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.