Twist

Simply put, you need to change things up in a major way at least one more time… and at a specific time within the narrative: roughly the three-quarter mark. It’s called The Second Plot Point, and how it looks depends on the nature and direction of what has been in play prior to that moment.

Suffice it to say, though, that this twist (new story information) opens the final floodgates of an inevitable confrontation between the hero and whatever blocks her/his path. It’s usually unexpected, or it may have been there all along but now, through new information or revelation, is suddenly rendered meaningful. You get to say what it is… as long as it adds tension and noticeably accelerates the pace toward a final confrontation, climax and resolution.

In Gone Girl the third (2nd Plot Point) twist is incredibly easy to spot. The wife slits the throat of her lover, which allows her to return to her old life with a credible story, one that will paint her as a hero courageously emerging from a victim scenario (and thus explaining her absence, while vindicating her husband), and entrap her husband into a devil’s-deal pact.

It is really that simple?

Well, no. But it’s really the first thing you see, or should see, when you observe a story that works, and then, when you set out to write one. It’s the 101 of story structure, and if you never get your head wrapped around it, all the artful character and thematic chops and on the planet won’t fully serve you.

These three plot twists are the weight-bearing foundations that support the entire story itself. It is the engine of dramatic plot and the fuel for character development.

They are always there. Structure doesn’t care what you call it, doesn’t care that you believe you are discovering it for yourself as you feel your way through a story… it awaits as the final form of pretty much every modern commercial story that works.

Again, stories are like taxes in that regard.  Go ahead, get creative.  But mess with the tax laws and there will be consequences.

This doesn’t mean you were a dummy if you didn’t know this. It is surprising – shocking, actually – how seldom, and how confusingly this basic truth about storytelling is covered within the public writing conversation.

Be confused no more. Everything else in your story stems from this square one inevitability – your story will work better – best – when you twist it three times, at those three target locations. From there the playing field widens to allow virtually anything and everything you’d like to throw into your story.

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Want more depth on this? Use the Search function here on Storyfix, there are dozens of posts on structure, plot points and story architecture. Or, consider my writing books, Story Engineering and Story Physics, both of which go deep into the powerful impact and technical demands of these essential story elements.

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Writing Successful Fiction: When What You Don’t Know Trumps What You Do Know

A tale of mishandled craft sinking the story ship.

Quick story from the writing conference front.

A few weeks ago I was doing a couple of workshops at a major writing conference, and as is often the case at these gatherings, the spare hours between sessions were spent meeting one-on-one with writers to go over their projects. This is always a scheduled coaching session, not just a happenstance pitch in front of the elevators… which also happens, but without the feedback.

I could write for days about how the principles of story architecture – or the lack thereof – becomes a glaring issue in the novels these writers are working on. For the most part they’re totally publishable renderers of compelling prose, so that’s rarely the problem. (As I’ve written here and in my books, don’t get too excited about your way with words, that’s just a commodity ante-in to the game… the agents taking pitches at these things are looking for the next great story, not the next great wordsmith).

One fellow’s novel stood out as a case study in what can go wrong.

It should be said that everything about this guy’s story – including his sentence-smithing skill – was absolutely fantastic. The story had it all, including a really compelling conceptual landscape. I was excited, because at a glance it had a real shot.

But when we popped open the hood to see how the thing was built, the wheels started to come off.

I asked him about his opening hook.

His response was that he’d opened the story with some deep backstory of the hero. I asked if it would link directly to the forthcoming plot of the core story, and he said no, he just wanted to add characterization before putting the hero in harm’s way.

Strike one. Because a thriller needs a killer hook, every time.

Also, a thriller is not a character-driven vehicle, but rather, a conceptually driven narrative, one with a compelling character chasing a specific goal, against specific exterior antagonism.  Which means the hero’s crappy childhood is not a primary story variable.

