STRUCTURE: What Does Your Story Look Like?



I’m big on the process of writing. It helps me build and bring life characters, their stories, and the worlds they live in. Before I configured my own writing process, I had a pile of unfinished stories for one reason or another. Either the characters were flat, too many plot holes, I didn’t know where they story was going, or the story itself was just lacking.

I consider the stages of my writing process as an obstacle course that my stories and characters have to conquer. If my project fails any of the course stages I know not to waste my time on that project. My writing process helps me get a jump on those flat characters, gaping plot holes, and many of the other million things that can bring my project to a halt.

Now, I know my process won’t detect every single problem my story might have right off, some problems I just won’t see until my work is almost done, or already “completed”. For me, having a writing process in place is like having an early warning system of sorts. It helps me identify problems early on in the stages of development so I can nip them in the bud right then and there.

Last time, I shared my views on getting concepts down. This time, I’ll talk about outlining/structuring. My understanding of what story outline is, is putting down all the major events of a story that MUST happen in order for my story to take place. Sounds simple enough, and it is for the most part.

Years ago, when I first started to outline my stories, at one point I never did hence my pile of unfinished works, I used a simple Beginning, Middle, End format. It was cool, it worked out well enough. I mean, how hard is it to put events in order from beginning to end?

Through the years, my view went from Beginning, Middle, End to Act1, Act2, Act3. As I wrote more stories, I realized that it was easier for me to visualize their structures in quarters. Four quarters of a whole. Act1, Act2, Act3, Act4. Looking at it this way just helped me with pacing and such.

Last year, when I dove into the world of screenwriting and wrote the first draft of my first screenplay, Xandy Sussan, @covermyscript on twitter, pointed something out to me that was pretty much “right there” in my face. She said, “Remember that each section/part of your story’s structure serves a particular story telling purpose, and should have a Beginning, Middle, and End of it’s own”. It’s not word for word, but you get the point.

Now, the type of person I am, I take advice, mull it over, size it up, put it to the test, and wear it out. What Xandy helped me to see, once I re focused my story telling lens, was that a story is not just a Beginning, a middle, and an End, or in my case, Act1, Act2, Act3, and Act4. Each section is deeper than that.

Act1 is not just the Beginning, it’s the Introduction, the Set Up as most like to call it. For me, the purpose of Act1/Introduction is to introduce the characters, their individual goals and motives, and the world they live in. This introduces the audience to the story.

Act2 is not just the Middle, is what I like to call the “Agitation” and what most call “The Build Up”. In the last section we were introduced to the characters and their world. In this section, we see how the characters, their goals, motives, and their world conflict with each other. This is the battlefield the audience is caught in the middle of. On this battlefield, characters fight to achieve their goals, alliances and enemies are made, tempers flare, feelings are hurt, some characters are forced to change, some are killed. The stakes are raised higher and higher as the story’s opposing forces strike at either tit for tat.

Act3 is not just the Beginning of the End, it’s the Confrontation, or the Climax. This is where the opposing forces, having exhausted all but one avenue to achieve their goal, face off with each other. There is where in the real world you’d say, “Okay, you know what? I’m tired of this shit.” and you go handle your business, lol. The confrontation/climax could be a big argument, the professing of love, a daring rescue, a one on one fight to the death, etc. Either way, this is the biggest event of the story. This is what the other two stages were leading to.

Act4 is not just the end, it’s the Resolution. Here we see the end result of the big Confrontation. How things are left off for better or for worse. The guy gets the girl, the world is destroyed, somebody lands their dream job, a family is brought back together, blah, blah, blah.

As it should be, I know other writers have their own ideas for outlining and structure, but this works for me. It’s the simplest way that I can break it down for myself. Introduction, Agitation, Confrontation, Resolution.

At any rate, my point is that each section of your story serves a purpose other than “This is when/where “X” happens”. Each section tells a particular part of your story, requires certain types of events to works, and ultimately should have a beginning, middle, and end of it’s own. The end of each section, in a sense, should be a cliff hanger to the next, causing the audience to “want” to see what happens next.
QQs: What are your views on outlining and structure?

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