An important part of story-telling is the structure. Compelling stories usually have a very defined structure which keeps the pace going at an appropriate speed and engages the reader to the point where the story begins to feel like it comes alive for him or her… which is what every writer wants.
Not every book has to have structure. Literary books, for example, can get away with having a looser structure and a more abstract plot. Speculative fiction, however–such as fantasy, science fiction, or horror–benefit enormously from following a defined structure. The story has a better foundation that way. Structure doesn’t limit us, but rather guides us and teaches how to better craft a story.
Here is the basic structure of a speculative fiction story. I try to follow this structure in my own stories, no matter their length. So if my story is 100,000 words, for example, then the 20% mark would be the 20,000th word, and so on.
The story must begin with a hook. It should pull the reader in. A writer I admire once said that if you manage to really hook the reader for the first 15 pages, then they will follow you anywhere. Something interesting and out of the ordinary must happen.
Even if the event itself is completely ordinary, it must capture the reader’s attention with something different. Starting from the inciting incident up until the first plot point, the writer must introduce the main character, some backstory (not too much because this bores the reader, not too little because it confuses him), and goals.
1st Plot Point: 20% mark
Also known as the point of no return. The main character is confronted with a change of destiny. The first plot point always marks a major change of direction. Whereas the first part of the story serves as an introduction to the characters and a set-up for the plot, the first plot point marks the beginning of the conflict, which is when the story actually gets juicy.
1st Pinch Point: 35% mark
The first pinch point serves to show the antagonistic forces of the novel. Here we get to see who–or what–the protagonist is really up against. The main character or protagonist is faced with external conflict, which serves to build tension within the story and to give him or her something to fight against and overcome.
The Midpoint: 50% mark
It’s the middle of the novel, and usually there is some unexpected twist that the reader (hopefully) didn’t see coming. It’s different from the pinch point because this twist doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the antagonistic forces of the book. Whether the twist complicates things or makes things easier for the main character is entirely up to the writer.
The 2nd Pinch Point: 65% mark
Here the reader is once again reminded of the antagonistic forces working against the protagonist. Things get uglier, harder, and more complicated for the main character. They definitely don’t get easier… remember, it is always darkest before the dawn.
The 2nd Plot Point: 80% mark
Things start turning around for the protagonist. Everything seemed to be lost, and now there’s another chance to fight. It is also the cutting off point for new information being introduced into the story. After this, it is advisable to not expose any new information to the reader, because you run the risk of overcomplicating the story. So if you want to turn things around, this is the point in the arc to do it. The rest of the story will be dedicated to the resolution.
It is the ending where the consequences of every action taken by the main charatcer come to light, the point where things get resolved for the protagonist either for the better or the worse. It is the conclusion of everything that has happened in the story so far.
Whether it is a fitting or satisfying conclusion depends on the writer and how he or she wants to end the story, either in victory or defeat, comedy or tragedy, elated or completely destroyed. Some writers have an eye for concluding their stories well. Others completely ruin it without wanting to. Much of the quality of the story depends on its resolution, and it’s what most readers remember.
Of course, if you want to continue the story you can always end on a cliffhanger, which can be defined as another inciting incident introduced at the ending of the first story.
And there you have it, the basics of story structure. It’s up to the writer to use these rules as guidance or not. I have personally found my story-telling to become more coherent when I follow these rules. But like I said, these apply more to speculative fiction. If you’re writing a literary book on existentialism with traces of magical realism spread out throughout the story, then perhaps this structure isn’t for you.
Thanks for reading! What rules do you follow (or break) while writing, and has it worked for you so far?