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Story structure is what makes a practiced storyteller stand out from a strong prose artist. This, not prose quality (unless it’s really really bad), is what causes North American audiences to decide whether you’re publishable and readable.
It’s also the thing I have to help people with the most. The most often, and often the biggest mess.
When the familiar commercial structure isn’t apparent to the North American reader, you’ll tend to get feedback that the work is weak or not compelling. That means the feel of it –what to care about next, what to anticipate — is too difficult for the reader to discern. The pattern is also keyed to our expectations of how long to care about or put up with a given phase of the viewpoint character’s existence.
The many ways to learn story structure
If you’re okay with a bit of a road map to reference, some planning and outlining can really speed up the journey. There are even loudmouths who yell about this on the internet and pretty much call you stupid if you don’t. I guess it helps them sell their story structuring products.
Pay no heed to the man behind the curtain. There are many ways to get there.
If you write many things, and then write some more — most likely shorter things than novels — then structure, too, will start to happen for you. That’s how Stephen King became an “intuitive” writer who supposedly wanders off into an ether and finds ideas. By writing many, many things as a teenager, sending them to short story publication editors, and eventually — a long time later — beginning to receive personal rejections that offered advice.
So when he talks about a hidden world of ideas to be discovered in On Writing, he’s talking about the difference between the analytical mind, with its judgments and evaluations, which builds ideas through pre-selection, and the open-ended, suspended disbelief of the creative mind, which stumbles onto them through associative leaps.
He put in the time and built his creative mind. The technicalities of writing became a form of muscle memory. Because he’d always done it this way, he never had to become free to wander off into the ether and just find his ideas. But it takes longer to learn by feel.
Story structure is how the larger journey goes together.
King’s career approach worked well, back in an era when print could build a working career solid enough to lead to novels, and novels had editors who would fix any lack of structural understanding. We had kind of a dead era for short story in between the “death of print” and “rise of indie,” and now that digital publishing has gotten more sophisticated and accessible, more things are being revived and created again. Forms are always in flux when their distribution media are.
The short form is a great way to learn the ebb and flow of a storyline, whether you seek publication or put things up on a site like Wattpad (first, get to know the nature of the audience there if you want fruitful community engagement).
What’s this story structure? There are about eight major moments in the viewpoint character’s journey. Once you know what their names mean, you can try them out as simply as writing a paragraph or two for each.
For short story purposes, here’s what these eight key moments refer to. I’m describing them essentially in terms of the alternating paragraph patterns that cause a scene to move forward.
If you’d like to have these points for reference or scribbling on, here’s a PDF. Right-click and download.
A brief bit of situation-setting. The viewpoint character’s name, circumstances and surroundings.
You have two options: Write it as a reaction to something that just happened before the page began, or write a motivator and then a reaction.
It’s subtly harder to set the scene and explain what the character’s reacting to when you open with a reaction. Trying to set up description efficiently in the midst of internal elements takes a bit of practice, and there’s a temptation to use narrative summary to flashback the motivator that isn’t there.
If you know those problems, though, you can avoid them.
2. Inciting incident
The thing that draws the viewpoint character into an unfolding action. I say “thing” in order to deliberately be as vague as possible. It can be anything you want. Quiet and subtle, big and full of action and villainy.
3. First turn
The point beyond which the viewpoint character can’t back out of the conflict anymore. Screenwriting puts it strictly one-quarter of the way into the story, written forms allow it to flex more.
4. First pinch point
“Pinch point” is terminology that comes out of screenwriting. At 3/8s of the way through a standard Hollywood script, the antagonistic force will assert itself in a way that reveals its true threat to the main character.
For short story purposes, this could be a motivation paragraph that really sparks off the viewpoint character’s reaction.
5. Midpoint revelation
In the middle, key new information is revealed that moves the viewpoint character forward. That could include facing a personal demon.
Okay, that was like reading a newspaper horoscope or a fortune cookie.
A lot of things can happen here. But it is a turning point where the main character faces something triumphs, and moves (knowingly or unknowingly) toward another threat. You get to decide what that means to you.
6. Second pinch point
…Same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. Mostly the point is that Our Hero’s efforts haven’t really fazed whatever he’s up against so far. It gives the audience the chance to glimpse how the new information of the midpoint and the antagonistic force (man, beast, nature, society or self) are going to interact.
7. Second turn
This is a key moment that moves the story into its final act. Here, the viewpoint character finally strikes a blow. Or the enemy gets fatally distracted so the hero gets a chance to start saving the day. A major disaster makes it seem like all is lost, only to provide the exact means Our Hero needs to begin executing a triumph. The main thing is this:
After this point, it’s all wrap-up. No new information or plot threads are planted. Everything that occurs must have been previously alluded to or set up.
From here, the third act proceeds to conclude the conflict, fulfill any remaining promises made to the reader earlier, and answer any questions raised.
In a short story, that could literally be just three things.
This is a bit of conclusion to make it feel like an ending. Any final reveal happens here. It can be whatever suits your story. In short story, it’s often a sudden twist of perspective. Sometimes it’s a real mind-blower than makes you rethink everything set up throughout. Larry Niven is a master at this, and well worth reading.
For a deeper look: