On continuing the path to writer-hood (of the goodly type), I have tried to master the concept of structure, of form – and how to create from it the bespoke, the original, the ‘just for you’ story.
Yes, stories have a format – they start at a beginning. Not THE beginning, but they start somewhere and they end somewhere and in the middle is the fun stuff.
The first skill to master is:
Imagery. Nothing to do with words at all. It’s the title and the cover (if it were a movie, it would be the poster). These two things must be the first beacon to the reader – the title to say what it is, to evoke the sense of the type of story and if it’s what we (the reader) want to read; the picture on the cover tells its own story, gives the genre and audience, and beckons to the ones who like this type of story. That’s their job, and if it’s not done well, the book doesn’t open to tell the story to anyone.
Two things – and no sentences yet. Title and Cover have their own format, their own way of communicating the story that will unfold beneath them.
We go inside: Q1, to the hook.
What is a hook?
I mean, I go fishing, I know what a hook is when I’m fishing. But a hook made of words? In the first stage of the story? Is it a small intrigue, something that catches attention? Is it a big thing? Blow-em-up thing?
Answer: It’s not always a big thing, it’s not always loud, it’s not always an intrigue. Sometimes, it’s just the way the person is presented to us in those first few pages, in the set-up. Do we (the reader) feel something for this person? Can we put ourselves in their place? Would we make the same choices? Are we connected?
The hook is the emotional connection between the character (story) and the reader. It doesn’t usually involve bait or making the reader bleed (except maybe the heart).
Now that we know the person on the pages, now that we accept who they are and how they are, we wreck their world. We put in the inciting incident, and turn everything upside down – well, not quite yet, but it’s the first step to doing that. We upset the applecart, toss their dreams to the wind and watch them blow away in the storm. And we do it for the prospect of change – physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological – inner and outer is where we look to make these changes for this story. We set up the things that need to change, and then we dump the bucket on ’em.
The next point is to slow it down, give the character time to consider the options – of course, we know they’ll do this or that because it’s the type of person they are – right? they need to make their own decisions about the way forward, find options and lay out the reasons for each option being the right way, the only way. The main character makes a decision (good or bad, it belongs to them as part of their pattern of growth). And then they move on to:
The First Plot Hole in the Road. The Big thing that the first 25% of the story has led us into. The moment of no-turning-back because the decision’s been made (note that word, it’s very important – the Main Character makes that decision). The whole world has been turned upside down, and things do not look the same at all. So where to go to from here?
Swear word here, please. Because what’s above is the first 25% of your story in terms of form (not formula), the basic structure that the rest of the story (the fun stuff) will be built from and into.
The next 25% – which is what happens between the end of this section and the MidPoint of the story. And it’s . . . the reason for it all: Is It Real? That’s the whole purpose of a story – to feel real to the reader, at the very least emotionally.
There’s a little trick some people use to create either story or blurb or concept – and that’s the one or two sentence log-line. It’s an idea turned into an interesting concept. Here’s one (you tell me if it’s interesting):
Concept: What if hell exists and it eats away at everyone while they dream – until its strong enough to break out into the real world – Soon.
Turned into blurb/logline:
A lonely young woman fights off anyone who tries to get too close – she’s afraid the dreams will get them, so she pushes them away for their safety, for their sanity. And then she meets the man of her dreams – the good dreams, that is – and they have just one night together. Nothing left but that thing on the wall – and her broken heart and mind. But now the hell of her nightmares has her scent, it knows what she can do, and it’s coming for her.
the above is from The Third Moment (Cage Dunn & Rose Brimson, due out Jan 2017 – maybe).
___ Anyway, onward ho!!
The Second Quartile
This is the frustrating part of the process of structure – the Second quarter of the story.
The first one was the set-up and contained the inciting incident (sometimes referred to as Catalyst) and the first plot point. It was very dramatic, very interesting, and everything led to a specific point – yes, the first plot point.
