A Guest Post About Story Structure

But first… an Intro by Your Host

Here’s a confession.  I have mixed emotions about posting this article.  Not because it’s in any way unworthy.  It’s good.  Ultimately, that’s why it’s here.

But it reads a bit like a sales letter for one of my ebooks.  That makes me slightly uncomfortable, because  I don’t want appear overly self-promoting (I’ll leave that to the sidebars). 

So hear this: the article came in unsolicited, and like I said, it’s good.

In addition to its fresh voice, it’s good because it reflects an experience most of us who write stories have, sooner or later.  We get stuck in our own belief systems.  Our chosen process, which is often less than a fully informed choice.

Then we find something that helps get us unstuck.  This post might just might be that thing.

So if you prefer, every time the author references me or my ebook, just substitute “the principles of story structure.”  That’ll get you to the point the author and I both have in mind.

Huge thanks for Linda for sharing her experience.  If you’ve had a similar journey toward the discovery of story structure, or any of the other liberating principles of both process and its end-product, I invite you to share it here.

PS – you’ll notice that my sensitivity to self-promotion didn’t stop me from linking her references to the ebook.  One reason: it’ll help you, just as it did her.

Structural Difficulties

A Guest Post by Linda Yezak

Ever have a devil of a time getting a stalled story to kick in again?

No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to breathe life into it. I sympathize. I was ready to hit delete on one of my favorite manuscripts because I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it.

That’s when I remembered Story Structure–Demystified, by Larry Brooks.

I had begun Act I of The Cat Lady’s Secret perfectly, introducing most of the major characters and identifying their goals and the things they hold most dear. For my main character Emily, a woman who thrives on charitable giving, anonymity is vital, and I explained why in a sequence of scenes designed to rip at the hearts of the readers.

As I traveled along in the first act, I tossed in a few obstacles for Emily to stumble over–the home of friends being burned to the ground, a suddenly-empty bank account rendering her unable to help–then mistakenly believed I had established the first plot point. I was ready to drive my story sedan into Act II.

But the car stalled.

The conflicts I had presented were too easily settled, too easily side-stepped to challenge my main character and send her on a course to defend what she cherishes against a persistent foe. If the problems can be quickly solved, where’s the story?

I took forever trying to figure out how to get my stalled vehicle running again. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nothing I tried worked.

Finally, after coming inches away from giving up, I realized the problem was structural. I yanked out my tool box and tweaked, tightened, and oiled until the motor sputtered to life. Then, I jumped behind the wheel, stepped on the gas . . . and smashed into a wall.

Realizing a road block is structural and knowing what to do about it are two different things.

That’s where Larry came in. His ebook showed me how to avoid the roadblock by identifyng the inciting incident (which can and very often does coincide with the first plot point) in my manuscript. Don’t get me wrong–I knew the definition of “plot points,” but the way Larry explained the FPP managed to reach through the fog created by constantly pounding my head for answers.

He asked these questions:

Does it appear in the right place?

Does it define and shift the need and quest of the hero from that point forward?

Does it create and clarify stakes?

Does it imply consequences that will stem from both the hero’s success and failure?

Does it create a sudden risk and opposition?

For both obstacles I’d set before Emily — the fire and the feeble bank account – the only “yes” answer was to the first question.

But further in the manuscript, deep into what I had thought was Act II, came a threat to Emily’s anonymity. A journalist hunts her true identity, scrambling for info, digging into county records. Publishing what he finds.

I ran the first incident with the journalist through Larry’s list, and lo-and-behold, it hit on all but the first–unless my cute little Chic-Lit novel is going to be 120,000 words.

After the journalist’s introduction should come a period of carelessness on Emily’s part, of her denying his ability to find her. Next would come a period of staying low to avoid detection. Finally, determination and confrontation and a battle royale to maintain her privacy.

That’s what should come next, but it doesn’t. Because I never properly identified my first plot point. I’m still smacking my head for not seeing it months ago.

I’m thirty thousand words into my manuscript. I submitted the required first fifteen pages to a nationwide writers’ competition and landed a spot among the finalists–something I discovered this past May. Plenty of time to finish the novel. But when I go to the conference in a few weeks, I won’t have a completed product to pitch because the novel wasn’t structurally sound enough to continue working on it. It soon will be, but not by conference time.

