Crafting a Story Using the Basic Elements of Structure
by Writing Workshops Staff
6 months ago
“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” -Khaled Hosseini
How do you know if your novel has a strong beginning, middle, and end? How do you know if your characters are dynamic, authentic, and unique? And how do you know if your plot is original and engaging? These are all important questions for any writer to answer. The more thoughtful and intentional we are about the details of our story, the better equipped we will be to revise it.
A strong understanding of the three-act structure, as well as common dynamics within characters, will help us pinpoint areas that require further refinement. Readers need to be able to follow the action of a story and see its development with ease. With this in mind, here are some tips to keep in mind when structuring your story.
The Basics of Story Structure
When we discuss story structure, we are talking about the shape or pattern formed by the events in a narrative. This can include a wide range of things, from the macro-level structure (the overall architecture of the plot) to the micro-level structure (the rhythm of a sentence), but most stories follow basic story logic at a structural level:
- Inciting Incident
- Rising Action/Progressive Complications
A good story contains all these elements in a logical and compelling order. Most contemporary stories (from Hollywood to the bestseller lists) employ the three-act structure, where each section represents a different phase in the development of the characters and their journey.
Act One: Establishing Setting And Character
With regard to setting, it's important to remember that readers experience a story on a primarily emotional level.
“Places are never just places in a piece of writing," writes Carmen Maria Machado. "If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.”
The first act of your story is all about setting the scene and introducing the characters and it is crucial to get this right. If you rush through setting up the world and characters, readers may feel lost and unable to connect with your story. But if you spend too long on introductions, your story will feel unengaging and slow. Finding the right balance can be difficult, but with a little practice, it will become easier.
Act Two: Confrontation Begins
In the second act of your story, the main characters will face their biggest challenge yet. In Robert McKee's tome on storytelling, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he writes that “true character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.” This is the part of the story where the main conflict is engaged. It is important that the main conflict is something relatable and understandable, and if you look across film, TV, and literature, six common conflict types in stories emerge:
- Person versus person.
- Person versus nature.
- Person versus self.
- Person versus society.
- Person versus the supernatural.
- Person versus technology.
Take any one of these as a starting point and you will have put your characters in a situation that will inherently create tension, propel your story forward, and reveal the true human stakes on the page.
Act Three: Climax and Resolution
The third act of your story is where everything comes to a head. The climax is the highest point of tension in your story, where all the major events of the narrative are braided together. It is the moment when the characters face their greatest fear, challenge, or opponent.
In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury wrote, "plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations."
Once the climax has happened, your story needs to bring it to a close. This is where you resolve the conflict and tie up any loose ends. This is often done through a "moral" or "life lesson" that your characters may learn from the experience. They may discover a truth about themselves, their values, or the world around them.
Check for Authentic Characters
Start by asking yourself: What do my characters want? Why do they want it? And what will happen if they don't get it?
Po Bronson has written that we need to think of our main characters as dinner guests: "Would your friends want to spend ten hours with the characters you’ve created? Your characters can be loveable, or they can be evil, but they’d better be compelling."
Authentic characters are the ones who are well-developed and feel real enough to leap off the page and into the reader's mind. These characters have a complete and complex set of emotions and personality traits. They have a distinct voice that readers can "hear" inside their heads as they read. These characters also have a backstory that gives them a reason to act in a certain way.
Readers will know why a character is optimistic or pessimistic. They know why a character likes or dislikes another character. Authentic characters have a purpose in the plot, and they are not simply there to be the plot's vehicle or sent in by the author to be a prop for the plot or a mouthpiece for dull exposition in dialogue.
Great characters exist in the moment and have clear motivations. They are consistent and make decisions based on their established personalities. No matter how dire the situation may be, an authentic character will always be true to his or her core self. In order to make sure your characters are authentic, make sure that they have a clear purpose within the plot.
Check for Dynamic Characters
A good way to make sure your characters are dynamic is to ask yourself: what challenges have my characters faced? What have they learned from these challenges? How have they changed as a result?
A dynamic character is one who grows and changes over the course of the story. Anthony Burgess wrote, "a character has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure what he’s supposed to be doing."
This could be in the form of a growth in confidence or self-awareness, a change in values or goals, or a shift in personality or relationships. This does not mean that all characters need to start out as "bad" and end up as "good." Instead, a dynamic character may start out one way and end the story in a different but equally valid place.
Check for Unique Characters
A unique character is one who is unquestionably one of a kind, but that doesn't mean every character has to be extraordinary. Raymond Chandler made this point beautifully when he said that a character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.
Using Chandler's advice as a guidepost, you can write into characters that are authentic, dynamic, and unique.
When readers come across a unique character, they know that the character belongs in the story and belongs there alone. A good way to make sure your characters are unique is to ask yourself: Are there any traits shared by more than one of my characters? If so, how can I make these traits more unique?
Check for a Strong Plot
John Gardner wrote that plot exists so the character can discover what he is really like, forcing the character to choice and action. If you can answer the following questions about your plot, you're on the right track: What is the main conflict in my story? Why does this conflict exist? What are the characters trying to achieve?
A strong plot is one that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The characters may be dynamic, authentic, and unique, but if the plot itself isn't strong, the story will fall short.
The best way to strengthen your plot is to make sure there is a clear goal that your characters are trying to achieve. If your characters don't have a goal that they are actively pursuing, your plot will fall apart.
Structuring your story is an important part of the writing process. It helps you to create a clear path for your characters and helps you to ensure that your plot makes sense. It's important to remember that a good story takes time and effort to write.
Don't worry if it doesn't come out perfectly the first time: with practice, you will get better and there are many ways that you can improve your story's structure, and with these tips, you should be well on your way to writing stories that readers will love!