Two days ago I wrote about the phenomenon called The Martian, a 2009 self-published novel that against all odds found an agent and became a New York Times bestseller, and then was made into the current hit movie (and Oscar contender in several categories) by the same name, starring Matt Damon. The backstory of how this book happened and how it became the all-time dream-shot of any author in any genre, is covered HERE.
But you’ll want to come right back to this page (I’ll put a link there to make it easier), because, as promised, this post deconstructs the book to illustrate its structure. Which, in case you have no sense of what’s next, perfectly aligns with the principles and paradigms of classic story structure, with barely a single percentage point or two variance from the optimal locations of the major milestone moments that separate each of the requisite four story quartiles.
(If you’re noticing that this pic of the book looks, well, a little odd… there’s a reason for that, which will be revealed shortly.)
Coincidence? I think not.
If that second-to-last sentence reads like Greek to you, I recommend you bone up on the topic of story structure, using the Search function to the right of this page (keep clicking on “Older Posts” under the listings you see), or reading any of my three writing books.
Structure, in a story that works, isn’t something you get to make up. Rather – much like the wings of an airplane or the formula for a cancer curing medicine – it is something that is universal, proven and flexible only to a point (writers mess with this at their own peril), and it serves the writer (this being a massive understatement) who either plans for it or revises toward it, often unknowingly.
If you doubt this, don’t make any bets yet, because virtually every published commercial novel and mainstream movie proves this to be true. Even writers who don’t think of it this way or call it this, when they succeed, are following this structural paradigm. This includes writers who claim to be pantsers, and writers who mistakenly believe that “story trumps structure,” all of whom end up doing exactly this using a different vocabulary and process.
I have no idea whether author Andy Weir knew about or cared about story structure when he wrote The Martian, initially a series of blog posts which became a Kindle ebook and then a traditionally-published bestseller.
If he didn’t, you can bet that one of two things came to bear:
– he was either a savant genius who brought a keen story sensibility to the telling (because the very essence of a keen story sensibility by definition already aligns with the principles of story structure; this is the Stephen King approach, by the way… when he tells you to just sit down and write, to go with the flow, see what happens, he’s assuming you know what he knows… do you?);
– or, as Weir’s posts evolved via feedback or simply his own notions that changes needed to be made, the direction of his edits pushed the story into a closer alignment with the principles of story structure. Which almost always happens when the edits are valid.
When an editor says, for example, “nothing happens for too long, you need better pacing,” that is code for fixing your structure to include a stronger hook, a more powerful first quartile and a more effective and properly placed First Plot Point. All of which is structure in action.
The Basics of Story Structure
Using The Martian as a model, you’ll see that a well-told story breaks a story into four parts, of roughly equal quartile lengths, each of which has a unique narrative context, a specific role in the unfolding story. Separating those quartiles are three major story milestones (think of them as story twists, though each has a more specific mission than simply twisting thing), and then spicing up the Part 2 and Part 3 quartiles with a story beat known as the Pinch Point, which also has a specific role.
Here’s a picture of the paperback after I finished with it. I folded back the pages where the three major milestones were (circled), thus separating the book into four quartiles. And then, showing where the two Pinch Points are (within squares), in the exact middle of the Part 2 and Part 3 quartiles.
Notice how each quartile (the circled separations) is of roughly the same length. That’s classic story structure, demonstrated visually here for your learning pleasure (I added paperclips to make these divisions stand out, and circled them for the same reason). This is neither coincidence nor accident… this is how great stories work: they are told in four parts, separated by three major milestones, each with its own specific function and role.
Do this the next time you read a great novel, fold back the pages and see where they are, and you’ll see almost the exact same thing, provided you’ve accurately pegged those three story milestones..
This single fact can change – it will empower – your entire fiction writing experience. This is how it’s done.
Structure is driven by a core dramatic story – the main “through-line” plot, if you will – which also defines character arc.
If you can’t define your core dramatic story in one simple sentence, chances are you are spread either too thin or too thick. In The Martian, the core story is simple (it almost always is, even The Davinci Code‘s core story can be defined in one line): An astronaut is stranded on Mars, and he must learn to survive until a plan for his rescue is put into motion.
I’d say it’s not rocket science, but in this case it is. The inherent drama here is obvious, as it should be.
From this core story arises a core dramatic question: will Mark Watney be able to survive until the rescue plan can be put into motion? If that sounds just like the core story through-line, it is only in question form. Phrasing it as a question brings the story closer to a structural context. Because The Martian isn’t about simply describing how Watney survives; the dramatic question creates a context of why he must survive. The stakes are escalated, the pace fueled, the tension heightened. Huge difference. The dramatic question drives the story forward across the arc of the story, over four sequential parts (quartiles), toward a new and higher goal than what appears to be the state of things early on.
