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A couple semesters back I was taking a fiction class from Doug Thayer. A real likable old hooligan. He was 82. And we were his last class ever.
To help you get the date on this specimen, at the start of the semester he filmed us all with a huge VHS video camera, then had us say our names and smile, so he could watch it in his office and memorize our names. He’d always laugh at his own sarcastic jokes. And we’d chuckle out of respect. Like the time he said, “[Throw him to the lions]—it’s a good thing to do to a Christian now and then. It builds faith.” He was a Mormon boy through and through. And part of his final advice on the last day was, “Oh and stay in the church, by the way.”
His feedback was always excellent. I was trying to write a novel (called Walk Alone) to outdo Catcher in the Rye. One day we were all seated around a long table for peer workshops, and, when it got to my turn, Professor Thayer stood up, picked up a black marker, and drew a straight line across the whiteboard:
He turned back around with that dark line behind him. Then looking at me he said, “Your characters are great. There’s a lot of personality in the voice, and that makes it interesting to read. You’ve got a good sense of pacing. And the prose is tight—good descriptions, great dialog. But the plot... The plot...” He lifted his eyebrows and scrunched his nose. Then he just kind of shook his head.
Of course, he was suggesting the metaphor that we writers all know: the dramatic line that rises and falls, but generally climbs, until it hits the climax—the line that represents a story. My story didn’t have one of those. It was flat. Flat, flat, flat. I wasn’t denying it either. He was dead on. In fact, I knew the problem when I turned it in. I just didn’t know what to do about it.
So I started to study. Not that I hadn’t studied plot before. But I’d never needed to know till now.
Before we go too far, let’s define the term. Mostly, plot is what you already know it as—it’s a narrative that starts with “guess what I saw today” and ends with “a real-live elephant on a downtown shopping spree.” Plot is a promise made and fulfilled. Plot is a character with a need. Plot is choices and actions. Plot is drama—drama that can be turned up by the author’s genius.
As I studied, I came across a variety of ways to think of plot: the three act play, the climactic mountain, try-fail cycles, the hero’s round, and even the Hollywood formula. I ended up with my own understanding of a basic story structure—one you can follow in just about any plotline.
Now, some of you are starting to cringe already, and I’ve barely started. You’re thinking—I don’t want a formula. I want something that grows organically. I want something that’s true creativity—something that’s genuinely unique.
Take a look at this man. Now look at me. Now look at this man. Now back to me.
We look the same, don’t we? We both have eyes. Both have a nose and mouth. Two ears. Hair. We’re the same. Right?
There’s a certain structure to a face. Generally speaking, all faces have that structure. And yet, we’re all unique too. Just because you want to be “beautiful in our your own way,” you don’t cut off your nose. Everyone knows this.
It’s the same with story structure. (And I’ll prove it to you in a bit if you’ll lend me some credence.)
There’s a longstanding debate between the writers who like to wing it and writers who like to outline before they start. (FYI: I’m on the fence. I generally outline JUST A LITTLE.) But no matter what method you chose, eventually you’ll need to sculpt it to fit the mold of a face before it’s finalized (unless you’re not sculpting a face—i.e., not writing a novel/screenplay). In short, if you’re worried this will ruin your organic writing, DON’T. For you, this is a lesson on the revision process, not on destroying the organic writing process.
I’ve compiled my own structure based on several models. This was largely influenced by this excellent book: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. But this new version is definitely my own. I’ve named the parts after an idea from the movie The Prestige (spoiler alert).
Act 1: The Pledge
We all know what comes first—the very first scene. It’s the hook. It must be designed to draw a reader in. It doesn’t have to tell much. It just has to hook them. In Jurassic Park (the movie), this is when the velociraptor kills a worker, and all we ever see is her reptile eye. This is probably the least debatable piece. (Everyone agrees a person should have a nose.)
The meat of Act 1 (in green) introduces the main characters and their personalities, it tells some backstory, and it shows us who the antagonist is. Basically, it shows us what life was like before—it shows the audience how great things were, so they know exactly what’s at stake.
Act 1 ends with a specific incident—the inciting incident—the first plot point. This is the moment when everything changes. The hero’s life can never be the same as it was before. This is the most crucial part of the story—it’s the promise to the reader—it’s the problem the story’s going to resolve (or die trying). Mr. Cutter (in The Prestige) calls it The Pledge. Once this event happens, we move on to Act 2.
