Adding Structure To A Story

structure

Apparently I’m a grandmother now. But wait, some of you might be thinking, she only has two teenagers. That’s right, I do. The Girl is 17, The Boy is 15. And the cat is spayed, if you’re thinking that’s the problem. So the culprit? I should blame Hubby.

The Girl has been having panic attacks, and Jingles hasn’t been doing her part to calm her down and cheer her up. Among other things, a ‘comfort animal’ was discussed. In short, Hubby caved to The Girl wanting her own cat. Kitten. Even though she goes to college next fall. Maybe her own cat means she’ll stay closer to home. Or at home. Hmm.

As I mentioned, we have a cat. Jingles has reigned dominant in the house since she was tiny. With a couple of blips – when we tried introducing an adult Siamese that started a minor war, and a near constant irritation with the stray our cul-de-sac feeds – she hasn’t had to share anything. Now we bring home a kitten. We know better than to try to introduce an adult cat, Jingles has been clear she won’t share the throne. A kitten, however, isn’t a threat to her. She’s older, bigger, and can train up the new addition with the understanding she’s in charge. (Delicately reach out a paw, and whap!)

We introduced She-Who-Has-Not-Been-Named to Jingles. The kitten, safely snuggled in The Girl’s arms, failed to react. Jingles, after a vigorous petting and lovey session and still in my arms riding her “I’m a deity” high, didn’t initially respond either. I continued petting, waiting for Jingles to realize what she was seeing. She tentatively reached out to sniff the object in The Girl’s arms (no doubt hoping it’s a stuffed animal and this is all a joke). Sniff, ears back, hiss.

That hiss sounded like a King Cobra being shot with a squirt gun at short range.

Kitten still failed to register the situation.

We’re keeping them apart for now, only bringing them together for supervised meetings. Jingles tends to watch the intruder with wide eyes and tense muscles. Sort of like when she’s watching prey she know she can’t catch, like a hummingbird. Maybe The Girl should name the cat ‘Hummingbird.’

Anyway, that’s not what I promised for this week’s blog. Let’s talking about plot structure. I mean physical plot structure, not tropes/plot types.

The idea behind the three act structure is to plan your novel like the classic play in three acts (Beginning, Middle, End). Makes sense, right? Actually it works well for a lot of books and I think it’s good because it sets basic length guidelines for how to proportion your novel.

Act 1 is pretty straightforward: you introduce the characters, setting, conflict, and stakes. This starts at the beginning of the book (obviously) and ends when your main character passes the point of no return. This can be an action or the point where your character accepts they have to win to be happy or have a normal life, whatever your stakes are. This is about the first 20% of the book or less. This is a hint you do not need to accomplish all of this in the first scene/chapter/page.

Act 2 is the battle, literal or figurative. It’s a fight to the death although death might not be physical. It can be psychological or death of an idea – it’s a vague sort of thing. The battle could be a journey toward a goal, it doesn’t have to be a physical thing, but in that journey you’re building suspense and interest. This act ends with another crisis, discovery, some sort of game changer/surprise. This may vary in length.

Act 3 is the confrontation/battle, and resolution. Movies frequently balance this to be about as long as Act 1, with the bulk of the story sandwiched in the middle. The climax isn’t the end, there’s loose ends to tie up. Usually. This isn’t the time to introduce a new complication, only expose and quickly resolve things that were hinted at before (if you must do that sort of thing).

Now keep in mind this is one structure guideline, there are others. There are lists, like the seven or eight point structures where you have a sort of checklist (Write A then B then C sort of thing), or variants of the three act structure where act one and three comprise a quarter each of the novel and act two is half the book or the snowflake method that takes the simple three act concept and builds on it to create a sort of ‘how to write a novel’ example. There are suggested ‘formulas’ for some genres, and if you want to submit to a publisher for a specific line, you may need to follow their formula to be considered. The formula series that come to mind for me are the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and some romance lines.

Formulas can be rigid and may or may not be easy for all writers to adhere to. Depending on your genre, there are probably a hundred tips out there on when in your book something should happen or how you should structure this or that.

The most important thing to remember is if you spend all your time planning and worrying about balance, you won’t get anything written. That’s a bigger fail that getting your proportions off or putting a key scene too far forward or back. These things can usually be fixed in revisions. Remember structure is all about balance, and is only a set of guidelines to make the book feel more satisfying for the reader. Writing for your own sake is sometimes enough. If you plan to publish your work, you need to consider structure because you want readers to have a satisfying experience.

Keeping that in mind, there is more to giving a satisfactory experience for your readers than the structure of your book. Your plot could be perfectly balanced, but still be too long, have underdeveloped characters, plot holes, and such.

How do you know what structure to use? I recommend writing and revising a book first. Then see what that work seems to follow so you’re choosing one that already fits your writing style. At least in part. If you want to choose a structure before writing, possibly to assist in plotting your book, I suggest considering your favorite books or something similar to what you want to write. Outline a basic plot of the book, where the plot points fall relative to the book’s length, and compare to some structures to find what may work for you.

Whichever method you choose, having a guide will help make you a stronger writer in the end and hopefully eliminate a messy story filled with plot holes or bunnies.

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