The Mystery and the Romance of Structure

One of the most frequently asked and therefore legit questions on this venue concerns the applicability of the principles of story structure to genre fiction, especially mysteries and romances.

If you’re writing a screenplay, the answer is simple: nothing is different among the genres.  You have three acts to work with (equivalent to the novelist’s four-part model) and three major milestones to work with.  Same as it ever was. 

For novelists the answer is much the same, but where mysteries and romances are concerned it certainly bears closer scrutiny.  Or at least explanation.

Why?  Because those two genres, among all others in the storytelling universe, are overtly and proudly formulaic.  Much more so than thrillers, horror, westerns, historicals, science fiction, fantasy and adult contemporary.

If I’ve omitted your genre of choice, forgive me. 

And if your book doesn’t fit into one of these categories, good for you – welcome to the world of adult contemporary fiction, which is a story that arises from life as we know it, and Young Adult (YA), which isn’t really a genre at all (it’s a niche), because all of the above named genres can be written from within this category.

Young folks with hair sprouting in strange places enjoy mysteries and romances, too.  In fact, it’s the hottest market niche in the game.

In mysteries the plot points are simply major clues.

While some writers don’t like to cop to the formulaic nature of mysteries and romances – indeed, the underlying concepts and characters in those genres can be as fresh and original as you like – the irony is that readers love it. 

Predictability is precisely why they read these books, and if you mess with their expectations by violating the genre-specific contexts that make them mysteries and romances in the first place…

… well, that’s like trying to play golf with a hockey puck.  Some things just can’t be messed with.  Even if you hit it straight, the puck won’t fit into the hole, anyhow.

In fact, these genres are so predictable in their structure that you can actually genericize the major story milestones.  For example…

In Mysteries….

The hook is when the “detective” (or however you label your investigative hero) and the “case” collide.  The hero is suddenly on the case, chasing down the truth, by whatever means you concoct.

This moment may or may not be the First Plot Point.

If it isn’t – if it’s a true hook occurring during the first 10 percent of the story – then the FPP is when new information hits the page that suddenly rockets the story in a new and unexpected direction.  When it defines the nature of the hero’s quest and gives us a major look at what’s in the way of getting there.

The FPP is the first major clue, or an unexpected twist.

The Mid-Point is when the curtain parts.  Which is also, by the way, yet another clue.  The seemingly innocent are suddenly suspicious.  The loyal become traitorous.  What appeared to be X is now actually Y.

The Second Plot Point is the final clue, the missing piece of the puzzle that propels the hero toward the conclusion, which is almost always the identification and arrest (or death) of the guilty party.

In Romances…

The FPP is when sexual chemistry ensues.  Everything that happens before that moment (the Part 1 set-up) is simply there to make it reasonable, believable and, because there are stakes on the table, vicariously emotional.

The involved parties have already been introduced in Part 1, they may even have met (or not), but at the FPP the heroine knows in her heart that this is the guy for her.  Even if she can’t quite admit it yet.

The Mid-Point is when she finds something out about the guy that complicates things.  Like, he’s married.  Or, he’s a Russian spy.  Or, he’s really dead and is here on a pass from the Great Beyond.

The Second Plot Point is when the heroine learns something new about the guy or the circumstances and, as a result, casts all caution to the wind and gets into the chase with a full commitment.

Identifying Plot Points vs. Understanding Them

The nature of the three major story milestones can always be defined in terms of where they appear and what they impart to the story. This is true of any genre.

It’s the where that becomes the liberating, useful tool for storytellers. 

Having twists and clues and obstacles isn’t rocket science, almost every writer has these in mind before or soon after they begin telling their story.  But the great mistake – indeed, the most common mistake among rejected manuscripts – occurs when those things are unveiled in the wrong place and for the wrong reasons.

Just like you can’t use a putter off the tee and expect to shoot great golf.  Despite knowing beforehand that a putter is indeed part of the game.

Understanding the game is everything.  You can’t succeed at it until you do. 

The trick isn’t deciding what your plot points should be, it’s understanding what they need to do to the story, and why.  Which includes where.  Once you own that understanding, the what becomes orders of magnitude more accessible. 

Because your idea either fits the criteria, or it doesn’t.

Too many writers don’t understand the criteria for the major story milestones.  Understanding them, and then executing the plot exposition that makes it happen, is the key to getting published.

That, and a killer idea behind it all.

The principles of story structure tell us that there is a time and a place – and even more importantly, a purposeful mission – for the basic elements that create pace, dramatic tension, character arc, vicarious empathy and, at the end of the reading day, a rewarding reading experience.

Using these principles can make it a rewarding writing experience, as well.

Lelani… this one’s for you.  Thanks for the idea.

Check out my ebook, Story Structure Demystified, for more on understanding and implementing the principles of effective storytelling.

15 Comments

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15 Responses to The Mystery and the Romance of Structure

  1. I sighed with relief when I read the FPP, MP and SPP for a mystery, since that is what I am writing, and my construction matches your definitions perfectly.

    It’s good to get that reinforcing message.

