Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pre-Nano: Story Structure

Quick Update:
From the three pitches last week, I received two full requests (the publishers), and the first 10 pages from the agent. Now the waiting begins again.

The following was originally posted in 2010.

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. I'm wishing you the best of luck. And you mean "two" full requests not "to".

  2. I like how well prepared you always are, Charity!
    Thanks for sharing this, even though I won't be doing NaNo, it's a helpful post.

  3. I love the scientific graph of planning. Good luck with your NANO preparations.

  4. my 5th grader just had to use that graph to plot the last book he read!
    i hope my book is following the curve!

  5. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you! Two fulls and a partial request are great!

    Thanks for the story structure post as well. Very helpful.

  6. Congrats on the ms requests!! Way to go. :) And the outline of story structure is spot on and very helpful. Thanks!

  7. Michael, thanks for the editing help. ;)

    Estrella, I'm getting better about preparing before I start to write. I still pants a lot, but at least I now know where I'm headed.

    Elaine, I do what I can to reach all kinds of learners. *smiling* I wish I could actually USE that graph. I'm afraid I never do though.

    Tara, I know! They are learning this stuff now and I don't remember ever learning it in school. It would have been helpful, don't you think?

    Thanks Cherie. I pushed through three more chapters this morning with another run through. Hoping to finish by the end of next week so I can send the requested materials before Nano starts. then the waiting won't be so bad.

    *waves* at Carol. The graphs and stuff are great.

  8. Took me a while, but I finally figured out all of that!

  9. Thanks for the helpful info Charity :-)

    I'm wondering: if you're writing a romance, do you need to have complete plot arcs for both the hero and the heroine? Or is their journey to the HEA one combined arc?

  10. Wow, what an excellent post. I feel all revitalized and refreshed after months of keeping my head down writing.

  11. Wishing you the best of luck! Your query must be made of awesome. :)

  12. Hey, congrats on those requests! That's awesome. I'll be doing NaNo this year for the first time. *biting fingernails* I've got my 3 act structure down on paper, so I'm ready, right?


  13. I would also just like to point out that sometimes the hero isn't always let to success. Just somehow, the conflict is resolved.

    -claps and hops up and down- Ooooh! That so deserves a happy dance video! (I will be posting one of those soon. -shifty eyes-)