The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 12: Your Questions Answered

Because of its fixed nature, story structure, once learned, is easy to grasp. However, it’s also a subject that inspires endless questions. A few weeks ago, while I was finishing up the last of the posts in this series, I asked those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter for story-structure questions you’d like me to address before I wrap up the series. Following are five. If you have a question that hasn’t been addressed, please ask it in the comments section!

Does deviating from a three-act structure doom me to not being published?
—Sam Jenne

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe short answer is yes. A quick perusal of any number of successful published books will show us they adhere to all the basic principles of story structure we’ve talked about: the
hook, the inciting and key events, the period of character reactions, the midpoint, the period of character actions, the climax, and the resolution. As I talked about in the first post in this series, there’s a reason story structure is so important, and that reason is the simple fact that structure is what shapes character and conflict into an intellectually and emotionally resonant journey.

On the other hand, the longer—and potentially misleading—answer is that not all the authors of these successful books were necessarily conscious of structure as they were writing their bestsellers. Another reason for the importance of structure is the fact that story structure is deeply instinctual. Most readers don’t know a thing about structure; but they do know when a story doesn’t work because something in its structure is off. Same goes for authors. Many successful authors write without any knowledge of structure, and their stories still work because they’re instinctively following the tenets of structure without even realizing it.

However, if we’re talking about purposely deviating from structure, then we’re wading into murky and dangerous waters. Writing rules are made to broken—but only when we can do
it brilliantly. And I don’t know of any author brilliant enough to spurn story structure and live to publish a successful tale.

I’ve always wondered what the split variant between rising action, climax, and falling action/denouement looks like across genres. It seems like mysteries have a lot of exposition and rising action, with a short climax, followed by a longish ending. High fantasy, by contrast, tries to shove a ton of exposition into a short rising action section to keep the climax running long to cram in lots of action.
—Logan L. Masterson

The basics of story structure remain the same across all genres. No matter the type of story you’re writing, the placement of major plot points (at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks) and the three acts will remain the same. However, the balance of the conflict within those parameters can vary from genre to genre—and even within genre. A good story is a good story, regardless of genre, but understanding the specific tendencies of each genre is always important.

Some stories will open with a first quarter full of action (The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher); some don’t get to the action until the midway point (Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton); others don’t crank up the pace until the climax (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald). To some extent, this is dependent on the demands of the individual stories, as much as their genres. But a dedicated study of your chosen genre is important. Read widely and read with attention, taking note of the major moments in the structure and how they play out.

What about flashbacks?
—Brian Jones

Although flashbacks can present coils and curves of possible confusion within the chronological timeline, they actually affect the structure not at all. Except in the instance of the inciting event occurring before the beginning of the story proper—and then being related in a flashback—the placement of flashbacks within the story should be treated no differently than any other scene within the book. A flashback can sometimes function as one of the major plot points, but only if the character’s remembering this incident changes his course within the main story and prompts him to react in a decisive and plot-altering way.

Where do prologues and epilogues fit into a novel’s basic structure? Or don’t they?
—Aya Katz

We often view prologues and epilogues as taking place outside the main story, but in order for them to work they not only can fit into the novel’s basic structure, but they must. An easy trick for picturing the role played by a prologue or epilogue within the overall story structure is to simply forget about their special titles and think of them as nothing more than the first and last chapter. As such, the prologue must include, at the least, all the features of the hook, while the epilogue will function as the resolution.

However, I’d be remiss to leave any discussion of prologues and epilogues without harping on my favorite caveat: If you don’t need ’em, don’t use ’em. Even properly structured prologues and epilogues run the risk of becoming so much deadweight. Including a prologue usually means you’re asking your readers to begin your story twice, since the prologue is usually at a remove (because of a different time, place, or narrative viewpoint) from the story’s true beginning in the first chapter. By the same plug nickel, including an epilogue can sometimes end up dragging out the resolution much longer than necessary. You’ll remember from our post last week that, when it comes to resolutions, shorter is almost always better. So use with sparing care!

I’d love to get some ideas about transition from one novel to the next in a series. E.g., what subplots can be left hanging, tips on giving the protagonist a victory while hinting that the win may not be quite as simple as thought.
—London Crockett

Each book within a series must adhere to its own individual structure just as clearly as does a standalone book. However, a book in an ongoing series does allow a little more leeway in its resolution. Climaxes must still present a definitive outcome and usually at least a partial victory (think The Empire Strikes Back), but many of the loose ends can be ignored altogether, since you’ll have whole books in which to deal with them.

Depending on your genre and the needs of your individual story, you’ll probably end early books in the series by either having the protagonist gain a small victory against the antagonist (for example, in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Katniss scores a victory against President Snow, but doesn’t vanquish him) or by allowing him to conquer a lesser antagonist on his way up the ladder to finally defeating the main antagonist (such as Vin’s destruction of the Lord Ruler in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, which leads her to the discovery of the even more evil and powerful Deepness in the further books in the trilogy).

As for which subplots can be left safely hanging, that’s a tricky one to answer, since subplots will vary wildly from story to story. However, as a general rule, figure that you must tie off everything relating to the main conflict. Anything else is fair game to be carried over to subsequent books. This is particularly true of relationships, which often don’t reach a full resolution until the final book in a series. The trick is to make certain that, even if the subplot isn’t resolved, it also isn’t left stagnate.

And now we’ve come to the end! I hope you’ve enjoyed these last few months’ journey through the exciting landscape of story structure. By now, you should have the tools to identify and understand the important plot points in any story and to consciously apply them to your own books. With the knowledge of story structure in your writing toolbox you can deliberately craft and tweak your stories to make certain you’re giving readers the rise and fall and ebb and flow that will suck them into your story world and convince them of the credibility of your characters’ strong arcs. Happy writing!

Tell me your opinion: Whats your most burning question about story structure?
Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: The Inciting Event and the Key Event

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 6: The First Half of the Second Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 7: The Midpoint

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 8: The Second Half of the Second Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 9: The Third Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 10: The Climax

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 11: The Resolution

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I just finished reading all the related posts, thank you for the amazing secrets, really very helpful!!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it and found it useful!

  3. Here’s a weird question: is there any relation between the hook (as you’ve described it, the question that propels the protagonist into the story and must be answered) and a hook line, or log line?
    The latter is more of a summation of the main action of the story, a kind of micro-synopsis.
    The hook seems to be more thematic, and while tied to plot does not necessarily encapsulate the whole.
    I know a hook line doesn’t have much to do with story structure, but I’m trying to develop one and it’s kicking my writerly butt 🙂
    Any advice would be most welcome.

  4. Good question. And, you’re right, the hook as a part of the story structure is unrelated to the hook line – except in the sense that the hook line often includes or hints at the main hook. Since the whole point of a log line is to catch an agent’s interest, it often includes the hook itself, in part or whole. However, the log line is also much more, since it also has to indicate such important playing pieces as the main character, the main conflict, and even the main setting. You may find these articles helpful:

    6 Reasons a Premise Sentence Strengthens Your Story

    How to Write a Novel in Two Sentences

  5. Thank you Katy for a great recap of your series on Structure.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Rich!

  7. Thank you, Kim! Thanks for being brave and saying if you don’t follow story structure your story won’t sell (well).

    I don’t care what people say–even if you don’t know you’re doing it … you ARE following structure. Maybe your beta readers inadvertently addressed plot/character issues but didn’t call it “structure”.

  8. Thank you for such a great series. There are so many writing blogs, so few good ones. So many are little more than sound bites rehashing the same old stuff. This was something substantial and very, very helpful. Thanks again.

  9. This is one of the most beneficial posts I’ve read in blogland. Thanks for all the links. We all as writers struggle with the structure, but this helps!

    Denise

  10. Thanks as always!!

  11. This has been an awesome series. I’m working on a very complex novel, and this series has helped me revise and understand where the plot points truly fall and what I need to do with them. Thank you!

  12. @Rebecca: That’s one of things I find most fascinating about structure: it’s so innate to the human mind. We instinctively understand the rise and fall necessary to compelling stories – right down to the placement of the major plot points at the quarter marks.

    @Terry: I’m so glad you enjoyed the series! I had a lot of fun putting it together.

    @Denise: Fortunately for us, structure is relatively simple once we’ve grasped its basic tenets. From there, it’s just a matter of applying its generalities to the specifics of our individual stories.

    @Traci: Thanks for reading!

    @Stacy: The more we have going on in a story, the more difficult it can be to pull it all together. But structure can work wonders in this area! Glad you enjoyed the series.

  13. Popping over from Elizabeth’s to say Hi!

    I don’t plan my writing out in writing – but I always have a very basic idea in my head of the inciting incident, the complexities and that resolution. I didn’t know what they were all called when I started this writing journey, but reading voraciously for decades has helped me internalize the structure I think 🙂

  14. I’m glad you stopped by! 🙂 Most of us start out with a basic understanding of story structure, particularly if we’ve been voracious readers (it’s amazing what we can learn through osmosis). Still, being able to put a name on what we know can go a long ways toward helping us become the master of our stories, rather than the other way around.

  15. Thanks for the great insight into structuring a story. This was very very helpful. I am wondering how much of this would apply to short stories since a short story sometimes focuses on one specific phase of the protagonists life. Should it be treated like a full story of which one part is exposed and the others implied? In that case would the structuring be the same? Can you shed m,ore light on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It really depends on the type of short story. If it’s plot heavy, then all of this (shrunk to size, of course) would apply. But if the story is more about an effect, or a slice of life – sort of a poem in prose – then you’ll want to play a little looser with these guidelines.

