Sunday, November 4, 2007

Plotting: Story Structure

I can't talk about plotting styles without talking about plotting structure. Structure refers to the way our story breaks down into pieces that have established purposes. The most common structure, and the one I will describe, is using the pattern of a three-act play. Most movies and stage plays are structured this way, and I'm sure you'll find the same pattern in most books you read.

This means that your book will fall into three acts, and each act has a purpose. The first act sets up your story. It introduces the major characters and provides some characterization. This act establishes setting which also means location and time of year, and introduces a goal and usually some of the motivation for this goal, but most important it initiates the first conflict in your book. A good conflict and dynamic characters will hook your reader from the very beginning.

Conflict is a major proponent of fiction. Without it, you have no story but only vignettes of characters existence, and vignettes are not what makes a good book. Remember that conflict is both external and internal. External conflicts are those that are outside the characters. They both want the same thing and only one can have it, for example. Internal conflicts are those that go against the character's beliefs, morals, and values. In Christian fiction, the internal conflict is often one of the strongest conflicts because the character not only struggles with what is right or wrong, but it also owes allegience to God who established guidelines for Christians to follow. Still whether a Christian character or not, the internal conflict is strong because if deals with the person's morals, values and pride.

While Act I sets up the first conflict, Act II will add conflict upon conflict until the dark moment of your book when it seems that all will be lost. As you construct the conflicts, make sure they are believable, logical, and that they grow in seriousness to the lives of the major characters of the story. As one conflict seems to be resolving, let another appear to hook the reader and draw him along with you.

The final Act - Act III - is the resolution of your story. This final section of your book usually deals with the horrible black moment -- the worst conflict that could occur --then resolves it and pulls together all the "loose strings" of all subplots and story lines to come to a final ending that will please the reader. Normally in romantic suspense, you will solve the mystery and then resolve the romance.

Within these Acts are scenes. Each scene is an event in time presented through the eyes of one character. This means that only those things that this character can see, smell, hear, feel, touch and know can be part of the scene. The character has no idea what is going on in the head of anyone else. He can only surmise it at best. Each scene must move the story forward in some way by presenting new information, heightening conflict, deepening characterization, or foreshadowing something that will happen later in the story, but each scene must also have conflict and leave the reader with questions or an "ah-ha" moment at the end of the scene.

As the story progresses, the scenes must show the growth of the characters and their faith (if this is Christian fiction) as well as show the changes in the characters relationships.

As you begin to plot, check all three Acts to make sure that each is accomplishing its purpose. Usually Act I and Act III are the shortest sections of the book. Act II is the longest and the most difficult to write since it must have dynamic plotting and pacing to keep the reader connected and interested. But if you follow the basic rule --- each scene adds something new and important to the story---then you're on the right track.

Ask yourself these questions:
Have I provided an important piece of information to this scene?
Have I upped the ante (made the situation more serious for one character)?
Have I given clues or hints -- foreshadowed -- any event that will happen in this story?
Have I provided new information about a goal or motivation of a major character?
Have I shown the strengths as well as weaknesses of a major character?
Have I added or strengthened a conflict?

These are some of the questions that can help you make your scenes both meaningful and ones that will capture your readers attention.


Rose McCauley said...

Dear Gail, thanks so much for sharing all this helpful info on writing. Just like in your classes, you have taught and reminded us of the basic building blocks of a great story! rose

Mirtika said...

As always, I appreciate your writing-related sites/articles/posts. So, thanks, Gail. You're a neat teacher.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, Rose. I'm so pleased you feel this blog will be helpful. Blessings to you and great writing.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Mir - Thanks for visiting the site. I hope to continue add helpful info, and I love teaching so this is a pleasure for me.

Blessings to you,

Rannza said...

Hi Gail

I'm so pleased to have discovered your blog. Thank you so much for such helpful and interesting posts.

I've heard about scenes opening and closing with positive or negative values. Can you explain what is meant by this. TIA

Best wishes


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Ranza - So glad you dropped by. When you talked about positive and negative values at the beginning and end of your scenes or chapters, you can replace the word value for stakes. Characters always has something at stake. If the story opens with something positive happening - that's a positive stake, so the thought is that you should end the scene then with the opposite stake. Example:
if the story opens up with loss of a job, the end of the scene should end with the hope of a job or a lead for a job -- or even a job. The feeling is that if the main concern in that scene isn't affected in anyway, then the plot has not moved the story forward.

I hope that makes sense. Take care and I hope you come back again.