Monday, October 4, 2010

Story Structure: preparing for Nano Part 2

Preparing for Nanowrimo? Here's a review on story structure. 

The Basic Three Act Structure (condensed from Elements of the Novel)
Separated by Plot Points, its Act 1 (Beginning), Act 2 (Middle), and Act 3 (End) refer not to where in time in the story they lie but instead fundamental stages along the way.

In the Beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in and their goal. Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their "normal" life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about.  (This is also known as the inciting incident)

In the Middle the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises are temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. The resolution of the Climax is Plot Point 2.

In the End, the Climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it's nearly impossible to sustain a reader's interest very long after the climax. Finish your story and get out.

Character Arc and Story Structure
Act 1
In the Beginning of a story the main character will resist change (inner conflict). The character is perfectly content as he is; there's no reason to change.

Plot Point 1 – Then something happens to throw everything off balance—something surprising that reveals the protagonist’s life will never be the same again. It puts an obstacle in the way of the character that forces him or her to deal with something they would avoid under normal circumstances.

Act 2
  • The second Act is about a character’s emotional journey and is the hardest part of a story to write. Give your characters all sorts of challenges to overcome during Act 2. Make them struggle towards their goal.
  • The key to Act Two is conflict. Without it you can’t move the story forward. And conflict doesn’t mean a literal fight. Come up with obstacles (maybe five, maybe a dozen—depends on the story) leading up to your plot point at the end of Act 2.
  • Throughout the second act remember to continually raise the stakes of your character’s emotional journey.
  • Simultaneously advance both inner and outer conflicts. Have them work together—the character should alternate up and down internally between hope and disappointment as external problems begin to seem solvable then become more insurmountable than ever.
  • Include reversals of fortune and unexpected turns of events—surprise your reader with both the actions of the main character and the events surrounding him.

Plot Point 2 occurs at the moment the hero appears beaten or lost but something happens to turn the situation around. The hero's goal becomes reachable.
  • Right before this unexpected story turn, the hero reaches the Black Moment—the point at which all is lost and the goal cannot be achieved.
  • In order to have a "Climax", where the tension is highest, you must have a "Black" moment, where the stakes are highest and danger at its worst.
  • During this moment, the hero draws upon the new strengths or lessons he's learned in order to take action and bring the story to a conclusion.

Act 3
  • The third Act dramatically shows how the character is able to succeed or become a better person.
  • Resolution/denouement ties together the loose ends of the story (not necessarily all of them) and allows the reader to see the outcome of the main character’s decision at the climax. Here we see evidence of the change in a positive character arc.
More Helpful sites:
How to maximize your inciting incident.
Dawn Embers is also doing a Nano Prep series on her site.
Alexandra Sokoloff has a post October is Nano Prep Month


  1. Good outline of the process. I'm all set to go for NaNo!

  2. Great post. I wonder how many writers start NaNo without doing any preplanning first. And scarier still, how many query as soon as the month's over. From what I've read in the past on agents' blogs, way too many.

  3. Wow! This was excellent! Thank you so much for posting this!

  4. Whoa, you are scientific, analytically detailed, and very well organized about this. I guess if I do NaNo again this year I'll take the same approach as last year. In 2009 I started on Nov 1 with no preplanning. I woke up that morning and with inspiration from a dream, a few newspaper articles from that morning's paper, and a Bible passage quoted in that morning's church sermon and I concocted a story by weaving these all together. About the only tool I used was I created a time line to help me keep events straight. It seemed to work pretty well for me, except the novel still sits needing some finishing touches. But that's a whole different story.
    Good for you for being meticulous.

    Tossing It Out

  5. Good luck with Nanowrimo
    I love the useful diagrams!

  6. Such a great plan, you're so meticulous, like Arlee also stated :)
    Hope you'll have a great NaNo month, but still update us too once in a while!

  7. You and Dawn are the best! I will be referring to these very very soon.


  8. Alex, I can't take credit for this post. :D I found it online and thought it would be helpful as a refresher course.

    Stina, my first year I signed up on October 29th, so I didn't have anything planned. I had been thinking about the story for years though, so there was stuff in my head if not on paper.

    Thanks Jenna, Eeleenlee and Sherrinda!

    Arlee, I'm not this meticulous yet, but I am trying to be more so this year. Wait until you see the world building list of questions. I can't post them all here because it is 36 pages long! Also not of my creating, but I'm getting better at research. :D

    Estrella, I'm planning to post regularly during Nano. Yeah, maybe crazy, but we'll see.

    Mia, isn't Dawn awesome! She's more original than me. I just don't have time to do much more than pass on what I've found online. Ah, well.

  9. I plan with a graph! It looks much more like a mountain range than this one though ;)

  10. Fabulous tips on plotting, Charity.



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