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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Is Your Story Structure Working?

I love story structure. It's my go-to tool for planning a novel, and the first thing I look at when it's time to revise that novel. As long as everything is in the right place, I can focus on the story and characters and trust my plot is holding all the pieces together.
What makes story structure so valuable, is that it provides solid, proven turning points that can help you decide what events need to happen when to get the most out of your story. It also helps you find holes in the plot, and places where the stakes might need to be raised, allowing you to find potential problems before you stumble across them.
As valuable as structure is in the writing process, it's critical in the revision process. Your structure is your guide to tightening weak areas, adjusting your pacing, strengthening your goals--the entire foundation on your novel is built on its structure. A weak structure creates a weak novel (and nobody wants that). Analyzing these points helps you craft a stronger novel.
A note about story structure: As you go through these questions, keep in mind that the terms used are meant in a general, conceptual way. For example, the “final battle” doesn’t have to be an actual battle, or even a fight, it’s the final moment when the two conflicting sides (protagonist vs. antagonist) resolve the conflict.
Look at your story and ask:
Are all the pieces in the right places? Key turning points in the plot keep the story moving forward. Put the right piece in the wrong turning point, and the novel can drag, or feel rushed if things happen too early.
Does the opening scene present an intriguing problem or mystery to draw readers in? The goal of the opening scene is to pique readers’ interest and make them want to read on. Is there something interesting happening on page one that makes someone want to read page two?
Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 pages for longer manuscripts) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel? In every story there’s a moment early on that changes the protagonist’s life forever by putting her on the plot path—if it hadn’t happened, the plot wouldn’t unfold as it does and the story wouldn’t have happened.
Is there a moment in the beginning where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem? Near the end of the beginning (around the 25% mark in a traditional Three Act Structure), the protagonist has the option of saying “no” and not pursuing the core conflict goal, but makes a choice to move ahead with the plot and venture into the unknown.
Do the stakes escalate at this time? Good story structure provides opportunities for the stakes to escalate at major turning points of the plot.
Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed or approached? The middle of the book often shifts things for the protagonist and plans start to fall apart—whether she realizes it or not. Or things might be revealed which change how the entire story thus far has been viewed or understood.
Are the stakes raised again around this time? Stakes typically become more personal and the risks get higher at the midpoint, and the protagonist is now more invested in resolving the problem.
Is there a dark moment or set back just before the ending starts that raises the stakes again? As things get harder and tougher for the protagonist, it becomes uncertain if she can win. Shortly before the ending (around the 75% mark in the Three Act Structure) everything is (or has been) stripped away, and the protagonist loses all hope and doesn’t see a way out of the problem.
Are the stakes raised yet again? Often, this is when the highest, most personal stakes come into play—an all or nothing, do or die consequence.
Does the protagonist make the decision to continue the fight despite the risks or sacrifices? This is a critical moment that triggers the climax, sending the protagonist to face off against the antagonist to resolve the novel’s core conflict.
Is there a clear win for the protagonist at the climax? Something that must be done in order to succeed? The final battle uses everything the protagonist has learned so far, and what must be done to win is clear (though how is often still a mystery).
Does the ending resolve itself in a way that satisfies the story questions posed in the beginning of the novel? Not every loose end needs to be tied up, but the core conflict and the major plot threads should be answered to reader satisfaction.
Is the ending satisfying? A satisfying ending frequently equates to a great novel, since it’s the last thing readers see. It’s the ending readers have been waiting for, and gives them what they wanted (though not always in the way they expect).
Story structure is not a template, so don't feel you have to follow every step exactly. Turning points can shift or change to suit the novel it's supporting. Use it as a guide to a stronger story and a reminder of the storytelling moment most novels use.
What story structure do you prefer?

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Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draftto Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released PlanningYour Novel Workbook

Janice HardyJanice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

*Excerpted from Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft


Jackie said...

This is definitely a keeper post. Thanks so much!

Janice Hardy said...

Thanks so much! Glad you found it helpful.

Pam Harstad said...

What an insightful list. I'll be using it as I go along writing my new novel. Thanks so much.

Janice Hardy said...

Most welcome, hope it helps.

Christy Olesen said...

This would make a great check list to keep handy. I've pulled things from different story structures, but mostly I use the hero's journey for romance.

Sarah Aspen said...

I like how you've distilled and simplified the core story structure. Great reminder! Thanks!

Kim English said...

This is definitely a keeper and a wonderful way of distilling some "tear your hair out" issues into an easy to understand process.

Vahlaeity said...

Thanks for this wonderful overview.

JC Martell said...

Structure was the first think I learned and feel I understand reasonably well. I try to abide by a combination of compatible approaches and your checklist fits them all. Nice!

Janice Hardy said...

Thanks everyone. I had a lot of fun creating the analysis sections of each workshop for this book.

JC, I love structure. Having that framework to write in makes the process a lot easier.

wrekehavoc said...

helpful! thanks!

aneducationinbooks said...

Great checklist of structure points

Zoo Recipes Blog said...

I write picture books, and structure (or to be more precise, story arc and rising stakes) is the hardest part for me. These specifics is help. Thanks

Janice Hardy said...

Picture books are tougher since they're so small, but the same basic structure applies. It just all happens in a MUCH shorter timeframe :) You also have the pictures to help as, well.