    Thanks,

    Tony

  2. Curtis

    I’ve enjoyed retro-fitting your ideas. This time it was Jimmy Stewart, The Mortal Storm 1940. Tick it off. FPP, MP and SPP. Even though this was, let’s call it a propogand romance, set in the German Alps after the Nazis came to power, all points were there and right on time.

  3. Hi Larry,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while. I’m still learning the lingo and the topics so it’s quite confusing at times, but I enjoy it a lot.

    I’m not a writer myself, neither want to be. But I like movies and your insights on the workings of storytelling help me a lot analyzing movie plots.

    Just wanted to let you know, your work is appreciated.

  4. @Larry, I concur with Will regarding how well your Story Structure book enhances the movie viewing experience.

    Now when I watch movies, I see the milestones as if I was wearing magic glasses allowing me to see that which was previously invisible. It’s quite an amazing gift.

  5. Lelani

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks a lot for the info. Thinking back on the novel now, I think I can place the FPP, MP and SPP. I’ll reread it again to make sure that I pick them up.

  6. Gary

    Larry: Great post! If you are trying to write say a mystery romance, or romantic suspense novel, how do you set up the plot points? For example, would you have the romantic story line FPP occur and then in the next scene or about the same point have the mystery FPP as separate entities, as if writing two different stories side by side? Basically, I’m not sure how you should structure cross-genre romances.

    Thanks.

  7. Lelani

    @ Gary
    That’s a good question! That book I had in mind when asking Larry about the structure is actually a Mystery Romance – and the main female character meets the hero when the murder takes place. I guess that is the hook and FPP….

  8. @Gary & @Lelani & @Larry
    I have the same questions. What would it be if you have a main plot and a sub plot?
    Is it safe to assume that if romance is the main plot, and mystery/suspense is the sub-plot, then you should follow this structure for the main plot…? Right?

  9. Patrick Sullivan

    @Dayner: every plot of any real significance should have an inciting incident, a first plot point, a midpoint, and a second plot point. And really the pinch points as well. All arcs that last through any significant portion of the story need to build up and have reversals to work. Plus try-fail cycles.

    I’ve been plotting my next NaNo novel and I’m trying something… extreme, though I may trim back before Nov 1. There are 3 major and 7 minor plots (across the 3 main characters and 2 minor characters) as an… overboard example of this.

    Remember, one of the big powers of great storytelling is luring the reader in, making them care, and throwing in a few sucker punches along the way. That’s where the 3 act format/story structure of the style excels. It follows standard formats of what affects people and pushes them through the highs and lows of emotion.

  10. Wow! Great info. Thanks so much for this! When I started trying to write a book 4 years ago, it never occured to me that there was anything more than thinking up a story and putting it down on paper, but since then I’ve learned that writing is soooo much more than that and your blog will help me learn even more 🙂

  11. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    Question.
    You say in romances, the FPP is when sexual chemistry ensues.
    I don’t see it that way. Example:
    In “Titanic,” sexual chemistry is under way far in advance of the ship starting to sink (FPP). They’ve met, they have chemistry, they have sex, she knows he’s the guy for her and has no intention of returning to her fiance– she’s invested in Jack (Leo) when said sinking begins.
    I’m not sure I can identify a clear midpoint. Bad guy seems to be in view already– the fiance, and maybe the mother. ?Lifeboat scenes maybe (man against environment)?
    I would say the SPP is Jack putting her on the flotsam and staying in the water, knowing he’ll freeze to death.
    I also find that romance writers who become big often become labeled as “fiction” writers, or “suspense” writers, or _____ writers, no longer as “romance” writers, even though the plots of their books remain the same in format, and always still have romance in there.
    Mystery may fill the bill with respect to FPP. I read “suspense” novels, as I’d consider Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie to typify “mystery.”
    Thanks for clearing up the “mystery” of “Titanic!” 😉
    Regards, Kelly

  12. Sammi

    I ended up analyzing Titanic as two separate stories–the first one revolving around whether or not Jack and Rose would fall in love, and the second one revolving around whether or not they’d survive the ship sinking.

  13. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for the junior writer (inexperienced, freshman, beginner, call it what you want) the single, spectacularly beautiful end result of building the story structure first (with as much detail as possible) is how easily the words flow once you’ve done this.

    In the last 48 hours I’ve written 10k words, and would be able to write more if I ignored family obligations.

    Or maybe not. If I ignored them, I’d probably be dead by now.

    First draft of my book will be finished six weeks from the start, while holding down a very busy full time job and and trying to maintain a relatively normal family life with a wife and two kids. Two weeks of solid plotting at the outset is the only way I could do this.

    Thank you Larry. A year ago I was a complete idiot when it came to story structure. A year from now I expect I’ll know even more than I do now. And, hopefully, will be talking about the publication date of my first novel.

  14. @Tony – amen, brother.

  15. Thanks, Larry! This was fantastic. I just realized that I’m definitely a genre (as opposed to literary) writer, abandoned the current project and am switching gears. I’d love to see some more genre-related posts.