Beyond the three act structure
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that one of my passions is story structure. But, why? I hear you cry with incredulity in your voice. Well, for a number of reasons, actually.
First, a well structured story is easier to follow for the reader. We have be trained to expect certain parts of a story in certain places. Story structure are those pieces and following a certain structure shows you where those pieces should be.
Second, it helps guide a writer either as they’re plotting their book (if you do so before you begin to write) or as they’re writing (if you simply start with a blank page and go from there).
The wonderful thing is that there are many different types of story structure and it simply depends on what you’re writing the type you choose to follow. And I really wish I could tell you that if you write Romance it’s best to follow one story structure, if you’re writing Mystery, this other one, if you write Fantasy use this one over here. No, sadly, that’s not how it works. Some stories just fall more easily into one type of structure regardless of genre. And some authors are simply more comfortable writing using a particular story structure.
I’m sure you all are well versed in the Three Act Structure, so I’m not even going to touch on that one. The Four Act Structure is nearly the same thing except is separates the rising action and the crisis into two different parts. So, instead of talking about those, let’s look at some other structures you may not know as well:
The W Graph:
This is the structure that I use almost exclusively. It’s simple and very malleable to fit almost any story. I’ll use the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example.
It starts with an Inciting Event where most stories begin – something happens that forces the protagonist to do something other than live their normal life. (Dorothy comes home from school filled with news about the horrible neighbor who is trying to take Dorothy’s dog away.)
There is then (at about the 25% mark) a Major Turning Point where something happens that makes the protagonist embark on their goal or shifts how they expect to get there. (Dorothy is swept up into a tornado and lands in Oz.)
The story progresses through Rising Action where the protagonist works relentlessly toward their goal. (Dorothy embarks on her journey down the yellow brick road.)
There is a Climax or a Point of No Return (usually at the midpoint of the book) where things are just wonderful (in a romance, this is usually the first sign of intimacy between the two protagonists—a kiss or whatever). It can also be a point at which the protagonist realizes they’ve embarked on an almost impossible journey, but they’ve gone too far to turn back. (Dorothy meets the Wicked Witch and kills her for her broomstick.)
There is then the Falling Action where the protagonist is merrily going on their way toward their goal—falling in love, gathering information, fighting a war, whatever. (Dorothy and her friends return to the Emerald City to present the Wizard with the witch’s broomstick.)
The Black Moment (usually falling around the 75% mark) is when all is lost. The protagonist has gotten themselves into a really bad situation—confronting a murderer, finding out that they can’t love/marry the other protagonist after all because they’ve done something horrid, the protagonist is about to be killed by their arch-enemy, etc. If you’re writing a tragedy, this is where you end the book. (The Wizard’s balloon accidentally flies away without Dorothy.)
In the Resolution everything is wrapped up in a pretty bow. The story comes to a satisfying conclusion. (Dorothy is told she can get home by clicking her heels together. She does and wakes up surrounded by her family.)
A W structure looks like this:
Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure
Stage I: Set Up: Introduces the hero and draws the reader into the world of the story. Establishes empathy with the hero: undeserved misfortune; hero in jeopardy; ch. Likable/loving/kind/generous (The Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks); ch. funny; ch. powerful (able to get the job done).
TP1 (10%): Opportunity: This is an event which will propel the ch into the next stage.
Stage II: New Situation: The hero now begins pursuing his external goal and has a plan as to how he’s going to do this.
TP2 (25%): Change of plans: This plan may change, but he’s still pursuing the goal.
Stage III: Progress: Hero makes progress toward achieving goal, continuing to work hard despite obstacles in their way.
TP3 (50%): Point of no return: The mid-point where you are too close to the end to start again. No matter what there’s no turning back. Hero fully realizes what a terrible situation they’ve gotten themselves into, but it’s too late. Turning back would create more problems than it would solve.
Stage IV: Complications & Higher Stakes: Life becomes even more difficult but the goal becomes more important than ever to achieve.
TP4 (75%): Black moment/Major Setback: This is where the hero/heroine break up in a romance, where the hero is about to be killed or realizes that there is no possible way for him to achieve his goal (except that there is). All is lost.
Stage V: Final Push: Hero pulls himself up “by his bootstraps”, he does the impossible. He must use all of his strength to achieve his goal or die trying (sometimes literally).
TP5 (90%): Climax: The external goal is attained. The inner goal is joined in here as well, but it may be wrapped up in…
Stage VI: Aftermath: The hero gets his just rewards. In Shrek this is where all the fairytale creatures sing “I’m a believer”, in Brokeback Mountain it’s where the hero goes off to live his life of sadness trying to be what he’s not.
There are, of course, many, many more types of story structure but they all have the same elements in them: the protagonist is pulled in a new direction (inciting event), bad stuff happens (first turning point point), good stuff happens (rising action and climax), they work toward this new goal of theirs (falling action), the worst happens (black moment), and then everything is resolved. Where you put all of these elements and long your story continues before these major plot points is entirely up to you. The only thing I should warn you about is that readers are expecting these points and in this order, so while it’s great to mix things up and get creative, you also don’t want to annoy or confuse your readers.