From Rick:

In Part 1, I gave you some reference articles to read regarding various story structures. Before I get started, I want to make a couple of comments:

(1) I do not use any of these methods directly when crafting a novel.

(2) You don’t have to either.

Why did I have you read them, and why don’t I practice what others preach about how stories should be structured?

Let me explain. While I don’t consciously sit down with a story concept, pick a structure that I think will fit it, and outline the story accordingly. I don’t believe that forcing stories into a mold is the best way to write. However, you do need to be conscious of your story’s progression, and I think most of us, writers or not, already have an innate sense of that.

Let me put it another way: No set of instructions or recipe you can follow that will guarantee you a successful story or novel.

Whether we consciously force them into one of these patterns or not, compelling stories very often follow one of these patterns on their own. The article on the three-act structure, pointed out how Aristotle discovered that many stories followed the three-act structure. Why is this the case?

If you think about it for a moment, the answer should be obvious. When we tell a story, we’re trying to entertain our listener (or reader). Being social animals, we like to engage others in our experiences. Regardless of whether it’s a story we created—or one we enjoyed and are simply passing on—we want to hold our audience’s attention for the duration of the story (maybe it’s an ego thing). We therefore have to grab our audience’s attention at the start and build on that opening, keeping it interesting and engaging. Otherwise, we’ll quickly lose our audience.

As you learned, the three-act structure isn’t the only one. Shakespeare typically used five acts, and if you look it up, you’ll find that a four-act structure exists.

The point is that it does not matter which form your story falls into or even that it follows any of these. These story structures are not how-to guides but merely statements of how stories generally are structured for best impact. It makes sense that you don’t want to front load your story with too many points of tension, story questions, or revelations or you won’t give your audience enough to look forward to. This is why story action escalates as it moves forward.

Let’s look at The Wizard of Oz (the movie) from a different angle. What if the told the story was told this way:

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There’s this girl named Dorothy from Kansas and a tornado sucks up her house, with her in it, and transports her to a magical land called Oz. She’s understandably distraught at being put into an unfamiliar place and wants to get back home.

Dorothy meets a bunch of interesting people who help her out along the way. She kills the evil witch and gets back home. Before she did that, she had to fight off some flying monkeys and go through a woods with evil trees. She fell asleep in a field of magical poppies on her way to the Emerald City. A good witch had told her that she needed to go to the Emerald City where the great Wizard of Oz lived to get help. The Wizard of Oz told Dorothy to kill the witch and to bring him her broomstick as proof.

Dorothy killed the witch by pouring water on her so she melted, but that was an accident. Then she learned that she always had the power to get back home because she had the ruby slippers she’d gotten when her house fell on the wicked witch’s sister and killed her.

Along the way to the Emerald City she meets the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The witch tried to hurt Dorothy’s friends to stop her, so she created the field of poppies to put them all to sleep so she could capture them…

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Yuck! Ignoring that the writing itself is not engaging (and that there’s a lot missing), the main problem is that it’s not interesting because it’s difficult to follow. There is no structure to the story. Now imagine the storyteller continuing this way for several thousand words, jumping ahead and backtracking, telling the story out of sequence. You’d probably walk away (or put the book down) long before the story was finished.

To be fair, some very successful stories are told out of sequence, but they still have a structure.

We know from our experience that the story of The Wizard of Oz is a good one. What makes the difference is how it’s organized. One could postulate that the three-act structure came about because it turned out to be a good way to engage the audience and to keep them listening.

One of the articles I gave you to read dealt with the Hero’s Journey. That’s really more of a general story type than a story structure, and the article shows how we can fit this story type into a three-act structure. The Wizard of Oz, for example, can be viewed as a hero’s journey story, but it’s not the same type as seen in The Hobbit, where Bilbo is on a quest. While Dorothy is on a quest of sorts, it’s a personal one to get back home, not a call to action. Ridding Oz of the evil witch is a secondary outcome.

NOTE: Anyone who has read the original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz knows that the movie leaves out a LOT of the original story, which is far richer than what we see in the movie. The novel has a lot more tension and plot complications.

Where does this discussion leave us when it comes to writing a novel? The three-act structure or any of the story structures mentioned in the articles can be useful in helping us to fix problems in our novels. Using one of these to structure (or outline) our novel can help us organize it better and craft it into a compelling story while avoiding the potential pitfalls of plot problems.

How do you know which of the plot structures to use or which one your story will fit into? The first answer is that your story likely could fit into more than one of the various structures. Honestly, it doesn’t matter unless you are deliberately trying to craft a story around a specific one.

Keep in mind that your story does not need to be an action/adventure to use any of these structures. Even the hero’s journey could fit something less dramatic than The Hobbit and need not be in the form of a quest. You have only to look at the complexities of the Harry Potter novels to see this. In the Harry Potter series, each novel has its own story structure, but the seven novels together have an overarching structure as well.

Use story structure to help you keep your story interesting and to keep it from getting bogged down. Examine your story to see if it fits into one of these structures. If it doesn’t, then ask why it doesn’t, remembering that these are time-tested patterns of storytelling. Maybe you’ve come up with a new one, but if so, then you need to be sure that it’s an effective structure. But I can almost promise that unless you are a new literary genius, you probably won’t come up with a new and effective story structure.

Going back to my post of two weeks ago regarding outlining/plotting versus pantsing, everything comes down to writing an effective story. How you do it is largely irrelevant. Do what works for you, but taking the time to look into your story’s structure, no matter what method you used to write it, could help you to make it better help you understand why it works.

–Rick