Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure

Don't Make This Mistake With Your Story StructurePart 7 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

I talk a lot about how important story structure is. But let’s be honest. Story structure is a complicated beast. Few stories ace every single beat to perfection every single time. I’ve read (and watched) incredible stories that were incredible in spite of the fact they were working off a sometimes wobbly narrative structure.

Although you should always be working toward the best story structure possible, if the challenges and constraints of your particular story are keeping it from glistening perfection, that probably isn’t going to make or break the deal for readers.

Unless… you’re committing what is, in my book, the single worst story structure mistake you can make: leaving your protagonist entirely out of the structure.

Why Iron Man 3 Has the Worst Story Structure of Any Marvel Movie

Not all of the Marvel movies are paragons of story structure (Captain America: The First Avenger, in particular, skipped its entire Second Pinch Point). But most of them are examples of how the occasional structural gaffe can be overlooked in favor of a story’s other favorable qualities.

Iron Man 3 is the exception.

Now, there are things I do like about this story.

  • I appreciate Tony’s PTSD and the fact that his actions—both for good and ill—in previous movies are having decided consequences.

Tony Stark Panic Attack Iron Man 3

  • The Mandarin rocked. Until, you know… he didn’t.

Mandarin Ben Kingsley Iron Man 3

  • More Happy! (Though, I think, under the circumstances, I would have opted for more Jon Favreau instead.)

Happy Hogan Sunglasses Iron Man 3

  • Little boy Harley Keener was a delightfully different (and capable) foil for Tony.

Harley Keener Iron Man 3

But none of them can make up for the story’s fundamental story structure problems.

Iron Man 3 makes that non-negotiable mistake I was talking about. It offers up a structure that has almost nothing to do with its protagonist—Iron Man inventor Tony Stark—which means its conflict isn’t driven by the protagonist.

Don’t Know What Your Story Is About? Look at Your Story Structure

In certain complex storylines, it can be difficult, at first glance, to know exactly what a story is about—what its throughline is. But the answer is always found in the story’s structure. Whatever plotline or character is most active in the plot’s turning points, that is what the story is about.

A great (non-Marvel) example of this is Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. This is a sprawling story that, on the surface, seems to be about many things (Howard’s Hollywood career, Howard’s relationship with Katherine Hepburn, Howard’s OCD). But the plot points back up the emphasis of the title by showing us this is really a story about Howard’s love of aviation.

Same goes for my all-time favorite movie John Sturges’s The Great Escape, which artfully gives prominence to Steve McQueen’s decidedly subplot character by making sure that subplot shows up at every single major structural beat.

Now consider Iron Man 3‘s story structure:

Inciting Event: Aldrich Killian (the antagonist) petitions Tony’s girlfriend and CEO Pepper to fund his brain-hacking project Extremis.

Where’s Tony? Oh, yeah, hiding out in his basement being an obsessive insomniac.

Tony Stark Iron Man 3 And That's You

First Plot Point: Tony’s bodyguard Happy follows a suspicious character, somebody blows up, Happy ends up in a coma.

Where’s Tony? Gift-wrapping Gigantor the Stuffed Rabbit for Pepper’s Christmas present. He finally impacts the main conflict when he calls out the Mandarin and gets his house blown up, but it’s a long time coming.

Stark Bunny Iron Man 3

First Pinch Point: Pepper learns Aldrich is working for the Mandarin.

Where’s Tony? Crashlanded in Tennessee, trying to get his suit to work again. He does have a nice pinch, in which he battles the guy involved in Happy’s injury. But his storyline is totally untouched by the plot’s most important revelation up to this point.

Iron Man 3 Crashlanding

Midpoint: The Mandarin publicly challenges the President on national TV. Meanwhile Pepper is captured.

Where’s Tony? Oh, he’s off gleaning a few clues that will eventually lead him to Aldrich’s base. But that’s about it. He doesn’t know about the Mandarin’s challenge or Pepper’s capture, which means these huge events have no power to drive the plot.

