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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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?

  6. Ms. Albina says:

    K.m,

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

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Ms Albina says:

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

  11. 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.

  12. Jennie Lynn Schmitt says:

    The story I am trying to flesh out now has more than one protagonist. They both share the same inciting and key event and I think (so far anyway) the same turning point/midpoint. Meaning the same event acts as those plot points for both characters. However, the third plot point is different for each character. There’s an event (3rd plot point) that compels both characters to make a choice but Character A makes one choice that contradicts and effectively nullifies the choice of Character B forcing him to make another choice. In that case the choice of Character A seems to be the 3rd plot point for Character B and not the preceding event. I hope that makes sense. In a nutshell, do all protagonists in a story need to have the same plot points that are driving them? Can each character have a slightly different story structure as long as their combined so as not to be confusing?

    I just wanted to let you know I have read dozens of blogs on writing and yours if by far the best. It has so much information and it’s presented in a way I can actually understand that isn’t overwhelming. I’ll search up a question I have about writing and invariably your blog comes up time and time again and is the only tab left on my browser after the other sites fail to really help me. So thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although it’s often nice if the same plot points can drive all the characters, it’s not necessary. What is necessary is that each plot point is a natural product of cause and effect, which it definitely sounds like yours is.

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the blog! 🙂

  13. I’ve noticed it has become common in movies to use a major plot point as the hook in the beginning and then go back to act one. They even did this a bit in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Do you think this is a good variation in structure if you don’t have a good hook? I have a comic book story that I told in a conventional way, and I likely would have gotten more fans if I hit them with the big conflict first. I don’t think comic book readers want to wait for the story to build and want the action up front.

    I’ve really enjoyed this series! I think in my current work I’m hitting all the structural points in an interesting way, with different characters carrying the ball at different times, and having a series of 3 climaxes in succession as the overlaying character stories conclude, and then a fairly long wrap up that really hammers home the theme. I have to think about whether it is too much.

    But I am more confident know that I understand better what I created. We get a Boom! BOOM! boom, then the wrap up. I think the progression makes logical sense, but the smallest climax last may be a little less satisfying emotionally.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What you’re describing is called a “fast forward.” It can sometimes be done to great effect (as in It’s a Wonderful Life), but it’s easy to have a fast forward come across as gimmicky. Generally, I recommend against them.

  14. I’ll try not to fall all over myself while gushing, but I just think you’re the most fantastic thing! “I read all your blogs, I listen to all your podcasts, I own a couple of your books.” This segment on story structure has been phenomenal– and “I just bought the outlining software.” It has helped me to get past my writer’s block, which is the biggest gift you can give to your fans! Thank you!

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