Story Structure: The Basics

structure

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.

Inciting Incident

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.

incitng

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.

plot

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.

pinch point

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.

midpoint

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.

pinch points

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.

plot

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.

resolved

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?

7 points

Writing, a lonely job?

writer

Writing is a lonely job, they say. Even the great writers like Ernest Hemingway have said that to write means to live a solitary life. I have often wondered at this quote, and I am not sure I stand by it… and I am not sure that I don’t.

Hemingway said that writers could always join writer societies–and in this modern world I suppose that also includes online societies–and that this would help placate the writer’s loneliness and increase his social life, but his writing would eventually suffer and become increasingly more mediocre due to this exposition. (It’s all here in his nobel prize acceptance speech.)

Thsi type of advice goes directly against what experts in the industry are telling young and novel writers nowadays—which is that you need people critiquing your work and other pairs of eyes looking over what you write, that you need beta readers and reading groups and constructive criticism and the everything of the sort. In short, that as a writer you should have a community of peers to surround you and help build your work. And here I sit, wondering whom I should listen to. In fact, some claim it as an absolutely necessary step in order to produce good work.

But is this true?

Writing is inherently a lonely job. You sit down with a computer (or a typewriter or a piece of paper and a pen, depending on your style) in front of you and basically pour out what is on your mind and transform it into words in a style that only your individuality can create. It’s deeply personal and thus, also solitary work. Your writing gets better as you learn from your craft and as you learn how to communicate what’s inside your head in a compelling way and in a way readers can understand and connect with.

This can only be done by you.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had beta readers and also professional editors look over my work and some of their advice has been invaluable to me. I learned a-lot from their notes and from their perception of what I wrote. But I don’t do this all the time… in fact, after that initial exposition, I have relied only on myself to polish and perfect my work.

So I would say I am a lonely writer, after all. Not because I think beta readers aren’t worth it, but just because I have found that solitary work is more beneficial for me in the long run than community work. I needed those beta readers and editors when I was still learning how to write and construct a story… but now I feel like I can trust myself enough and have gotten to know my writing enough to produce a reliable and coherent narrative on my own. I am also sort of guarded over what I write… or at least over my fiction, anyways.

Also, having several beta-readers or editors look over your work and give you what sometimes could be interpreted as conflicting advice could result in confusion and the dreaded writer’s block, which is nothing but a lack of confidence or a surplus of idleness or a combination of both these things, in any case. So it can be tricky.

I don’t think Hemingway meant that the writer’s life is defined by actual loneliness, as in the sense of real solitude where one has no contact with the outer world and no friends. Or at least I hope he didn’t, because I do stand resolutely against this belief. Being a writer is like any other profession, and even though there are certainly moments of obsession, one cannot become a hermit and isolate oneself from the rest of the world if one desires to maintain a decent level of sanity and balance in one’s life.

“Writing is a lonely job.” 

I interpret that what this quote means is that the writer must ultimately work it all out himself, just him and his head… and that there is a chance, however brilliant that writer might be, that his work will suffer if he allows others to influence him too much or to collaborate excessively on his work while he’s working on it. It’s supposed to be his/her work. His/her vision. He should hack away at it and get better every day, without others necessarily polluting it. What’s more, he should learn what works and what doesn’t so that he doesn’t have to rely all the time on other people, which can prove to be a handicap in the long run. And in this sense, this quote is certainly something I believe in.

#Write your story, be yourself

writer

These past few years I have been writing more seriously and I have thought long and hard about the direction I want to take my writing career in. I have also done my fair share of research in both traditional and self-publishing. I self-published my first novel, thinking it would be the best way to go. And even though it did modestly okay, the results weren’t exactly I was looking for.

However, this doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue self-publishing. Self-publishing gives you a huge amount of freedom and control over your material. I want to self-publish my future non-fiction books, and also my poetry books and maybe even the rest of The Sun Child Saga, the urban fantasy series I started… I even founded my own publishing company, Yggdrasil Publishing House, in order to do this, which is really only in its experimental phase for now since I am only publishing myself (even though it’s something I would love to expand in the future).

But for the rest of my fiction works, which basically consist in other fantasy novels, I would like to pursue traditional publishing. So I want it to be a mix. But the traditional publishing industry is a beast… it’s a tough nut to crack. A very small percentage of people make it and really it’s mostly based on luck… or fate, depending on what you believe.

I want to pursue this because traditional publishing houses help writers with marketing and promotion and have a ton of resources that I, for one, don’t have. I don’t have a massive online social media following, and truthfully I don’t even know how to get one. I don’t have hours and hours of the day to spend thinking about how to market and promote my work… I’m a lawyer and a business manager and I struggle with the challenges of my day to day as it already is without adding a second all-consuming job to the mix.

Writing and blogging are the highlights of my routine because they represent my creative time, but besides this I don’t do anything special or extra in order to promote myself or my work. So I would be grateful for the help of a traditional house in this regard.

But here’s the catch. And I’m just going to call it like I see it.

Most writers who pursue traditional publishing sell out. They cater to the likes and preferences of literary agents and publishing houses, foregoing their own visions in the process. They feel like they have to because it’s the only way for them to get published. And most of the time, it is. Literary agents dislike it when ordinary people call them ‘gatekeepers’, but in reality that’s what they are. If you don’t have an agent, most publishing houses will not take your submissions seriously, and that’s the hard truth.

What’s more, getting a literary agent’s attention is a very, very hard thing to do. They are overworked, their minds are busy with stories and business deals all day long, and they wade through queries upon queries of obscure auteurs such as myself on a regular basis. The probability of your work standing out is small… and also, mostly dependent on luck. Or fate.

Despite this reality, writers become obsessed with agents, looking at them almost reverentially. It’s a natural reaction, but it’s also the wrong reaction to have. Agents and editors are people just like writers are. They are one of the factors of the business equation that underlies the publishing industry, not the golden prize at the end of a quest. Instead of catering to them, or centering their entire success or failure on these factors, writers should embrace who they are. Be themselves, like the old adage goes. Write their story.

That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. And it not only keeps me centered and focused on what’s most important (my story) but it also keeps me sane. When you put something you cannot control, such as getting an agent’s attention, as the end-all and be-all of your happiness or success as an artist, you’re bound for dissappointment, and I learned this the hard way.

One cannot center their life on uncontrollable variables. What one can do, however, is keep on writing. Make YOU the center. Make your story the center. Make your development as an artist, the center of your success. That way, no matter what happens, you’re bound to succeed.

This is the philosophy I have arrived at, and I’m beginning to live, and swear, by it. My writing is much more constant as of late, and I’m much happier with the way my stories are taking shape. So that’s why I recommend anyone in the traditional publishing rat race to give it a try. Instead of thinking all day about what to do to get an agent, focus all of that energy and focus on making your story the best you can. After that it’s up to the gods what happens next.