AUTHOR'S NOTE: Originally written as a newsletter editorial for the "Unofficial Erotica Newsletter Group" in preparation for NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo is getting closer, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to break down the subject of story structure. I'll be covering a lot of information, but I'll do my best to not make it too boring. I think we all know what "story" is, but since definitions can sometimes vary, for the purposes of this newsletter, we're going to define story as the plot or narrative, or just simply what happens to your character.
While there are many different ways of writing a story (outlining first, writing off the cuff, etc.), most stories still follow a predictable pattern or structure in their actual execution. Traditionally, they are designed to have a natural flow or arc that takes the audience on a journey. One of the most common and universally understood story structures is something called the Three-Act Structure.
Some simply define this structure as a story with a "beginning, middle, and end." I'm going to go a little more in depth and talk about what you're likely to find in each of these broad categories, because hey, it might actually give me a chance to put all my theory classes from college to good use! I'm going to use examples from screenwriting because I'm most familiar with that medium , and it's very specifically structured and paced, which lends itself well to using it as a template. For the purposes of examples, I'll reference the movies Shrek and The Matrix, so hopefully you've seen one or both of those at some point.
Please keep in mind, though, that this is merely a template. Ultimately, you need to make the choices that are best for your individual story and characters ... and if it ever comes down to a choice between hitting an artificial page milestone or doing what feels right for your story ... you should do what's right for your story. The following is just meant to be a guideline for those who are looking for a little more structure to their writing process, for those who find themselves constantly coming in way over or under their word count goals, or even someone who's a little daunted at the idea of writing 50,000 words in a single month.
THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE
ACT ONE - THE BEGINNING: Your first act makes up approximately 25% of your work. If it's a standard 100-page screenplay, that's the first 25 pages; if it's a 50,000-word NaNoWriMo novel, that's the first 12,500 words. Ultimately, you want to accomplish three things in the first act of your story: you want to introduce an inciting incident, work in your exposition, and end the act with a point of no return.
An Inciting Incident (or "hook") is the event in your story that, well, hooks your audience. It's the teaser, the dangling carrot, the come-on. It's that thing that happens right away that makes your audience say, "Ooh, that's interesting ... what's going to happen now?" In a screenplay, it usually happens in the first ten pages ... which translates into the first 5,000 words of a novel. Somewhere in there, something has to happen to pique your reader's interest and get them to keep reading.
In the movie Shrek, the inciting incident is when Shrek discovers all the fairy tale creatures have been relocated into his swamp. He's happy in his isolated, comfortable life, and suddenly he's put in the uncomfortable position of dealing with all these creatures invading his privacy. And the audience immediately wonders, "What's going to happen now?"
In The Matrix, the inciting incident is when Neo receives the cell phone from Morpheus, who calls and tells him how to avoid getting captured by the agents. When Neo says, "How are you doing this?", the audience is asking the same thing at the same time ... followed by, "What's going to happen now?" Especially when combined with Trinity's escape in the opening scene, the audience (when they saw it for the first time) is thinking, "Wow, what the heck is going on here?", which compels them to keep watching and figure it out!
Exposition is background, both in terms of character and story. It's the information that you need to establish in order to get your reader to understand the rules of the world you're creating, and sympathize with or understand your characters. Good exposition is typically woven throughout the first act so that, by the end of it, the audience clearly understands both your characters and the world and events in which they're involved. You want to be careful not to concentrate too much exposition into a single scene, conversation, event, etc. in order to avoid it coming off as heavy-handed and only for the benefit of the reader.
In Shrek, the title character's background is established in the opening montage where he hammers in the "no trespassing" sign, scares away the townsfolk coming after him with torches and pitchforks, tries to get the creatures to leave his swamp, and reluctantly going to see Lord Farquaad to confront him about the "eviction notice". All of these things establish his character for the audience and show us his motivation for later taking on the quest; he's reclusive, he doesn't like people, and he just wants to live his life in peace and solitude. The story's background (and the villain's background and personality) is established when the soldiers are rounding up fairytale creatures, the pigs explain to Shrek why they're in the swamp, when the welcome kiosk explains Farquaad's view of the world ... when Lord Farquaad explains his desire to marry a princess to become a king and purge the land of fairytale creatures, and when he interrogates the gingerbread man. All of these expository elements help us understand what the story is about and who the characters are.
