This is an experiment in using a specific structure to set out your story. As with any experiment, you try it, see how it works, then either keep trying it until it works or look for some other way. There are a series of lessons to follow that walk you through the structure, including exercises at the end of each section. By the end, you should have written a complete story, one that follows the suggested structure.
Who should do these lessons:
These lessons are for those that are at an intermediate level – ones that find their stories are hit and miss, that write their characters into a corner and don’t know how to get them out, that can think of ways to torture their characters but end up breaking them instead of turning them into heroes, that find their endings often need a new element to work but people keep claiming ‘deus ex machina’ about the stories, or that find their plots are bland and flat. If any of these issues ring true, then these lessons may be for you.
Reason for doing this lesson:
So you want to be a professional golf player? (No, I want to be a published story writer. Ok, I get that, but go with the analogy for now.) Well, I talked to a pro, and he said that I should go and practise thousands of shots, and one day, if I have practised enough, I will become a pro. So I practised, and I found that sometimes I would roost one straight down the middle. But mostly they would shank, or slew to one side, or burn the worms as they flew 20 yards along the fairway. After a couple of years of practise, I could hit it 180 yards, landing it on the fairway about 70% of the time. But I could never hit it 300 yards, or land it 95% of the time like the professionals. I was improving, but my improvement had slowed.
Interestingly, I was now better than my buddy, who had years more practice than I. I pondered on that issue. Even I could see a problem in his swing, but when I told him, he told me that it felt unnatural to make the change. I then realised that the flaw actually felt natural to my buddy, and this flaw kept him from his goal of becoming a professional golfer. It probably wasn’t the only one – it was just the one that I could see. I began to wonder how many flaws I was practising in.
Practice alone is not enough to mix it with the elite boys, and only a few intuitively practise in the right habits. Ironically, when it comes to dispensing advice, those few that intuitively gained the correct habits are given equal weight, often more, than their more analytical colleagues. So the impression is given that it only needs practice. This experiment asks the question – what are you practising? Remember, even Tiger Woods changed his swing.
Why create these lessons:
Apart from my compulsive urge to teach? The short answer is, after years of disjointed results, I read two books that helped clarify what I was doing wrong with my story writing. This is simply a distillation of those two books. I am no published professional, so this may well be a stage that helped me where I am. In a sense, I am writing this as a lesson plan to help me understand the process. But it does make sense to me, and I have put it into practice twice now. (Ok, ok, not a lot of practice, but both stories were better than most of my previous ones.)
Won’t this structural approach make formulaic stories:
It can. Just as structural engineering can make box-like houses. But it can also aide in the most amazing and individual buildings, ones that won’t fall down around you. The principles are general enough to apply to both cases.
Besides, this is an experiment. There is nothing wrong with failing experiments – so long as you work out what went wrong and how to fix it.
Why does this structure work:
Primarily because we all have read so many stories that contain it, that it now feels right to us when we read one follows the structure. But by reading them, doesn’t mean that we automatically know the principles, or follow them in our own writing - that takes deliberate practice.
At this point I want to acknowledge the two books that were instrumental in creating this lesson. The first is Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. The key elements of the structure came from this book, as did the initial golfing analogy (although I did personalise it differently). The second is Beginning, Middles and Endings, by Nancy Kress. They are both well worth buying.
You should come into this lesson armed with the following
A project (a 2000 word story may be a good one, but this should work for any size)
An idea for the story, including an understanding of how you want it to end
Some knowledge about what issues you want your characters to face during the story (e.g. the questions that KDW’s Assignment 1 get you to ask), for example
What does each character want?
How does this cause conflict? Or what is stopping the character get what they want?
The experiment gets you to focus on structuring your story in a certain way. It is not the only structure available, but it is the structure of the majority of stories that are published. Just like the structure of most houses (but not all) is to have walls and a roof. Just like houses, this structure gives you plenty of room to make it individual, to have false walls and various floors to your heart’s content. But some walls are load-bearing – you must have them or else everything else collapses. In this experiment, some plot points are load-bearing – you must have them.
The structure divides the story into four approximately equal parts: the setup, the response, the attack and the resolution. In each of these sections the purpose is different, and one writes towards a specific goal at the end of each section. These goals we’ll call quarter point, midpoint, three-quarter point and endpoint. These are the loadbearing plotpoints.
Throughout this experiment, I want you to write or plan each section separately. If you are writing (especially if you are a pantser) then I want you to write towards the goal of the section. Resist the temptation to go after the goals of the other sections. It may be hard to do, but that is the purpose of the experiment – to change habits.
The purpose of this section is to set up the story with everything needed to make sense of the quarter point. It needs to cover the following:
A hook in the first 13
Introductions to ALL key characters
Note: anyone introduced after this section is by definition a minor character and cannot be critical actors in the resolution (Yes, new characters can hold critical information, but cannot perform critical actions apart from revealing that information)
Some key characters may be introduced by proxy, such as via a rumour etc.