  16. Thank you so much for all of your articles on writing. They’re so helpful and a great resource! I appreciate it! Thank you! 🙂

  17. Yolanda Allen says:

    I am such a fan of your writing and your resources. Many have said it before me, but thank you for all that you do for aspiring authors.

    Your writing is easy to read, yet very meaty material that sticks to your bones. You are priceless and I am so indebted to you.

    You completely rock!

  18. I have multiple questions. First Ive been studying the act structure for a while and have seen people use three acts, four acts, six acts, and eight acts. These are technically the same thing as its just futurer dividing the three act structure by events and turning points. But its the five act structure that I find confusing witch is exposition, raising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Its not clear when (% wise) the middle acts happen. If all acts are equal then the climax is in the middle? That doesnt seem right. Rising action is building of action towards the finale from the inciting incident. So that means act 2 is three or more longer than the other acts and there is two acts for the resolution? That also doesnt seem right. Do you have any input on how the five act structure fits into the three act structure?

    My other question is how do I sturcture an ongoing series like a TV series? I would assume the rules are diffrent from single nartitive work.

    And finally does this story structure apply to all kinds of stories (Novels, plays, films, telivision, video games)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, I don’t mess with the five-act structure at all. As you say, most of these divisions are just different ways of looking at the same thing, and I find the three-act structure to be the most intuitive. However, it is worth pointing out that the acts, even in the three-act structure, are not all the same size. The First Act is 25%, the Second Act is 50%, and the Third Act is 25%.

      The structure of individual television episodes will be the same as what you’re seeing here. As for the overall arc of the series, I’m really not sure. Television writing is ultimately a beast all its own.

      But, yes, the unique demands of any kind of series aside, the three-act structure is universal to all mediums of storytelling.

  19. I’ve just read through this series and thoroughly enjoyed the articles and the comments. Thank you so much for putting together such an organized and helpful series.

    Above you said, “the three-act structure is universal to all mediums of storytelling.” I’m writing my first memoir and found your site when researching story structure.

    It seems to me that many memoirs are rambling stories without this 3 act structure. What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In all honesty, I don’t read many memoirs, so I can’t comment on the genre as a whole. But memoirs share a lot in common with novels. The greatest difference, of course, is that they aren’t fiction. But they’re still just stories, and as such they find their greatest power when they’re told with the tightness and cohesion of proper structure.

      • I appreciate your answer even though you don’t read many memoirs. After reading through your series, I too thought that my memoir would benefit from the “tightness and cohesion of proper structure.” I don’t see many writers talking about this in the memoir world, but it feels right to me. I’m so grateful that I found your site and your wonderful books. You are a tree of authenticity and generosity in the labyrinthian jungle of the internet. Thank you!

  20. How important is it that, as our protag heads boldly into Act II, that their decision or path has great stakes or is of great personal risk? I always thought it had to be really substantial — then I watched Almost Famous, and William has very little stakes behind his decision to go on tour with the band. I guess there are some stakes that he will miss graduation, or that he will fail — but those are comparatively small. Welcome any thoughts here — this debate is slowing down my screenplay writing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t seen Almost Famous, so I can’t comment directly there. But the important thing to keep in mind is that the relative importance of the stakes has everything to with their subjective relation to the character within the story. World-ending stakes are always going to be big, but that doesn’t mean much smaller stakes (getting a job, losing weight, getting the boy next door to notice you) can’t be massively important *to* the character and thus just as important to readers/viewers within the context of the story.

  21. Thank you so much for this fantastic summary of story structure! With this, I’ve managed to create a timeline for the duration my plot, marking what exactly my first plot point is and so on. I must say that it has helped me one hell of a lot! So I give you a million thanks, without these tips I don’t think I would have ever connected the dots and had come up with the base for my first story. Thank you, thank you, thank you! 🙂

  22. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of story structure! I’ve read quite a bit on structure, and this is the first time I feel like the pieces fell into place. Your writing is clear, and your explanations are illuminating. Thank you!!

  23. Great explanations. I attack ” How to structure scenes” 😀

    Thank you very much.

  24. Dear K. M.,

    Thank you for this amazing series on plotting, and for your whole wonderful website.

    Can you tell us something about how you go about crafting a plot for a new novel? Do you figure out the plot elements in a certain order, like maybe starting with the climax, then going to the inciting incident, and then the midpoint, etc.? Or do you outline more or less in order from beginning to end? Or do you do it different for each novel? I’ve been working on a plot for a while now, and I’m never sure where my starting point should be: which element(s) should come first and determine the nature of the elements that depend on them. I hope that makes sense. 🙂

    Thanks again! -Freya

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      By the time I start outlining a novel, the idea has usually been kicking around in my brain for several years. I have a good handful of scenes I know I want to write. From there, I start filling in the blanks between then, figuring out what needs to happen to connect everything. As I’m doing that, an overall structure will begin to emerge. I can start identifying existing scenes as the various structural aspects (First Plot Point, Climax, etc.) and marking where I need to create new scenes to complete the structure. If you’re interested you can get the full transcript for the outline of my dieselpunk novel Storming here.

