story structure q and a

Story Structure Q&A: 6 Outstanding Questions About Structure

6 questions about story structureBeing a good writer is all about being a good learner—having a wide-open mind that’s always looking for the next question. I think you guys must all be good writers, because you know how to ask some good questions! Today, I want to share a story structure Q&A, featuring six thought-provoking emails I’ve received.

Story structure exists as an elegant system for interpreting and making accessible the complex abstractions of story theory. Basically, the principles of story structure are simply the recognition of the patterns that emerge when we look at the larger canon of storytelling throughout the centuries.

Many writers teach different approaches to story structure, but they all boil down to essentially the same thing. Structure, as I teach it, breaks story down into eight equal parts, spread across three acts. These parts are punctuated by nine major moments, which optimally occur equidistant from one another:

Hook: 1%

Inciting Event: 12%

First Plot Point: 25%

First Pinch Point: 37%

Second Plot Point or Midpoint: 50%

Second Pinch Point: 62%

Third Plot Point: 75%

Climax: 88%

Resolution: 98%

(If you’re interested in seeing what this looks like in actual stories, I’ve done structural breakdowns of hundreds of books and movies in the Story Structure Database.)

From there, the story is broken further into structured scenes, each featuring the push-pull of action and reaction:

Scene/Action: Goal > Conflict > Outcome/Disaster

Sequel/Reaction: Reaction > Dilemma > Decision (> Leading to New Goal)

I’ve written extensively about all of this, specifically in my books Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs, their respective workbooks (here and here), as well as the free e-book 5 Secrets of Story Structure. But today let’s dive down onto the molecular level and examine some very specific questions you guys have raised about story and scene structure.

Q1. How Many Scenes Should Be in Each Act?

Q. I know that a story has major plot points, is composed of three acts, and that these plot points happen at strict moments in a story. However, when determining the number of scenes in a novel, is it necessary that each act has exactly the same number of scenes (except Act II, which would be twice that number)? For example, I’m outlining my novel of forty scenes, but I’m struggling to meet that quota simply because I don’t need that many scenes in Act I. Is it possible to have, say 18/41/19, versus 20/40/20?—Ryne M.

A. The timing of plot points, and thus acts, doesn’t have to be absolutely precise. The closer you are to the perfect percentage markers, the better, naturally. But the longer the story, the more wiggle room you have. For example, in my WIP, the chapter ratio breaks down like this: 13/37/15.

What’s most important is that all the structural requirements are happening within their proper sections and given the right amount of time to unfold properly within the story’s pacing

>>Read more here: How to Calculate Your Book’s Length Before Writing

Q2. How Does Scene Structure Work in TV and Movies?

Q. Does the “Scene/Sequel” approach for novels also work for TV/films? If so, how? Does a sequel have to happen directly after the scene it’s attached to or can there be a scene (a), it then cuts to another scene (or sequel
based on an earlier scene), then cuts to the sequel of scene (a)?—Steven B.

A. Structural scenes are different from “scenes” that are defined by scene breaks or cuts. In a script, especially one with multiple storylines, it’s not uncommon for there to be many scene cuts that divide up the overarching structure into several different distinct scenes. This is fine, as long as the individual scene structures are completed at some point.

>>Read more here: 7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters

This does make it harder to spot scene/sequel structure in movies and TV than in books sometimes, especially since the visual medium often utilizes fast “non-scenes,” such as incidents and happenings, to quickly convey information.

An example of basic scene structure from Star Wars: A New Hope would be Luke’s “scene” of finding Artoo, followed by the “sequel” with Ben Kenobi:

Goal: Find Artoo and get him back to the farm before Uncle Owen finds out.

Conflict: The Sand People arrive.

Disaster/Outcome: The Sand People attack, knock Luke unconscious, and dismember Threepio—until Ben Kenobi arrives and rescues them.

Reaction: Luke is surprised to meet Ben.

Dilemma: Ben wants him to come with him to Alderaan, but Luke knows his uncle is waiting for him.