Opening with backstory – unless it is a prologue with a direct plot connection that later becomes poignant, clear and perhaps ironic – is rarely a good idea.

But I didn’t tell him that… yet.

I wanted to see how badly he’d mangled other principles of dramatic structure before I got specific about what it should look like.

That’s when I asked the deal-breaking question: “So when in your story do you put your hero in harm’s way?”

He quickly answered, “When he gets his assignment to find the guy with the stolen bomb.”

I was already shaking my head. That’d certainly do the trick, but it wasn’t at all what I’d asked for. I had asked, literally: when, within the linear sequence of the story, does this moment occur?

A blank stare ensued.

So I explained, again: the hero needs to seek something in a story, have a need or a mission to engage with, to take action toward, with something at stake and significant obstacles – a villain – in his/her way.

You know, the 101-level most critical thing that makes a story work.

“Oh sure,” he said, momentarily relieved. “It has that. Like I said, it’s when he gets his assignment. That’s when all hell breaks loose.”

I was nodding, but not in agreement.

“So when does it happen? I asked you about the hook, and it seems that’s not it. So when? Give me a percentage based on total length.”

Mind you, this was a thriller he was writing. Not a literary novel. Not that it changes the answer… the best answer is the same for any genre.

He had to think a moment. Then his eyes suddenly lit up.

“It happens just short of the halfway mark.  Maybe, like, forty-five percent in.”

I think he heard me gasp.

Or maybe that was the sound of his story going of the rails.

I shook my head. Then I asked what his hero was doing in those first 160 to 200 pages of the manuscript, before the boom was lowered.

He said, with some amount of confidence, that he was building up the character, showing us his life before he became a professional in the black ops business, adding a lot more backstory. Mostly backstory.

He said this as if he thought it was a good thing.

I asked why he thought the reader would need, or be interested in, all this backstory exposition.

His expression was as if I’d just asked him if his mother looked good with no clothes on.

Because, he explained with the very antithesis of confidence now, that this is what stories do, or at least that’s what he’d been taught they should do. Introduce your hero, show the reader what he does, who he is, position him, create a setting, make us like him, or at least relate to him, and…

I was still shaking my head. Must have been, because his voice simply tailed off into silence.

That’s when I told him I thought he needed a major revision before it would work.

“How can you know that?” he asked. “You haven’t read it yet.”

I get asked that a lot. It’s always the wrong question.

“That’s true,” I replied, “I haven’t read it. I don’t need to read it. Let me ask you this – did you understand my question about when you begin the hero’s core story quest?  The actual plot itself? And was your answer accurate?”

He assured me that he did, and that it was.

And then I told him the ugly, deal-breaking truth:

He’d just violated one of the key principles of fiction: your setup simply cannot take that long. That the optimal place to turn the corner from setup, via something massively significant happening, toward the path that the hero would embark upon in the story, was closer to the twenty percent mark, give or take.

That when it happens, I told him, its called The First Plot Point, and it’s arguably the most important moment in a story – especially a thriller.

He thought a moment, then I saw a light in his eyes.

He said, “Okay, then. I’ve got it. I’ll open with it. Make it a hook.”

Still shaking my head.

While there may eventually be a way to make that work, simply moving the First Plot Point into hook position wasn’t it. The principles of story architecture demand more finesse than that, that the entire reasons for using those principles – so the forces of story, what I call story physics – have a chance to work their magic on the reader in the best possible way.

I explained that, while his story sounded thrilling, he had made a fatal error in waiting that long to pull the trigger on the dramatic core of it all. Because readers are waiting for that moment, and they’ll get impatient if you make them wait nearly half the book to get to it.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “But it makes mad sense when you say it like that.”

“Mad sense. I kinda like that. That’s exactly right. That’s what the principles of story architecture are… mad sense. Without the madness.”

I suggested that he dig into this to understand these principles, and pointed to the copy of my writing book – one of two – that happened to be on the table next to us. And when he does, I added, he should test it out there in the real world, look for these principles in play within the books he reads and the movies he sees. Especially thrillers.