(NOTE: Some say that Act 1 should be about 25% of the total story. If you’re having trouble with pacing, consider moving your inciting incident to this position.)
Act 2: The Turn
Act 2 is where the hero’s try/fail cycles take place—he makes an attempt to beat the antagonist and fails, or he has a limited success. He doesn’t win in Act 2.
This act is often divided into two halves: the character’s passive response and active reaction. The incident that divides these two is called The Turn. Some call this the midpoint shift. Remember how the inciting incident changed everything? Well, this changes everything again. Sometimes this is less of an event and more of a revelation (that’s why it’s represented by a light bulb). The hero’s perspective or understanding changes, which changes his attack stance.
After the perspective changes, the hero starts to solve his problems—or attempts to. This is when he really starts to get proactive—he acts instead of just reacting.
So if Act 2 has two halves, each of those include an important moment dead center: The Pinchpoints. These are scenes where the villain shows his face again—scenes that remind the reader (and the hero) that the antagonist is dangerous (hence the dagger icon).
If the first pinchpoint is mezzo forte, the second should be forte, maybe even fortissimo—this second pinchpoint puts the hero in a place that seems nearly impossible to get out of.
Act 3: The Prestige
Act 3, The Prestige, begins with an important incident too: The Finalizing Incident. This is the last time anything new is revealed to the audience. All the cards get overturned and the story plays out to its end.
Remember the term deus ex machina? It means “god out of the machine.” It’s when a story pulls something out of nowhere to finish the story. It’s a cheap trick too. To avoid this, just make sure that the Finalizing Incident is the last time you reveal new information.
Then the rest of Act 3 is pieces all running their courses. The hero and villain battle it out, and one comes out on top. This is the part that needs the least explaining—it’s the natural result of everything that has come before. It fulfills the promise that was made in the beginning. Mr. Cutter calls this The Prestige.
The Prestige ends with two important pieces. First is the climax. This is the dramatic highpoint in the story. It’s where the dynamite finally explodes. As an audience, you notice when this is passed, because all the tension goes away and you can finally relax. The promise that was made in The Pledge has been fulfilled.
After that, there’s the falling action or resolution. All the loose ends get wrapped up, people go home, and/or the future awaits. This is often as short as the hook. And a few stories leave it off entirely.
It’s all well and good, you say, if you’re writing a quest story, but that’s not my angle. It’s true, this works very well for the quest story.
Well, I conducted an experiment, and I tested this structure as I read seven novels:
Surprisingly—even to me—each of them fit pretty well with this structure. And some of them were unusual too. The Lovely Bones had a whole family as the protagonist. But it still fit. Slaughterhouse 5 wasn’t linear at all. But it still fit. And Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn’t fiction at all—it’s fact. But it fit too.
Ironically, the two that I thought would fit it the best—Prey and Ender’s Shadow—actually were the ones that failed. As I was reading Prey, I noticed there seemed to be something wrong with the plot—there were almost two climaxes, and I noticed I became less engaged as a reader because I was confused as to what promise the story was fulfilling. Ender’s Shadow had a similar problem. In the story, Bean defeats Achilles, but the book continues on to Command School. And it leaves you feeling a little bored and hoping it will just be over.
If you want to see my breakdown for each of these, here it is, with each piece identified and labeled in an all-too-scientific fashion. So if you get queasy seeing guts, don’t read on.
For all other intents and purposes, this is the end. Good luck plotting. And I would love to hear your feedback, even if you strong disagree.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- Hook: Narrator’s going to share a series of chautauquas as they ride across the states.
- Inciting Incident: Narrator admits his ideas are from “ghost” named Phaedrus. He has deja vu.
- Pinch Point 1: Phaedrus went insane chasing the ghost of rationality, which is the same track the narrator is on.
- Mid-Point Shift: Phaedrus asks his students: How do we know what is good? (The real quest begins.)
- Pinch Point 2: Narrator dreams that he and Chris are kept apart by a glass door and a shadowy figure guarding it.
- Finalizing Incident: Narrator realizes it is Phaedrus, his other self, that he’s been struggling with the whole time.
- Climax: Narrator and Chris accept that he and Phaedrus are one, he was never completely insane, Chris never stopped believing in Phaedrus, and that it was his love for Chris that brought him back out of the mental hospital.
- Hook: He says he’s a veteran, witnessed bombing of Dresden, time travels with Tralfamadorians (aliens).
- Inciting Incident: Billy shows he’s “unstuck in time” and tells past, present, and future (including plane crash).