  25. Huthayfah says:

    I actually have two questions:

    1. If I didn’t know about the rules of story structure before planning a story (which is the case I’m in), how would I fix it? My strategy at the moment is to take the plot that most resembles the paths taken by the main plot, and emphasize it so that so many events rely upon it. For some reason, though, it seems to just make a bigger mess.

    2. What about when you begin in media res? In the story that I’m writing, the hook is the inciting event, but only in the next scene is the reader notified of the events leading up to the inciting event. How flexible is the timing of the first act if you are starting in media res?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When you need to do a major structural rewrite, I always recommend doing a “rewrite outline.” Go through your existing story, identify the structural elements that are correct, those that need to be strengthened, and those that are missing and need to be added entirely. Then you can start in on the rewrite fresh.

      As for your beginning, the story will always begin with the Hook, which is the first domino in the plot’s row of dominoes. It’s the first sequential event that starts moving the protagonist toward the main conflict. Sometimes this is a huge event that immediately thrusts the protagonist into conflict. When this happens, the Inciting Event (happening halfway through the First Act at the 12%) will still be a turning point that creates the Call to Adventure and moves the protagonist into place for his engagement with the main conflict at the First Plot Point.

      Even if the Hook creates an entirely new world and/or situation for the protagonist right off the bat, he will still encounter the new conflict created by this situation at the Inciting Event and then, irrevocably, at the First Plot Point.

      • Huthayfah says:

        Thank you so much for the clarification. For the longest time, I was sure that my hook would reel readers in but not comply with the rules of story structure. As for the rewrite outline, will do. Thanks again.

  26. Jesper Nielsen says:

    Hi,

    Fantastic read about plot structure. Love it 🙂

    But I plan to write a series of books about revenge. At first the protagonist don’t know she has been betrayed by her friends and only think it’s the police chief. Later she finds out her friends are the real people behind it.
    Would you make a series using the same plot structure?
    Where the first couple of books is the hook, the next couple of books the first act, and so on? Of course each book with its own story, but all building towards the final battle/fight.

  27. I was wondering, can I use this structure to write a screenplay?

    • Oh sorry I forgot to add, will the your “how to structure scenes” series also be suitable for screenplay? Or would I have to choose something different? Those two series are absolute gold by the way

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Absolutely. The Three-Act structure spans the different storytelling media and is very prominent in film.

  28. Ms. Albina says:

    I will buy your structuring novel book when I have money. I bought outlining your novel. How many times did you revise before summiting your book to be published? Do you keep track of writing your scenes as in numbering the scene for where it to go then put it into chapters?

  29. Ms. Albina says:

    Since my co-author book is on a fictional planet going to different scenes like a palace, to where someone evil lives to a village how would you describe that? Do you do a lot of details for your books the descriptions of the character or the scene of the story? Do you also use note cards when you write?

  30. Ms. Albina says:

    K.m,

    Thank you, how much does a professional editor cost for editing a manuscript when it is finished?

  31. Ms Albina says:

    Thank you. I don’t want to pay 1,000 for editing. Is there a way to find a cheap editor that is good and a professional?

  32. Ms. Albina says:

    Thank you. I am going to use a publisher instead. Do you know of any good young adult publishers who like fantasy as in mermaid books since my co-author book is about a mermaid princess? Did you self-publish your book?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All but one of my books are independently published, so I’m afraid I can’t recommend any publishers.

  33. Ms. Albina says:

    How much does it cost to self-publish or independently publisher?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Depends on how many professionals (editor, cover designer, etc.) you hire to help. You can do it for nothing, but I always recommend hiring the professionals. It makes a tremendous difference. In that case, it can cost anywhere from a a couple hundred to a couple thousand.

  34. Ms Albina says:

    Thank you. I don’t have a 1,ooo beget. Do some publishers give advances for the book for publishing?

  35. Abbie Wilkes says:

    This is sort of a structure question: I’m writing a christian fantasy novel as a 2 part series because there is just too much to cram into one. In the first part I wrap up several side plots but not the issue of the MCs personal journey to salvation or the romantic subplot. Is this okay for traditional publishing? By the time I query, I will have both parts completed and it will read as a finished story but Ive heard publishers and agents don’t like cliff hangers from newbies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In a series, it’s fine to leave questions that apply to the overarching plot/conflict unanswered in the early books. Just make sure you’re fulfilling each book’s *individual* structure and resolving *its* conflict questions.

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