In The Matrix, Neo's personality and background are established when he provides the club-goers at his door with their disc, in his attitude at work, during his meeting with Trinity, etc. The story is established in the first scene where we see Trinity and the Agent's superhuman abilities, Trinity disappearing through the phone, the belly-button tracking device, etc. All of this works to establish the world of The Matrix for the audience.
Point of No Return
The Point of No Return is the end of the first act, when your protagonist reaches a point where they can't just walk away from the story. Up until this point, the protagonist most likely has the option (even though it would make for a rather short and uninteresting story!) of leaving it alone and not pursuing his course of action. The Point of No Return makes it impossible for the protagonist to return home again and resume a normal life. If the Inciting Incident is the hook to get your audience interested in your story, the Point of No Return is, to continue with the fishing metaphor, the sharp tug that lodges the hook and makes sure that fish (or audience member) isn't going anywhere. They're firmly along for the ride now.
In Shrek, the point of no return is when Shrek confronts Lord Farquaad, beats up his guards wrestling-style and strikes the bargain to rescue Princess Fiona in return for his swamp back. At that point in the story (choosing between being shot or completing this quest), Shrek reaches a point of no return ... he can't just say "forget it" and go back home.
In The Matrix the point of return is pretty clearly Morpheus offering Neo the red or blue pill. Neo's forced to choose one or the other and from the moment he chooses that pill, there's no going back and undoing what he's done.
Your point of no return should happen at the end of the first act, around page 25 of a screenplay, or around the 12,500 word mark in your 50,000-word novel.
ACT TWO - THE MIDDLE: Your second act is the biggest chunk of writing. It accounts for the middle 50% of your work. In a screenplay, that's your middle 50 pages, 25-75. In your NaNo novel, that's your middle 25,000 words, the 12,500 to 37,500 range. In this act, there are two things you need to establish: Rising Action and The Midpoint Twist.
Rising Action is the escalation of events in your story. Ideally, throughout the second act, you should be steadily increasing the tension, the conflict, the risks, etc. By steadily and regularly upping the stakes, you keep the reader invested because you don't give them time to get bored and start thinking about other things. In a screenplay, it's recommended that something interesting escalate the events in the story or put the characters at risk every ten pages or so. And since there are 50 pages in the second act of a script, that's five events. In a NaNo novel, that equates to the same five escalating events, every 5,000 words or so.
In Shrek, the stakes were raised when they get to the fiery keep and realize a dragon's guarding it; when Princess Fiona decides that she doesn't want to be rescued by an ogre, when Robin Hood and his merry men try to liberate Fiona from Shrek, etc. Each of these events on the journey to rescue Fiona (and return to Duloc) keeps the audience engaged by giving them an exciting moment and/or escalating bit of conflict before they can get bored with the journey.
In The Matrix, the stakes were raised when Neo and Morpheus spar in the training program, when they have the conversation about how agents can be anyone and dodging bullets, waiting to fire the EMP when the search-and-destroy robots go by, when Cypher betrays them, etc. All of these events raise the stakes ... they explain or show the audience a new dimension to the world of The Matrix ... and a whole new set of challenges that Neo must overcome if he's to succeed.
The Midpoint Twist
Somewhere in the middle of your story (around page 50 of your screenplay or 25,000 words in your NaNo novel), there should be a twist or a surprise that takes your story in a new direction. And yes, this is one of the escalating events, so now you really only have to come up with four more. Up until this point in your work, the audience is going along the same road in the same direction, and if you don't change things up, they're going to figure out where you're taking them pretty quick. And when it comes to stories, the last thing you want is for the audience to see your ending coming miles away, with road signs pointing out where you're going. But if you throw a twist in there and take a side road or a detour along your journey, you're going to keep that audience wondering what's happening and where they're going... so that when you arrive at the end, it wasn't the result of a predictable path that they saw coming, but (hopefully) a pleasing surprise after a series of unknown twists and turns.
