By Katherine Reay
As I begin a new story, my mind turns to structure. No matter how much I say I’m an “organic” writer, I need solid hooks on which to hang my musings. I can get lost easily if the basics of the road aren’t cleared in front of me.
Whether you think the “rules” of structure are important or not, let me give you this thought… The proponents of story structure didn’t lay down a set of rules that stories must follow – Instead they articulated the natural flow stories do follow.
When reading or listening to a story, we instinctively know when a twist must occur. We squirm if we spend too much time in the idyllic world before the Stepmother throws Cinderella into the attic. And we also anticipate when she must stop reacting and step up and act – Get to that ball! And we certainly feel our heartbeat quicken as we’re drawn to the end of a story, its climax, with a final twist or turn. Finally we long for a sigh to finish the story, whether a happy ending is delivered or not.
There are countless books out there about structure and many present a formula to follow – 12 parts, 10 parts, 6 parts, 3 parts, beats, segments or percentages. And if you’re an “organic” or “panster” writer, these can feel confining or intimidating.
I suggest pondering the following:
1) An Inciting Incident sets us, and our hero, off on an adventure. She hasn’t necessarily committed to anything, but something has “rocked her world.” So once you show us her world, change it. Give us that moment, that incident, that will force us, and her, to pay attention.
2) About 25%, once we know and love her, or can empathize with her, the hero must commit. We’ve met her and now we are ready for more. After all, the Inciting Incident affected her, but she hadn’t committed to change. Now she commits. No turning back.
3) At 50% a twist changes the dynamic. Our hero can’t anymore – she must turn proactive or she’ll bore us. For good or bad, and things will most likely go bad as conflict drives emotion, she becomes further committed and works out change both internally and externally within the space, the setting, of the story.
4) At 75%, she faces her toughest battle. This need not be an alien taking over her world. In The Bronte Plot, Lucy had to decide where she stood and what she believed. That might not sound very interesting, but for this girl – it was a big deal. The stakes are high here – physically and/or emotionally – as fits the story you are telling.
5) And then we rest. Those final moments at 90% to those beautiful two words “The End” allow you to wrap up loose ends and leave your readers satisfied. That doesn’t mean you must tie every strand into a neat blue bow and whip up a happy ending. That’s up to you… But it does mean that you answer your big questions and you don’t leave too many minor ones hanging. I do believe that some questions are best left open – you want readers to dream of the continuing lives of your characters. “Real” people go on after that last page. But the big questions you offer, your driving needs, must be resolved – for good or bad – or readers will wonder why they gave you their trust in the first place.
If you’re a “panster” and all this sounds too rigid, don’t fret.. I suspect that you follow these elements by instinct as I do believe we are hard-wired to know the necessities of a good story. But I would also suggest that noting these rules/beats/ideas/moments early in your writing might help you stay focused and on target – and as the deadline approaches, having thought these through early may save you a little time and frustration. Who wouldn’t want that?
Katherine Reay is the author of Dear Mr. Knightley, a Christy Award Finalist and winner of the 2014 INSPY Award for Best Debut as well as Carol Awards for both Best Debut and Best Contemporary. She’s also the writer behind Lizzy & Jane and The Bronte Plot, an ALA Notable Book Award Finalist. Wife, mother, rehabbing runner, former marketer, and avid chocolate consumer, Katherine and her family live outside Chicago, IL. Visit Katherine on her website at www.katherinereay.com.