Robert Downey Jr Confused

Second Pinch Point: Tony crashes the Mandarin’s base, is captured, and learns about Pepper’s capture.

Where’s Tony? Finally, he’s in the main game!

Iron Man 3 Second Pinch

Third Plot Point: The President is captured and delivered to Aldrich.

Where’s Tony? Thankfully, he’s at least off doing related things, like rescuing all the people in the President’s plane. But the Third Plot Point should have been a moment that hit him as hard possible on a personal level. He’s not directly responsible for or involved in the President’s capture, so it lacks the bite it might have had. Plus, it decidedly pales in comparison to Tony’s personal loss of Pepper earlier.

Iron man 3 President

Climax: After bringing in all his suits to fight Aldrich’s exploding minions, Tony finds Pepper—who has been injected with Extremis and turned into an exploding person. He does battle with Aldrich to save her.

Where’s Tony? Right where he should be.

Iron Man figting Aldrich Killian

Climactic Moment: Pepper miraculously survives a 200-foot fall and emerges just in time to save Tony and kill Aldrich.

Where’s Tony? Well, he’s not ending the conflict, that’s for sure. His line to Pepper pretty much sums it up: “I got nothing.”

Tony Stark Iron Man 3 I Got Nothin

5 Reasons Your Protagonist Must Drive Your Conflict

Now you tell me: what’s Iron Man 3 about? Just by looking at the bare bones of the story structure, you sure wouldn’t know it was supposed to be about Tony Stark. And the story suffers as a result.

Consider five important reasons your story needs your protagonist front and center within its structure.

1. Cohesion Within the Conflict

A structure that’s all over the place indicates a story that’s all over the place. Story structure should never be a random collection of events that “fit” the requirements of the various structural moments. Every structural moment must be part of a cohesive whole that creates a clear image of the entire story.

If your protagonist isn’t at the center of that image, then you have to question whether or not he’s really the protagonist.

2. Forward Momentum

Your story follows your protagonist. If he’s not moving forward—if he’s not driving the story forward by creating a string of causes and effects related to the story goals he’s pursuing—then the story readers are participating in isn’t going to be moving either. It’s possible there’s lots of movement happening in the background, where other characters are driving the plot. But that’s not the show readers are privy to, or, even if they are, it’s not the show you’ve told them they should care about most.

3. Proper Foreshadowing

Strong foreshadowing is inherent within good structure: the beginning sets up the end. When one character controls one plot point, only to have another control the next one, the results seem chaotic because they are. The story isn’t correctly setting itself up.

Even worse, when you start out with an Inciting Event (the question that prompts your entire story) that isn’t bookended by a correlative Climactic Moment (the answer to the Inciting Event’s question), then you have a plot that simply doesn’t work.

4. Interesting Scenes

The most interesting scenes result at the crossroads where your protagonist meets the conflict. If he’s not meeting the conflict, then you’re leaving a ton of great scenes on the table. Chances are good your protagonist is just meandering around the neighborhood doing busy work to fill up his time—and your book. Chances are also good your readers are bored.

5. Thematic Resonance

Structure, character, and theme are integrally related. Mess up one and you’ve messed up all three. When the structure is out of whack because the most important character isn’t present, you can be sure your theme has gone a little wonky on you as well.

Your story’s central conflict presents the external metaphor for your protagonist’s inner journey. But if he’s absent for some or most of that external journey, his inner development can’t help but be stunted.

Every story must have a protagonist. Even if that character shares the stage with other prominent characters—or even co-protagonists—he must be present at the structural turning points. Otherwise, the story either isn’t about him or is missing a vital playing piece.

If you’re writing a particularly complex story, you may choose to create a single throughline to act as your story’s spine—as do The Aviator and The Great Escape. Or you may choose to give all characters equal prominence by making sure they all have an important role or independent beat at the turning points—as does Brent Weeks’s Blinding Knife.

But whatever you do, don’t let your protagonist suffer in the background of your story structure. Bring him fully on stage, and at least give all his suffering a spotlight!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how Thor: The Dark World robbed itself of thematic depth by choosing the wrong sequel scenes.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What does your story structure look like? Is your protagonist a prominent player at every turning point? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Back when I was an “aspiring” writer, I plotted a story that ended up being porridge, not that I completed it. It was an idea for the ages, though, and your post on IM3 reminded me of it. I think it’s time for me to revive the idea.

    Thanks for that, and all the years of advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Always fun to return to old stories with a new vision for how to make them work. All the best!

  2. Amy Karas says:

    Yes, Tony vs. Mandarin makes no sense structure wise. BUT!!! What about Tony vs. Iron Man? I think it might actually follow structure beautifully. Iron man (by that I mean the suits/ persona) has become something bigger than Tony. Iron man is there to engage the troubles and bad guys in the world (monster of the week is the mandarin); Tony is more afraid of Iron man than any baddies. Tony needs to defeat his personal demons (the hypervigilance). Iron man is becoming a different entity (foreshadowed when the suit attacks pepper in the night). Tony hides/ avoids/ or destroys iron man at most of the structural moments. Iron man saves Tony at the first pinch point; tony simultaneously causes Iron man’s serious hardware damage. Eventually Tony has to go toe to toe with the mandarin without iron man at the base. Even in the climax scene Iron man arrives in force to save the day, but Tony is no longer a part of it. Every time Tony climbs partially into a suit it is rendered useless within seconds. At the climactic moment Iron man/ Pepper save the day and Tony embraces the freedom to step back from being Iron man (portrayed in blowing up the suits) which is a gesture of his overcoming the hypervigilance/ PTSD.
    Tony vs. Iron man is a conflict that is reminiscent of the comics too. Now I need to pull out my story structure whiteboard and go watch it again to see if that times out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That I totally agree with. The problem is that Tony vs. Iron Man is effectively a subplot to what is positioned as the main plot (and what audiences expect to the be the main plot in a story of this type). Had the story recognized that it was really about Tony’s existential crisis and restructured itself to reflect that, it would have worked fine.

  3. I have found it difficult before when discussing subplots and secondary characters to remember to tie them into the main plot. I found that giving a secondary plot or character (usually both) a well developed arc still works as long as it impacts the main character in some way.

    In my first book, “The Spectra Unearthed”, the secondary character Sienna is struggling to find her brother and work out her own identity in the Spectra world. Eventually she tells the main character what she has discovered, and Sienna’s passion for taking on her newly discovered role helps the main character to gain the willpower she needs to enter her own climax.

    Then in the second one, “The Spectra United”, Sienna is struggling with independence and learning to make her own choices. It influences the main character who has to choose to risk her own life and her sisters to save a kingdom she never liked.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very smart. The litmus test for subplots’ and minor characters’ necessity is always: Do they impact the main plot? If they do, then you’re gold. 🙂

  4. I found this article amazingly helpful, thank you for breaking down your reasoning so clearly! In recent years I’ve learned to put a lot more conscious effort into how my protagonist drives the story – I used to fall into the trap of supporting characters guiding the plot, or of ‘stuff just happening’ to the protagonist with no internal influence.

    I currently write an episodic serial and I’m both intrigued and at times frustrated with structural issues related to this format. Regular ‘Pinch points’ must occur in each individual episode, but there also need to be larger pinches at specific points across the series as a whole – its the balance of episodic stories vs the overarching plot. I also find it can be easier to lose the thread of a subplot without careful thought. But so long as the protagonist is driving the main plot throughout, I feel it helps to guide all the other pieces into the correct places – they are largely a result of his decisions, after all.