In Shrek, the midpoint twist is when Fiona and Shrek start to genuinely like each other along the journey back to Duloc. Suddenly it's not just Shrek on a mission to bring back the annoying princess for Lord Farquaad. They learn about and start to like one another, which adds a new direction and a new element to the story. Now Shrek isn't just delivering a person he has no interest in to another person he has no interest in... he's got to decide if he's still okay with the original deal (the princess for his swamp), or if he's discovered something more important.
In The Matrix, the midpoint is the sequence where Cypher has dinner with Agent Smith and reveals his intentions of betraying the group ... then when he leaves the phone to trace and actually betrays them during the visit to the Oracle. Up until that point, it's a group of rebel fighters against the machines. After that, the story goes spinning into an entirely new direction as one of them defects, one of them is captured, and four of them are killed. With only three viable resistance fighters left, they have to decide if the original goal is still possible, even if it means going in a new direction.
ACT THREE - THE END: The third act is the last 25% of your work (the final 25 pages of screenplay, or the last 12,500 words of your NaNo novel). This is the home stretch, where you've built everything up and it's time to bring things to a head and resolve them. In your third act, you want to accomplish two things: the climax and your denouement.
A climax (as the name implies ) is your big finale. It's the culmination of everything you've worked toward; it's the big payoff. Are there any other sexual metaphors I can use? Basically, your climax is when all the tension and conflict and suspense in your story come to a breaking point and result in a final showdown. The best stories usually find a way to bring all of their respective subplots and narrative threads together into one big combined finale.
In Shrek the climax is the wedding of Lord Farquaad and Fiona. Shrek realizes he's in love with Fiona and rushes to stop the wedding before it's too late. At that point, all of the plots are converging at once - Shrek figures out his feelings about Fiona and needs to tell her before she marries Farquaad and gives him the title of "king" that he's been wanting.
In The Matrix the climax is when Neo faces off against Agent Smith in the subway, and then experiences his resurrection in the apartment building. At that point in the story, everything comes to a head - Morpheus' and Trinity's faith in the Oracle's prophesies are put to the test when Neo is shot by Agent Smith, the Sentinels are closing in on the ship's position, etc.
Denouement is ultimately just a fancy French word for "resolution" or "conclusion". This is the part of the script where everything is wrapped up and all the loose ends are all addressed after the climax. If the climax is the height of a sexual encounter, the denouement is what happens after that ... whether one of them stays or goes, what's said between them, and how they proceed from there.
In Shrek, the title character marries Fiona instead, the spell is lifted revealing her true from as an ogre, and we're treated to the music montage at the end, wrapping up their happily ever after ending.
In The Matrix, Neo wraps things up by calling the operators of The Matrix and telling them that things are going to start changing, before he flies up from the phone booth, thus telling the audience where these characters are going after the events of the climax.
Okay, now that we've talked about the shape of a story's structure, you might be thinking "that's all great and everything, but we're still talking about 25,000 words for my second act! How am I supposed to fill up all that space with just a few escalation events. What do I fill all the other space with?" Well, I've got a few theory-based tricks for that too.
"Subplot" is short hand for subordinate plot. In other words, a narrative or storyline that plays second fiddle to the central story of your work. Most novels don't work without a least a couple subplots, and that's because, for one, subplots take up space. That's the simple and technical reason why they're necessary in a novel ... because reading 50,000 words about one series of events can be pretty cumbersome. The creative reason why they're necessary is because we don't live our lives in a vacuum. At any given time, most of us have more than one thing going on: work, family, personal relationships, etc. In order to capture the depth and complexity of real life, your characters should have more than one thing going on too.
Just look at any generic romantic comedy that's out there. Everybody knows that the main storyline is about the two lead characters and their struggle to get together, stay together, or whatever. But the movie is almost never only about their romantic relationship. One or both of the characters may have issues at work, or with their family, or with their friends, or with their living situation. Just like in real life, a romantic relationship may be the central issue, but it's certainly not the only issue that your character has to contend with.
