Story Structure: What “going with the flow” Really Means

From Plot Points to narrative quartiles.  This truth will set you free.

Anyone who tells you to ignore the principles of story structure is: a) confusing process with outcome; b) telling you to “do it like I do it, because I am a genius,” and c) making the entire storytelling proposition orders of magnitude more difficult, and possibly setting your career back years or even decades.

Let me be clear here: I am NOT telling you to “do it like I do it.”  I am telling you to do it in a way that will get you to the finish line more effectively, more blissfully, and with something in your hands that has a shot.

Because this IS how successful stories are built.  No matter what your process.

They mean well, but they’ve got it wrong.

Not all of it.  They’ll talk about all the contexts and narrative forces that do indeed make a story work.  But they aren’t giving you a path to clarity if that is what they advise.

Hey, I say opt for any process you want.  Whatever works for you.  But be clear: the goal of process is to lead you to what works.  And unless you know that… know it like a surgeon knows how to fix a crashing patient… know it like an accountant recognizes something that will get you audited… know it like a parent who won’t allow their children to make up their own boundaries… christening yourself the arbiter of how a story works in a commercial sense is, well, a recipe for failure.

If you do know all this stuff… hey, open that hatch and let it all dump out onto the page any way you choose.  Because you are a genius.

For the rest us… there is story structure.  And it will never fail you.

Organic storytelling — pantsing — is certainly a viable way to find your story, and to get it into play in a story development sense. But be clear, that’s all it is. If you stamp “Final Draft” onto a manuscript that hasn’t, in fact, landed on the optimal structure for the story you are telling, then you are putting your dream in jeopardy.

Unless you are a seasoned professional who is solidly grounded in the structural arts, or at least you’re a natural freak of nature genius — are you either of those? — this “just get it onto the page” phase will only be the beginning of your structural journey.

Because the story won’t work (key subtlety, right now…) as well as it could UNTIL it begins to align with a certain basic flow.  Which is not something you get to make up.

Rather, it’s out there waiting for you to find it.

Those who understand this flow — it is generic, by the way, it’s not something you reinvent every time you tell a story; rather, it’s something you fit your story into — can come very close to structural integrity in their first draft.  Which means their subsequent drafts are about optimization, rather than scrambling out of chaos.

This story model is out there, ready to reveal itself to you, in pretty much every published book or commercial film.  Once you understand it you’ll see it in play, which will serve to confirm that, finally, you have something to write in context to, rather than the random genius of your inner storyteller.

This structural flow is simple and intuitive.

If you don’t like boxes and principles and anything that tries to tell you what to do — which is about half of you out there – take comfort in knowing that this works as a natural phenomenon.  Like gravity, it doesn’t care what you call it.

It just is.

In my last post I talked about the three major plot twists in the structural paradigm — changes to your story — that will make it soar.  The flow being discussed here is the narrative scenes that connects those three story moments.

Your story should unfold — in other words, this is the sequence of your story, in a generic/modeled context — in four phases.

It goes like this:

You SETUP your core story… you launch and then show your hero RESPONDING to (wandering around in) this new situation or quest or mission… then you show your hero mounting a PROACTIVE ATTACK on the problem, or assault on the mountain of opportunity… and then you create a path toward a final confrontation and RESOLUTION.

One flow.  Four parts.  Separated by those three major plot twists, where you insert the catalytic narrative information — a moment, really — required to move (shift) the context from one part to the next.

This IS classic three-part story structure, by the way, recast in more accessible terms.  Because the “Act II” of that model is always taught in two parts, each with a different context, so it’s all actually four parts after all.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have as many parts as you want in your novel.  Have twelve “parts” if you want.  It’s semantics in that context. What’s not semantics, though, is this: the CONTEXT of your story sequence, it’s flow, is these four parts: setup… response… attack… resolution.

Each scene within each of these four parts should be written in context to this higher contextual target: setup… response… attack… resolution.

Each of these four parts needs substance.  Each has its own set of part-specific missions and goals, which is available grist if you’re up for it (all of which is discussed on this site, and in my writing books).  At the very least, though, start with shooting for equal length for each of the four parts in this sequence, then adjust from there.

