Writing Tip II: The structure of stories—an overview
I find story structures fascinating. The structure of a story moves a step away from the art of storytelling, and starts to invite the science.
What are all the little bits of a story, and how can you assemble them to create the biggest impact? A lot of this is up to you as a writer. Many experienced writers and editors have provided structural guides, based on what has worked well in the past. I’ll cover one of these (Save the Cat!) in a longer series of posts.
For this post, let’s explore various story building blocks individually.
A non-exhaustive list of story building blocks
Descriptions of the building blocks
The humble word is your atomic unit of storytelling. Indeed, the whole act of storytelling involves finding words and putting them in the right order.
Words are the writer’s most essential tools. The more precise and nuanced your vocabulary, the more tools you have to work with. There are strong words and phrases, and there are weak ones (such as adverbs!)
Many words make up a sentence. Sentence management is an important thing. You can control pacing, perceived speed, and the vibe of action and emotion with masterful sentence management.
This Gary Provost quote is pretty famous for illustrating this phenomenon:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
Paragraphs are made of sentences. Sometimes, it’s only one sentence, or even a sentence fragment.
Similar to Provost’s quote above, proper management of paragraphs also helps to control the pacing and energy of prose. The size and frequency of your paragraphs send subtle signals to the Reader. Often, they denote a shift in focus in the narrative—similar to a cut or pan in film.
Scenes don’t have as strict of a definition as the previous three. A “scene” can mean many things. For me, I define a scene as a series of paragraphs that contain one clear piece of conflict.
The conflict need only be introduced or explored, not necessarily resolved.
When it’s time to change a scene, that’s when I’ll use a break like this:
Unless, of course, the end of the scene coincides with the end of a chapter.
This term comes mainly from the film world I believe, but it is useful for telling any kind of story. A beat, to me, is a collection of scenes that attempt to accomplish a particular storytelling goal. These goals are fairly specific, and can vary depending on what structure you’re using.
An example from Save the Cat! is the “Dark Night of the Soul” beat. This is about 70% of the way through the story, wherein the protagonist is at a very low point. They’ve suffered a tremendous defeat and are about to give up. This beat sets the stage for the next one, which is where the protagonist overcomes this horrible feeling.
Chapters are collections of scenes, in my view. There’s no real rule on what must be in a chapter. These are more art than science, and the writer can divide scenes into chapters as they see fit.
A nice tactic is to end each (or most) chapters with a decent cliffhanger. Or you might switch chapters when you switch points of view (if there are multiple POVs in your tale). You might match chapters closely to beats, or maybe you decide you want exactly three scenes per chapter.
Ditto parts. Some writers might consider ‘parts’ and ‘chapters’ to be the same thing. No real rules here.
Personally, I think of parts being made of many chapters, or even containing a full story in a longer series of novels.
However, in serial publishing, the relationship might reverse! I maybe break up a long chapter into 700–1,000 word ‘parts’ for easy digestion.
Taking another page from the film and theatre world, acts denote the major breakpoints within a full story. Acts could contain several chapters or parts, depending on how you’ve structured them.
The most common act setup is the three-act structure.
- Act One: ‘setup’ or ‘thesis’ or ‘beginning’
- Act Two: ‘confrontation’ or ‘antithesis’ or ‘middle’
- Act Three: ‘resolution’ or ‘synthesis’ or ‘end’
Act Two is usually around 50% of the story (or even a little more). Act One and Three often have a clever mirroring aspect to them. However, you can find many other Act structures out there if you look for them!
Note: Beats are useful tools for guiding what should happen within each Act.
✒️ A note on the three main kinds of editing
When it comes to editing stories, many folks mistakenly assume that editing = proofreading. Fixing typos, punctuation, and grammar flubs.
Proofreading is one of three major types of editing, but it is the least important for developing strong stories.
Line editing (related somewhat to copyediting) is the work of making Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs stronger. Line editors seek out weak words. They’ll find droning sentences, awkward phrases, and mismanaged paragraphical energy. They’ll punish too much telling and not enough showing.
Structural editing—also known as developmental editing—is the work of making Scenes, Beats, and Acts stronger. Developmental editors look at the story as a whole and figure out if this and that scene is even worth including, if you’ve got Beat 6 mixed up with Beat 8, and if your inciting incident happens way too late (it is usually always happening way too late).
Structural editing is the toughest thing to do, but it’s the most important for good storytelling. Line editing is also key, but no amount of line editing will save you from a broken structure. Proofreading is the polish you do at the end.
This was an overview of some of the building blocks of a story. I aim to expand on these ideas, especially on aspects of the line editing and structure stuff.
You can also find many, many interpretations, examples, and advice on these writing topics scattered throughout the Internet. Hopefully this post arms you with some search phrases :)
Related tip article
Check out Writing Tip #24: What Are Plotters and Pantsers? by The Ink Well for more discussion around structures and writing styles.
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