Decision: Go back to the farm (which kicks off the new goal of returning, which is interrupted by the Jawa slaughter, and then the disaster of his aunt’s and uncle’s deaths back at the farm).

Q3. What if My Story Structure’s Timing Is Off?

Q. I see what you have to say about story structure and character arcs. Does it always have to be this way? In my story I have a 16 yr old running away. That is how the novel opens. She fails. She is returned home and doesn’t leave again until ten months later. None of this happens at the marks you talk about. Does this mean I’m doing it all wrong?—Nomi L.

A. Short answer to your question is: yes, it is important for stories to follow all of the major structural principles. Wherever they fail to do so, they will inevitably be weaker and less interesting than they might otherwise have been.

However, two things spring to mind in reference to your story description.

To begin with, the timing of the structural moments does not have to be dead on (see first question in this post). Particularly in the lengthier narrative form of the novel, we actually have a fair bit of flexibility with the timing. Still, I recommend trying to time the major structural points to within 5% of the optimal.

Second, make sure you’re identifying the moments in your story correctly. Without knowing any more about the timing, it strikes me that the opening scene in which the girl tries to run away is your Hook and her subsequent success is your Inciting Event.

Ultimately, the timing in structure is really about the pacing. As long as the pacing feels right, everything is probably working just fine. But if you feel the pacing is off anywhere, that’s a good place to stop and consider the structure.

Q4. Is the First Plot Point Too Soon to Feature a Major Tragedy?

Q.  The story I’m working on right now is confusing me a little in regards to story structure. Am I wrong in saying that the events in the story that create conflict get progressively worse or harder for the protagonist to deal with through the plot? Because if that’s true, is it too much to have a character beloved to the protagonist die as the motivating incident in the First Plot Point? Is that simply too big of an event to have in the first Act?—Rebekah K.

A. In a general sense, the events of a story definitely escalate as the stakes get higher and higher and become more endangered, funneling down to the red-hot point of the Climax.

Usually, the darkest moment in the story will be the Third Plot Point at the 75% mark, which will very often feature death or the threat of death, either to the protagonist or someone he cares about.

However, it’s not uncommon to feature death at the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point marks a point of “no return” for protagonists, in which they are often violently thrust from their Normal World. Often, a loved one’s death at this point can be the motivating factor in their pursuits throughout the entire rest of the conflict.

Q5. How Should I Organize the Climaxes of the Inner and Outer Conflict?

Q. When I have the bad guy’s climax happen at 75%, then the hero’s internal climax at 95%, with final loose ends tied in the epilogue, is that bad (unsatisfying) story structure? Should I have the hero go through his emotional climax at 75%, with the antagonist climax coming even earlier? I’m not sure that it should take my hero one-quarter of the book to get over his identity crisis, do you?—Teddy H.

A. You want your Third Plot Point “low moment/defeat” to happen at the 75% mark, your Climax to start halfway through the Third Act at roundabout the 88% mark, and the Climactic Moment to happen somewhere in the 95-98% mark range.

That said, there are two good rules of thumb for figuring out in what order to arrange your story’s final confrontations.

The first is simply to ask, “Which antagonistic force is the most important to the story?” Always end with the most important. This does not always mean you will end with the physically “biggest” or most visually obvious antagonist. Sometimes, the character’s inner conflict is more important and can only be ended after she’s faced down the outer antagonist.

However, you must also make certain the overarching conflict is properly framed. The Climactic Moment—taking place around the 98% mark—is the answer to the dramatic question first presented in the Inciting Event (at the 12% mark). So ask yourself, “Which of your conflicts is most prominent in the Inciting Event?”

If it’s the character’s inner conflict, then you’re indicating this is what the story is really about. Therefore, it would make perfect sense to save its conclusion until the very end of the story.

But if the outer conflict is given more emphasis at the Inciting Event, then readers will feel the story is essentially “over” upon the completion of that plot line, even if the protagonist’s inner conflict remains as an unresolved loose end.

