Skip the MFA 4: Nail Your Narrative, Part 1
There are a lot of elements that go into the creation of a compelling story, the kind that grabs a reader’s attention and won’t let go until the wee hours of the morning, but none is more important than story structure.
Through the rest of this series we’re going to dig into characters and characterization, setting, dialog, conflict, and stakes to unpack what makes a good story tick, but we have to start with an examination of story structure, because without a strong story spine everything else falls flat.
Let’s start by naming right off the bat that plot and narrative flow are not the same thing.
Plot is the sequence of events that occur in the story, while story structure is the underlying current of growth, synthesis, and movement that gives those events meaning and resonance. This might sound like an arbitrary and vague distinction, but I promise that understanding it is vitally important to writing stories that move your reader. Let’s dig further to see if we can’t clear things up.
The simplest effective formula for narrative structure that I’ve encountered is: A CHARACTER overcomes OBSTACLES in pursuit of a GOAL, and CHANGES as a result.
Can you find examples of famous, classic stories that don’t follow this pattern? Absolutely. Can you write such stories yourself? Sure, if you want to. But if your goal is to connect with readers and keep them coming back for more I would think long and hard about deviating from it too widely.
The essence of any good story is change. We are fascinated by our own human capacity for change and growth, and are drawn to examples of it in stories. You can have a plot where a lot “things” happen that results in very little real growth or movement, but that plot probably would not contain much meaning.
I’ve read dozens of different lists of the important points of story structure, some with only a few key points, while others have dozens. I tend to think that simple is best, so let me give you my 8 point story structure breakdown, and along the way we’ll draw examples from one of the more famously compelling modern stories, Star Wars: A New Hope.
Those 8 points are: The Inciting Incident, The Plan, The First Turn, The Effort, The Second Turn, The Dark Night, The Climax, The Resolution
In an effort to keep this post somewhat manageable I’m going to divide the list in two. We’ll tackle points 1 through 4 today, and dig into points 5 through 8 tomorrow.
- The Inciting Incident
Right off the bat we have an example of how plot and structure are not the same thing, because the inciting incident is not always the first event to take place in the story.
Instead, the inciting incident is the moment that introduces the story problem. It’s the point where the protagonist’s world is thrown out of balance, usually creating a goal or objective for them to pursue.
The inciting incident of Star Wars, for example, is not the moment when Darth Vader strides onto the Rebel ship. If his attack on the ship went off without a hitch, there would be no movie for us to watch. The inciting incident occurs shortly after, when Princess Leia sends her distress call out in an escape pod.
That action introduces the story problem: the evil Empire must be dealt with, and the Princess has sent a message to the only person she thinks can help her. Will that message reach it’s target? Will they be able to stop the Empire once they hear it? Can the scattered forces of good overcome entrenched, powerful evil? Our desire to have those questions answered keeps us moving through the beginning of the story.
Take Away: be sure that your inciting incident introduces an interesting story problem, and be sure that it’s the problem that your climax is going to resolve.
2. The Plan
Once the inciting incident has introduced a story problem, the protagonist must eventually form a plan of action. How do they intend to deal with this obstacle or challenge? How will they achieve their goal?
It’s very important that The Plan be a flawed, insufficient thing, either through lack of information or, even better, because it doesn’t go far enough or require enough of your protagonist. We humans usually like to take the safest, easiest, and least costly approach to solving a problem. That may be great in real life, but it’s terrible for stories.
It’s important that the protagonist plays an active role in shaping and pursuing The Plan. We want to root for a character who is trying something, even if it turns out to be a flawed attempt.
Some plot events usually fall between each major point of story structure. In our example we meet Luke, learn a little bit about his life on Tatooine, see him buy some droids, nearly get killed in the desert, and meet a mysterious old man. All of that is plot. If it went on too much longer we would begin to get bored, but Lucas understood story structure, so he gives us what we’re looking for just in time.
The old man turns out to be one of the last remaining Jedi, who reveals that Luke’s father too was a Jedi. Exiting! But Luke isn’t sure he wasn’t to give up his nice, comfortable (although boring) life. It’s a good thing then that the Empire kills his aunt and uncle (a good thing for us at least), as that forces Luke to make a decision and form The Plan. He decides to go along and help Obi Wan rescue the princess, partly because he has no home left, and partly to get revenge.
Notice how this Plan is flawed. Luke doesn’t decide to become the hero he needs to be. He doesn’t really take ownership of the challenge, or act for the greater good. It’s essentially a limited, selfish plan, but it’s good enough to get him moving, and leaves room for future growth.
Take Away: make sure your protagonist leaves Act 1 with a clearly defined Plan, and make sure that Plan is flawed or limited enough to allow room for failure, growth and change in the future.
3. The First Turn
The First Turn is the point where the story takes a major shift, usually through failure or the introduction of significant new information.
If the story just rolls happily along until the protagonist achieves their initial goal, we’d be rather bored and disappointed. The first turn is an important moment of rising stakes and rising tension, and both are essential ingredients in keeping your readers engaged.
It often works well to have the First Turn be an event or outcome caused by the protagonist’s own failed efforts, but it can also work to make it an external situation that happens to them or takes them by surprise.
Notice that the famous Cantina scene, Luke and Obi Wan hiring Han Solo to fly them to Alderan, and Luke’s initial training in the ship are all plot and character development. They’re great, but again, if things continued along that path without any changes we’d get bored. We need another moment of story structure to ramp things up again.
And that’s exactly what we get when our heroes’ ship winds up inside an asteroid field that shouldn’t be there, and realizes that the planet they were headed to was just destroyed. Even worse, the doomsday weapon that did the destroying is still around, and it has caught them in its tractor beam.
The moment when the Millenium Falcon is pulled into the Death Star is the First Turn of the movie. Suddenly their quest faces a huge new obstacle, and the old Plan goes out the window.
4. The Effort
After The First Turn throws a monkey wrench into The Plan, the protagonist must regroup and rise the meet the new challenge.
This is an excellent opportunity to show the protagonist beginning to grow in believable ways. It’s important that the reader believes the protagonist is capable of succeeding when it all comes down to the climax at the end of the story. Their efforts to address the obstacles created by the First Turn are an important part of their growth towards that point.
The entire sequence of our heroes sneaking around the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia works towards this objective, but it’s the moment when Luke is grabbed by the monster in the trash compactor that forms the heart of The Effort in the movie.
Here Luke can no longer rely on others. He must overcome this threat himself, finding a great strength and will to live than he’s shown previously. Not only does he survive personally, but his quick thinking in calling R2D2 for help saves his friends as well. Now we’re beginning to see Luke act like the hero he must become before he reaches the Climax.
Take Away: give your protagonist a defined goal in response to the crisis or failure of the First Turn. Have it be something that requires them to grow a bit and stretch beyond themselves, but also something they can succeed at to move the story forward.
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A prince in hiding. An empire in turmoil. A gathering storm.
Kyren e’Cania is the last son of a fallen House, raised in secret in the shadows of the city his family once ruled.
Trained by his father in the ways of his people, Kyren has avoided the notice of the tyrant who murdered his family by never giving anyone reason to suspect he is anything more than a nameless peasant.
But when an ambitious noble sets dangerous events in motion, Kyren must find a way to reclaim his heritage and unite his people, before everything he loves is swallowed by fire and sword once again.
“A beautifully written story with strong descriptions, penetrating characterisation, and considerable imaginative power.”
- Sam Thompson, author of Communion Town: A City in Ten Stories