Skip the MFA 5: Nail Your Narrative, Part 2
Picking right up where we left off in Part 1, today we’ll continue or look into the fundamentals of good story structure, using the example of Star Wars: A New Hope to illustrate our point.
Dividing the 8 points of narrative structure into two parts wasn’t just an exercise in convenience. Every well-told story displays a distinct difference between the events and tone of the beginning and the ending. Audiences understand and expect to experience that difference, so it’s important that we writers deliver it consistently.
Part 1 is all about the setup. The story problem is posed, key characters are introduced, and the reader is drawn into the theme and tone of the story.
Every significant element that will play some part in the resolution of the climax must be introduced during Part 1, or the reader will not be satisfied.
Part 2, then, is all about the payoff. The situation grows worse and worse, the obstacles become greater and greater, until the protagonist and their friends finally break through and bring everything they have learned and become over the course of the story to bear on its resolution.
Let’s look in detail at the final 4 points that come together to form Part 2 of your story structure.
5. The Second Turn
The second turn is the second reversal or set back, and so of course it needs to be even bigger and more costly than the first. It initiates the downward spiral of events that will lead us to the lowest point in the story, and force the protagonist to grow more than anything that has come before. The second turn often takes the form of a major loss, a betrayal, or the protagonist’s own mistake or failure. The important thing is that it be significant enough that it throws the entire outcome of the story into question. If your reader is asking “how will they ever recover?”, then you’ve nailed the Second Turn.
In A New Hope, the Second Turn occurs just when we think our heroes have managed to escape the Death Star. Darth Vader arrives just as they reach their ship, and kills Luke’s mentor Obi Wan.
This is a perfect example of a great Second Turn. Just as we think things are looking up, the antagonist strikes and makes things worse than ever. Up until now Luke has just been following Obi Wan’s lead. He hasn’t owned the quest or his own identity, instead relying on everyone else. Suddenly, that support is ripped away from him. Can he recover? Can he overcome his own doubt and learn to use the Force without Obi Wan to teach him? This sudden rush of new questions keeps us fully hooked as the story moves towards its conclusion.
Notice, too, how the Second Turn in the movie mirrors the first in many ways. In both cases Luke loses something that he thought he needed, only to find out that it was really just as excuse he was using to keep from embracing his identity and destiny (the core theme of the movie). Whenever possible, make sure that the setbacks and obstacles in your story echo its core themes.
Take Away: Propel your story towards the climax by introducing a major obstacle or setback. The best examples of this are tied right into the themes of the story, and force the protagonist into new growth.
6. The Dark Night
The Dark Night is the moment when the protagonist is forced to face the very real possibility of failure. Things have gone from bad to worse, and all their doubts, fears, and personal limitations loom large in front of them.
In action and adventure stories The Dark Night is typically an external circumstance or challenge. The villain is too strong, the enemy forces too overwhelming, the natural disaster too devastating for success to be possible.
In more internal genres like romance or literary fiction The Dark Night is typically a personal or internal crisis. The lovers’ difference or distrust has grown to great to overcome, or the protagonists’ own doubts, fears, and personal flaws threaten to overwhelm them.
Whatever form it takes, the important thing is that your protagonist comes face to face with the overwhelming force that stands between them and success. That force should be great enough that your protagonist in their current state will fail, unless they embrace the growth and new discovery that the story has presented to them.
In A New Hope the Dark Night comes as Luke and the other Rebel pilots prepare to attack the Death Star. We just learned that the station is nearly indestructible, and is guarded by a larger fleet. Han Solo just took his money and left because he and everyone else are convinced this is a suicide mission.
In other words, it is now clear that conventional means stand no chance of success. If everything proceeds from this point without change, the protagonist will fail.
Take Away: The essence of a good climax lies in the overwhelming possibility of failure unless something (ideally the protagonist) changes. The Dark Night is the moment when the characters are forced to face into that reality.
7. The Climax
If I was forced to choose one point of story structure above all others as the most important, it would be The Climax. Your story can stumble and drag a bit along the way, but if it has an amazing, gripping, memorable climax your audience will still be thinking about it after they put down the book or turn off the TV.
So how do you accomplish this? Start by raising the stakes.
“Raise the stakes” is a piece of advice that is often heard and, in my opinion, just as often misunderstood. I’ve often seen authors default to just putting more lives at risk in attempt to raise the stakes. “If he fails, THE WORLD WILL END!”
Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but oftentimes big, amorphous stakes are kind of hard to care about. Sure, we as readers can care about the idea of the world ending because, hey, we live here. Our family and friends live here. Our dreams for the future rely on there still being a future. But generic national, global, or galaxy-wide threats quickly fall flat without those sorts of personal connections.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how “high” your stakes get if they don’t ultimately matter to your reader.
My suggestion? Find ways of combining personal and corporate stakes in your climax. Make sure that the consequences of failure would be extreme in your protagonist’s own life, and if you can find ways to make it relevant to their larger community as well. This is one area that Romance typically gets right as a genre. It’s rare that the fate of the world hangs in the balance of a romance novel, but the future health and happiness of two human souls can make for some very compelling stakes if the reader has come to connect and identify with those characters.
Once you’ve bumped up the stakes as high as you can get them, the second key to a good climax is to lock success behind a door of growth.
The most satisfying climax scenes in books and movies are those that bring the protagonist to the edge of failure, forcing them to accept and embrace the things in themselves or their world that they have so far resisted. Again, this can occur within an action plot as we’ll see in a moment, but it is just as compelling when the looming failure is one of relationships and identity. Whatever your genre, if you create a climax that forces your protagonist to grow and reach beyond themselves in order to succeed, your readers will respond.
We see both the concept of personal and corporate stakes and the door of success at work in the climactic space battle of a New Hope.
Rebel pilots are dying left and right. Luke knows what he needs to do, but isn’t able to break through the gauntlet of enemy defenses. Darth Vader is just about to blow up his ship. If he fails, not only will the galaxy remain oppressed by evil, but Luke himself won’t fulfill his destiny. His potential and his identity will be cut off, and that is something we all fear and can relate to.
With everything on the line, Lucas pays off the Han Solo secondary plot line by having Han embrace his own growth, returning in the nick of time to join the fight.
But that only buys Luke the time and space he needs. Success or failure still rest on his shoulders. As he flies down the trench he begins to use the mechanical targeting system in his ship to prep his shot, but Obi Wan’s voice tells him to stop relying on things outside himself. Use the Force, Luke is an iconic line because it so perfectly captures the theme of the movie: embrace your identity and believe in yourself.
Luke must make a choice. Will he remain “normal” and afraid, or will he take a risk and believe in his own capacity for greatness. He takes the leap of faith, with explosive results, and the audience experiences a rush of affirmation and satisfaction.
Finally, notice how all the pieces of this puzzle were introduced to us near the beginning of the story. If it had been a surprise reinforcement of rebel ships flying in out of nowhere instead of Han Solo, we would be annoyed. If this moment was the first time Luke discovered he had the ability to connect with the Force, we would be annoyed.
Sometimes I see authors trying to create “wow factor” by dropping some huge bombshell into the climax. That can work, but only if the hints and factors of that revelation were already introduced. If some mysterious and unexpected element swoops in during the climax it usually just results in frustration for the reader. The climax is your moment to pull together all the threads that you’ve been weaving through your story into one fabulous whole.
Take away: if you only get one part of your story right, make it The Climax. Raise the stakes by putting both personal and corporate issues on the line, and force your protagonist to embrace growth in order to succeed.
8. The Resolution
Much of the weight of the story might rest on The Climax, but The Resolution is an important part of the puzzle. After the emotional intensity of the Dark Night and the Climax, your reader needs a moment to catch their breath and get a glimpse of the new world before you drop the final curtain.
The Resolution is the moment to show your reader the results of the events of the story, and lock in your theme in the reader’s mind. It’s also your chance to tie off any small hanging threads or personal storylines, although this should be kept to a minimum. The Resolution must stay be brief and focused so that the reader doesn’t grow bored.
In A New Hope we are treated to an award ceremony, where the heroes are celebrated and given medals. The theme of the movie — good overcomes evil when individuals join together and embrace their better selves — is reaffirmed. We see the friendships they formed during the story reaffirmed, even as the sense that the larger threat of the empire is still out there waiting for them.
Take Away: bring your story to an emotionally satisfying conclusion by showing the reader a glimpse of the world in the wake of the climax. What has changed? What happens to your characters? What, if anything, is next?
By now I hope you have a better understanding of the core components of story structure. If you want to continue to work on applying this information, try to identify the 8 points of story structure in some of your favorite books and movies. Most importantly, practice applying these concepts to your own writing. I promise that you’ll like the results.
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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