Fiction School’s Quick Guide to Story Structure

Fiction School’s Quick Guide to Story Structure

We have no idea how to structure this story...
We have no idea how to structure this story…

After Episode 1 of the podcast, where we debated and challenged and shouted for plagues upon each other’s houses, we realized that during the show we never actually talked concretely about the plot points and movements that make up story structure.

Oops.

So today we’re fixing that.  Here it is:

The Official Unauthorized Dubiously-Devised Fiction School Quick Guide to Story Structure.

Part One: The Call

At the beginning of your story, there’s something intriguing, some twist or problem or urgency that gets shown to you.  That’s the infamous “hook” that gets your reader turning the first few pages.

In Star Wars, we don’t start with Luke Skywalker.  We get the conveyer belt text telling us what’s happened before and then we see two spaceships firing lasers and a crisis on one of the ships.  In many of the Harry Potter books, the first scene is with Voldemort or some of the other evil characters, conjuring something or doing some dastardly deed.

THEN we meet our protagonist, our hero, the one we’ll follow.  Life is normal for them, and they’re often okay with it or resigned to it begrudgingly, etc.  But then, they are called to leave this life.  For the first 20-25% of the story, the hero resists the call (or it is resisted for him or her).

Harry Potter’s evil Aunt and Uncle row them out to a remote island to keep him from going to Hogwarts.  Luke shouts at Obi Wan and rides off in the hovercar thingy.

But right at that 20-25% mark, something happens to make the hero unable to resist the call any longer.  Luke’s Aunt and Uncle are burned by the Imperial stormtroopers and there’s nothing left for him at his home.  Dumbledore shows up at Harry’s house.  The hero has to go. This is Plot Point One.

This doesn’t have to be a physical journey, though.  Maybe the hero is deciding to pursue someone to convince them to fall in love.  Maybe they reach a moment where they see they have to punch the bully or find the murderer or audition for the play.

In Water for Elephants, Jacob leaves his home almost immediately after his parents die in the beginning.  That’s just the hook.  He’s been on the circus train for most of the first quarter of the book.  It’s at the Plot Point One moment that he first sees Marlena, and falls instantly in love.  She’s his real mission.

Often, in Part I, the hook is just a teaser, and the real problem or mission of the story emerges about 20-25% in, at Plot Point One.

THAT’s the key to Plot Point One: the true mission of the book becomes crystal clear.

Part Two: The Response

Just because the mission is clear, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Or accepted.  Or even enjoyed.  Actually, it’s usually not.  The hero will take the second 25% of the book to push back against the main mission of the story.

Because this new thing the hero has to face?  It’s hard.  It sucks.  It’s new and tricky and complicated.  So the protagonist flounders and cries and makes mistakes.  She does things wrong, says things she doesn’t mean,  causes even more trouble for herself and those trying to help her (or harm her).  The hero isn’t ready for this new mission.  Everything that they knew in their old life is now changed, but they aren’t good at their new life yet, either.  They’re in a kind of transformation limbo.

This is where readers fall in love with characters, because it’s the most human part of the story.  Change is hard and we always push back against it.  But readers want our heroes to succeed and we know what the mission is because of Plot Point One, so we begin rooting for them here.  Get the girl.  Run for your life. Be awesome in the new school.  Master the Force.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is at his most self-destructive during Part Two after Plot Point One when he leaves his boarding school, Pencey.  He goes to bars, buys strangers drinks, spies on people in their hotel rooms, calls girls late at night, tries to pick up women (whom he claims to hate) in bars, hires a prostitute and gets beaten up by her pimp.  Among other things.  Not at his best.

It’s at the end of Part Two, right at about the 50% mark of the story, that something crystallizes for the hero.  They figure something out or master some skill.  They learn a key piece of information, perhaps.  Or some circumstance changes that makes them stop fighting against the call and go after it.

In Romance, this point, called the Midpoint, is where the two love interests become bound to each other somehow.  After a cute meet at Plot Point One, they spend Part Two doing everything they can to not get together (sometimes it’s because they’re married to other people, or one’s a princess and the other’s a serf, or whatever).  But at the Midpoint, they can’t fight that off.   They sleep together, or share some intimate secret together, or commit to being together no matter what.

