Shades of Gray: A Somewhat Liberating Spin on Story Structure

If you’ve been challenged by the notion – or if you’re in complete denial – that effective stories can and should be broken down into sequential parts, that each of these parts has a unique contextual mission to fulfill, and that each segment is separated by a critical milestone that must accomplish certain storytelling feats… 

… if this is you, then get ready for some very good news.

Because the storytelling world isn’t really quite as black and white as I’ve made it out to be. 

If you’re a screenwriter, you’re still absolutely stuck with specific targets for the plot points in your stories.  But if you’re a novelist, you will be delighted to hear that what screenwriters must regard as a set of rules really function more like a set of principles where you’re concerned.

These principles are like traffic.  Consistently disregard them and chances are you won’t get a professional chauffer’s license.  But exceeding a few speed limits or cheating a stop sign now and then, that doesn’t mean you’ll end up in jail.  Or dead.  Or become the cause of someone else being dead.

It just means you got away with it.  Which, when it comes to writing fiction, may be perfectly fine.  This doesn’t negate the principle, it just serves your creative needs at the time.

Principles, like a moral code, still require a general sense of discipline and homage.  At least if you want to coexist in the society in which they prosper.

Or with writing, at least if you want to publish your work.

The Case of the Wandering Plot Point

Yesterday I used a five hour airplane ride to read a highly regarded thriller by a writer who lives in a neighboring zip code.  As usual, I found myself deconstructing the story as I went along, making sure the requisite plot points appear within their narrowly-defined range of locale, and that the four sequential parts did their generically-prescribed contextual job.

That’s the downside of studying story structure.  Every novel you read and every movie you see becomes a bit of a clinic.  Last time I just sat back and got lost in a story was when the Swiss Family Robinson was turning a confluence of vines into a foyer.

In my advocacy of story structure I encourage this deconstruction process as a means of understanding what the four parts of a story are intended to do, and how the milestones that separate them are the stuff of dramatic tension, pacing and character arc. 

So there I am, sitting in 24A somewhere between Honolulu and Seattle, waiting for the first plot point to appear where it should.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Past the prescribed 20th percentile.  Past the 25th.  Getting nervous as we zip through the 3oth.

The first plot point in this New York Times bestseller finally showed up on page 118 in a 356 page novel.  Do the math, that’s not supposed to happen.

Got me to thinking.  I need to take my musings on story structure a step further.

A plot point may not be what you think it is.

The definition of a first plot point is a change in the story that defines the hero’s quest and need going forward, and does so in the face of an antagonistic force that the reader suddenly understands to an extent that empathy and emotion are evoked, while creating obstacles to the hero’s quest, and thus creating stakes that depend on the hero’s ability to overcome those obstacles.

A mouthful.  Chew it carefully, because it will nourish your story.  Or kill it if you don’t swallow it all.

Because that is always what a first plot point does.

If you look closely, though, the essence of that definition is the grasping of what the plot point means, rather than what it is. 

Read that again.  It’s subtle, and it’s critical.

A husband suddenly dying of an accident may seem like a plot point, if nothing else than by the sheer magnitude of how it changes the widow’s life.  But, if the story is about how she is supposed to deal with the fact that the husband has left all the insurance money to a heretofore unknown mistress, it is the moment when that fact is revealed that becomes the plot point, rather than the death itself.

As you look for plot points in the work of others, don’t be seduced by magnitude.  Look for the narrative moment at which the story clarifies, when the hero’s quest truly begins an informed forward motion. 

When the story switches from set-up mode into reaction mode.

It’s the stakes that the first plot point creates that counts, not the size of the explosion.

A plot point may not appear precisely where it should.

I’ve said (as has Syd Field) that the first plot point should occur at a point between the 20th and 25th percentile in the story.

If you’ve perceived that to be a rule, that’s good, because it is the optimal range.  But you, the novelist, have the latitude to cheat that on either side, depending on the nature of the preceding set-up sequence (the very definition of Part 1). 

If you delay the first plot point past the 25th percentile, then you’ll need several twists and a deepening of the stakes prior to that point.  Without them the set-up will take too long and you’ll lose the reader.

If you’re Big Bang plot point comes much earlier, then make sure you put another twist – one that deepens the stakes of the story – at about the 25th percentile, making sure that it changes the course of the hero’s quest from what it was.

A plot point may be a sequence of scenes, versus a specific moment.

Sometimes the first plot point isn’t a sudden moment at all.  It can also be the consequence of a sequence of scenes or story points, all condensed around the prescribed vicinity where the plot point should occur.

Sometimes when it’s tough to nail down a plot point in a story we are reading or a movie we are seeing, it’s because several things happen that could be the plot point.  For instance, using the example from above…

The husband is seen cheating.  The husband dies.  The wife is told by the lawyer that the insurance policy doesn’t bear her name.  The mistress shows up at her house demanding the jewelry – including her wedding ring – that the dead husband has just left her in his will.

Obviously, the widow has a new quest and need, and she’s in reaction mode.  A plot point has definitely occurred.

But where?  Which moment defines the point plot? 

A plot point may occur as a sequence of scenes that occur from the 20th to 28th percentile of the story.  Each scene changes the nature of the widow’s quest, spinning the story in a new direction, but only after they’re all on the table do we fully understand what it means.

So which scene is the plot point itself?

Answer: it doesn’t matter.  At least not for the reader when the sequence is regarded as a whole.  The writer knows – my money is on the lawyer’s revelation that the mistress is the beneficiary – but post-execution it is the effect of the scenes, rather than the mission, that counts.

Relax.  Tell your story. 

But do so from within the context of understanding how and where story structure comes into play.  This will keep you safe and keep the story moving forward.

