Create the structure for your story
In the previous article in this series, I outlined how to construct a premise for your story. Your premise gives you the initial setup, the main conflict, and the action that starts the adventure. That’s enough to get you through the first few chapters, but it won’t get you to the end of the book. To do that, you need to map out a full story structure, also known as a plot structure.
Now there are many plotting models and if you already have a favourite, then stick with it. I am going to outline a very simple but versatile three-act structure that will help you get going. You’ll find this structure at the centre of many plotting models, especially those used in screenwriting and commercial fiction (and literary too!). Basic plotting is one of the top skills needed for writing publishable fiction.
The three-act model has a simple logical structure of three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end.
The Beginning: Act 1
The beginning is usually referred to by its more writerly term – the exposition. The exposition usually sets the scene and describes the main character, the situation they’re in and the problem they face. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also what goes into the premise in a very summarised form.
The exposition is usually fairly short – probably no more than the first 25% of a full-length work like novel or screenplay, or perhaps only as long as a paragraph in a short story. Full length stories can stretch the exposition by getting the hero to repeatedly refuse to take action until they’re really pushed to take the leap.
Another way to think about the beginning or exposition is that it describes the ordinary world that the protagonist finds herself in and an inciting incident which disrupts that world and pushes her to the point of action.
The middle: Act 2
The middle is what we term the rising action. The exposition told us about the character, their situation and their problem. The middle is all about the character’s efforts to solve the problem or endure it as it gets worse and worse. It’s the main body of the adventure itself. We can summarise it as:
- The character tries to solve the problem
- and may fail several times
- building tension and conflict along the way.
The rising action is generally the longest part of any story, novel or screenplay. It’s called ‘rising action’ because the aim is to increase tension and to up the stakes as the story moves along.
In a full-length story the end of the rising action is often a ‘dark night of the soul’ moment when all seems lost and the protagonist has to reach deep into themselves to find the resources to face the antagonist in one last battle. All of this is building up to a moment of decisive action – the climax.
The end: Act 3
The end section consists of two sequences – the climax and the resolution.
This is the final battle with the antagonist. It may be a physical fight or confrontation or it might just be the moment the protagonist takes some final decisive action that resolves things for either failure or success. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo drinks the poison and dies. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant’s character races to the airport and proposes to the Julia Roberts character.
In a short story, the climax is usually more subtle because there hasn’t been a long rising-action sequence to build a huge amount of tension and very high stakes. Instead of dramatic action, the short story usually works towards a moment of surprise, insight, or release of emotion. This is sometimes referred to as the epiphany.
After the dust of the climax has cleared, we are left with the resolution. This is sometimes called the denouement. It’s where all the loose ends are tied up and we get a glimpse of how the story world will look now that the storm of the climax has passed. The resolution is usually very short – sometimes only a paragraph or two.
The resolution is the moment of emotional payoff that the reader has been waiting for. In a romance, it’s the happily ever after moment after the couple finally declare their love for each other. In a tragedy, the protagonist might die, leaving the audience with a sense of sorrow or a cathartic release of emotion.
Once you have a plot outline for your story you can work out where your existing scenes fit into the structure. The structure will also tell you what you have to write next to fill in the gaps. For instance, you know you’ll need a scene in which the protagonist is compelled to take action that pushes them through the door from Act 1 to Act 2.
If you want to find out more about generating stories from a basic plot structure, see my book and course Write Masterful Fiction (details below). Or take the next step in planning your story and see how we derive characters from the premise and plot.
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