By Jeanne C. Stein
Story Structure – Plotting, Inciting Incident
This class we look at story structure, beginning with constructing a plot.
There are as many ways to plot a story as there are writers to plot them. When I started writing the Anna Strong series, I used the “seat of the pants” method—I knew the beginning, I knew the ending, I knew the characters. I planned to let the story unfold as I went. It had always worked before.
But I hit a snag. In my sixth book, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. Panic set in. I had only four months to write that book and I wasted one trying to get it off the ground. For the first time, I had to sit down and write a detailed synopsis.
I hate writing synopses. But it saved my butt. Thirty-two single spaced pages later, I had the story. After that, came the book. I realized my problem all along had been that I hadn’t clearly defined the story question. Now that I’m writing collaboratively with another author, we actually do a scene by scene, detailed outline so we can each work on different scenes at the same time and they will meld together.
And that brings me to the point—no matter what method you use, defining the story question should be the first step.
What is a “story question”?
The story question is the theme of your book—it’s the defining objective your protag struggles to achieve. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? For some of you, it is. You know exactly what your story question is. You have already come up with that log line (the TV guide, one line description) that you’ll use to catch the attention of an editor or agent. You are the lucky ones. For the rest of us, it may take as much time to define the question (or questions—there can be more than one) as it does to flesh out the rest of the story.
Now, let’s assume we all have our story question. As I mentioned before, there are many, many devices out there to help you translate that idea into a book. The three I’m presenting are not genre specific. They are the most popular and easy to use.
The W Curve—just what it sounds like. The top of the W (1)is the beginning; the first down stroke(2) is a setback; the top of the second upward slash is the midpoint (3), a point where it looks like our protag has won the day; the second down stroke (4) is when we realize she not only hasn’t won the day, but she’s in danger of losing everything which leads to the final upward slash (5) where she fights her way back in a stirring climax that leaves our readers breathless and clamoring for a sequel.
The W Curve is probably the simplest plotting device of all. The beauty of it is that you can add as many “W’s” as you like to correspond to subplots. Subplots are important because they add depth to the story. Just as real life is a balancing act between what we intend to do and what we sometimes are forced to do because of extenuating circumstances, our characters should face the same dilemmas. External conflict (the main story question) and internal conflict (how our characters react) each play an important role in bringing our stories to life.
Writers who use this method, often add the “M” curve for the antagonists journey, matching stroke for stroke how the villain is going thwart the hero until the very end.
Outlining—Not necessarily the way you did it in school, although many writers use the classical form. More often it’s a list of the main points and a rough idea of what you intend to do with them. It’s setting stakes and creating conflict. It’s chronological and covers the hook or initiating event, rising action, climax and resolution. It can be a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene breakdown, which is what Samantha and I do. It can be a synopsis.
Three Act Structure—Sound familiar? Of course. It’s the way every movie, TV show or play is constructed. A Beginning, a Middle, an End. As you might expect, the beginning introduces the characters, the setting, the story question. The middle, well, it’s just that (and it can be deadly, no pun intended.) Hopefully, your middle will be fraught with tension and escalating danger. Here’s where subplots play an important part. Where everything changes. Where it looks like our protagonist will lose it all. It’s where she experiences her darkest hour. Then, we reach the end. She faces her greatest challenge, her biggest fear. It’s the resolution. It’s the return to “normal.”
In every case, the resolution must be satisfying. It must fulfill every promise you’ve made to the reader. It should leave them clamoring for the next book.
Now that I’ve described some plotting devices, let’s look at how to use them.
Let’s assume we have the story question. We have our protagonist and antagonist. We have a pretty good idea of our secondary characters. If we choose the Three Act Structure, for instance, the beginning should comprise about the first 50-60 pages of a 400-page book. The first pages of a book are the most important you’ll ever write. Editors and agents often say they won’t look past the first paragraph if it doesn’t grab them. In fact, at a recent conference, Senior Berkley Editor Ginjer Buchanan said just that in a panel entitled "What SF Editors Are Looking For." She won’t read past the first page if there’s not a fresh voice and unique opening scene to capture her attention. Sad but true. And what does she look for? That the writer has a command of the basics of writing, a unique story, a compelling story, a story worth reading.
So what must the opening do?
Set the hook.
With action, with character, with setting. Let’s look at some examples.
One way is to introduce your protagonist by showing her in action. If she’s a supernatural, she’ll be chasing demon bad guys. If she’s human, demon bad guys are chasing her. No long passages about the setting or the weather. No back story to explain how she found herself in that predicament. No detailed physical descriptions of how her hair is as black as a raven’s wing or her eye’s as blue as a cerulean sky. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. Right now, you want to hook the reader with excitement. Draw them into the story, set them down smack dab in the middle of the action.
With action: Here’s the opening of Jeaniene Frost’s Halfway to the Grave:
"I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck. I pulled over, holding my breath, as the sheriff came to my window."
With character: Who is our protagonist and why should we care about her?
Here’s the opening of Marta Acosta’s Happy Hour at Castle Dracula:
"If I had been a rational human being, I would have had a normal job and I would never have gotten involved with any of them. But I was not a rational human being. I was and remain a square peg in a round world."
With setting: what can we identify with in our protag’s world…and what’s different?
Here’s an example author, Devon Monk. The first sentence from Magic To The Bone:
"It was the morning of my twenty fifth birthday, and all I wanted was a decent cup of coffee, a hot breakfast, and a couple hours away from the stink of used magic that steeped through the walls of my apartment building every time it rained."
See the hook? Starts out sounding like a typical day in anyone’s life. Then, bang! Magic!! Not only introduced as a subject but introduced in a way that says we’re now entering the UF Zone. In one sentence we learn the age of our protagonist, that she’s hungry and thirsty, that she doesn’t live in a typical apartment building and that most likely, she’s not going to get the two hour escape she wants.
Each example establishes a unique and compelling voice using language, style, attitude and pacing.
The beginning is where the story question is established or foreshadowed. Conflict is introduced. The reader gets to know your world. It’s a lot to ask of a few pages, but it’s necessary if you want to grab and keep the attention of an editor or agent and after that, all those readers who’ll be lining up to buy your book.
Set the mood with tension, anxiety and emotional control.
Build empathy with the character.
Create setting and build the world.
Next lesson, we have our beginning, now what?