Instead of – and this becomes the mistake in many novels from writers who don’t get this or accept this – simply writing about a situation, even though it’s a fascinating one.
Which leads me to again offer this golden truth: a good story isn’t just about something… it’s about something happening.
Let the italics guide you on that one.
Today’s analysis of The Martian uses the mass market paperback to create a structural grid. The percentages, though, will be the same for the hardcover, the movie-tie-in paperback, and the movie itself. Structure is thought of in percentage of length, while illustrated using page numbers (for books) or minutes of running time (for films).
The total page length for the edition of The Martian used for this deconstruction is 369. Remember that when percentages are offered.
The First Quartile of The Martian
The optimal target length of a first quartile, concluding with the all-important First Plot Point, is 20 to 25 percent in. Which means the optimal location of the First Plot Plot (thus defining the length of the first quartile) of The Martian is from Page 74 to page 92. Any shorter and the author risks compromise to reader empathy and world building, any longer and the risk is boring the impatient reader with too much characterization or location details.
A good novel – a published book, especially within a genre, versus “literary fiction,” which still uses this to a great extent – almost without exception offers up a First Plot Point within that 20-25 percent-in window, not because someone said that’s the formula, but rather, that’s just (and it’s proven) how stories work best. Which means, if you are trying to create, or yielding to, being that exception in your story – if you follow your gut, and your gut doesn’t align with this – you are on tricky, possibly fatal ground, you are playing a low percentage shot in doing so.
Once you see how solid this model it, how prevalent it is out there, your storytelling gut will come around to it soon thereafter.
So how did The Martian do with these structural targets?
You’re gonna love this.
The First Plot Point of The Martian appears on page 82 (the 22nd percentile). Smack in the middle of that optimal location window.
And I assure you, this is neither random or coincidental.
The narrative context of a first quartile – in any story – is to setup and foreshadowing the core story. Not fully launch it… yet… but rather, to introduce the main character and antagonist (that one has more wiggle room, sometimes the antagonist/villain never really becomes vivid until later; author’s call on this one), give them a pre-core-story life and situation, create empathy and emotional resonance, set up the mechanics of the forthcoming First Plot Point (where the core story will fully launch, at least relative to the first quartile exposition), and place the whole thing in a vivid and vicarious story world environment.
When the opening seems to launch things in a big way, you’ll almost always discover that, however big, the real story isn’t fully in play at this point. Which is the case in The Martian.
The story opens with a killer hook: Mark Watney and the crew of the Hermes interplanetary transport are trying to conclude a scientific experiment on the surface of Mars when a nasty sand storm arrives unexpectedly. The landing/ascent vehicle is in peril, about to be blown over by the fierce winds (this is something the author concedes departs from real science, which other than in this opening is by-the-book everywhere else in the story; the atmosphere on Mars is only two percent as dense as it is on Earth, so a wind storm of any damaging magnitude is impossible, a 150 mph gust would feel like a mild breeze on Earth; Weir didn’t care, he needed something dramatic to kick things off… and this Martian tornado did the trick).
But the crew can’t find Watney. At what seems to be the last minute they hurry back to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), while the Captain cuts it even closer to remain outside in the urgent hope of finding him. What she doesn’t know is that Watney has been injured, he’s unconscious and the electronics in his spacesuit are offline. Based on evidence, they conclude Watney is dead. So, to save her crew and herself, the Captain barely makes it back to the ship and they blast off, heading safely back to the Hermes mother ship, leaving the “dead” Mark Watney behind, the fact of which devastates them.
Except, of course, Mark Watney isn’t dead.
And there you have the core story bones. The design of his spacesuit has saved him, auxiliary systems have kicked back in, and when he wakes up he’s totally alone… on Mars.
All that happens in the first six minutes of the film, the first 7 pages of the book. The hook concludes with Watney telling us all about it, after the fact, in his log, ending with this statement: “So yeah, I’m f**ked.”
And we’re hooked.
The first quartile goes on to literally build the story world, with rich detail on the harsh environment, the Hab in which he lives (which survived Weir’s contrived storm, but with some serious technical damage), and the challenge of not only surviving in the near term, but living long enough to actually have a shot at going home. Which at this point is hopeless.
So hopeless, in fact, that when the First Plot Point arrives, the story experiences a reboot. New hope. A plan manifesting in the face of the unthinkable. This is what First Plot Points do… they reboot the story, they actually ignite the core story from seeds planted in the opening quartile, or at least it kicks everything into a higher gear after a setup, a ramp up, in the preceding Part 1 initial quartile.
This Part 1 narrative also showed us what was happening back on Earth.
