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?
The 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 purposelydeviating 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?
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?
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.
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!