- Pinch Point 1: Behind enemy lines, Roland Weary beats Billy and blames him for his death.
- Mid-Point Shift: Billy starts reading Kilgore Trout and learns the Tralfamadorian perspective on time.
- Pinch Point 2: Billy is transfered to Dresden. His plane in the future crashes.
- Finalizing Incident: In hospital, historian tells him bombing Dresden was necessary.
- Climax: Billy goes to New York and preaches the tralfamadorian perspectives on time. In Dresden, he digs up corpses.
- Hook: Jack Forman becomes a stay-at-home dad. Julia’s company (Xymos) is on the edge of a breakthrough.
- Inciting Incident: Baby gets rash, Julie (wife) is acting strange, Jack gets called to consult for Xymos.
- Pinch Point 1: At the lab, Jack investigates the swarm’s dead rabbit, and gets attacked and almost killed.
- Mid-Point Shift: Jack finds out the swarm is intelligent enough to have connection with Julia.
- Pinch Point 2: Jack leads them to kill the swarm, but it kills David and Rosie. *
- Finalizing Incident: They discover everyone in the facility has been infected with another iteration of the swarm.
- Climax: Jack and Mae drink the phage and destroy the swarm-clones, including Julia.
- Hook: In Poland, the boy Leo Gursky falls in love with his neighbor Alma Mereminsky. He writes this book for her.
- Inciting Incident: Alma leaves to America pregnant. Leo is unable to follow.
- Pinch Point 1: When Leo catches up, she’s married, and Isaac is 5.
- Mid-Point Shift: For old Leo, Alma has been dead 5 years. He watches his son secretly.
- Pinch Point 2: Leo discovers his son (Isaac) has died.
- Finalizing Incident: Leo finds that Isaac had read Leo’s book. Bird secretly sets up a meeting with Leo and Alma II.
- Climax: Alma II meets with Leo. Leo dies, having written his own obituary.
- Hook: Susie Salmon is murdered in an underground lair hidden in a cornfield.
- Inciting Incident: Jack and Lindsey begin to suspect Harvey. Abigail remains in denial.
- Pinch Point 1: Jack gets his knee destroyed searching the cornfield. Abigail makes love with the detective.
- Mid-Point Shift: Abigail leaves Jack (hoping to find solace). Grandma Lynn moves in. Lindsey gets engaged.
- Pinch Point 2: Harvey comes back to town, visiting the cornfield and the sinkhole (where the body is).
- Finalizing Incident: Jack has heart attack. Abigail returns. Susie enters Ruth’s body, makes love with Ray Singh.
- Climax: Susie moves to higher heaven. Lindsey has a baby (named Susie). Harvey is killed with an icicle.
- Hook: Bean approaches Poke and gets her to find herself a bully (Achilles).
- Inciting Incident: Having shown his skills, Sister Carlotta chooses Bean for Battle School (instead of Achilles).
- Pinch Point 1: Bean fails to impress Ender and the teachers with his intelligence and lack of height.
- Mid-Point Shift: Bean discovers that Sister Carlotta discovered he’s only half-human (Anton’s Key).
- Pinch Point 2: Achilles comes to Battle School and is put on Bean’s team.
- Finalizing Incident: Bean is transfered after Ender to Command School.
- Climax: Bean as Ender’s backup helps to destroy the formic army. He returns to earth with Nikolai, his brother.
- Hook: The prologue. No ones allowed in Ward C. Rachel’s code: “Who is number 67?”
- Inciting Incident: “Laeddis is here.” We learn that Teddy is really there to kill Andrew Laeddis.
- Pinch Point 1: The patient quickly scribbles a message to Teddy: “Run.”
- Mid-Point Shift: Teddy and Chuck sneak outside to find Ward C and Andrew Laeddis.
- Pinch Point 2: Teddy meets George Noyce, sees his face smashed in and how he’s been driven insane.
- Finalizing Incident: He finds Rachel Solano, learns: they’re creating ghosts, he’s been drugged, he’ll never escape sane.
- Climax: Teddy makes it to the lighthouse and discovers what’s inside.
- Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering. New York: Writer’s Digest, 2011. Print.
- Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Shadow. New York: Starscape, 2002. Print.
- Crichton, Michael. Prey. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.
- Kraus, Nichole. The History of Love. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
- Lehane, Dennis. Shutter Island. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.
- Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.
- Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print.
Want more writing tips? Here’s how to get the most out of your writing workshop.