Introduce the context
Including the world that the main character (MC) understands
Including the background required if this is an idea story
Introduce the conflict
Although this can be introduced earlier, it often is the central issue of the quarter point
Make an implied promise with the reader about what the story will be about
So what is this “quarter point” that you’ve been talking about? I’m glad you asked. This is the event that causes the MC (or at least the reader) to realise that everything changes. Before this point, the MC is comfortable in his world – after it he won’t be. Before this point, the MC thinks she understands her place – after it she is uncertain.
When writing this section, write towards this point of change. We keep this change point in mind as we write. We don’t need to know everything about the world or the character. But we need to know enough for this change to make sense.
Exercise 1 – Work out what is the game changing event Exercise 2 – Write the game changing event scene Exercise 3 – Write the opening scene, including the hook Exercise 4 – Write the remainder of the setup, keeping the game changing scene in mind
Experiment Part 2 – The Response
The purpose of this section is to show the response of the MC to the change event described at the quarter point. In this section the MC is reacting to the change. In this section, it is a time for
learning new information
exploring the new world she is inhabiting
developing new skills that will later help him win but without knowing why
running from the antagonist’s danger etc.
The key difference between this section and the next is the MC is not in control. There is not enough information at his (or the reader’s) disposal to know how to take action. When writing this section, you are exploring the MC’s natural character under the blowtorch of the changed circumstances, and finding it coming up short – he cannot handle the change.
The midpoint is the critical point where the MC decides to take control (or learns enough to think she can start to take initiative). It is a key point in the character’s arc, the critical point where he gets on the front foot, but is not the final change. Where the quarter point concentrated on an event, this point concentrates on a change in character, and that changes the tone.
When writing this section, write towards the midpoint where the character will take control. For some writers, there is a temptation to always have the MC in control. This carries the danger that the reader won’t empathise with the MC because they are too strong, the flat superhero. Even if the character is the type to always take the initiative, restrict their ability to take initiative, for example, by keeping key information back until the midpoint. Any initiative taken in this section should be a false initiative, a flaw in character.
Other writers enjoy this section most of all. Some, like me, will find their characters are passive near the end of the story. If you find people think your MC is too passive, it is usually because this section has gone on too long and dominates the story.
Exercise 1 – Work out what information or event causes the MC to take the initiative. Exercise 2 – Write the scene showing the MC’s change of approach Exercise 3 – Complete the Response section for your story
This section is where the MC begins to attack the problem he faces. She now can take the initiative and attempt to solve the issue. He doesn’t know everything about the situation, nor particularly how the antagonistic forces will adapt to his initiatives, but he knows enough to think his actions will prevail. It is this section where the try-fail cycle can come into its own, where the MC tries something, but fails to resolve the problem, and both the MC and the antagonist learn and adapt (upping the stakes). In this section, the MC begins to take on the attitudes that make her the heroine, attitudes that were beyond him in the previous section. It still has new learnings, but those learnings are accepted by the MC, changing her to be able to handle the three-quarter point.
The three-quarter point is the final revelation. It changes everything again. It allows the MC to come up with the plan for the final resolution, though this point isn’t that resolution in itself. Importantly, any information revealed after this point cannot help resolve the problem and cannot significantly change the problem, either. Everything after this point is just placing the pieces in order.
Exercise 1 – Work out what the final revelation is that is required to resolve your story. Exercise 2 – Write the final revelation scene. Exercise 3 – Complete the attack section keeping the final revelation as your target
Experiment Part 4 – The Resolution
The purpose of this section is to bring the story to a climax and to tie all loose ends up. The climax may include any or all of
the collection of all the complicating forces introduced earlier to a final conflict
the outworking of the MC’s plan that finally resolves the problem
a peak in the tension just as the problem is working through
the ultimate change in the MC’s attitudes and growth
the destruction or dissipation of the antagonists contrary plans
After the climax, there is an optional denouement, where all loose ends are resolved (e.g what happened to X minor character? What did this red herring really mean?), and the tension is allowed to dissipate without extending the end too long.
Note, if any new information is introduced in this section, people will feel cheated because they couldn’t have worked out the story (or its meaning) prior to the new information. This is “deus ex machina”.
Exercise 1 – Well, a prerequisite was having the end in mind, so this exercise is to write the climax. Exercise 2 (Optional) – Write the denouement, if your story needs one.
Now you have finished your story. It’s time to review it.
Exercise 1 – Reread your story and ask yourself the following questions
Do you feel satisfied with the story overall? (Don’t nitpick the writing, this question is about the overarching story)
Did your quarter point come about 25% through the story?
Did your midpoint come about 50% through the story?
Did your three-quarter point come about 75% through the story?
If any section is significantly smaller, can you add a scene or two to rebalance the word count in each section?
Exercise 2 – Reread a story you wrote in the past that you (and, importantly, others) were satisfied with. Ask yourself the following questions.
Can you identify each plot point (quarter, mid and three-quarter)?
Did they occur at the locations suggested above?
Exercise 3 – Reread a story you wrote in the past that you (and, importantly, others) were not satisfied with. Ask yourself the following questions.
Can you identify each plot point? Are any missing?
Are any sections too short? Or too long?
Is there any information added too close to the end?
Now you have completed this lesson plan. If you want to provide feedback on how you went, or on how these lessons can be improved, please do so below. I will edit the lessons based on your feedback. But throughout it all, have fun writing.