Here’s what happens if you don’t understand this. 

You may – because you’re heard your story should open BIG – decide to show the whole core story, fully formed, very early.  On page 1, even.  If you do this, you’ve just confused a “hook” with the “first plot point,” and you’ve just taken all the wind out of your opportunity to setup the story properaly.

If you introduce your whole-cloth core story early, as a hook, you are not optimizing the inherent power of story structure.  Someone down the road will give you feedback that will sound like this: I just couldn’t get into it… I didn’t really care about your hero… it was too confusing… the stakes were too thin — and all of it will be the direct result of this particular story choice on your part.

This is what happens when  you let it dump out of your head without understanding these principles.  Fine as a starting point, as a process, as a first swing at it… toxic as a final draft.

Now you know. 

The complex, the formulaic, has been rendered simple and clear.  If you doubt it, test it.  Read a novel, see a movie.  It’ll be there.  Your non-writer friends won’t see it, and they won’t care about it.

But you need to.  Go find it.  In modern commercial storytelling, it’ll reveal itself nearly every time.

It’ll even be there in the work of the very same writing gurus who tell you to just ignore it and let it spill out of you any way it wants to.   Which is an interesting thing to observe.  What they were talking about was process all along… leading to this outcome.

Begin the journey of wrapping your head around it.  Your stories will immediately — from day one, even from just reading this post and letting it sink in – be better for it.

 

9 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

9 Responses to Story Structure: What “going with the flow” Really Means

  1. Kerry Boytzun

    I decided to research how academia approached teaching basic writing skills. Academia stresses to write with a purpose and a context, and to know the difference. This wasn’t in regards to a novel but an essay. Yet we can learn from the essay.

    Funny but the essay has a structure, similar to three acts:
    Argument: you write to convince a specific audience of your standpoint–present and defend your argument well.

    Analysis and Exposition: the ability to break a subject down into its component parts.

    Conclusions and Recommendations: today’s so called “take-away”.

    The above is an essay. It’s the Cliff Notes of a story, no? Academia does NOT want you to approach your writing with your head in the clouds willing to blast out any grouping of sentences that may feel important to you, but nobody else can follow what you’re trying to say–because you don’t know what you’re trying to say.

    Consider the genre, Romance is a large context–love. A simple romance: boy meets girl. What is your essay’s argument going to be, success for failure at the end? Your exposition must show if they build a strong enough fire to make them want to work out their differences to stay the long term, or do they fail and go their separate ways?

    An essay is to state an argument, break it down to show the steps in the process that work–and fail, and finally you write your recommendation. It’s Math, it’s natural, it’s the human mind presented with a scenario (problem) and tries to understand it through experience. Sucess is in the understanding, regardless of whether or not Romeo lived happily ever after with Cinderella.

    Successful essay writers keep the CONTEXTS of what they are writing about AS they develop their essay. Not all development steps are writing sentences, but involve the imagination and perhaps charting out ideas. But there IS a framework to keep it together, because at the end of the essay, the author is trying to prove a point. Either why Romeo and Cinderella should be together–or should not.

    This is the “flow”–the Contextual framework you are forming your imagination into becoming Acts of a story, and ultimately the scenes that thread it together. Like Larry says, it doesn’t matter so much what process you use to develop this form of “contextual vision”, but without it–your story or essay will sound like something that lost its way.

    It’s the same process the lawyers use to duke it out in court. A friend of mine told me that his lawyer said that the courtroom was theater–the most convincing story won the juror. Forget the law. The lawyers create a story–the initial criminal act, then the evidence that showed who did it and who couldn’t have done it, and finally the motive to prove the argument that the person is innocent or guilty. The jury is convinced (or not) due to the degree the lawyer’s tale adds up. Again, it’s Math. This is also done in Sales.

    At the root of all this is the ability to understand and see Context in life, whether it’s your actual experience, or someone else’s, fictional or not.

