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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Writing · #1794299
Some good pointers on structuring your story.
What Holds Your Plot Together?

A Disturbance and Two Doors

We're going to consider the concept of a disturbance and two doorways.. If you understand what happens with each, structuring your novel will be a breeze.

The Disturbance

In the beginning of your novel, you start out introducing a character who lives a certain life. That is his starting part. It's also the place he will stay unless something forces him to change. Unless he does change, we're going to have a pretty boring story because only a threat or a challenge is of interest to the readers.

So very early in Act I something has to disturb the status quo. Just think about it from the reader's standpoint--something's got to happen to make us feel there is some threat or challenge happening to the characters. Remember Hitchcock's axiom. (Imagine his voice if you ever heard him saying, "If something doesn't happen soon, you've got a dull part.

This disturbance does not have to be a serious threat, however. It can be anything that disturbs his ordinary life. Dean Koontz usually begins his novels with such a disturbance. Here’s the first line of The Door to December

"As soon as she finished dressing, Laura went to the front door, just in time to see the L. A. Police Department squad car pull to the curb in front of the house.”{{/left}

Now that’s a disturbance, something small to begin with, but a disturbance nonetheless. We don’t usually feel complacent about a police car pulling up to our home.

The number of possibilities is endless.

• A phone call in the middle of the night
• A letter with intriguing news
• The boss calling the character into his office
• A child being taken to the hospital
• The car breaking down in a desert town
• A note from the Lead’s wife (or husband), who is leaving.

From a structural standpoint, the initial disturbance creates reader interest. But, it is not yet the main plot because there is no confrontation. The opponent and the Lead are not yet locked in an unavoidable battle.

In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather young Michael Corleone is determined to go straight, avoiding his father’s way of life. But when the Don is shot and nearly killed, Michael’s world is rocked.

Yet Michael is not thrust into any confrontation. He can leave New York and start a new life elsewhere. The confrontation doesn’t happen, the story doesn’t take off, until the Lead passes through the first doorway of no return.

In the George Lucus film Star Wars, there is an action prologue. Darth Vader and his troops chase and capture Princess Leia, but not before she dispatches a pod with R2-D2 and C-3PO in it. The droids land on their planet Tatooine and get captured by the Jawas, the junk merchants.

We meet our Lead character, Luke Skywalker, at work in his normal world on Tatooine, where he lives with his aunt and uncle. His uncle buys the two droids. Within five minutes of this, we have a disturbance to Luke’s world—the distress hologram from Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s help.

Eventually Luke connects with Obi-Wan, who views the hologram and asks Luke to help him answer the call for help. Luke “refuses the call” (in mythic terms) by telling Obi-Wan he can’t leave his aunt and uncle.

This is still not the doorway into Act II because Luke can go on with his normal life. Nevertheless, when the Empire forces destroy Luke’s home and kill his aunt and uncle, Luke is thrust into rebellion. He leaves his planet with Obi-Wan, and his adventures begin.


How do you get from beginning to middle (Act I to Act II), and from middle to end (Act II to Act III), is a matter of transitioning. Rather than calling these plot points, I find it helpful to think of these two transitions as “doorways of no return.”

That explains the feeling you want to create: a thrusting of the character forward, a sense of inevitability. We are creatures of habit; we search for security. Our characters are the same. So unless there is something to push the Lead into Act II, he will be quite content to stay in Act I. He desires to remain in his ordinary world.

You need to find a way to get the Lead out of the ordinary and into the confrontation. You need something that kicks him through the doorway, otherwise, he’ll just keep sitting around the house.

Once through the doorway, the confrontation can take place. The fight/confrontation goes on through Act II, the middle. But you’re going to have to end the story sometime. Thus, the second doorway of no return must send the Lead hurtling toward the knockout ending.

These two doorways hold your three acts together, like pins adjoining railroad cars. If they are weak or nonexistent, your train won’t run.

Through Door Number One

In order to get from the beginning to the middle—the first doorway—you must create a scene where your Lead is thrust into the main conflict in a way that keeps him there .

In a suspense novel, the first doorway might be the point where the Lead happens upon a secret the opposition wants to keep hidden at all costs. Now there is no way out till one or the other dies. There can be no return to normalcy. Grisham’s The Firm is an example.

