Oops! Bit more of an interval than I intended between this post and the last – it’s been a mad couple of weeks, hopefully it’s worth the wait 🙂
Today, we’re talking structure.
What’s that I hear you cry? ‘Structure? Bleugh! Boring!’
Well, yes, structure seems like a pretty dull subject on the surface, but actually once you start applying it, it’s far more exciting than you’d expect, largely because of the effect it can have on your writing when you learn to play with it.
Before I started studying structure I’d only thought about it in a vague, abstract way. It was something I was aware of – as in I knew it existed – but had no idea about from a practical point of view. I wrestled with it repeatedly during my OU degree, with varying levels of success, and even though one blog post obviously won’t make you a black-belt in the art of structuring a narrative, a brief overview will still be useful if you’ve never considered it in detail before.
I’m assuming you’re familiar with the notion of beginning–middle–end when it comes to storytelling. It’s a common enough expression, but it’s not particularly informative if you’re trying to figure out how to apply that to your work. What makes up each part? How long should each section be? How do you know where one part ends and another begins? What happens if you get it wrong?
The first thing to say is that this isn’t a rigid set of rules. Like anything creative, rules are there to be bent frequently and with abandon, but I firmly believe that you need to be capable of wielding the tools before you decide to discard them. In other words, it should be a choice not a cop-out, and you should at least know which rules you’re bending/ breaking rather than just blundering along.
The type of structure I’m going to be talking about (which is the most common one for modern literature and drama) is called three-act structure. Once you understand it you’ll see it in everything, annoyingly! Don’t worry, the effect wears off… mostly… sort of.
So, what does it look like and how does it work?
The way I tend to begin plotting out the structure of my stories (definitely the longer ones but usually the short ones too, unless I’m feeling experimental) is to look at my plot outline (as discussed in the previous post) and decide at what point my narrative will begin and end. What am I planning to open with and how will the story conclude? Between these two points is the entirety of my narrative, so I try to choose them with care!
Once I have these I can divide all the action in between into three acts (the clue’s in the name). Each act is equally important but not equal in length. Ideally, the first and third acts should take up roughly (and I do mean roughly) a quarter of the overall text each, and the second act should take up around half.
With short fiction the first act takes up even less, probably around 10 per cent tops (sometimes just a couple of sentences will do!), and the third act is usually cut down too, although its length will vary depending on the specifics of the story.
The first act is about setting the scene: introducing the protagonist and providing relevant background. At this point you’re establishing the status quo: who is the key character (or characters), what makes them tick, and what do they do on a normal, uneventful day? That’s not to say it should be boring – don’t forget, it’s the part that will hopefully get the reader hooked – but it needs to provide enough context and characterisation for the ensuing action to flow smoothly, without the interruption of excess exposition.
This is the beginning of your protagonist’s ‘arc’ (which I’ll discuss another time), so it’s important to bear in mind that the person they are at the beginning may not be the person they are at the end. It’s good to think about this early on, since you need to set them up to be transformed by the events that unfold later on.
The point that separates the first act from the second is called the inciting incident. This is VERY important. It’s the thing that sends the protagonist off on a mission and triggers the entire rest of the plot, so you have to make it count.
Likewise, the point that separates the second and third acts is vitally important. This is the climax, where the obstacle or challenge that was presented – the inciting incident – is finally overcome.
The climax isn’t the same as the conclusion to the plot, but it’s definitely the point at which the drama is at its height: the final battle is fought and won, the protagonist wins the heart of their one true love, the family business is saved, the asteroid explodes just far enough away from Earth to avoid catastrophe. You get it.
Once you’ve figured out these four points, you have the bones of your story. Next, it’s time to get stuck into that second act and break it down a little further. We’ve all written those meandering stories that started well and had a really strong ending but seemed to get lost in the middle somewhere, and that’s why it’s essential to divide this act into smaller, more manageable sections.