Q6. Does Each Scene Need a New Goal—or Can It Just Reuse the Same One?

Q. Imagine a “road story” or “road film”—you have a character on the road going from one funny situation to the next on his way to California. Does each incident during the whole trip contain a goal? Would it be frivolous to label the goal “just keep on going towards California” each and every time? Does a humorous situation require a goal and all those other elements?—David H.

A. Just the other night I was watching an old Abbott and Costello movie and lamenting how much better it would have been had all the humorous incidents been together in a solid plot line.

So the short answer is: yes, even road-trip comedies need a solid throughline based on a main plot goal that is supported in every scene by related scene goals.

Even if the story is intended to be very episodic (which gives it much more of a pass than other types of stories), you’ll still want to make sure whatever is happening in each “episode” is presenting a new and different obstacle to the characters’ forward progress toward their end goal of California.

It’s best if each scene has a specific trip-related goal that can be thwarted. For example, they need to stop for gas, but they stop at a station that is being robbed. Or they need someone to jumpstart their car on the side of the road, but the person who stops just happens to be the guy who robbed the station. Stuff like that. Each is an obstacle to the overall goal of getting to California, but each is based on a very specific scene goal.

***

So what about you? Did you see one of your own questions—or something close? The ability to take abstract concepts, such as story theory, and make them concrete enough to be useful begins by being able to ask good questions. Where there’s a question, there’s always an answer!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your top story structure question? Tell me in the comments below!

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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. Ms. Albina says:

    Good article. For fighting scenes for the main character or minor character to fight evil which would be an action scene for writing it-should that be a paragraph or less than three sentences. Example scene: Lina’s grandma Leilani shouts to Lina to come behind her. Leilani who is a goddess changes into her warrior clothes. She and her appoint is in an open field-evil.
    Then she starts running and does three back flips and slams into her appoint then next does hand-to hand combat and after that her defense moves which would be like karate and other martial art styles and after that would be her powers and using them. One power of creating storms Leilani becomes very angry or enraged and the iris of her eye changes from green to gray by lighting bolt coming into her eyes and lighting coming out of her raven hair streaked with silver and turquoise then raising into the air or flying then looking at the sky to create the storm.
    Lina does not have any warrior skills yet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s no set rule for length on action scenes. You just have to feel out the pacing.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Okay, thank you. do you use a character questionable or keep track of writing word for your story? I want to keep track of how many words I write.

  2. Another excellent round of advice.

    One thing I’d add about the number of scenes: the idea of counting scenes comes from the expectation that each event in the story gets what’s recognized as one scene, and that shouldn’t always be true. It’s easy to see a couple having dinner with friends as a chance to bring up and advance one element of the plot– but some writers will have two or five important things happen in the same scene, while others will have a robbery break out that’s only one event but as long as three others. Also it applies only to “scenes” that aren’t “sequels”: if there’s a separate moment after an event to react to it, that’s a “scene” in the everyday but not in the sense of new plot (it’s a separate sequel moment– as opposed to the times the sequel is a wrapup before that first event’s curtain falls). Warmup and background moments can also create scenes that “aren’t scenes” in one sense.

    So counting scenes is useful as long as it’s tracking scenes-apart-from-sequels. But the “scenes” that most of us think of come from taking that structure and deciding how many more (or fewer) settings in time and place there need to do them all justice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. Events in a story can span several scenes or have several events occurring rapidly in one scene.

  3. Casandra Merritt says:

    It’s always great to learn more about structure. It opens up the door to what stories are really about. I have heard that goals in trilogies follow this order: Book 1 features a goal which is met by the end, is complicated in Book 2 by a new discovery, and fully resolved in Book 3. So let’s say (for example) in Book 1, my protagonist discovers a mysterious map and tries to figure out what it means. At the end he has learned that it’s a treasure map, setting the goal for Book 2 of finding the treasure. By the end of Book 2, he’s found the location of the treasure, but the place is held by pirates, so Book 3 is about him claiming the treasure. Am I on the right track as far as goal complications from one book to the next?