Seeing it is to believe it.  It’s the best way to learn it.

“So other genres don’t follow this stuff?”

“On the contrary, all the genres follow it. It’s just that in thrillers its usually easier to see. Like, neon flashing graphics kind of easy.”

We discussed this with as much depth as the remaining five minutes would allow, and I sent him away with what seemed like a sense of purpose and, in his words, much gratitude for setting him straight.

He asked me to wish him luck with his agent pitches.

I smiled, forcing a smile, knowing he would need it.

But the story has an epilogue.

Next day I ran into him, this time in front of those elevators. I asked about those pitches. And he was excited to answer.

“Went great! Two agents want a synopsis. I guess they didn’t agree with you.”

Behold, the great head-scratching paradox of confusion on the part of the over-confident, under-enlightened writer. Which comprises a massive percentage of the manuscripts submitted to agents and editors.

Writers who don’t yet know what they don’t know.

Now I was nodding. Not in humble contrition, but with sad certainty. Because if he had written that novel as he described, he was in for a dark journey of frustration.

I asked if he’d told the agents how long his story setup was, how long it took to get to the point in the story where the hero’s core dramatic journey – the quest – came into play.

“No,” he said. “They didn’t ask about that stuff.  They just liked the sound of it.”

They never ask about this stuff.  That’s the problem.  They just reject it when it doesn’t work.

And it doesn’t work if you manhandled the principles.

“Are you going to revise the draft before submitting?” I tossed out as the elevator doors opened.

“Naw. They want pages right away. We’ll see what happens.”

He smiled, as writers often do when they mistake the uncompleted conversation for the one that affirms their limited skill set.

I  wished him luck. Then waited for the next elevator to arrive, even though the one he entered had been otherwise empty.

And so, we switch into teaching mode here.

This is what happens. This is where rejection comes from.

We don’t know what we don’t know. And thus, what we don’t know squashes our dreams.

Story architecture is very much like anything in life that lives or dies by how functional it is. An engine, a first date, your computer… one thousand moving parts can be perfectly tuned and positioned and connected and humming along, but if one single essential thing is off the mark, if it sputters at all, the whole thing will crash and burn.

And the event will be fatal.

Knowing the broad strokes of how a story seems to be constructed isn’t enough. And while you may have heard it before and dismissed it as just one presenter’s opinion – when what we hear contradicts what we have, that’s usually the outcome – it is just as likely that you’ve heard it and haven’t yet fully grasped it.

You need to know what makes a story engine work.

One bad spark plug and the whole thing won’t start, it will remain stillborn. Or it will sputter and die.

Or in the case of those agents, it will be rejected.

If you’re under contract, you’ll be asked to fix it. But if landing an agent or getting a deal is the goal, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Rejection will be the outcome. Makes no difference that they liked the Big Picture of your story in your pitch. You have to perform over the arc of 400 or so pages. All of it.

You have to get it right, all of it, every time.

You have to know what a core story arc is – what your core story arc is – what a hook is, what a setup quartile is, what a first plot point is, and a few dozen other elements and milestones and story beats and criteria, both  plot or character – before has a real shot at working.

At least, working as well as it needs to work in the heat of competition among writers with equally cool story ideas and wonderful prose, just like you, and who are nursing dreams as lofty and urgent as your own.

And then… your version of right needs to glow in the dark.

Which is a function of story theory and story architecture elevated to a fresh, energized, call -the-publisher-now level, via your craft and the inherent conceptually-driven premise upon which you build that story.

Didn’t know that?

You need to. Not knowing will kill you, every time.

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Want more story fundamentals? They’re waiting for your discovery in by two writing books, “Story Engineering” and “Story Physics.”

If you’d like to see how your story plan compares to professional standards relative to story architecture and conceptual power, click HERE and HERE to learn more.

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