Part Three: The Attack

Here, in Part Three, our heroes know what they’re after.  They’re committed to it and focused on it.  Their life revolves around it.  But they still flounder.

Alas, these poor heroes.  Things keep going wrong.  Just because they’ve gotten that crucial new understanding at the midpoint, it doesn’t mean they’re walking off into the sunset yet. 

During Part Three, our protagonists are still learning and figuring out their mission.  They know what that is and are committed to it instead of avoiding it.  But they’re apprentices.

In Romance, this is where the love gets rocky and they fight or break up, because they don’t know how to be in a relationship yet.  In Westerns, this is where the hero has to go into hiding and regroup, because he isn’t yet prepared to step out with his six-shooter at high noon.

Throughout Part Three, there’s still something missing, some clue or skill or motivation, that keeps the hero from being able to achieve the mission.

That is, until Plot Point Two.  That’s where the final piece of information falls into place.  The hero has everything he or she needs to go after their mission with full force.

In Star Wars, this is where Luke Skywalker and gang escape from the Death Star with the diagram for the plans while Obi Wan lets Vader kill him with his lightsaber.  The Rebels have the plans to destroy the Death Star but Luke also has the mission to take over as the most powerful Jedi.

Or in The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling sees the dress patterns, figures out what Buffalo Bill is doing, and realizes who he is.

That’s the key to Plot Point Two: the last missing element arrives for the protagonist.  Evidence, epiphany, skill, knowledge, whatever it is, the hero has all he needs.  Now he or she goes after it.

Part Four: The Resolution

The hero has all he needs, but it still isn’t easy.

In Part Four, the last 20-25% of the story, the hero has to face his main antagonist to reach his goal or achieve his mission.  This is the big fight scene, the huge confrontation between lovers, the boxing match, the race, the chase after the killer…the highest moment of action when all of the protagonists’ struggles up to this point come together to be skills he or she use in pursuit of the mission.

There are still ups and downs here, too.  The hero stumbles a little.  It’s always in doubt whether the mission will succeed, even with that last bit of knowledge in Plot Point Two.  In Romance, there’s a dark moment where everything is lost and hopeless, before the lovers come together in the last possible minute.  (Think of Pretty Woman, where they go their separate ways but then whatshisface goes driving back to whatsherface’s apartment to rescue her and he catches her just in time.)

Then at the end, the hero either succeeds or fails.  The mission is achieved, or it isn’t.  The reader is left satisfied or stunned.  Whatever the story calls for.

OK.  Even though that was long, it was actually quick.  There are lots of quirks and variations on story structure, and this isn’t meant to be the authoritative Story Structure breakdown.

It’s Fiction School’s primer.  It’s a cup of coffee with Story Structure.  It’s a nice handshake and a conversation at a cocktail party.  If you’re intrigued, be the hero and go on a mission to learn more.  We can help!

Some further resources we love for Story Structure (well, not Tommy…) are:

First, here’s the document Jody mentioned in Episode 1, where she breaks down these plot points right to the approximate page number.  It’s adapted from Save the Cat by 

Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering and his blog, Storyfix.

Save the Cat

Wordplay blog

And for the pantsers out there (those who write “by the seat of their pants” and hate this outlining and plotting approach)?  We love you too.  Here’s a great book on writing that way from NaNoWriMo: No Plot? No Problem!

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the podcast.

2 Responses to Fiction School’s Quick Guide to Story Structure

  1. Hi there, I’m enjoying your podcasts through iTunes, I was looking for Jodi’s beat sheet guide that you mentioned on the first one, but it looks like the web page got munged at the bottom, no links! I’m very interested, it sounds like a good way to get your brain wrapped around structure as you work through it, so I’m hoping you could repost.

    Also, your earlier episodes are not showing up in iTunes. I’m looking forward to catching up, but you might want to add them,

    Thanks again!

  2. Hey there, really enjoying your first show. Like the first commenter, I’m wondering if you can please re-post the beat sheets Jody mentions. Thanks!

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