Instead of viewing the second act as some barren wasteland that just happens to come between the ‘interesting bits’, you need to treat it with the respect it deserves. If you don’t pay attention to it, neither will the reader. Luckily, the second act is where things really get interesting, because this is where you get to wreak havoc with your protagonist (which we all love to do, don’t deny it!) and think up the most terrible, depraved ways of messing with their lives and pitting them against seemingly insurmountable odds – mua hahaha!! Yep, I’m talking about the dramatically named… (drum-roll)… midpoint!!! OK, it doesn’t sound very dramatic, but don’t let that fool you. It’s also called the second turning point (the first being the inciting incident), and in truth it doesn’t necessarily have to be slap-bang in the middle, but if you aim for that you can’t go too far wrong.
The midpoint is the lowest of the low for the protagonist: the worst of all possible worlds – the thing that makes them want to give up and go home, get into their pyjamas, build a pillow-fort and never leave the house again. It’s the death of their dreams, a feeling of total failure, the apparent loss of everything they hold dear as their plans fall apart around them. But it’s also the point at which they decide they’re not going to give up and go home, and instead they’re going to roll up their sleeves, dig deep, square their shoulders and kick the arse of whatever it is they’re up against. Essentially, the midpoint is the one-slap-too-many that makes them Hulk out and fight back.
See? I told you it was the fun bit.
From this point until the climax the protagonist is basically clawing their way back from rock bottom and then pushing on even further to achieve their impossible dream. This struggle is what drives the momentum of your plot from the midpoint to the climax.
Exciting stuff, right?
Now, strange as it may seem, I’m going to ask you to back up a bit and look at what’s going to happen before the midpoint. I know it seems like a backwards way to go about things, but I find that working out your midpoint first makes this part easier because it gives you something to build up towards. The effect of ‘building up towards’ something is called the rising action, and it’s about creating momentum to carry your protagonist from the inciting incident to the midpoint.
The rising action is the layering of tension – whether that’s done through fear, love, anger, sadness – so that the reader is driven to find out what happens next. It’s what creates that ‘just one more page’ feeling you get when you don’t want to put a book down, and it’s what stops you wallowing in the mire as a writer, because anything that doesn’t add to the tension at this point is probably not worth including.
The rising action can take all sorts of forms depending on the genre of your story, but generally it means developing the main theme(s) you introduced at the inciting incident and pushing towards the midpoint, where – as we know – it all goes wrong.
OK, so now you have the first act: setting the scene, inciting incident, and the second act: rising action, midpoint, struggle (which can also be thought of as the second rising action) and climax. What happens next? No points for guessing: the third act!
This is the section between the climax and the conclusion, where the protagonist discovers the nature and extent of their own transformation and begins to see the impact of their actions. It can be seen as a reflection of the first act – winding down instead of ramping up – but I think of it more like a spot-the-difference picture: it’s about noting the differences and figuring out a new status quo, which may be better than/ worse than/ completely unlike the situation the protagonist started out with in the beginning.
(It really irritates me that ‘transformation’ ran over the line but I didn’t want to waste another sheet of paper!)
It’s important for the reader (and the writer!) to get a sense of closure here: What has been achieved? What have we learned? How do we feel now that our dreams have been realised/ shattered/ completely reimagined? Was it worth it? What will happen next?
This act ends with the conclusion, which is where you tie all these threads together and try to resolve the themes and plot in a way that’s satisfying, although some writers prefer to leave the conclusion open to interpretation, or to leave the reader hanging and evoke a sense of dissatisfaction.
However you want your story to end, there should at least be a logical progression from the first act through to the second and the third: an overall arc that makes all the effort of writing and reading it make sense.
I promise you, playing with structure can be really fun if you approach it as a tool instead of an obligation. You can shift the focus of your narrative hugely depending on what takes place at each of the key points, giving more weight to one aspect or another depending on its position in relation to the other elements.
Next week I’m going to go into more depth by using the example of a plot outline from the previous post and examining the different ways that could be manipulated using structure to emphasise different elements.
If you want you could look at some of your own stories – or even pick something out by another author – and see if you can find the key points on the diagram above. How do they contribute to the pace of the narrative? What impact do they have on the themes?
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