    Context: the situation that surrounds any event. A man has a knife in his hand. Is he a trained assassin or a chef? Is he drunk or alert? What is the purpose of the situation–the scene as it will be perceived? In real life, life sets the scene, but in Story, the author sets the scene. If you can’t write with Context in mind, with all of the above Vision–your writing, your story will suffer. Today’s topic, narrative scenes, requires that you can understand context–and write with it.

    What most beginning writers don’t get is that studying Story Structure & Physics via Larry and the rest, will develop multiple layers of writing Vision–into your unconscious–that will positively affect your scene development AS you write. This strategy of training your unconscious is exactly what goes into sports, so that your response while IN the game, has been molded by your training. Saying it again, your imagination can be molded to align with story structure so that your development and writing phases go easier, and the end result becomes spectacular. The difference between the Olympic athlete–and the person who blew off the training–and just went with the flow.

    Not studying this is akin to learning to play golf without any guidance on how to grip the clubs or swing. You will suck on average, and will never make it to the pros. Because your physics will be off–way off. Am I bashing this point in? I hope so.

    Academia Universities are also teaching “Rhetorical Context”: “intending to transmit meaning” into the (context) situation that surrounds an event. You are instructed to know what you are writing about, why, and for what purpose–BEFORE you write something.

    Call this Intentional writing. This isn’t something that comes overnight, but who cares? The fun of writing is where it takes you, and that includes the research of writing structure, prose, and thus apply it to your imagination. Otherwise it’s just another day at the job where you are banging out another email.

  2. Breaking it down like this, explaining it a such a high level, is great for learning it, and it also makes it easier for me to share it with others because they can get a great overview in 5 minutes.

    Great stuff once again, Larry.

  3. Bob Bois

    Hi Larry,
    I’m a firm believer in the power of structure in storytelling.
    I have a question, though:
    My current story is well-structured (I think!). I have nailed down the chronology of events with the plot and pinch points falling into their proper quartiles. However, I keep feeling the urge to write the story out of sequence.
    Is it possible to narrate a properly-structured tale out of sequence and still retain its punch?
    It seems to me that – if properly executed – one could actually increase the impact of a story by relating the events out of order.
    So, I guess the real question is: can this be done as long as the core story contains all the requisite milestones?
    Thanks for any input you might have here.

  4. Jason Waskiewicz

    This design is working well for me, and maybe my new workflow will help someone.

    I began my novel by brainstorming. I wrote down all kinds of random ideas, a lot of which never made it into the novel. Then, I went through and fleshed out the good ideas into characters, plot, setting, and so on. After this, I came up with the 3 plot twists and was able to divide my plot ideas up into the 4 sections described in today’s article.

    The creation of the novel may have taken the same amount of time, but the actual writing took a lot less time. I didn’t struggle from writer’s block because I had the story right there on the outline. I’m now on my third draft. It turns out I use too many words and, even with the outline, need to cut some scenes. But, it’s a huge difference from how I used to write: pen in hand as the muse struck me.

    What I am struggling with is the setup in the beginning. I’m using it to introduce the major characters, and the villain makes his appearance at the first plot point (though he’s spoken of quite a lot prior to that). But, it feels a lot like I’m wasting time, even though I end up using the characters, places, and history that is set up. Again: the outline was vital for knowing what to set up and what not to set up.

    But I need some ideas on how to hold the reader’s interest during the setup. It’s not a high action story, though there is action. But, it’s a lot of meeting people, places, and learning that Ian can be a man of action in his way. He takes action, even though it’s nothing like what he will do: mostly just helping a friend improve his shipping. What it does do it provide the seed for the first plot point.

  5. MikeR

    Another point that I think needs stressing is this: that “the story” is not going to “just flow right out of your head and onto the page,” au fait accompli. This is pure-and-simple NOT how the process of creating “anything” EVER works.

    Creativity has been called “90% perspiration,” and there’s a very good reason for that. When you crack open a book, the pages are full of words, and (unless your name is Jasper Fforde …) those words probably won’t move. But, when the author in question started on the project, s/he was looking at a page that was blank. S/he =chose= everything that wound up on the pages that you cracked.

