Storyfix is proud to bring you a 10-part tutorial on the fundamentals of story structure.
Today’s post is #2 in that series.
#2 — Milestones Along the 4-Part Storytelling Road
My approach to story structure is a little like learning about surgery. Which, by the way, I know little about other than it’s a killer analogy. Besides yanking — and I do mean that literally — a few spectacularly gross veins out of my left leg, I’ve thus far managed to steer clear of the O.R.
Yesterday we took on the four major parts of a story – that’s like learning about anesthesia, scalpels, catheters and cardiac monitors. Now its time to cut into the patient and muck around a bit, see what makes the machine tick. Because…
… it’s what’s inside story structure that counts.
Each of the four parts of your story has specific elements – milestones – within and between their allotted pages. Each of the transitions between the four parts is a major story milestone, establishing context for the part that follows it.
But there are others. Five others, in fact.
Like the four story parts themselves, each milestone has a specific mission and function, and they are non-negotiable if your goal is to write a story that adheres to the expectations of standard story structure.
Like I said yesterday, mess with them at your own peril. Because agents and editors don’t.
Milestones are points in your story where new information enters the narrative and changes the direction, tension and stakes. A plot twist is often a milestone, but not always – it’s not a milestone, per se, if it doesn’t occur at a specific place in the structural sequence.
Which is perfectly fine, by the way. You can pepper your story with plot twists to your heart’s content. But you must account for the major story milestones – the ones you are about to learn here in this series – no matter how subtle they may appear to be.
Many writers understand plot twists. But too few know where to put them, and why.
The nature and purpose of milestone scenes.
Milestones can be easy to miss from the reader’s perspective. They can be nothing more than a whisper, a glimpse of shadow, a seemingly innocent reference, a fleeting glimpse of a weapon, a peek behind the curtain.
Or, they can be huge, like a ship hitting an iceberg. Which, by the way, was the First Plot Point – the most significant milestone in any story – in a little movie called Titanic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We’re still solidly in introductory mode.
Milestone scenes are critical, not only because they are the tent poles that support the weight of your story, they are also the lynchpins for most of the other scenes in your novel or screenplay. Without them you have no plot.
Without them, your story has no chance.
For every major milestone scene there are often several scenes leading up to it and several that spring forth from it. And that, dear writers, is what answers the question: what do I write, and where do I put it? The milestones tell you.
A reasonable length for a story is about 60 scenes (give or take depending on length), some of which are strung together as sequences. So in principle at least, the creation of the five major milestone scenes in Parts 2 and 3 alone accounts for half or more of the entirety of your story.
When you throw in the Part 1 set-up and the Part 4 resolution, which are by definition completely in context to the major milestone scenes, your story is 80 percent or more directly connected to and dependent upon these milestones.
The milestones are the story.
Here’s the magic pill of sequencing your story: if you know the general conceptual direction of your story, and if you then focus on determining what those five major Part 2 and Part 3 milestone scenes are, in addition to how to open your story and how to close it — all of this, by the way, can be determined before you’ve written a word – then you’ve evolved your story to a solid and structurally sound place, before you even start writing it.
I imagine some organic writers are throwing staplers at their screen right about now. But here’s the deal with an organic process – you will square off with the need to come up with these major milestone scenes as you write your drafts. No way around it.
And, you will need to decide how to open and conclude your story. You’re not done drafting until you do. If you use your drafts as exploratory vehicles for that purpose – a process some organic writers claim is the only way they can discover their stories – then you condemn them to a major rewrite. Because every milestone requires a set-up, and many require foreshadowing.
Outline or no outline, the creation and crafting of your story’s milestones is the most important element of the storytelling process.
I’m not necessarily advocating pre-draft outlining here. It’s not for everybody. What I am advocating is story architecture, the foundation of which is story structure built around a handful of key milestone scenes. The more you know about those scenes and how to connect them with bridging narrative – at whatever point you know it – the closer you’ll be to writing a submittable first draft.
When you know about them is completely up to you.
Here are the story milestones you’ll need to conceive, construct and execute in your story, no matter how you go about it:
• the opening of your story.
• a hooking moment in the first 20 pages (1o pages for a screenplay).
• the first Plot Point, at approximately the 20th to 25th percentile mark.
• the first Pinch Point (don’t worry, I’ll define it later) at about the 3/8ths mark.
• a context-shifting Mid-Point.
• a second Pinch Point, at about the 5/8ths mark.
• the second plot point, at about the 75th percentile mark.
• the final resolution scene, or scenes.
If you allow for four (or more) scenes that surround these milestone moments, that’s at least 40 scenes. Or about two thirds of your entire story.
None of these critical scenes exist in a vacuum. You will, at any given moment in the process be writing toward them and/or from them, setting them up and then being propelled forward because of them.
Everything else in your story is just connective tissue. People talking to each other, mulling over options, stopping to rest, making love, analyzing, licking their wounds, studying maps, calling for help, searching for answers.
Once you know your milestones, those scenes practically write themselves.
Tomorrow’s post: #3 – the set-up that comprises Part 1 of your story.