Musings on the Craft of Writing

►Story Structure or, “What I learned from the Three Little Pigs”

When we love a story, when a book stays with us for days (or decades) we know that it “works.”  What we mean by that is that the story fulfilled specific desires (based on the genre/tone of that novel).  But how does one story work and another fail?

Of course there’s always some subjectivity on the matter, but overall we do seem to share a “communal objectivity” about a tale either soaring or flopping. Tastes vary, but we still recognize the difference between the mastery of Beethoven and the pop-slavery of Brittany, or that Hamlet is genius while Twilight is garbage. There is a strong element of objectivity to art.

Story E

Of course, from that introduction we could run down a hundred different avenues to explore what makes a novel work.  This one is about story structure as taught by Larry Brooks in “Story Engineering.”  Brooks is one of many who espouse a strong Planning stance regarding novel-creation, and I find his to be the most logical and efficacious.

The philosophy:  All great tales (going back through Antiquity) work when they follow the correct “Story Structure” (or “Story Physics”).  When we disregard those “laws of writing-gravity” we jeopardize our tales.  EG: A story bereft of conflict (be it external/internal/both) fails.  A story with an antagonistic force which is easily overcome fails.  These are non-negotiable “laws of storytelling.”  And there are many more.

architecture

Brooks breaks down the successful story structure like this:

Four main “Parts,” three “Turning Points” and two “Pinch Points,” each containing their own mission.  (I’ll list them chronologically):

  1. Part 1: The Setup: To establish the character/world/stakes.
  2. First Plot Point (“1PP”): When “the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance.”  (Brooks calls this the “The Most Important Moment in Your Story”)
  3. Part 2: The Response:  The effects of the 1PP change your main character.  The Response shows a drastic change from the protagonist’s former way of life.
  4. First Pinch Point: Showing the reader (and optionally, the protagonist) the nature of the antagonistic force.
  5. The Midpoint: [Brooks]: “new information that enters the story squarely in the middle of it, that changes the contextual experience and understanding of either the reader, the hero, or both.
  6. Part 3: The Attack: The protagonist up until now has either been spinning or floundering, perhaps intent on just fleeing. Now this changes. Now he’s fighting back.
  7. Second Plot Point (“2PP”): In brief, “it’s when the chase scene starts.”
  8. Part 4: The Resolution:  The hero has learned, faced his demons, and is prepared to do anything to overcome the antagonistic force, even sacrificing everything (perhaps his very life).

geo

What fascinated me about Brooks’ Structure book was that, as I looked through all of the stories I love, that he seems to be right on the nose.  They all do share a common “physics” which, when ignored, cause various degrees of harm to the tale.

The usefulness of this kind of structure comes when you see that each of these seven main parts has a specific mission for you to accomplish.  This makes outlining a far easier task, for you can see what exact need exists, and how to address it. 

I’m only discussing the Structure part of the Story Engineering book (because it’s the most unique part of his book), but (if you look at the TOC) you will see much more in there.   However, I have to be fair and say that the Story Engineering book should have been edited better before it was released.  I don’t mean that there are amateur typos and the like, but rather that he spends too much time beating the drum and defending himself against attacks of being “formulaic” and of “not being creative.”  I take notes when I am reading a book like this, and in several sections I simply wrote: “More preaching!”  I suspect that his blog came first and the book came after, for I sense that he’s still arguing against those detractors within the pages of the book.  That to the side, it’s an important book for us.

I don’t think Brooks is endorsing anything ‘formulaic’ or ‘hackish’ at all.  I think that, just as with all art, there are “rules” which must be internalized.  It’s true that all such rules can be bent and tweaked in just the right way, and here is where the uniqueness of each artist shows.  But, it’s also where many artists attract loathing (or merely fade into anonymity).  At this stage I agree with Brooks, and recommend him to my fellow novel-writers.

~Daniel

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4 responses

  1. Pingback: ►My Novel-Writing Methodology: Pre-Drafting | Daniel Ionson

  2. I’ve been trying to figure out if my book follows the steps outlined above. Does the Midpoint have to fall at the exact midpoint of the book? Can part of the Resolution be left unresolved because of a cliff hanger? It will be resolved in the next book of hopefully, a three book series. Could the protagonist be part of a group of people with the antagonist as part of an opposing group? If yes, then my book follows these rules.
    Susanne

    January 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    • Hard questions. For these large issues I suggest reading several books on the matter for your answers. Books that I have read say that each novel needs its own resolution. If that book is part of a series, you can leave background issues as loose-ends, but that you dare not end a book with large unanswered questions.
      I’d also recommend the Brooks’ book for the rest of your questions. Good luck.

      January 10, 2014 at 5:16 pm

  3. Oh man. This is so damn intimidating. I want to write fiction but I’m glad that I can just write about my life (which feels like fiction) for now.

    January 13, 2014 at 8:12 pm

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