  4. Ooh, something tragic definitely happens at the first plot point in my WIP. It’s really the only way I can get all three protagonists involved at once.

    One protagonist and his wife are shot at in their own home and after that, she goes into premature labor. Their son ends up in the NICU, but there’s little hope for him.

    The second and his wife and their infant daughter barely escape their burning home, which was set on fire by an arsonist that he discovered outside when he comes home late from work. He runs inside to get his family and they end up having to stay with his parents.

    The third and his wife are woken by something outside, but when he goes to investigate, he finds an intruder in their home. As he’s fighting the guy off, she takes their one-year-old daughter to the neighbors, tells them to call 911, and rushes back to help her husband. She ends up being shot and dies in his arms within minutes.

    After the first two–who are best friends– find out that not only they had something happen to them in the same night, they find out the other guy–who happens to be their former high school enemy–also had something happen to him.

    They don’t know it yet, but the attacks are connected, because once upon a time, their ancestors were connected and someone didn’t like what they (the ancestors) did.

    They end up leaving their families, thinking it’ll protect them (the third plot point says otherwise), and team up, albeit with some bad blood at first because of high school.

  5. Glenn Cox says:

    I found this very helpful. One of your very best. Thank you.

  6. Jenny North says:

    Great article! The different questions definitely helped to illustrate the concepts in varied ways.

    Along those lines, this may be a dumb question but I assume that the story structure holds true to the order in which the reader/viewer experiences it, yes? For instance, if we looked at a movie like Memento where the chronology of the scenes is all jumbled up running forwards and backwards, would the inciting event, first plot point, etc. all be where we expect them to be with regards to when they occur throughout the running time of the movie? (I’m noodling out a time travel story and suddenly terms like “inciting event” make my head hurt.) 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, one of the major principles of structure is pacing. Even if a story is told out of chronology, the story beats and turning points still need to be properly timed to control the reader’s experience.

  7. Julian Cox says:

    I just wanted to mention something about the comment of the road trip and need for differing scene goals for each scene. It is also possible to continue along with the same goal for more than one scene. The kicker is the obstacles. Obstacles naturally create their own goals that need to be addressed but can range from immediate even to the point of overshadowing the overall scene goal. In that example you used for stopping for gas being a goal that could easily be an obstacle also for the comedy as in the two lame brains forgot to top off and were so busy sight seeing or whatever that now they are running low on gas. Maybe there is no gas station near and the robber you mentioned happens to be the guy that stops to supposedly give them a hand. Goal of reaching destination does not change but now first obstacle gas is low and second potential threat could completely derail there ability to achieve said goal. You may not agree but the scene goal does not necessarily have to be achieved but could be used more so as a point of reference to move the characters towards.

    How often in life do our goals get derailed by Murphy and go unachieved, at least within the time frame we desire them. Murphy is a wonderful character that is always lurking somewhere in the shadows and the more often he is used the more interesting a scene can be.

    So to simplify matters the resistance is what makes things really interesting and if the goals get thwarted along the way and new ones set as long as it is entertaining and does not veer from the over all plot I think you would be pretty good to go. Just a some things to consider.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. It is important though for the goal to be *advanced* in each scene, via complications created by the obstacles/conflict.

  8. Casandra Merritt says:

    Good to know.

  9. Great article! You mentioned pacing in question #3, and linked to an article about how to speed up or slow down your pacing, but I’m curious how you identify such a need. What are some key indicators that my pacing might be too fast or too slow?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a hard thing to quantify. Mostly, I find it’s a gut feeling–both as a reader and as a writer. And, of course, as backup, if your beta readers and editors are telling you something feels off, pacing is often a good place to start.

  10. ingmarhek says:

    Great answers to great questions.
    I learned so much. Mostly, I am not the only one who struggles with pacing and scenes structure.
    Thanks for posting this, K.M.

