This article is a continuation of my “Best advice I’ve learned” series. You can catch up on my other posts by clicking the links below. The competencies I cover here are my interpretation from my favourite fiction-writing book: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.
A re-cap: Story Engineering defines 6 Core Competencies for novelists and screenwriters. Those are:
- Structure (Setup, Plot Point 1, Midpoint, & Second, Third Plot Points)
- Scene Execution
- Writing Voice
Story structure. The Setup of your novel leading up to the scene before Plot Point 1 (PP1). That’s the aim to master by the end of this post. So quickly, here’s a simple list of what I’ll define and show.
- The overall structure: four-part story structure/three-act structure
- Beginning–PP1: Setup
FOUR-PART STORY STRUCTURE/THREE-ACT STRUCTURE
For novelists, the better model to create your novel from is the four-part story structure. It’s exactly the same as the three-act structure for screenwriters but with one crucial difference. The four-part story structure breaks down the process easier. It simplifies the goal in each section of the story. Here’s my version from Story Engineering:
Part 1 – Setup: Hook, introduce hero, establish stakes, foreshadow events to come, and prepare for PP1.
Part 2 – Response: Reluctance to accept the mission and/or failure to succeed at the mission.
Part 3 – Attack: Context shift from midpoint (information in hero’s favour). The mission begins to unfold in their favour.
Part 4 – Resolution: No new information enters the story. Hero is the catalyst for the ending (hero beats demons / weaknesses).
1. Setting a killer hook
You need to set up something that grabs the reader. This is done in the first twenty to fifty pages in a novel (ten pages for a screenplay). It may or may not be the Inciting Incident (hover your mouse over the link) if it occurs during this frame — before 20–25% of your story. The earlier placed, the better. The first three or four scenes.
An example from The Da Vinci Code:
Hook: The dead guy on the floor of the art museum with a cryptic message written in his own blood. (Hollywood stuff, right?)
2. Introduce your hero
The protagonist (“hero” as Brooks commonly refers to it as) should appear in the first two scenes, or three maximum. When I saw this part second, after Hook, I thought, “Hang on, won’t the hero be in the first scene?” Well as described above, the hook is in the prologue of The Da Vinci Code. Robert Langdon (hero) appears in Chapter 1. “Ah …”
Most of us are clear on this anyway, so I won’t waste your time on this part any longer. Just hurry up with showing the reader who’s leading the story.
3. Establish the stakes
It is equally as crucial to show the reader what the hero has at stake. The reader may not understand it’s at stake yet, but once PP1 happens … boy. PP1 has greater impact — actually, it only works — if the stakes have been properly established.
No one will care if Johnny needs to spend four weeks overseas for a business trip. But.
But … If his fiancé, Jane, is planning their upcoming wedding and only has a month to sort everything out, and Johnny’s best friend, Mark, has been wrestling feelings for her … well, well. Now will you care if Johnny goes overseas? Will you side with him or Jane? Are you thinking about her being stressed over the marriage and it collapsing? Are you worried about her caving in to Mark’s romantic feelings for her when she needs the support most?
4. Foreshadow events to come
PP1 signifies a change. A dark twist might uproot Johnny’s sunny life. It might also be a perfect opportunity that Johnny sees — such as a ridiculous amount of money to go overseas for a business trip that will, in turn, fund his wedding — but there is a force of opposition in Mark and Jane’s feelings.
As the author, you need to foreshadow the above things so when PP1 happens, the reader feels the conflict from this point. Then they can be impacted by the change.
An example from The Da Vinci Code:
We see an albino assassin looking for something — a religious icon. It becomes a relic we, the readers, end up connecting to the death at the museum. We also see a pyramid structure that becomes the MacGuffin (hover your mouse over the link) at the end.
5. Prepare for launch
This is directly from Brooks’ mouth (his book, anyway), and it describes what I always needed to hear:
The last part 1 goal: The pace and focus of the scenes needs to unfold in context to, if not directly pointed at, the First Plot Point. A sense of foreboding or shifting winds needs to accelerate to the point at which everything changes — suddenly or subtly.
What to take from this …
Is structure that scary? It’s as simple as following a packet-cake recipe for me now. Brooks talks a lot about Pantsing and Plotting (again, hover your mouse over that link). I think I was always a Pantser who was too scared to be a Plotter.
Now I’m a plotter. And that doesn’t mean I’m outlinging every twist and turn of my story. You can be a Plotter and have virtually no written plan. But having a plan is the key message. You decide the format.
And I agree. A neat plan on paper can sometimes look more like your final high school exam, rather than an enjoyable story, when you do one of those fancy things. So make your own format, just be clear on what you intend to do, so the reader is fooled, not you after 100,000 words. Ouch.
Next part of “Story Structure” will be the First Plot Point.