The challenge in any longer work of fiction is to come up with realistic subplots that are related to the central plot. They can be tied together through an individual character, or situation in the work. In a romantic comedy, for example, the subplots are usually tied together through character. Work, the romantic relationship, and the family relationship may all be completely separate plots ... but they work because they're intertwined in the life of the protagonist that we're following (and hopefully sympathizing with). These types of stories are typically referred to as character-driven. Alternately, if your subplots are tied together by events ... for example, a movie like Vantage Point or 21 Grams, then the intertwining comes from the different subplots converging and surrounding an event that affects all the diverse characters and their individual lives. These types of stories are typically referred to as story-driven or plot-driven.
So how does one come up with subplots?
The first step is to figure out who your characters are and what story you're trying to tell, so you know what the subplots can potentially be about. If you're writing a book about a straightforward romantic relationship, it's probably a bad idea to have a subplot where the villain's henchman sells the bomb deactivation codes to the Americans. And if you're writing an international espionage thriller, you probably don't want the primary subplot that takes up a third of the book to be about the main character searching for the perfect anniversary gift for her husband. Before you do anything else, you have to know what story you're trying to tell, so you can figure out what aspects of your characters' lives are worth exploring in subplots (and to what degree).
The next step is to create conflict. Without conflict there is no interesting or compelling story. A movie about a guy living a life in which everything at work is great, everything with his family is great, everything with his marriage is great ... isn't all that great to watch or read. Why? Because then you're reading a whole lot of words that all pretty much amount to the same thing. "Yep, this guy's got it pretty good. I've been telling you that for the last 10,000 words, but how about I write another 40,000 words about how good he's got it?" Conflict is what drives a story. Your characters need it, your audience wants it. So the second step in creating a subplot is to ask yourself "how can this go wrong for my character?" Figure out how to create a rift or a problem or a suspicion, and you're ready to set up your subplot. Your protagonist is happily married? Okay, what if he suddenly finds out his wife isn't so happily married and is sleeping around? What if they're not happily married at all, and only keep up the appearances of civility while around other people, tearing into one another at every opportunity when they're home behind closed doors? Generally speaking, your characters should have an obstacle to overcome in every subplot of the story ... because if that subplot doesn't have the same natural arc as your central story, it's going to fall flat.
The final step is to figure out how much time you want to devote to each subplot; in other words, how much space you want to dedicate to each storyline. For the purposes of this section, I'm going to use film terminology, which uses a lettering scheme to describe plots. Your central storyline is your "A Plot", with most important subplot being your "B Plot". Most movies have a third-tier, fairly short additional subplot which is called the "C Plot", although there can actually be as many subplots as you want, with each subplot, in decreasing order of importance, taking another letter. Thus, if you have a novel with A, B, C, D, E, F and G plots, the F plot is more important and typically takes up more space than the G plot, but less than the E plot. For this newsletter, let's stick with three main storylines in your novel.
If you've got three main storylines and are looking for a good balance, I recommend the 60/30/15 Ratio. What that means is that roughly 60% of your work should be focusing on the main storyline, with a primary subplot occupying about 30% of your work, and a secondary or minor subplot that's roughly 15% of the entire work. (And yes, I know the math adds up to 105% ... but the reasoning here is that it gives you a 5% overlap between plots - or 5% buffer to toss out and rewrite). If you're talking about a 50,000 word NaNo novel, that means roughly 30,000 words for your A Plot, 15,000 words for your B Plot, and 7,500 words for your C Plot. When you look at it that way, you're not writing a 50,000 word novel ... you're just writing three short stories of varying length and then figuring out a way to tie them all together.
The goal of subplots is to flesh out your story and your characters, to give depth and dimension to their lives which, hopefully, enhance and augment your central storyline. With the proper balance of subplots, you could very well find that you hit the 50,000-word mark before you know it! Not to mention that it's the more preferable option (both in writing and reading) to dragging out the same plot longer and longer, trying to hit that word limit.
So now that I've hit you over the head with all the story theory I can think of, start thinking about those NaNo novels. Whatever your personal writing process ... whether its to just write free-form, to plot everything out meticulously, or to find some hybrid of the two (my personal preference), the idea is to use story structure and subplots to help round out your work and give it a depth and complexity that will sustain you for 100 pages, 50,000 words, or whatever your individual goal may be.