Never underestimate the value of solid structure. And don’t assume that just because you write “cute little Chick-Lit” stories (if you do) that you don’t need structure. Even romance needs conflict. Even comedy needs antagonists. And even seat-of-the-pants writers like me need a good grasp of story structure to be successful novelists.

Texas native Linda Yezak writes romantic comedy, and her first novel, Give the Lady a Ride, will debut in 2011. Linda holds a degree in English and teaches an adult creative writing class. She also speaks for various writers’ groups, works as a freelance editor, and is an editor for Port Yonder Press, a traditional publishing house catering to family-friendly novelists, poets, and non-fiction authors. Those interested can contact her through her blog, AuthorCulture, or through Port Yonder Press.

22 Comments

Filed under Story Structure Series

22 Responses to A Guest Post About Story Structure

  1. Bingo, Linda, and congrats on the 2011 publication.

    I had a similar experience. I had what I thought was a good story arc (mob family and familial family intersecting for a Miami PD Detective) good characterisation, and a nice burgeoning love story subplot between the detective and the female coroner. Unfortunately I wrote it before I’d read Larry’s Story Structure eBook. It didn’t flow right, reveals were in the wrong place, you know the drill.

    I tried for almost three months to ‘fix’ it. It continued to look like a house that was being renovated by a rank amateur.

    I believe that sometimes quitting *is* the right thing to do. I tossed the manuscript in my virtual bottom drawer and moved on.

    It took three weeks (or so) to structure a story in the same locale, with some of the major characters in the failed attempt appearing as minor characters in the new attempt. 1PP, 2PP, midpoint, pinch points, character arc all plotted in the same way an architect designs a building before that masons show up.

    It only took 6 weeks to write the 95k words once the structure was nailed down. The first draft is simmering while I plot the next book. After THAT one, I may go back to the original failure and rebuild it from the ground up.

    Of course, as an engineer I find the concept of structure inherently beautiful and logical. If I didn’t have a full time -‘non-writing’ job, I think I could produce three or four completed manuscripts a year.

    You can’t do that without the structure.

  2. Larry, thanks for sharing my story. I didn’t intend for it to be blatant promotion for your book as much as I did just giving credit where credit was due. But if you sell a book or two, that’s a good thing, right?

    Tony, you must have amazing grit to toss a story and start over. I was lucky. I found a place in my WIP that allowed for a smooth entry for the FPP and now just have to weave the reaction in.

  3. @Linda, we can call it grit, if you like.

    Really, though, it’s the fact that I’m 50 this year, started writing about 35 years later than I should have, and don’t have that much time to waste.

    (And a lot of catching up to do.)

  4. Tony–welcome to the half-century mark! I passed it about three years ago. You’re gonna love this time of your life. I know I do.

  5. It is so easy to get blinded by what you know it SHOULD say and what it is ACTUALLY saying. Much like your mind automatically filling in the blanks. Thanks for the insight and a tool to fix it.

  6. What was the name of that eBook again? Oh, never mind. I found it.

    Yay, Linda (exclamation point)

  7. Larry,

    I so understand how you feel about self-promotion; at its best it still tends to make us feel a bit icky.

    But here’s the thing. It’s the people that get that “icky” feeling that are sincere and are generally offering a real product – one they have really put hard work into to make sure it benefits others. It’s the shameless self-promoters (think Sarah Palin, Paris Hilton, et al) that people should be wary of. People who think their poop don’t stink usually sell crappy products. (I totally just came up with that, but feel free to use it, folks!)

    I am a collector of quotations. I have been putting them into a blank journal since 1994 (I’m on my second). There was one I found as a child that has stuck with me – as a young and precocious writer (I carried a portable typewriter around with me everywhere when I was 12) this quote just spoke volumes to me when I heard it because I was, indeed, my own worst critic. I have never forgotten it and refer to it often when I find myself being too critical of my work and I think it fits here, for you, feeling humble about the great ebooks you offer and with what I pointed out about shameless self-promoters:

    “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize. ” – Robert Hughes

    I think it applies perfectly, because your ebooks are – honestly – something every aspiring writer should read. I have them all and I can’t begin to tell you how much they have helped me in organizing and structuring my stories. I was an organic writer of the highest order and every attempt to structure or organize my writing just seemed to either stifle my creativity, aggravate me so much I lost interest in the story, or just plain not work. I’d about given up on trying to do anything specific and just wrote…trying to keep it all together in my head as I went.

