I have been reading and researching avidly about story structure over the past few months. I wrote my original five novels by just sitting down and writing them. I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to go, but the operative word was ‘vague’.
It did help that I had been an avid reader from my earliest days, and so had absorbed story structure by osmosis.
But still. I want to become a more efficient fiction writer, and a more knowledgeable one, hence my study.
And what I have learned is that there is an inherent story structure to novels, indeed to all stories. They are described differently by different people, but the inherent structure is the same.
The three-act structure is a type of story structure:
Act I: Set-Up
Act II: Struggle
Act III: Resolution.
All stories will follow that format. The set-up introduces us to the main characters, and the situation they find themselves in (their Ordinary World in the Hero’s Journey parlance). Then the inciting incident happens: either the problem arises, or the chance to solve an existing problem.
The struggle shows how they seek to solve the problem. They will have many failures, and some successes which will in turn lead to more problems, and these failures and successes will increase in difficulty and intensity as part of the rising action.
And then Act III, the resolution, shows how they solve the problem, and the fallout of that, in the story climax.
Some models (such as Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) break Act II into two parts: Act IIa and Act IIb. In Act IIa the protagonist is struggling to solve the problem, but reactively, blindly, floundering. And then in Act IIb they become more proactive and assertive.
Within this 4 act structure are milestones, in other words, events that just have to happen as part of the structure, as this image shows:
The milestones are:
The hook means that you start the book with something to intrigue the reader. Perhaps the protagonist is wrestling with a mini-problem that foreshadows the dramatic question. Perhaps you share a scene that will be relevant later and incites the reader’s curiosity. Whatever it is it has to convince the reader to keep reading.
- Inciting Event
The Inciting Event (named the Call To Adventure in the Hero’s Journey), is when the problem arises, or the chance to solve an existing problem arises. It is the moment of change. It’s when the dramatic question is introduced so the reader knows what quest they will be following.
- Plot Point 1
Plot Point 1, known as Crossing The Threshold in the Hero’s Journey, is when the protagonist commits to solving the problem. It can be a physical change of location, or just a decision. You can use the crucible here to make the protagonist make this decision.
- Pinch Point 1
This is where the protagonist sees what they’re up against, when they get the first glimpse of the enormity of the task facing them. You might use the crucible here, if you didn’t already, to keep them committed if they are tempted to abandon the quest. In the interests of rising action, this is not where the full force of the problem hits them, but is the first exposure to it.
- The Midpoint
The midpoint is called the Ordeal in the Hero’s Journey, and different writers describe it differently. It’s a pivotal moment. It’s where the protagonist faces their own flaw, the one they must change as part of the character arc. It’s also where new information enters the story which shifts them from being re-active to being pro-active.
This is just a summary of what is a powerful and nuanced part of the story, and the recommended books, below, will help to flesh this out for you.
- Pinch Point 2
Pinch Point 2 is the darkest moment, the bit where the hero feels like giving up, where failure feels inevitable. It’s the lowest moment of the story.
- Plot Point 2
This is known as Resurrection in the Hero’s Journey, and that’s a good name for it. It’s where the hero rallies. Perhaps just by their own determination, perhaps by some help from a mentor, perhaps the discovery of new information.
- The Final Battle
This is where the hero takes all that they have learned over the course of the journey so far – both practical in terms of information, and their own advancement as a person as part of the character arc, and brings the battle to the antagonist, and prevails or doesn’t, depending on the type of story.
Note that if they don’t prevail, if they fail, it can still be satisfying if you make sure they did all they could, that they did not fail as a person, just that circumstances were too great, and that they still had their full character arc so they grew as a person.
Also note that when we speak of battles, that can be literal or it can be metaphorical. In a love story, for example, the final battle would be the last ditch attempt to win over the love interest.