Stringing Scenes Into Story

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.

1. Hook

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.

8. Denouement

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:

Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer
Hague and Vogler, The Hero’s 2 Journeys
K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel (Disclosure: I edited this book, but receive no royalties from its sales.)

How Do I Get Started Writing More Things?

Why do all the elements of fiction writing seem to conflict? How do they work together? To write many smaller things, do we have to choose between them? Try to cram them all in? It’s so much noise.

The answer is simply not to force technicalities upon an emotional experience. Follow the emotion, and the exceptions to the “rules” will be the right ones.

See? Did you really need even this much advice?

Fiction technique comes in layers that harmonize, rather than types of moment that constitute conflicting advice. Ignoring for the moment that this looks suspiciously like something mathematical, and therefore evil, consider this:

How story elements harmonize
How story elements harmonize

Think of the green wave as motivations and reactions. The blue wave is goals, conflicts, resulting problems (disasters), reactions, dilemmas, decisions. The red wave is scenes and sequels. And the navy wave is the major moments of the macro structure.

See how there are repeated points when they come together? Think of those as scene endings, chapter endings, and the conclusion of major sections of plot.

If you just write motivations and reactions, and let their events and feelings and consequences — the content you put in the empty boxes — accumulate some combined force, they’ll create larger moments that force the viewpoint character to change or die (metaphorically, as in an emotional or social extinction event, or literally). The big navy wave is not so much something that needs engineering as it is the pendulum of forced transformation, set in motion by smaller moments.

All you need to seek is the smaller moments.

In short story, these transformations can be reveals: twists that uncover new conflict and growing context until a conclusion is reached. Depending on its length, short story won’t be so much about goal, conflict, disaster, or scene and sequel, as moving through sharp moments of transformation. If it’s a bit longer, those scene tools may come in handy as prompts for what direction the motivations and reactions could take.

But it’s better to leave all that aside.

Don’t tell yourself what you’re going to write.

Think of how mystical Stephen King gets in his strategy to guard the creative mind from analytical intrusion. He talks in On Writing as if there are multiverses and creativity can somehow peer through the cracks and find pre-existent ideas and images. This is a metaphor for denying the analytical side of the mind access to the psychological “room” in which creating happens.

In Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider simply advises not to tell yourself that you’re going to write a novel. Or anything in particular. Just write. If we’re thinking “novel,” we’re thinking about all these technicalities and hemming in the process with (over) analysis. If we’re thinking prose poem, we could miss a larger story.

Those are formats, and format is very much second to content.

Use the tools available as prompts, not rules.

If it’s time to come up with a goal at the start of the scene, that’s a prompt. It’s a leaping-off place from which the mind may wander. It’s not an imperative you have to track and enumerate, unless you want to start there and then write from an outline as a prompt. (An outline is just a series of writing prompts arranged in a widely-recognized pattern of psychological, circumstantial and emotional progression.)

Conflict is a prompt. It’s a word that allows us to be mindful of the broad, very generalized nature of what happens next. Friction might be a better word, because that conflict can be very subtle. We’re interested in conversations where the speakers fray each other, in lines of action where the outcome is in question. The human mind is captivated by the feeling of potential threat and sated by the resolution of that potential.

But if you’re sitting back analyzing these things, you’re probably missing the raw core of pure feeling. Pure hatred, pure shame, pure love, pure joy. Submerging into a moment and capturing an image that makes you feel is the main thing.

To find that moment, you can take Schneider’s advice and just write — as she urges, as fast as you can, without lifting the pencil from the paper (or perhaps fingers from the keyboard). Know the feeling and the image that sparks it all, and lay things down as quickly as possible in order to outrun the intrusion of analysis.

When you do this many times over, you’ll become able to see what the character wants, or whether that’s missing from the picture. You’ll be able to see what the friction (conflict) is — overt or latent. The disastrous consequences that propel things forward will rise out of the mist like pre-existent moments lost in the ether between universes.

What do you feel deep down?

What happens next?