Story Structure Series: #2 – Milestones Along the 4-Part Storytelling Road

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.



Filed under Story Structure Series, Write better (tips and techniques)

14 Responses to Story Structure Series: #2 – Milestones Along the 4-Part Storytelling Road

  1. Hey Larry,
    I can’t remember If I’ve ever read T Pynchon but here’s a funny and interesting review:

    Thomas Pynchon’s back with what appears to be his most accessible novel yet, in the unlikely category of detective fiction. Critics reviewing Inherent Vice say he pulled it off:

    Laura Miller, Salon: It’s “a sun-struck, pot-addled shaggy dog story that fuses the sulky skepticism of Raymond Chandler with the good-natured scrappiness of The Big Lebowski.” The minimal structure and the genre itself provide “ample cover for Pynchon’s literary weaknesses.”
    Andy Martin, Independent: “Sun-kissed, psychedelic, and sexually enhanced, Pynchon has re-embodied, re-grooved the soul of the ’60s.”
    Louis Menand, the New Yorker: It’s “self-consciously laid-back and funky” and “does not appear to be a Pynchonian palimpsest of semi-obscure allusions. (I could be missing something, of course. I could be missing everything.)”
    Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times: It’s Pynchon “doing Raymond Chandler through a Jim Rockford looking glass, starring Cheech Marin (or maybe Tommy Chong). What could easily be mistaken as a paean to 1960s Southern California is also a sly herald of that era’s end.”

    —John Johnson

  2. Cait Morgan

    Larry, yer bastard–leaving me dangling like an unwarranted participle from a cliff for the bleeding payoff. 😉

    Actually, I’m looking forward to your breakdown. Mine consists of the more traditional Set-Up, Inciting Incident and Point of No Return in Act I, Rising Action and Climax in Act II, then the Resolution as Act III (which, at risk of double-entendre shielding groans from the peanut gallery, works brilliantly for me in writing sex scenes).

    My problem is the Rising Action bit–it yawns before me as the longest part of my story structure, and I tend to get bogged down in the process. Your concept of milestones has me perked up considerably. If I can revise my outline format and rip out the unwanted appendix before it flares up I’ll be a much happier writer monkey.

  3. Shirls

    Ah Larry, this is good meaty stuff. It’s telling me what my shelves of writng books never did. And thanks for releasing your 101 Tips today – I’m glued to it but should be cooking dinner…Maybe my husband will settle for pizza?

  4. I am glad I waited for your “magic pill” before I started randomly writing, and re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing…

    And, thanks for giving examples (i.e., Titanic). I’ve been looking for this kind of explanation for years; what you’re saying here at StoryFix is utterly refreshing! Ahhh…thanks Larry!

    And, yeah, I’m heading over right now to pick up my copy of 101. I feel like I’m picking up my prescription of magic pills so I can avoid a trip to the Writers’ ER.

  5. I’m so glad you’re planning on giving these their very own page. They need to be read and re-read then printed off and laid beside the laptops of writers who want to get published.

  6. I’m actually really becoming a beliver of creating more structure first before you do anything…of course since I’m already in the midlle I’ll leave the experimenting with your process for my next book. I have a question though…

    I’m writing a series so my major plot will not pan out until the third book..I know that it increases the number of my “Boxes” does this change the structuring or are each of the books now the smaller boxes inside of the big box? This is bcoming a russian doll!

  7. Shirls

    That’s an interesting observation JM. I’m wondering how the authors of Big Series novels such as Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series sorted out her structure?

  8. Lauren S

    If you’ve ever heard Diana Gabaldon talk about her writing process, she says she writes random scenes as they occur to her, until she happens on one that strikes her as being either the beginning or the end. Then she arranges the others in light of that knowledge, and fills in the gaps…yikes. But it works for her, although her books don’t all follow traditional structure.

    For JM — it seems to me that successful series novels usually have their own complete story structure within the individual novel, while contributing to the whole. Think The Fellowship of the Ring — the conflict within the Fellowship is resolved in the climax, but it’s resolved by the shattering of the Fellowship, thus propelling the characters in new directions in the second book and continuing to the overall quest to defeat Sauron.

  9. Allow me to point out, Lauren, that LotR was written as ONE book, so that keeps to Larry’s boxes, but I think you are right as far as larger series are concerned, just perhaps with a different example (Dresden Files, Anita Blake, Jill Kismet series, etc).

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