You’re thinking about the story you’re writing, or the one you’re about to write. And you want to make sure you keep the reader’s interest. Do you have something good happen to your protagonist, and then something better happens, and then something really really good…? No. Boring.
How about something bad happens, and then something worse happens, and then something truly and utterly bad happens…? No. After a while the reader thinks bad is normal for your protagonist, or the readers themselves become beaten down by the constant string of tribulations.
You can see this coming. Your protagonist needs to have a succession of experiences, some work out well, some not so well. That way the bad doesn’t become a new normal, and the persistent good doesn’t become boring. But you can’t merely alternate good things and bad things—where’s the motivation to read to the end in that. It’s still more of the same; there isn’t any progression.
People have been telling stories, and telling them well, for a long time. They must have this figured out, right? Of course. Like all other things having to do with artistic expression, there isn’t a single right way to do it. There is, however, a tried and true way to do it. Does your story use it? No—you must have consciously chosen an alternate form because you knew it fit the story better, right? Sure. When pigs fly.
This is, I hope, the first in a series of little pieces on story structure. Writing them gives me a chance to solidify some of the concepts in my own mind and hopefully put some ideas out there that others may find helpful.
So here’s the answer:
- Start with an inciting incident—something happens that utterly disrupts the protagonist’s life (could be something good). They are motivated and capable of doing something to put there life back in balance.
- A series of scenes follow that provide a slow escalation of good and bad outcomes from conflicts the protagonist leads the story through. That collection is building towards a major event where life goes from good to bad (or vice versa). That collection is your first act.
- Another series of scenes follows, again with escalating conflicts and consequences, ending with the reverse of what ended Act I. That is your Act II. If you’re writing a novella, you’re probably done now.
- Three acts is a minimum for a long work. Each act is a reversal of fortune. In each act your protagonist has to work harder, extend themselves further, to achieve what they want.
- The Climax. This is the obstacle, the choice that has been constructed to clearly be the ultimate challenge for this protagonist in this place. This is make or break time. This is not “If this is Thursday, this must be Paris.”
And the really neat thing, is you need to construct your story from the ending, working backwards to the beginning. That is the way to ensure that everything that precedes the ending is there to serve a purpose—the ending.
If you like visuals, this graphic (from Jess Harris, one of our other members) is a nice way to think about how your overall story might look if you were to keep track of the overall state of “success” that the protagonist is having in reaching their goals:
Looking inside of an act, or a chapter, you would see a more finely grained structure:
Another, overall story view is the Story Spine, as described in an article written by Chris Huntley, one of the developers of Dramatica, and can be downloaded from: http://www.dramatica.com/downloads/Dramatica%20paradigms-0707.pdf. It is a well written article and well worth reading. (It compares seven different story paradigms.)
Takeaway: designing from the ending backwards, you create an escalating series of events with major reversals of fortune creating turning points (Acts), and each act composed of individual scenes containing their own escalating conflicts, all starting from an inciting incident that launches your protagonist off on their voyage.
Sounds easy. Sigh. Maybe not quite so easy.