Story Structure Tips for Pantsing-- and Plotting-- Your Way to a Better Novel

Jul 20, 2011

I've been yammering a lot lately about the amazingness of plotting/outlining. Most of this yammering comes because, after hearing Larry Brooks speak at the LDStorymakers conference, I read his book Story Engineering and it changed my life. I kid you not. Best writing craft book I have EVER read. I highly recommend you go buy the book for yourself.

Today, let's talk about how learning the story structure mentioned in this book can change your life even if you're a pantser. I know, it seems at odds-- structure? Pantsing? Never these twain have met. Or have they? In essence, pantsing is a way to create a long, rambling outline for your book. I was a pantser for quite a while, and found this to be true. And whether you plot or pants your novel, in the end, we're all striving for the same thing: an engaging, fabulous story.

One of the best ways to do this is using the three-act structure. In order to achieve that story and structure, there are certain plot points you MUST hit. Go watch your favorite movie, and you'll find all of these points exactly where they're supposed to be. Being aware of them can help you either outline beforehand, or guide you as you pants, so your novel can be more satisfying to readers. I'll do a post on Friday outlining all of these points in a well-known book, but for today, let's look at the basics.
There are FOUR PARTS to a story separated by THREE POINTS, and they fit roughly into the typical three-act structure.

Part 1 (Act 1): The setup. This is where you explore what the character's life and world is like before the story starts. You set the stakes-- what does the character have to loose? Obviously, you don't want to ramble on about the random nothings of their life. You want a HOOK-- a compelling moment that hints at the inciting incident and the first plot point. You want an inciting incident-- a moment that can help launch the story. You want specially chosen moments and details that lead up to the point where they get a full-frontal view of how their life will change. And that point is called...

Plot Point 1. Plot Point 1 is where the goal, the journey, and the conflict all become clear-- the first full-frontal view of the conflict, stakes, and opposition. This can be, but doesn't have to be, the inciting incident. The inciting incident is more often earlier in Part 1. The key here to determining that is to look at what the character learns when the inciting incident takes place. If the inciting incident is an intriguing moment that sets the character on a new path that they and the reader don't quite understand, then it is NOT Plot Point 1.

Also keep in mind that PP1 come approximately 1/4 of the way through the story-- about page 100 in a 400 page novel. And yes, the timing is important. If it comes too early or too late, your reader, who has unconscious expectations of when certain moments will come, will either be confused or bored. Moving on, PP1 launches the beginning of

Part 2 (Act 2): The Response/Wanderer. It's important to remember that this is a reactive, not proactive stage. This is where the hero is running, or floundering in some way as he or she responds to what they learned at PP1. It generally covers about half of Act 2, and transitions to the next stage at the

Midpoint. The midpoint is, predictably, right in the middle of the story (about page 200 in a 400 page book). This is where the hero learns something new and empowering in the context of the story. This new thing gives them what they need to start fighting against the antagonist, therefore launching

Part 3 (Act 2): The Attack/Warrior. The character can now jump in, guns blazing, and start attacking, acting the warrior. Here's the thing, though-- they can't win yet. They don't have enough information to defeat the antagonist. They can try, but inevitably they fail simply because they are missing a vital piece of information. And that moment comes at

Plot Point 2. This is where the hero learns that vital piece of information that will allow them to triumph over the villain. It's the moment that launches the final conflict, which takes place in

Part 4 (Act 3): Climax and Resolution. At this point, no new information can enter the story-- it all must have been hinted or foreshadowed at previously. The hero can now take everything he/she has learned and meet the villain for the final showdown. Because of what he/she has learned and how he/she has changed, they are now able to triumph. After the triumph, they have a short resolution time to tie up loose ends, and then their story has come to a heroic end.

You'll also notice two smaller pinchpoints. These are moments right in the middle of Part 2 and Part 3 that remind the reader and the hero of the threat of the villain. They can be small or large, but they also are important to the flow of the story.

So, my friends, questions? Comments? Concerns? Did that help you understand story structure? Is there a structure you yourself like to use that's different than this one? Are you opposed to structure and want to explain why?

15 comments:

Joe Vasicek said...

Story structure is definitely a fascinating thing to study. I would disagree that every story must hit all of the plot points of 3 act structure (non-Western cultures use very different formulations), but it's a good structure on which to practice and learn. Dan Wells's 7 point structure is the iteration of this that makes the most sense for me personally.

Ruth Josse said...

I read tidbits of Larry Brooks book online and he definitely knows what he's talking about. I guess it's about time to read the whole thing:)

Shallee said...

Good point, Joe. I think that for the American/Western audience who is conditioned to this story structure, these points are essential. However, I agree that there are other types of non-Western story structures that have just as much merit. I do think that stories must have SOME kind of structure, though, and that writers must be aware of their structure so their story can be satisfying.

KarenG said...

I followed these guidelines while drafting my soon to be released novel, first time I'd tried it. It was difficult but I kept plowing through, figuring I'd only get it by doing. I think Larry Brooks is genius.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Really useful way to look at plot. I've read advice before that compared a good plot to a three act play, but this spelled it out much more thoroughly. I'm an opera fan, and most operas follow that structure. Thanks for a good share.

Clarissa Draper said...

That is in depth. I agree that no matter how you write, we all aim for the same thing--a great story that readers will love! I'll check out the book you recommended.

Lynda R Young said...

Sounds like a great book. I'll have to check it out. I personally love the three act structure, although I know some authors don't. However, it is a formula that works.

ali said...

This is fantastic! I think it's awesome that you found a useful book! I didn't get to hear Larry speak at all, nor have I read his book. Sadness :(

The outline method I use is similar to the one you listed here--I use the beat sheet from SAVE THE CAT. It hits the acts in the same way, just a few more steps--which I need because it's easy for me to get lost. :)

Thanks for sharing this Shallee!!

Angie Cothran said...

I also loved listening to Larry Brooks at the LDStorymakers conference. I came home and reviewed my WIP and realized I had hit all his points haphazardly--by pantsing my story. Crazy. But I really loved his ideas.

Rachna Chhabria said...

This is a very helpful post. Story Engineering sounds like a great book. I like and follow the three act structure.

Madeleine said...

Oh yes I happened upon Larry Brooks' website and his advice on plotting last year. He's brilliant, up until that point I had been somewhat clueless. Great post :O)

Abby said...

WOW! This is a wonderful post! I am going to go buy that book! This is great information and so true! I just joined your followers and added you to my site. I will definitely be back for more! Great site!

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

I do like structure, actually, and like this way of laying it out. Structure is something I've tended to do unconsciously; I'm trying to become more purposeful about it to reduce the risk of mistakes. :)

Great and very helpful post!

Tiffany Henderson said...

I'm actually feeling slightly confused. When I was in the 7th grade, I had an english teacher make us write our own novel. When she was teaching us how to write one and about the parts, I pretty much wrote it all down and kept it because I wanted to publish my own book some day, and still do. Unfortunately, I have lost a lot of those notes. I was wondering if anyone has any clue as to where the whole Threshold thing fits into a story structure. I remember her talking a lot about it and how there can be more than one threshold but for the life of me I can't figure out the rest of what she taught me. Email me if you can make heads or tails of what the heck I'm blabbering on about. dark_shadows_of_life09@hotmail.com

Shallee said...

Tiffany-- That sounds like the hero's journey to me, which actually can fit together with the three-act structure quite well.

 
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