Professional duty can be a doorway. A lawyer taking a case has the duty to see it through. So does a cop with an assignment. Similarly, moral duty works for transition. A son lost to a kidnapper obviously leads to a parent’s moral duty to find him.

The key question to ask yourself is this: Can my Lead walk away from the plot right now and go on as he has before. If the answer is yes, you haven’t gone through the first doorway yet.

Book I of The Godfather ends with that transition. Michael shoots the Don’s enemy, Sollozzo, and the crooked cop McCluskey. Now Michael can never go straight again. He’s in the conflict up to his eyeballs. He cannot walk away from his choices.

What Structure Looks Like

The three-act structure comes from drama and is used extensively in film. The first “doorway of no return” usually happens about one-fourth of the way into the film (in other words, within the first thirty minutes of a two hour movie).

In a novel, that first doorway needs to happen earlier, or the book will seem to drag. Bell’s rule is the one-fifth mark, though it can happen sooner.

In addition, the final act may take place more toward the end. So while the three-fourths mark is still a good sign post, you can slide it to the right a little if you desire to do so.

Mastering structure and transitions will make your novels more accessible even if you choose to deviate from a linear unfolding. Add a ripping good story, and your novels may turn out to be unforgettable.

A Summary of Plot and Structure

These basic plot and structure elements will never fail you.

A plot is about a Lead character who has an objective, something crucial to his well-being. The major portion of the plot is the confrontation with the opposition, a series of battles over the objective. This is resolved in a knockout ending, an outcome that satisfies the story questions and the readers questions.

A solid plot unfolds in three acts—a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning we get to know the Lead, his world, and the tone of the story to come. We have some sort of disturbance in the beginning to keep away the dull parts.

We move into the middle through a doorway of no return, an incident that thrusts the Lead into conflict with the opposition. We need some sort of adhesive to keep them together, something like professional or moral duty, or a physical location.

Death—physical, professional, or psychological—is often a real possibility until the conflict is settled. Some setback or crisis, or discovery or clue, pushes the Lead through the second doorway of no return.

Now all the elements are there, get to that final battle or final choice that’s going to end the story.

Exercise 1 . . .

Using the structure diagram, map out your current plot. Come up with a disturbance scene and events that make up the two doorways of no return. Write these down in summary form. Tweak them to make them original and involving. Express yourself verbally or artistically.

Well, this week I’ll be trying to place the book in my head into the diagram structure of a disturbance and two doors. This makes us focus on aspects of the novel that you wouldn't hit for a long time if you were trying to write out the plot chronologically.

I know this structure stuff will help me a lot. My curreny story isn’t arranged, not even arranged well in my head, so this is the week I’ll attack its structure. I don’t know if I’ll use a dry erase board, index cards and thumb tacks, or just many pieces of paper laid down my hallway. Whatever works for you--computer or good old pencil (erasable) and paper (can be balled up and tossed away to alleviate both frustration and boredom) write to your heart’s delight and passion this week.

And if you come up with an interesting way to deal with this task, please share that info in your e-mail to patrice@wwriting.com, and include a "bitem" access to your e-mail.

Let’s work on the exercises within the text, and also plan to map out our plot structures.

If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine. I'll create a couple of group sections for us to enter our exercises. I'd like everyone to be able to read the great writing I've read. Enter your ressponses to the exercises as an item, or an image if you’ve webbed your plot in a more artistic manner.

Whatever form is comfortable for you, work on it. Put the big ideas together this week, and you have a structured book you can continue to write on a weekly schedule. The end is literally in sight! You are just shy of calling yourself a novelist!

Please send your exercises/item/image to Patrice @Writing.com before next Tuesday if possible. This allows me reading time. If you’re later, you’re later, and that’s fine too.

Write on!

Your facilitator,
Patrice, a sunflower in Texas
Book cover for the text for the "Believable Fiction Workshop."

Saturday Update

Follow this link for 4 more pages on the opposition and adhesive. It fits exactly into what we're reading about. Hope you find this useful.

 Weekend Update -- Opposition, Adhesive  (13+)
A bit more info for Week 5 -- the Opposition, and finding an adhesive. Focus on Fiction
#1795798 by a sunflower in Texas
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