Mark Watney’s funeral, for example. But then a low-ranking technician monitoring visuals from Mars taken from orbiting satellites notices something odd. It seems like things have been moving around adjacent to the Hab that the crew had abandoned. After some debate there is only one conclusion: Mark Watney is alive, and healthy enough to, well, go outside and move things around… something we’ve seen from Watney’s POV in earlier scenes.
Is that the First Plot Point? No.
Because that moment doesn’t, in and of itself, launch a mission (figuratively, in the language of story structure, literally in this story). What that moment was is this: an inciting incident. You can have several inciting incidents within your first quartile, but don’t confuse them with a First Plot Point (unless it truly is one), which has a specific mission and location within the story flow.
About ten pages later, 0n Page 82, the earth-bound Hermes Mission Controller says this to a peer when asked about Watney’s odds of survival:
“No idea,” Venkat said. “But we’re going to do everything we can to bring him home alive.“
And that IS the First Plot Point.
Now we have a different, better story on our hands, with a higher degree of focus, direction, mission, urgency and risk than until this point. Everything has changed. Until now it was a documentary on how Watney stays alive. Now the story is about why he’s staying alive, with new hope and a mission, something new to react to… to get home.
The Second Quartile of The Martian
In this quartile we get further exposition about what Mark Watney does over the deadly quiet days, repairing and re-purposing technology, including growing enough potatoes to last him the hundreds of days he’ll need to remain alive long enough to… well, we aren’t sure yet. This is the fun and fascinating aspect of the story, the reader is rivited (akin to the puzzles in The Davinci Code and the operations of a submarine in The Hunt For Red October; smart authors take readers into places and details they’ll never encounter… the element of vicarious experience is wildly powerful in good storytelling).
Meanwhile plans are hatching and debated back on Earth, which is trying to land on a doable way to return to Mars to save Watney.
The target context, generically, of the Part 2 quartile is RESPONSE. Watney responds to the new parameters of the story, which shifted via the First Plot Point back on page 82, trying to stay alive as long as required and survive all the ways Mars conspires to kill him in the mean time. The space folks back on Earth are asked to do the impossible. Everyone is “working the problem,” and things don’t always go as planned.
That’s the essence everything that happens in the Part 2 quartile. Which includes…
The First Pinch Point
In any dramatic story, the reader needs to be reminded about the source of antagonism in the story, who and what the antagonist is, what they/it wants, and what lurks closeby, waiting to thwart the hero’s plans and/or swoop in to, well, do bad things. The reader, and the hero, can’t get too comfortable, fear and pressure need to resurface. This is called the Pinch Point, and there can be many of them… as long as at least two appear right in the middle of Parts 2 and 3, respectively.
The middle of Part 2 of The Martian is page 133.
Andy Weir delivers the first Pinch Point on page 143. Not far enough off to qualify as a deviation from the principle itself, which like all of these has wiggle room built in to them (meaning you still get to control the flow of your story, provided you don’t swerve into the wrong structural lane).
The Pinch Point is a scene (or a moment within a scene) written from the departing crew’s point of view, detailing their emotional experience from being forced to leave their teammate behind. It is gut wrenching, and completely what it was, as a Pinch Point, supposed to be: a reminder of the magnitude of the hero’s problem — he’s alone on Mars, unreachable, unsaveable, without hope.
The Midpoint of The Martian
If the First Plot Point is the most important moment in a story – and it is, from a structural point of view – then the Midpoint is not far behind. Once again the story changes as it marks the turn from Part 2 into Part 3, changing the context of the hero’s experience from RESPONSE mode into ATTACK mode. The hero, from an character arc perspective, evolves from a “wanderer” into a “warrior,” because now, leveraging new knowledge or change imparted at the Midpoint moment (you don’t need to be Stephan Hawking to figure out the optimal location of the Midpoint; in a 369 page novel, the target is page 185… do the math), the pace and dramatic tension of the story increase palpably as the proximity of confrontation, danger and salvation draws near.
The Midpoint is where the main character begins to get their hero on. It commences Part 3 of the novel… any novel.
The Midpoint of this story occurs when the folks on Earth complete hastily cobbled-together preparations to send a supply rocket to Mars with enough food and medicine and tools to allow Watney to survive until the arrival of the next manned mission, scheduled for over 400 days later.
This happens on page… get ready for it… 183. Two pages before the mathematical midpoint of page 185.
Coincidence again? Do you really have to ask?
The Third Quartile of The Martian
Which houses the second Pinch Point, within the new context of the hero at warrior/attacker of the main problem at hand.
There is another major plot twist thrown in there, too, illustrating the availability of all the twisting you want. A mission to deliver supplies to Watney crash shortly after take-off, taking everything and everybody back to square one. It works, but it’s not something that separates the quartiles… because it fits within the Part 3 quartile, where everyone is, contextually, attacking the problem.