So what happens in the second quartile? The MC (that’s Main Character) reacts to the 1PP (1st Plot Point). Runs and hides, or hides and runs, or tries to get people on-side, or tries to get people out of his (for this occasion, the MC is ‘he’) life, or he acts like every other human being (or sentient being) who has just had his life hit the fan with a load of [you know what] – he’s Reacting to the situation and trying to figure out what to do about it. He may even try on some things, but these will be first and second dimension (characterisation) things – and of course, they don’t work, or they don’t work as expected, because [pause for dramatic effect] he hasn’t yet figured out how to put his whole heart and soul, his character arc part, into the effort of change – he can’t yet fight back with his whole being because he’s not yet learned all he has to learn about himself (the inner journey, the changes to 1-2 dimension character into 3-dim character choices/decisions/action).
That’s the first half of the 2Q (2nd quartile). The next bit, some people call it a pinch point (this is PP1, Pinch Point 1), is the point where the baddie gets centre stage. Not necessarily from baddy POV, but its where the reader has to meet, see, feel, experience what it is that stands in the way of the MC. And I do mean FEEL. The reader has to experience the fear of whatever it is that is the representative of the obstruction for this story. And then he has to react to that and move onto the next main point.
Everything in 2Q leads to the next biggest point in the story: MidPoint (or the beginning of 3Q). Build the pieces (scenes) up to the monster in the room – and then watch as it falls off the edge of the waterfall. The world is turned on its head – again, but worse! [monster, ghost, chipmunk, devil, whatever word you choose to use at that point – but I preferred not to say elephant, ’cause I don’t want to envisage an elephant going over the waterfall. My choice.]
The 2Q isn’t the quickest section of the story, but it can be the most interesting. Why? Because this is the place the MC can show the depth of three dimensions of character (bits at a time that reflect the inner changes). The outer, surface things that represent him, the inner demons that haunt him, and the first step to recognising (ie the beginning of knowledge which will come in useful when he finally decides to Act) the first steps required to change his life (which is the 4Q, so we’ll get to that later).
And the lead-in here is that the MidPoint is either a false positive or a false negative (see McKee, Robert: Story for what that means) because there’s another part later (PP2) where the opposite emotive aspect will be applied to the MC journey.
So, Q2 is the Reaction, Meet the Monster, and Lead-up to the Mid.
Simple. Q2: React to 1PP, Meet the Monster in PP1, move onto MidPoint.
Now, go right ahead and do it (I’m watching). I’ll be back with Q3.
This is the point where most stories fail, and the reason is simple: the third quartile is the beginning of the fight back, it is the point where the obstructions are too much, especially the character’s own inner demons.
The third quartile of the story is from the mid-point to the 2nd plot point (2PP). In that journey, the reader meets (right in the middle of Q3) the 2nd Pinch point (pp2). Remember what a pinch point is? It’s the place where the ‘enemy’ of the MC (main character) gets ahead, takes back power, wins (or appears to win), etc. It’s the vision (for the reader) of the antagonist. And it’s strong, powerful, seemingly invincible (including the fight against the inner demons). The bad guys are doing better than the good guys, and someone is going to be licking his wounds and questioning his right to be in the world, especially this world.
And the darkest part of the journey is just before he hits the 2PP. Why?
Because 25% of the story (the setup) worked towards the power of the 1PP. And then 25% of the story worked towards the MidPoint. And now (you guessed it!) 25% of the story works towards the 2PP. These three power points are what matters. Hit them hard, make the reader feel them in the bones.
Well, maybe not Hard hard, but know that this is the point where they belong, and what they do, and why you have to hit them at all.
The Q1 is the setup (all of Q1) that leads to the PP1. The Q2 is the response to the 1PP, so if 1PP isn’t powerful enough to send the MC on the journey of a lifetime – through hell and high water to Do Something – then it needs to be re-thunked. So it becomes a thunk – a moment that sends the MC on the story journey.
The Q3 is the beginning (note that word) of the ability, the things learned and put into action, to begin the fight back. It’s not the point where the MC can win, but he can begin to work on the problems, overcome one at a time (look carefully at the inner demons, and how long it takes to work on something as simple as being able to say ‘hello’ to a neighbour if you’re agoraphobic), and move forwards and then severely backwards.
The last few major points in the Q3 is the (quoting from ‘Save the Cat – Snyder’ here): Bad guys close in; All is Lost; and Dark Night of the Soul. (If you haven’t seen these before, I highly recommend reading his book and enlightening your author-over-mind.)
Next time is Q4 – the finale, the resolution, the end.
See you then. Oh, and keep reading.
