Story structure, at its simplest, is how you create your plot. The order in which it unfolds. Even baser—a beginning, a middle and an end. Act I, Act II, Act III. Many authors, and I am one of them, will often know how the story begins, how it ends, but have no idea what that pesky middle part is.
Sure, I have an idea of some plot ideas to weave in, scenes. But how I weave those in, how I get from Once upon a time….To The End is very much unknown. James Patterson sits down and outlines all of that in-between stuff. Stephen King, like me, finds that the journey between the opening line and the closing word is a mystery. I like that.
Essentially, story structure is how you pull all of that together.
Not every story you write may unfold in the same way. One story could unfold in a truly linear fashion; this is how I wrote Coming Home. It starts at the beginning of Lana’s life. And, while it doesn’t end with her death, it concludes after a straight shot of dates. Backbeat, on the other hand, is told mainly in flashback, and so the story jumps from date to date as the plot’s unfolding is based on Margot’s reflections of her relationship with Geoff. However, there is still a clear linear flow to the story, as the scenes that take place in present day are told in order, and her flashbacks support that order.
At one point, Backbeat‘s plot unfolded in far more of a chronological order, flashback-wise. But, upon reading an early draft, my best friend, Jane, pointed out that you don’t have flashbacks in a perfectly-ordered way, as if flipping through a diary. Margot’s memories were too chronological.
And then Jane dropped her thermonuclear weapon-sized bit of feedback: “Your ending needs to come at the beginning.”
But she was right. I’d told the story backwards, including having all of Margot’s flashbacks in a too-chronological order.
The plot is about a how Margot’s lover, Geoff, comes back into her life after nine years, forcing them both to confront, and come to terms with, how and why their relationship ended. The reunion originally happened at the conclusion of the book. The story needed to begin with the reconnection. I don’t mean getting back together. I mean their seeing each other for the first time in nine years needed to kick off the story, rather than coming at the end. Before, it started with Margot reflecting about her life with Geoff in a somewhat spur of the moment way. Then, coincidences of all coincidences, Geoff showed up at the end of the story, wrapping everything up in a tidy box with a bow on top.
Jane’s other on-spot criticism? “I like the story,” she said. “But it reads like a cliched soap opera.”
(Aren’t all soap operas cliches?)
Not quite what I aimed to write. But she was right about that, too. I could have easily created some story unfolding on The Young and the Restless or Days of our Lives. (Two soap operas I am fine with admitting I loved watching.)
To fix this, printed the whole story out and literally cut and pasted the paragraphs, even single sentences, onto new sheets of paper using glue and tape, then transcribed it all into a whole new draft.Tedious, yes…but far easier than trying to do all that rearranging on a screen. (I’d done this once before with a massive paper I wrote for a Film Studies class after my professor gave me exactly the same feedback—that my conclusion was at the beginning and the introduction to my thesis came at the end.)
Many stories are told from Moment 1 to Final Moment. Individually, the six Star Wars movies (original characters) are told in their own linear progression. But Star Wars: A New Hope is actually Part Three.
And then you have Pulp Fiction, which starts with a scene that happens towards the middle of the end, and jumps around in the timeline. Yet, Quentin Tarantino still tells a linear story. Reservoir Dogs does this as well, though to a (slightly) lesser extent.
Some say story structure is like a triangle—a sharp increase to the climax, and then a descent into the resolution and conclusion. But, to me, it’s more like a bumpy parabola. A start at the beginning, events that include some false climaxes leading to the middle, then the descent to the end.
Perhaps there are a few extra dips and spikes leading to the denouement. The moment when everything is tied together, sometimes neatly…sometimes with a few strings still dangling and questions still left unanswered.
Visually, the plot structure looks something like this:
Even if the plot unfolds in a non-chronological manner (e.g. Pulp Fiction), it’s still beginning, middle, climax/false climax, end. Still linear. The trick is to structure that flow in a way that keeps your readers hooked from the opening sentence to the last. Really, Pulp Fiction is a series of vignettes, each with their own beginning, middle and end, that overlap cleverly, and sometimes so minutely you blink and miss it. A written story can do this as well.
What I encourage writers to do is to think of each of their chapters as a short story—ones that are more like puzzle pieces that connect with the following chapters, and even ones later down the road. Vignettes, in a way, that can stand on their own, but still create momentum for the overall plot/story and the structure.
However, most stories are divided into three acts: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3: Beginning, Middle, End. (True, many plays, such as what Shakespeare wrote, have upwards of five acts. But in more than one course at college, a professor pointed out that, structurally, his plays were still divided into three parts. Even Hamlet, with as long as it is.)
The three acts are structured like this:
Act 1: The setup.
This includes the introduction of the characters, their personalities and the early revelation of what the story is about, and what the conflict(s) is/are.
Act 2: The confrontation.
This doesn’t necessarily mean characters butting heads and having a confrontation, though it could be. It can also mean it’s where the character(s) confront their hopes and dreams and the issues that hinder them from reaching them. This is where the conflict comes from. It could come from two or more characters, from conflicting beliefs a character has, moral conflicts and so on. These conflicts could be real (financial, cultural), or they could be perceived as real by the protagonist(s). Meaning, they perceive conflicts where there really aren’t any.
This could be due to many things—a lack of self-confidence, the belief that a choice they’ve already made has permanently blocked them from achieving their dreams, that they’re stuck where they are and can’t believe there’s a way out of their situation.
Act 2 is generally the longer section of your story. In this part, you’re exploring the conflict(s) you presented in Act 1. The most important aspect of this act is how you develop that conflict, or the multiple conflicts. It can occur between two (or more characters), within the main character (moral, personal) or characters—or both.
Act 3: The resolution.
In Act 3, the conflict is resolved (one directly between two characters), or the character begins to realize that reaching their goal/dream is possible, and he or she starts to work towards it. In a mystery- or intrigue-oriented story, this is where the clues all come together.
However—not all resolutions are tidy. Nor should you tie up all resolutions in a tidy box with a bow on top.
Sometimes, such endings come across as contrived.
Because life doesn’t present people with tidy resolutions with bows on top. And, sometimes, the resolution the character(s) want isn’t attainable. The conclusion then revolves around letting a dream or goal go. Or something completely unexpected happens that, until you reach it, you had no idea was coming (watch The Usual Suspects for a terrific example of this.) Have your character wind up in jail. Divorced. Bankrupt right when it seems as if financial fortune is theirs. The surprise ending is a terrific one to use.
I wrote a short story in college with a surprise ending. My professor, however, who felt that, because she had a series of short stories published (and, at the time, the book was out of print with no future of a second printing) felt I should change it because she didn’t like surprise endings.
No matter that the entire class of 20-odd students disagreed. No matter that my story was published in its exact form by Oregon State’s campus literary magazine Prism. All the editors agreed my surprise ending needed to remain as such. When my professor learned that my story was chosen as a feature story for the edition, but I hadn’t changed the ending, she actually grew upset with me and upbraided me in public for not changing the ending because, well…she had a set of short stories published!
The point to that story?
If you feel your ending is just as it should be, leave it. No matter what goody two-shoes know-it-all thinks.
(I should note that, I ran into the same professor who conducted my exit interview just prior to my graduation. During that interview, I mentioned her poor behavior. He nodded, saying the department was aware of it; apparently other students had not only complained to the department head about her treatment of me, she also treated other students the same way. When I saw him again, he told me that that she now worked at a very small community college in a somewhat remote area of Oregon…not a decision she made by choice.)
But I digress.
The ending of Empire Strikes Back an great example. The rebels are scattered across the galaxy, on the run. It seems as if the Empire might actually win. (And, a this point, they have.) Leia and Han have finally admitted their love for each other, but now Han is encased in carbointe, frozen, is all but dead. Boba Fett is now whisking him away as a prize for Jabba the Hutt.
The ending is depressing in many ways, even though you’re given a sliver of hope as Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian leave to search for Han. Empire Strikes Back is my favorite Star Wars film for the very reason it’s gritty, frustrating, and you’re left with a very untidy ending.
And then there’s the Western, Shane, which is another excellent example of an “untidy” ending.
The book and movie center around the romance between Shane, the hero (and a drifter), and the widowed mother of Joey, her young son. Over the course of the film, Joey comes to view Shane as a father. The wanted resolution is the three become a family unit, living happily ever after. But, both the book and the film end with Shane leaving. Joey, his heart breaking at Shane’s departure, calls after him, “Shane! Come back!” But all that happens is that Joey is left alone as Shane rides away silently.
Sometimes, endings like this are far more satisfying than tidy, happy, “Disney-like” endings.
If you want to give your audience a happier ending than what the author of Shane gave his, you certainly can. A “Disney” ending.
So how to have the happy ending without creating one that feels contrived?
The conflicts between the characters is key. To really lean into the conflicts your character(s) have. Like to the point of cruelty. Then the “tidy” ending, even with a bow on top, won’t feel contrived.
Even Disney films do this—and they do it well. Every character in the movies meet with conflict and strife before the wondrously happy ending. But, imagine The Little Mermaid with the original Hans Christian Anderson ending. In his story, she fails, and must exist as sea foam for 300 years. (While a terrific storyteller, Anderson’s stories all had a tendency to end in a very sad way. The Little Matchgirl is another example of this.)
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