Understanding Story Formulas And Plot Structure

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Plot structure refers to the basic arrangement of the events in your novel. There are countless formulas for how to structure a story, and where you choose to begin and end your plot is a matter of personal taste. Some people like to start with the end in mind and then work backward, and others like to structure their stories with the beginning in mind, and then work forward. No matter which of these methods you prefer, understanding story formulas and plot structure is essential to creating a cohesive and compelling narrative.


Know plot structure

Plot structure refers to the basic arrangement of action and events in a story. Without some kind of structure, your book can easily become a confusing mess of character actions, and many authors, especially in more experimental writing, abandon structure completely in order to create more richness of character and ambiance. Your plot structure is the point where your 20 pages of notes on your epic plot get channeled into the roughly 500 to 3000 words that actually appear on the page.

While it’s important not to let plot structure discourage you from adding the unexpected or pushing the boundaries of storytelling, if you don’t understand story and novel formulas, you completely lose the cohesion and structure of your story, making it far more difficult for your editor, agent, or, eventually, editor to sell. So while you wouldn’t want to apply one story structure to every novel you write, it’s important to understand how story structure influences narrative.

Learn to view fiction from a storyform level

Individual stories come from a wide range of plot structures and story formats. The key is figuring out how to break these down and copy what makes them work — without plagiaristic copying. To do this, you must be able to look at a story on a storyform level. And that’s a difficult thing to do. But the gap between writing a bare-bones story outline and the fully developed understanding of storyform is not as wide as it may seem. By utilizing the simple storyform model, you’ll be able to apply your understanding of story structure to your own writing.

How does it work, this phenomenon of understanding storyform? First, you’ll need to recognize formulas. A formula is a specific structure that you can see over and over again in stories — it’s something you can make use of in your own writing. Read up on several formulaic story forms and analyze how they work to create great stories. You may be surprised at how elements like the inciting incident and renewal of the hero’s commitment crop up time and time again. Every storyform will present many opportunities to learn about writing.

View your story in the lens of a preferred storyform

Now, figure out what story form you want to use and understand it thoroughly. The most commonly used storyform is the three act structure. The three act structure follows these steps. A character is presented with a problem. The character desires something. The character goes to an obstacle and faces it. The character is in a dilemma. The character goes through a cathartic experience. The character puts the changes from this into practice. The character learns something. 

In the span of 90 minutes, the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy saw Frodo with the task of taking the ring to Mount Doom, and him being confronted by various obstacles, including Gollum, the dark lord Sauron, the towers of Cirith Ungol, and finally his own internal struggle as he, beleaguered by the enormous and impossible task have to accomplish. The three act structure follows a recognisable dramatic pattern with foreboding, struggle leading to catharsis, and then an aftermath. Knowing this framework and the tropes allowed you to absolve the need for too much exposition, as the camera went between the three of them, detailing the depths of their love for each, all while depicting the recruitment efforts.

The three act structure is perhaps the most common and relied upon story form, but there are others that are viable options in the market which you should examine. One such example is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This play deconstructs the Shakespearean story Hamlet, as by focusing on two minor characters from the play who are on their way to England for their own storyline. The story is told alternatively from the perspective of the two characters and, concurrently, with the “real” story of Hamlet by primarily Shakespeare and then including direct quotes from the play.

Keep an eye on the big picture

One of the best ways to truly understand story structure is to study it. Because most of us are used to analyzing stories from a reader’s point of view, it can be hard to figure out how story structure works from an author’s point of view. One of the easiest ways to develop an idea of overall story structure is to use software — if you’re an experienced author, you may choose to do so from the start, but be careful. Writing with a computer behind your back can render you inhuman, cut off from the human element of writing. You’ll want a true understanding of underlying story structure at some point, but make sure to wait until you’ve gotten a feel for the basics before you start relying too heavily on a computer to provide the answers. 

Even more helpful than studying existing stories, however, is observing an example of story structure in the making — and that means studying the development of your own stories. Write in a journal, a series of blog posts — or simply in the master file which will eventually be your book, and jot down the theme or idea at the heart of your story, the core of what you want to say. When you’re a little further on, write a couple sentences paragraph about the overall story structure you have planned — not too detailed, just the big events driving the story. Then, keep an eye on the big picture. Check in and broaden your notes from time to time, but don’t overwhelm yourself by working harder than you need to.

Just as it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture in terms of story structure, it’s also vital in terms of character structure. One of the most interesting things about character maps is how much redrafting they require. As the kinds of scenes and situations you put your character and group in, new layers of character build up, and new ways to approach them. As this occurs, your story develops, and not only must you keep an eye on how your entire novel is unfolding, but also on how each individual character develops. When you’ve hit a big meeting, for example, or are planning a particularly dramatic battle scene, it’s worth taking pencil to paper and checking back in on that character. Sometimes the plot requires it, sometimes it doesn’t — but it doesn’t hurt to have a better idea of whether your three-dimensional characters are having adventures, or just sitting quietly in their beds.