Is this how you’re structuring your novel? Using these structural guides to optimize the dramatic effectiveness of your novel?
You should be… and in any genre. If your first draft is nowhere near these optimal structural milestones, now you have a guide for revision that will take you closer to them. Because trust me, if your novel isn’t aligning, if you don’t have these four distinct narrative parts (you can have more chapter and parts, but they should fit within these four organizational blocks), if the three major milestones (First Plot Point, Midpoint and Second Plot Point… along with those two Pinch Points in the middle of Parts 2 and 3) are nowhere near their optimal locations… trust me, your story is compromised. Maybe not broken – though that may be the case – but probably at risk.
If you know your core story, and if it’s strong at its conceptual core, and if you realize you aren’t there yet, you can fix it. That’s what structure is for… to save and empower your story.
If you doubt it, if you think The Martian is just a convenient aberration I’ve grabbed to prove this point, hear this clearly: I could grab virtually any bestselling, genre-driven novel, or even any published novel at all (traditionally, because unlike self-published books, traditional publishers look for and vet these structural principles), I guarantee you it would be a model structural citizen, as well. Because it works… and structure is a huge part of why.
The Second Pinch Point in The Martian
Of course, just because your hero is now a Warrior doesn’t mean things will fall easily into to place. That’s why we have that second Pinch Point, optimally located squarely in the middle of the Part 3 quartile to once again remind us of what could go wrong, and how the hero has more risk and more work to do before the core story problem/opportunity will be resolved.
In The Martian, the second Pinch Point is a whopper. Basically, Watney blows everything that was suppose to take him home to smithereens. More importantly, the communications equipment that was allowing him to trade information with his rescuers on Earth… it’s destroyed. Beyond repair. The entire rescue operation is dead… both sides, on Mars and on Earth, have to start over.
This happens on 228, which is the 62nd percentile of the story’s length. The optimal placement? The 62/63rd percentile.
Story structure is amazing that way.
Still in Part 3, the team continues to “work the problem,” which translates to attack the problem, which is the generic mission context of any Part 3 narrative. A new plan emerges, but it’s unthinkable risky: Mark has to drive – literally – across harsh Mars terrain for over 3000 kilometers to rendesvous with a previously depositing Mars Ascent Vehicle, which has been deposited there earlier for use by the aforementioned mission, still some 400 days away.
The Second Plot Point of The Martian
In a later turn, the crew of the Hermes defies orders and steps into a plan to return to Mars (at great risk… the drama explodes off the pages and off the screen) to rescue their abandoned teammate, Mark Watney. The rendesvous will be in low orbit over Mars, with a ridiculously low margin for error. They will have one shot.’
Provided Mark can reach the MAV in time, strip it of several tons of burdensome equipment, survive take off and somehow manage to grab the hand of a Hermes crew member passing by him at 12 meters per second… with no do-over possible.
Yeah, that’s some serious drama. Why does it work? Why are we rooting for this, with every fiber of our being? Because Watney has our heart. We love him. We respect him, he’s MacGiver in space, and he deserves to come home.
The optimal target location for the Second Plot Point in a 369 page book is page 277.
The location of the Second Plot Point in The Martian – when Mark leaves his base HAB for the final time, loaded down with jury-rigged equipment, in quest of the Schiaparelli Crater where the MAV awaits, over 3000 kilometers away – is on page 284.
I won’t say it. About this being a coincidence, I mean. A few pages on either side of an optimal structural location mean nothing, provided the mission of the milestone is effective, and the context of the ensuing quartile shifts into place.
The Fourth Quartile of The Martian
In essence, especially in thrillers and in many mysteries, romances, YA and other genres, the fourth quartile is consumed by a final chase scene, or push (the case here) toward the moment of truth, or a confrontation of some kind.
The first pages of the quartile show us the machinations of the forthcoming climactic scene, and the second half immserses us in it, sometimes with scenes that ramp u to it, followed by scenes (epilogue in nature) that show us the aftermath. (For the record, the movies shows us aftermath that the book doesn’t, seizing on the opportunity to show us the post-mission Watney in good health – yes, he survives, did you ever doubt this – and the chance to wax thematic on the strength of the human spirit.
I hope you’ve found this deconstruction illuminating, helpful, and motivating. If nothing else, I hope it makes you want to read the book or see the film, perhaps both, perhaps again, to see how these quartile contexts and milestones are what drive the whole thing, dramatically and emotionally, toward a finish line with a huge payoff.
This post took me over ten hours to research and assemble. I hope you enjoyed this. And I hope it licenses at least a glance at the little promo copy below. Thanks for reading.
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