Story structure is really just breaking your story down in chunks. Chunks that appear in a certain sequence, building on each other as they go.
Chunks, by the way, that have very specific purposes, missions and separate contexts. Chunks that don’t just happen, but rather, are planned and executed by their author.
Experienced, successful authors get this. New writers – especially those whose focus is only on getting down 50,000 words by the end of the month – too often miss this essential truth.
Stories that are either written as, or read as, one long chunk of narrative exposition don’t work as well as stories that have distinct phases of life. Even if the story is indeed delivering proper structure, the reader needs to perceive definite shifts and eras of the story.
Understanding those phases, and implementing them with high art, is the stuff of publishable storytelling.
Which means you can and should plan those narrative shifts.
Just like breaking a cross country trip down into four days. Like climbing a staircase that changes direction on every floor. Like a lifetime broken down in to stages of infancy, toddler, teen, young adult, prime of life, mature years, retirement, senior citizen, ward of the state… etc.
The infant has no clue what life holds. The senior citizen may or may not be in command of what it all meant. Life, and stories, evolve, grow and change as they travel their allotted pages.
To every thing there is a season. To every story there is a chunk.
Turn, turn, turn.
Instead of word count, shoot for phases of story.
In the first few days of November, try to complete two or three chapters that deliver a narrative hook. A proposition that intrigues and demands understanding. A reason for the reader to plow forward.
Your pretty words and sentences are never that reason. (Here’s why.)
In the next few days after that initial phase (the hook), complete your set-up chapters. To do this right you need to know what your First Plot Point will be. You should have 10 to 15 chapters (short is good, 500 to 1000 words each) that lead up to that moment – which, by the way, is the most important moment in your story, trumping even the ending – by introducing your hero… showing us their life in pre-PP1 context… foreshadowing the forthcoming drama and antagonist (even introducing the antagonist)… setting up a theme-intensive sub-plot (including sub-text)… and most importantly, establishing what’s at stake for the hero.
Then, at PP1, you change everything.
The hero’s quest – the thing this story is all about – really begins here. Because right here, at the First Plot Point, you throw something into the story mix that challenges, that defines and/or gets in the way of what the hero needs or wants, that threatens the hero, that puts the hero’s pre-PP1 life on hold until they can conquer this obstacle, or at least defines what they must do in the near term to continue that journey.
All that happens in one chapter. It should be at about the 20th percentile of your story. For you word counters, that’s at about 10,000 words. But here’s a reality check: 50,000 words isn’t long enough for a publishable book. If that’s your goal – which is the higher goal… to start a book that will end up being publishable one day, long after November has come and gone – then your PP1 should arrive at about 17,000 to 20,000 words into the narrative.
Give yourself 8 days to get there. This is Part 1 of your story, and these chapters are the most important of all. Because here is where you hook your reader, where you give your story dramatic resonance and thematic weight.
Once there, you embark on the second part of your story.
You now have 10 to 12 short chapters to show how your hero responds to whatever it was you’ve thrown in their way at PP1. Show us their emotional and action-based response (which may not be the same thing). Show us how their pre-PP1 self isn’t enough to conquer what must be conquered.
Bring back the antagonistic force in some way – simple and clear, smack in the middle of this Part 2 phase. If your story is about a fickle lover, give us a betrayal in the middle of Part 2. If your story is about a sinking ship, have the ship flip onto its back in the middle of Part 2.
Part 2 ends with another major twist.
It’s similar to the First Plot Point, but with a specific mission.
In the very middle of your novel, throw back the curtain that allows the hero, the reader, or both to glimpse a force that has been at work in the story all along. Perhaps it was completely hidden, perhaps misunderstood, perhaps masquerading as something other than what it is.
Example: at the mid-point reveal that an ally has actually been plotting against the hero from the opening bell. That’s a peek behind the curtain, though the force of that betrayal has been in play all along.
Now you’re ready for the third part of the hero’s journey.
You’re at about November 15th by now. Halfway there.
And, if you’re doing this right, you know exactly how the story will end. Everything you do from this point forward is a path toward that outcome, complete with more twists, complications and set-backs.
In the third part, put your hero to work on the problem. The hero has been reacting in your Part 2 scenes (running, complaining, searching, flailing, resorting to old tapes, etc.), you now, in Part 2, will have them on the attack. Plotting and planning.
In part two they were submissive to the weight of the problem. They were victimized by it. Threatened and frightened by it. In Part 3, they take control and mount a proactive attack on whatever stands in their way.
An important thing happens here in Part 3.
Your hero entered the story with flaws, shortcomings and weaknesses. Here in the third quartile – the next 10 to 12 scenes after the Mid-point behind-the-curtain context shift – the hero realizes that their old self isn’t getting it done.
That they need to change, to be different, to grow. This is called character arc, and Part 3 is when it really kicks in.
As they set about their forceful attack on the obstacles to reaching their goal in the story – it’s critical that you can succinctly summarize what that goal is, by the way – show the hero overcoming that which has, before now, been holding her or him back.
The fourth chunk is when the chase scene starts.
It’s about November 22nd now. You have 8 to 10 more scenes to write.
To begin this fourth part, which is all about driving the story toward its intended outcome, you need one final twist. A new piece of information that either empowers the hero’s conquering push toward the finish line, or changes the game in a way that challenges the hero to be better, even more heroic than they knew they could be.
These scenes won’t exactly write themselves, but if you’ve written your story with structural discipline, by the time you get here you’ll know precisely what needs to happen in the story. There are machinations to launch, character arc to pay off, reader satisfaction to deliver.
Four parts, four phases, four different missions for those blocks of scenes: set-up… response… attack… resolution.
Four chunks of storytelling awaiting you.
Cardinal rule: your hero must be the primary element or catalyst that brings about the story’s climax. The hero must be heroic. The hero must demonstrate courage and resourcefulness, rather than perfection.
Give the reader a vicarious ride as you go. By placing the hero jeopardy and then by allowing the hero to conquer, you will have delivered the full range of story-experience to your reader.
Make this journey – your journey as the writer – one that comprises of four phases, or chunks of story, each separated by milestones.
Write toward the next milestone, rather than the finish line (your story’s ending).
Each scene is a step.
Each flight of steps is a landing that changes the direction of the ascent. You are climbing a four story mountain, and to get to the top with something you can take forward into your writing life, these structural principles are essential.
They will also keep you sane and confident. Nobody travels cross country without stopping. To get there in 30 days, embark on a journey comprised of four narrative chunks of seven days each.
It’s a mindset. Wrap your head around four chunks of 12,500 words each (you can add the requisite detail and length later if you want to make your manuscript publishable), rather than the cross-country marathon of 50,000 words, which seems like a much taller mountain.
Find more story structure details here.
Learn more about writing great characters here.
Find out how to sell your NaNoWriMo novel here.
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