It’s all about the character arc

As with any type of writing, you want to make your characters relatable to readers. But with story formulas and plot structure, what matters more than how a character looks and what car he drives is the arc that the character’s journey follows. Is your protagonist the same person at the end of the book as she was when the book started? That is the core philosophy of story formulas and plot structure. Structured around the eight stages of the hero’s journey, story formulas and plot structure is a simple framework not to be confused with plot devices like secret parentage or drug-induced amnesia. There’s nothing inherently literary in the tenets of story formulas and plot structure, but to craft interesting stories while avoiding flat, predictable clichés, it’s the school your story should attend.

When you think about story formulas and plot structure, think about building a house. In the same way that a house needs a sturdy foundation and strong support beams to hold up the walls and roof, a story requires a strong beginning, potent middle, and a big climax. These forms of the story structure are sometimes called formulaic and anticlimactic, because so many stories completely satisfy the requirements only to then squander all their hard work in the last ten pages. Structure is the scaffolding to your novel, and even though the pattern itself doesn’t change, your novel should have a unique cover and interior decor, and the age-old details are up to you.

Work out the details

A good story needs to have a solid vote. You need to understand why you’re telling the story, who it’s for, what it’s about and why it’s important. Then you can start to put all the pieces together. Identify the conflict in the heart of your story. To do that, you’ll need to know your villain dynamics first. Look at a number of movies and analyze the mindset and the objectives, and then look at what those characters are doing to achieve those objectives. What are their obstacles? You’ll have a bunch of actions, but when you put them together you’ll start to see the narrative arc that supports all of the pieces of the story.

Now you can spend some time putting your story up on the wall. If you’re working in a visual environment, stick a big piece of paper on the wall and throw all the things you’ve collected into place. Pick a loose order, and then start sequencing them. As you add them, you’ll start to see the flow of the story come together. You might realize that some things need to come forward or get delayed. Sometimes you might cut some things if you have to. You want to have the feel for what the timeline is. Read a number of stories in your genre to see how the masters put it together. Think of each element that you’re going to write into character, place or thing. Any major characters you’ll need to draw a sketch of them or create pictures of them.

Show, don’t tell

Once you’ve got your pillars of story structure in place, and you know how they’re going to connect with each other and how you want them to flow together, figured out your character developments, and probably written a few pages of direct exposition, it’s time to pull out your red pen and let out some of that inner criticism. You’re going to do a developmental edit on your story, flowing through your pillars, character arcs, and the like, and saving yourself a lot of work in the long run by not releasing a story that plays like a list of sentences strung together rather than a cohesive whole. But part of that developmental edit is finding the perfect balance between showing and telling — between giving information to the reader so that they can make their own conclusions, and literally having your characters tell them exactly what the story is about.

Say that you’re having two of your characters discuss the topic of, let’s say, the evil villain who kidnapped the point-of-view character. Giving the topic to the reader as active exposition is important, because it’s making the story that they’re consuming so direct — which is a good thing. But it can be equally, if not more impactful, to convey that information via dialogue between your characters — by letting the reader evaluate their own reactions to the villain’s latest movie, but still providing the necessary information, and avoiding info-dumps that make them feel like their input wasn’t informed enough. Demonstrating something moving in actual motion leads to real interpretations by the readers, so that they can take something away from the story besides just the cooking instructions.

Inventing your own type of formula

Story formulas help you do the same type of work, over and over, efficiently. From a formulaic perspective, there are a finite number of formulas that make up most stories. Of course, you don’t have to decide in advance which formula you’re going to use. If you generate your plot on the fly, you could—and it may be the best way for you to create your story. But the hard truth, as noted by such storytelling luminaries as Stephen King and Anne Lamott, is that a lot of writers don’t actually finish their books. Knowing story structure and choosing a formula that will allow you to move through your story efficiently, with a minimum amount of writer’s block, will save you time and frustration.

For other people, however, story formulas provide a set of guidelines that helps them act out their writerly muses even if their muse has bailed out on them. Studying the structures and formulas of storytelling can help you break through writer’s block before the whole thing stalls. Lastly, for people who feel writing is more like science than art, story formulas provide a sharp delineation between instinct and craft—the formula’s the science, the storytelling’s the art. It’s a good way of not divorcing the two pieces.

Your ultimate goal as a writer is to mesmerize your reader. Therefore, you want a plotting formula that helps you raise questions that build excitement about what is going to happen next while answering those questions with each subsequent chapter. In other words, the true goal of any novel is to keep your reader in a heightened state of anticipation, and then to spring the answers on them as they read. To get there, you have to understand the fundamental parts of a plot structure.

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