  5. Wow, I’ve followed you for a while now, but this is the post that makes me rethink some of my own ideas for my WIP. I was going to have the POV from this little newbie who doesn’t have much to do with anything until the end. Now I realize the danger in having the protagonist as the observer. Thankfully, I already have a nice minor character who is the center of attention who just got promoted. 😉

  6. These posts are so good! I’m not even a Marvel fan and I totally get every single thing you’re saying, and hopefully will be able to use some of the hints and tips on my WIP!

  7. I’d have to say that I think Pepper is the Protagonist of IM3, whatever its title may be. Tony’s role is more like some kind of sidekick (which, in terms of SI, he pretty much did when he made Pepper CEO) or mentor-by-default, whose truth is probably something along the lines of “whatever you do, don’t screw it up as badly as I did”.
    Check it out again from this vantage point:
    Inciting Event: Aldrich Killian (the antagonist) petitions Stark CEO Pepper to fund his brain-hacking project Extremis.

    First Plot Point: Tony proves how completely clueless he is– about everything with Gigantor the stuffed rabbit and giving terrorists his address. Pepper is wondering why she puts up with this… should she put up with this? Oh crap, getting attacked, suits in the basement. Suit’s on me, NO! I told him the suits were too much when one attacked me… why am I staying with this… TONY, YOU IDIOT, NO! (Tears, tears and pain, because she was walking out of his bedroom and thinking about walking out of his life and now he’s dead.)

    First Pinch Point: Pepper learns Aldrich is working for the Mandarin.

    Midpoint: The Mandarin publicly challenges the President on national TV. Pepper is captured.

    Second Pinch Point: Pepper gets Extremis, and knows she will probably die a horrible flaming/exploding death. Note: This goes back to the inciting incident– You won’t buy my stuff? Okay, then, I will just kidnap you and inject you with it.

    Third Plot Point: The President is captured and delivered to Aldrich. Tony and Rhodey are busy with hero tasks. Pepper basically endures torture.

    Climax: Tony fails to save Pepper, even though he gives it his all and brings in all the suits he’s been working on in the times he should have spent on making himself a working person, working on his relationship, etc. Pepper survives because OH LOOK– that superserum stuff IS actually good for something. And we get to have the correlation back to when Tony saved Pepper in Malibu, but now she has to turn around and save him right back.

    Going on from here, I think it’s entirely possible–Pepper having expressed before in the IM movies that she couldn’t stand Tony being a superhero and putting himself in danger like that, and given how she acts at the beginning of IM3 (when being choked by the suit, the rabbit) that the justifiable ending, even though it happens off screen after the movie but before the next MCU– is that she does break up with him. She decides it’s too much, she can’t take it, she never signed on for being a superhero herself and she does not want to get dragged into this again– so she leaves him.

    Granted, it still could have been written better, but I think the movie as a whole works better if you think of IM3 as Pepper’s movie, where Tony is relegated to sidekick status but being the diva that he is, still manages to steal the title.

  8. Hello. I’ve just had a very enlightening read. I’ve thought no poor opinions towards Iron Man 3 and still don’t, which is interesting given the complaints I’ve seen. Personally I thought Mandarin was a pretty ironic metaphor, and the film concluded the trilogy exactly as I’d hoped, with Tony discarding what bound him to the Iron Man suit when he decided to finally get the shrapnel removed. I didn’t notice his absence in the conflict because he was still making personal progress, even if it wasn’t related to the conflict. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the earlier films…

    On a personal note, structure has been the missing link in my story trifecta since I first tried to write it in 2010: My current ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ start the conflict and they end it; in fact the the story’s setting can’t exist without them. However, they have minimal involvement in the rest of the plot, making way for two different protagonists who truly drive the turning points.

    This isn’t a book I intend to publish, mind, and labour of love as it may be, it’s several cuts above my paygrade. I’m hoping these articles can remedy that somewhat, especially since I’m familiar with the media involved. So thank you.

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