And now we’re up to Q4. That’s the fourth quartile of the story construction message. Is it the most important part? Yes, but only if Q1 is the bookend to Q4.
Since I discovered this particular form of words about story structure, I’ve become a convert. Yes, I like to plan, and I like outlines and chapter/scene discovery pieces, but this has put it all together – much like the first time I built a house (okay, more of a shed really, but we lived in it for a while – and it didn’t leak!).
So, what happens in Q4? We lead up to ‘the end’ and we do it in such a way that the story shows the MC (main character) undergoing the metamorphosis from level 1 characteristics to level 2, and now here, to level 3. The final change (even if only temporary) of the inner person; the overcoming of the internal things that let him down, or held him back, or tried (this is the operative word in Q4 – ‘cos it doesn’t work anymore) to make him fear the consequences (etc.) are finally overcome to enable the MC to be the hero of the story. And he has to be the hero – what’s the point of doing the whole story about this person if he can’t be the hero of his own story?
There’s one very important rule for Q4 – no new info!!!! Very important. The MC has to use only the information he’s earned and learned on the way through the story, and this is where it all comes together, where it plays out the hand in the winning layout, where it gets him to the point of no return – to win (however that win may present itself) the day, the girl, the dog, or the personal satisfaction. It’s where the Six Things that needed fixing in Q1 are SHOWN to be different, changed, or . . . maybe they weren’t what they appeared to be in Q1, and they deserve their place in his life.
The reason a lot of books are light-on when talking about Q4 is that it requires a re-presentation of the layout and setup from Q1, so it all depends on how YOU set it up – and therefore, how you show the mirror/refraction/facet changes in Q4. Your story.
There’s a lot of chat out there (e-world) where story is created backwards – find the climactic end-point (q4) and write the story backwards from there. I like this, but I also like to have at least three (3) points of extreme emotional context associated with that climactic moment before I write up an outline (or now: the Beat Sheet!!!! One of my own creation, because (yep, you guessed it) I’m a know-all who likes doing things my own way – I just steal ideas!) and then let it sit in the pile of other outlines until the story muse yells loud enough that I take it out and ‘do’ that story.
So, in recap:
Q1: Title (the first thing a reader sees, so make it the most appropriate name for the story)
Opening Image: book cover and the first opening on the MC.
The six things (see Snyder: Saving the Cat) that come back in Q4 to show the level of change in the MC.
The Inciting Incident: This is the kicker, the breaking of the status of MC’s world, but it’s often not the First Plot Point (1PP).
1PP: The decision to DO something made by the MC – note the distinction: the MC does this, they choose, and then they step out on the path they chose.
Q2: the running, hiding, planning, strategizing that leads up to the MidPoint (MP). MC can’t win any clashes with the baddy, even if we have to meet up with whatever this is halfway through Q2 – it’s called Pinch Point One (pp1). It happens somewhere near the middle of Q2 because the reader needs to know and feel and experience exactly what it is that the MC has to overcome.
Q3: from; MidPoint to Pinch Point two to end the quartile at the 2nd Plot Point. This is the place to fight back with power, with energy, with knowledge. Of course, he can’t win with the first attempt – but he does learn something more, something that changes the MC, something that alerts the inner demons that their time is almost over. But of course, it’s not over, not yet. And the pp2 will show just how strong and intelligent and overpowering the baddy has become, won’t it? There’s always that point where the person gets kicked just once too many times and they consider the option of giving up and letting it all go (the lull before three; the darkest night of the soul). But then something happens.
Q4: The 2PP is the last moment of new info for the story – most often, it’s the point where the MC finally sees how it could all come together – and it usually involves some level of defeating those inner characterisation demons before he really sees.
And when he does win, and the Q4 holds all the answers to how the MC has changed (see the six things) from the beginning of the story to the end, and the final image, and the sense of achievement (or some sort of feeling, an emotional grabber for him) or revenge or . . . [your story] and he can walk away at ‘the end’ showing how he learned something, he gained something, he Did It and survived (or died for the right reason).
Ready? Let’s Go!
Just remember, the Reader (most important person in your world) appreciates being able to follow the story as if they walked the map of your story – and that’s why the structure works. And for those of us who might have thought it a constraint – within those boundaries is the scope for a Whole Lotta Creativity!
See Skills Page.