    The pages that you read, in the book that you cracked, were probably meant to be read sequentially. But they might not have been written that way, and they didn’t have to be. The scene that kept your bedroom light on late into the night (or that made you afraid to turn it OFF …) might have been the first, inspiration-fueled VERSION of that scene, or it might have been the perspiration-driven fifth or fifth-driven fifteenth. You’ll never see; you’ll never know.

    I guess that what I’m really saying is: “go easy on yourself.” Don’t EXPECT your thought processes to be strictly-linear; don’t EXPECT Venus to pop out of that clamshell fully-formed. Don’t expect the first thing that you write to be “final,” and don’t throw it away because it isn’t. Even though you might despair that you are fumbling in the dark … “go easy on yourself.” Did you seriously expect to be anywhere but “in the dark?” Did you seriously expect not to be “fumbling?” Being “in the dark” merely means that you’re free to put the lights anywhere you please, and to rearrange them at your pleasure. To be “fumbling” merely means that you’re gathering possibilities. Gather them all.

    When @Larry describes “story structure” and so-forth, it’s a description of what your final-product needs to be if you expect to be able to sell it … but it’s not a recipe. There is no recipe. As long as you creatively satisfy my expectations as a Gentle Reader (which unspoken expectations I fully expect you to know, even if I don’t …), I don’t WANT there to be “a recipe.” I want to be pleasantly surprised. I want to be afraid to turn my bedside light off.

  6. Jason–like you, I used to wonder, “What the heck should my characters be doing in that first one-fourth of the book?” Here are some tips that I gleaned them from various readings (didn’t make them up):

    Of course, you want to introduce your characters, but how? You can show them in their world, but it’s boring if they’re just meandering around, doing unrelated things. In that first quartile, you want a “Hook/Inciting Incident(s) (There can be more than one.) What should the hook be about? It starts to reveal what the Story-Worthy Problem is (although your character won’t know it yet). Just ask yourself: “What can I do to create a scene that will introduce my character’s real Story-Worthy Problem?” Every story begins with this premise: “Things started to go wrong when …” It’s an event that upsets the character and pushes his situation by creating the first Surface Problem (something specific that can be photographed). At this point, the character thinks this initial Surface Problem is his real problem, but it isn’t. It relates to that problem, but he doesn’t yet realize the full nature of his Story-Worthy Problem.

    Show the character’s reaction to the Hook. Pick a telling detail to show this reaction. It reveals and defines the single most important facet of his personality, creating a strong first impression.

    The character keeps learning new information during Part I. Then, at Plot Point I, he actually engages and forms a goal–crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his world. This propels him into the larger story, forcing him to actually engage in the real Story-Worthy Problem. The scene is strong enough that he cannot resist going into the battle.

    Hope this helps give you some ideas of things to work with in Part I.

  7. Robert Jones

    I’ve probably posed this question before: Does art imitate life, or life imitate art? It’s an old question that’s become a cliché by modern standards. Only those who have practiced any of the arts over time have begun to fathom the answer. It’s a riddle engraved on a double edged sword because life is art and art is life.

    How does this relate to story structure?

    In terms of story structure, I won’t bother reiterating what Larry did so well above. I’ll simply list the four parts as they are labeled. 1) Set-up, 2) Response, 3) Attack, and 4) Resolution.

    Keeping those four things in mind, what happens in life when a problem of some magnitude arises? Our first instinct is to (respond). In other words, we react to the sudden impact the problem represents in our life. People hate change. So we are quick to become emotional, hurt, angry, even confused. We might tell our friends, search for a quick fix to make the problem go away. It usually isn’t until we exhaust our initial emotional outburst that we begin to formulate a plan of (attack). The attack is usually a discovery phase where we test our knowledge, research, learn, and often fail in our first attempts as we keep throwing each dart we discover along the way at the problem. But if we are persistent, and learn from our experiences, we grow in our understanding and confidence. Which brings us to the moment where we turn are able to turn the tables and march toward a satisfactory (resolution). Even if the resolution is cutting our losses, or making peace with the fact that we are going to become a martyr for whatever we believe is right.

    You’ve probably read–or heard–Larry say that story structure is not a formula. It’s not. Story structure imitates a process everyone on the planet is (or will be) familiar with during the course of their lifetime. It is psychological, a subconscious, survival instinct that has been around since the dawn of man. This is why it works. And why Larry’s approach to structure as a science is spot on.

    Even a non-writer understands this, is vicariously planning what they would do in the hero’s place when the FPP arrives. They are learning and hurting with each initial failure when the hero attacks, relating to the character as they discover their inner strengths and hoping for resolution. The instinctive bells that toll our strategy for survival is what engages the reader at their own emotional core.

    A novel or movie that doesn’t utilize these steps becomes a string of circumstances that only touches on some of these emotions and can therefore come across as unsatisfactory. I remember reading a novel some years ago by V.S. Naipaul. I can’t recall the title offhand. It was a slice of life literary novel. If I’m not mistaken, the hero came to America to study. There were a string of circumstances, then the character left those people and circumstances and the book ended on the note of the hero simply leaving and not seeing any more. This can certainly happen in life. But without resolution, I wasn’t quite sure if I had to just feel the same disappointment of not knowing the hero may have felt, or sit back and draw some philosophical conclusions about life from the moments he was privileged to see. It felt incomplete. Writers often cut wedges out of life. But no matter how pretty the prose are, if that wedge is taken out of order readers will feel something is off, that the story doesn’t make sense on some instinctive level of logic. Because it isn’t a story. It’s a string of scenes from life that stops dead and leaves the reader cold.

    Therefore @ Bob Bois–What you are proposing could be very dangerous, if you don’t have a firm grasp on structure. It is very possible to skip around and show flash backs and flash forwards and tell a story in the random way you describe. But you have to make sure that every scene fits within the criteria of each story quarter. A flash forward showing an attack while in the second quarter response mode will seem out of place. If the attack were presented as a response to something else that happens in the past or future, then it might work. I won’t say you haven’t stumbled onto something that could make your story work in an interesting way. But I’ve also seen a lot of hodgepodge movies that send the audience on a herky-jerky ride that is meant to be very exciting and just comes across as confusing, or taxing, for the audience.

    Most people take in thoughts one at a time and sequentially. Flash backs were actually considered dangerous at one point in novels because if the audience knows a FB is coming at them, the present story stops for them. FBs have to be segued into smoothly, be “shown” in the same filmable tense as the rest of the story, and always be relevant to the story in the present. They must be important and interesting to the reader as well as the overall story. Essentially, your telling two stories, one past and the other present, that must intersect and support one another.

    Now, if you’re planning to mix a third and incorporate future events before they’ve happened as well, you also need a good crafty reason for doing it and make sure the reader understands this and doesn’t sit around wondering how the hero got from one point to another. Even the TV series “Lost” didn’t show past, present, and future flashes within the same season. But a lot of folks still got lost trying to keep up.

    Whatever you do, make sure it’s not only clear to you, but clear on the page to a fairly wide range of intellects who will hopefully make up your future readers.

  8. Xythius Lupo Argentoleone

    While I do not think I fit in with your normal commenters. Obviously very intellectual thinkers and what nots. I just wanted to say thankyou for the awesome information you put out here. I have never written a book other than a couple first pages here and there out of wannabeing with my newb self I am however a decent dungeon master for my Dungeons and Dragons group. While my players have enjoyed the stories ive come up with immensely I have always felt they were missing some oomph. I think you have given me that missing oomph for what is Dungeon Mastering if not storytelling?

  9. Robert Jones

    @Xythius,

    That’s interesting. I for one hope you’ll check back in and let us know how story structure plays out for you in that forum. And what the other players think once you begin implementing it. My feeling is that if you guide them through the plot points in your story, it should be more emotionally intense. I haven’t played those sort of games since college. But I remember it was pretty tough sometimes leading people to planned points in a story. They meandered a lot. The outcome of each player could be really uncanny in terms of the kinds of decisions they made in real life. The fates of some people should’ve been more educational for them personally…LOL!