    Your ebooks have made me a better writer. I didn’t need to learn how to write – I’ve been doing that since I could first hold a Crayon. I didn’t need help coming up with ideas; I have dozens upon dozens of them. I just needed some structure to fit it all into and your books are like a guiding hand that I return to time and again to keep me on track and keep everything flowing. Thank you and, don’t worry, those of us that know you and know your work know you are not in any way one of those shameless self-promoters; you push your work because it genuinely helps people (yes, it makes you money, but that’s an added bonus, right?).

    As well – speaking for myself – I don’t begrudge anyone who can make a few extra dollars online, be it with writing, a static blog, selling ebooks, etc. In this economy every little penny counts and all of us are struggling. If you’ve found a way to put a little extra food on the table or gas in the car, by all means, be proud to know that it is a genuine product and that positive karma flows all around – as it is helping you, it is also helping others.

    Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, Larry.

  8. After reading Larry and then Linda, I came to a momentous light-bulb moment. I don’t know what I’m doing. 🙂

    Thanks so much for writing this. It was an eye-opener. Guess I better go shopping for an e-book.

    Kat

  9. Loved this! Thank you Linda, and thank you Larry for posting it.

  10. Linda,

    Thank you so much for your post. It was so clear and concise; a perfect example of how story structure can make or break even the most promising novel. And a gentle reminder that – no matter how far along we may be into a work – it never hurts to go back and check our plot points and all that falls around them.

    Best wishes and good luck in the competition!

  11. @ Sally–no kiddin’, honey. I’ve been mortified over some of the things I’ve sent out thinking they were “perfect.”

    @ Sandy–uh-huh. You snuck over to my site first, didn’t you? You’re so funny (exclamation point).

    @ Shanna–I know you addressed your comment to Larry, but I second what you had to say about both him and his books.

    @ Kat–after reading some of your NF works, I wouldn’t say you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you’re going to dive into the world of fiction writing, Larry’s book is a terrific tool. I hope it helps you as it did me.

  12. Great post! So many authors (myself included) tend to tell stories instinctively. We know what works, but because we don’t always know *why* it works, we’re sometimes stumped when we run up against those brick walls you mentioned. I’ll definitely be checking out Larry’s e-book. Thanks for sharing!

  13. @ Heather and Shanna — thank you!

    @ Katie–You’re right. I think when we instinctive story tellers have the principles of structure down pat, we’ll be even *better* instinctive story tellers!

  14. Structure is where so many things can go wrong. I love how you broke it down step-by-step using your manuscript (I mean baby) to show how analysis can help make your WIP a better book. Thank you for sharing your expeience.

  15. Great post! I had the same forehead slapping moment with Larry’s e-book several months ago. 🙂

  16. Lisa, Pegg–thanks for the comments!

  17. Johne Cook

    I bought Larry’s e-book awhile back but haven’t gotten around to reading it. Capt. ADD says thanks for the prompt to dig it out and make actually reading it a priority!

  18. That’s what I did, Johne–buy it and put it in line with the others I’d get around to eventually. Grab it while you’re thinking of it. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  19. This is great information, Linda. I’m going to have to grab this book. I’m in the middle of my 3rd book, and have been struggling with some structure on this one, too. Thanks for the pointer!

  20. I’m overwhelmed by the notion, the know-how, the fitting-it-in throughout the rest of everything else I need to do as Chief Cook and Bottle Washer in my business

  21. rammy

    it”s gud for me.thank to author

  22. Dora

    Hi,

    I have looked at your site and I am really impressed with its entire structure and content quality. Also, you are maintaining it very well. Currently, I am looking for the possibilities of sharing my content in this kind of blogs (as guest blog post) with my website link.

    Please let me know your opinion on my request.

    Thank you,
    Dora