Story Structure

This was originally published on my personal site, TonyMcFadden.net

I’ll be moving all story writing support, including structure, story analysis, etc., over here.

The backbone of every decent piece of fiction writing in the past 100 years:

 

Structure v2

Three Acts, a way to transition between them, a way to hook your reader early and a couple of places to drive home the stakes. These exist in all fiction, but are a lot easier to spot in genre fiction (sci-fi, crime fiction, fantasy and the like).

So let’s break it down, at a high level. More detail will be added over the next few weeks.

Act one is the setup — both the plot and the protagonist are started here. This is where your protag/hero is sitting at their status quo. Life is “normal” (for them). Early in your first act you need a hook (think of the pre-credit scenes in all of the James Bond movies) to ensure your audience doesn’t get bored. And audiences bore easily. Human nature.

If you can hook them in the first sentence, you’re gold. The best I’ve read recently? Opening sentence of “The Martian” by Andy Weir (and now a movie with Matt Damon, so it did it’s job). The book opens with “Well, I’m pretty much fucked.” Great grab.

Within Act One (and somewhere in the first half of Act One) is the inciting incident.

A bit of a semantic clarity here. Some people call the turn at the end of Act One the “inciting incident”. That’s fine. As long as consistency is maintained. I call the end of Act One the “First Plot Point” (sounds cooler, I think) but again, as long as you’re consistent when you talk about it.

The (my) inciting incident sets up the First Plot Point.

The First Plot Point is the event, action, clue, (however your story plays out) that pushes your hero out of their comfortable status quo and sends them on the journey that makes up the meat of the story.

If the First Plot Point is the cannon ball that sinks his ship, the inciting incident is the cannon ball being placed in the cannon and the fuse lit.

The first act takes up about 20% – 25% of your story. Any shorter and you’re giving the setup the short shrift and any longer and you’ll lose your audience.

Act Two is the middle fifty percent. The act starts with the hero reacting to the event which pushed him out of his status quo and ends, at the Second Plot Point, with him, and us as readers, convinced he’s completely and utterly failed.

There are three special points throughout Act Two. The Midpoint (at the middle of the story, clearly) is like a curtain reveal, where the hero discovers something that leads him to realise the battle he was fighting wasn’t what he thought it was. I like to call it the “this changes everything” moment. For example (since I know you like them), the First Plot Point might be the hero’s wife getting framed for embezzlement by her ex-business partner. The hero works hard through the first half of Act Two clearing her name, only to find out that everything he’s done puts her in the frame for the ex-partner’s murder. The midpoint.

Half way (roughly) between the First Plot Point and the Mid Point (and again, halfway between the Midpoint and the Second Plot Point) are the Pinch Points. These are great times to remind us, and the hero (although primarily us, the reader) just how bad the bad guys are (first Pinch Point) and how deep the hero will dig to succeed (second Pinch Point).

Act Three is the martyr act. It begins with the hero getting the final piece of the puzzle. She now knows what is required to succeed (however you’ve defined success for the hero) and all that stands between them and the finish line are as many obstacles as you can throw at them.

(A quick note about your hero. They need to win on their own. No cheating by having a Marine come in and save the day or a magic spell doing the trick. The hero needs to be willing to die, if not actually die, to reach the successful resolution. 

Think Bruce Willis and the ending of Armageddon.

That’s the highlights, folks.

[edit: The observant will notice that I’ve changed the picture at the top. The thin lines in the original, depicting First Plot Point, Midpoint and Second Plot Point, implied that these transitions were razor sharp. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they take place over a couple of pages of dialog. And rarely are they exactly at the 25%, 50% and 75% points. But they’ll be close to those locations. Hope that makes it a little bit clearer]

Over the next weeks and months I’ll add more details (as posts) for:

Bookmark this page. The posts will be linked to the bullet points above as I (re)create them. I’ll also start deconstructing movies again, since the ones I’ve done have all gone down the digital gurgler.

Thanks for stopping by. Leave a comment below if you have any questions.