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…
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.
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.