Just like a musician can’t go off riffing a solo until they understand the underlying melody.  Just like an athlete can’t successfully freelance a play until they understand where the rest of the team will be on the field. 

Don’t sweat the percentages.  Sweat the stakes, the dramatic tension and reader empathy.  If you’re simply in the neighborhood, story architecture will protect you.

But if you disregard its principles, be aware that this is a tough neighborhood, indeed.  Once lost, you may never be found.

At least, your story won’t be found in a bookstore, that is.




Filed under Featured posts, Story Structure Series

10 Responses to Shades of Gray: A Somewhat Liberating Spin on Story Structure

  1. Larry,
    I read a book this week called “The Dickinson Papers,” which was a humourous and quirky love story. As I was reading, I thought about your take on story structure. The book was more literary than commercial, so it took a bit more license with the overall structure. However, there definitely was one, which I might not have recognized if it weren’t for reading your site. As always, thanks for the insight you provide.

  2. You’ve got a remarkable way of explaining this in a context that I can understand. Never thought about it this way, but you are absolutely right. The impact matters much more than the event.

  3. Nathan — to see this in full glorious obviousness, rent the DVD “Collateral.” There’s a huge murder scene at about the 15th percentile, and it fools everyone because it looks like just the first plot point (but it’s too early, and not complete enough yet in terms of what a plot point must do). The actual plot point comes a few scenes later, when Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx are in a taxi, as Cruise explains what Foxx must do next. THAT’s the plot point, and it’s just a quiet conversation. It fulfills all the criteria, as it defines the hero’s quest going foward, in context to the stakes, and invests the viewer in what is to come.

    The murder is just part of the Part 1 set-up. And after the taxi conversation, notice how the next quarter of the story (Part 2) is a “response” to what we learn (what the hero learns) in the actual taxi plot point scene.

    A great example of how a story can have many HUGE scenes with high drama, but the plot points remain as fixtures with specific missions.

    By the way, “Collateral” is a great example of virtually everything about story architecture, all four parts and all the milestones, and including character elements, theme and scene construction. Michael Mann is one of the best directors out there, in my opinion.

  4. this was a timely post for me.

    what i consider my first plot point now appears later than i originally planned, because i’ve had to gut a storyline from the novel in order to keep my word count down to a publishable length. the result of this is that my first plot point appears around the 33-40% mark. (with the other plot line, i was looking at a total of 150,000-170,000 words, and that storyline was mostly found at the end of the novel)

    i’d been very concerned about this, and am relieved to hear that it is mostly a guideline instead of a hard and fast rule. i think that i have enough twists and surprises during the set up to keep the reader engaged, and i’ll have to trust my beta readers to let me know if i’m wrong once i get my first revision finished.

  5. Joi

    I love House!

    I’m always inspired by reality television, actually. The human dynamic is the most additively fascinating thing on the face of the earth and I never cease to be inspired from a parade of humanity. Hello, reality television!

    Whether it’s The Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser, or Survivor – you can really get inside the human mind. The things people will do, promise, and become to attain what they want…. crazy!

    Great idea for a post. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  6. OMG this is SOME good revelation! Thanks!!! I always think my story is one with too many layers; thinking it can’t be written well but after reading this bit I am feeling MOST encouraged…

  7. I reviewed John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War a while ago, and I felt the same thing. When is the first plot point going to happen? Well, I didn’t think in those exact terms. Until it DID happen, the book was a drag.

    It was only when the protagonist had something to fight against/for did I start to care at all. This happened about two thirds of the way into the novel, and the last third was by far the most interesting part for me; it actually had some story!

  8. So, did the widow have to hand over the ring? (I remember being outraged by something similar during Double Jeopardy.) How can you come up with great hooks like that in a blog post while some of us struggle in our stories?!

  9. “If you delay the first plot point past the 25th percentile, then you’ll need several twists and a deepening of the stakes prior to that point.”

    Before the plot is revealed, what are the stakes being deepened? This begs the question of how many non-plot-point twists a reader will tolerate before the author runs the risk of having the actual plot point dismissed as another “cry wolf.” Even a writer who turns his nose up at the idea of structure should beware sabotaging the reader’s trust this way.

    I hate to play Devil’s Advocate (okay, I love to play Devil’s Advocate) but whenever I hear about the virtues of violating the “rules” of fiction I remind myself of two things.

    First, that structure isn’t an arbitrary standard imposed as artifice upon the free spirit of fiction. Human beings are animals with very real cognitive patterns and biases that make a huge difference in how information is received. It’s not for nothing that story structure exists: they reflect how our narrative instincts are geared to receive stories.

    Second, I think of one of the most successful stories of all time, The Lord of the Rings, which has been roundly criticized for (among other things) dragging along too much at the beginning about the details and routines of the Shire, in other words delaying the plot point. Does LOTR deserve to be held up as a masterpiece of storytelling? Absolutely. Could it have been even stronger if a lot of that introductory material had been stashed away in one of Tolkien’s signature appendices? Clearly.

    Writers should think of story structure not as a rigid cage stifling our creative autonomy, but like flight engineering that enables us to travel where we otherwise could not. Sure, there’s more than one way for a vehicle to fly — we have airplanes, helicopters, blimps — but all of them work with the rules of aerodynamics. The human psyche is the atmosphere of the narrative: the better a story harmonizes (mythodynamically?) with its flight environment, the more weight it can carry and the further it can fly.

  10. @ J. Nelson — scary how aligned we are on this. It’s like you crawled into my head. I even use the flying analogy a lot here. Thanks for echoing what we both know to be true. And thanks for reading the site. L.