  11. Glad to hear that you can kill off your protagonist’s loved ones at the first plot point (that sounded pretty heartless. Sorry, protagonist :p)

    I’ve heard conflicting things as far as the first act. I’ve read that you should spend the first act on introductions, that the inciting and key events should occur within the first chapter, that the first plot point should be either the inciting or key event and at the 25% mark, and that the introductions should be finished by the inciting event.

    It’s seems improbable that they should all be right (unless the first chapter is quite lengthy).

    Any thoughts on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Part of the confusion lies within conflicting definitions of terms. These posts might help:

      Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is
      Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

    • I’ve read this too. Bring all key characters on stage in Act 1. What made it seem far less daunting of a task to fit into that space is when I read a post by Nina Harrington that adds the phrase “at least by reference”.

      As for Inciting Incident, Key Event and First Plot Point, I just spent the past two days studying these and trying to figure them out. The two best posts I found to really wrap my mind around these and the relationship between them is the one K.M. linked above in her reply (which clarifies misconceptions even she had in earlier posts on the subject) and another post by Robert Wood.
      Why Writers Like You Need To Know Their Key Event From Their First Plot Point

      He gives a few examples of how you can use compressed or stretched spacing between your inciting incident, key event, and first plot point to create a tone for your novel and to establish a transitional space between one world and another to give it a sense of reality and believability that an abrupt change would not. His best example is comparing different adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton stretches the spacing to create a sense that Wonderland is real. Lewis Carroll compresses the spacing to create a feeling of an “ever-shifting dream-state”. I am eager to seek out other ways these have been used to created different reader impressions. This really brought home for me WHY and HOW you would move these key structure points around in the first Act.

      Once you understand the purpose of each of these three structures and how they relate to one another it is easy to understand why so many writers are fuzzy on them. Robert Wood also discusses how Key Event and First Plot Point form a double-act, using K.M.’s door metaphor. On top of this, I learned that Key Event also performs a double-act with Inciting Incident. If you realize what two roles Key Event plays in relation to these other structures then when it happens at the same point in the story, it is important to ensure that its role and the role of the other structure element are both present and pulling their weight.

  12. In my fantasy, my protagonist Sky is the only survivor on her ship, and makes some new friends that are from a planet called Tendra, They try to stop this evil sorceress named Circe from causing destruction to the planet, but they encounter a lot of creepy animals along the way.

  13. I love that you break down that last act, going into more detail about the timing for the actual climax (internal and/or external). So many of the books on writing I’ve read DON’T give more than the general “and then the Climax and the Ending.” It’s weird to see the precise percentages given for all the other plot points, until the 75% mark, there’s no timing discussed in many of the other story structure books out there.

    Thanks for a great blog and newsletter — which keeps pinging me that I need to sit down and focus on getting this book on the page. 🙂

    Anne.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re welcome! I like to break structure into turning points at each eighth of book. The turn into the Climax is that final turning point. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  14. Casandra Merritt says:

    Have you ever heard of five-act structure? I have been wondering lately if such a thing actually exists, mostly due to the fact that in my trilogy outline, the main overreaching plot has its own plot points, but each individual book seems to focus more on the midpoint as the climax, then spending the last half tying up loose ends, and ending with a cliffhanger. Does it work to structure a series or trilogy like this, or is it a totally bad idea?

  15. Casandra Merritt says:

    I hadn’t heard of any other kind of structure but the three-act, so that’s what made me curious. Now that you say it though, it does make sense. Just two different ways of looking at the same thing. The only “difference” is in how the plot points are emphasized.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Structure is pretty universal, but different people interpret it in slightly different ways, so the language and the definitions vary.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Large-scale elements can ruin a story if done incorrectly. Lisa hall-Wilson has a checklist for writing deep point of view like a pro, Jessica Brody has 3 common plotting mistakes when writing a novel, and K.M. Weiland gives us a Q&A of 6 outstanding questions about story structure. […]

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