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Going beyond familiar story structures

Most of us are familiar with the 3-act structure, the hero’s journey, and the classic structure. They work well for many stories, but occasionally another structure is better suited.

When choosing the structure of your story, don’t immediately go to the ones you’re familiar with

Classic: Consists of 4 main sections.

1) Begin with conflict, or throw the character into a bad situation as soon as possible. This might include a life or death situation, the protagonist meeting two love interests back to back, discovering dangerous secret powers, etc.

2) Nearly all actions or choices make matters worse. Don’t give your character a break through this section. Pile on complications and conflict.

3) The hopeless, dark moment. Convince the reader the story might not end well with deep, emotional conflict that doesn’t have an easy solution.

4) Let the hero succeed. Once you’ve put your character through the ringer, give him the spark of inspiration or light at the end of the tunnel that leads them toward a satisfying ending.

In Media Res: Start in the middle of something.

It doesn’t have to be a gun fight, but it does have to have conflict and grab the reader’s attention. The HOOK is extremely important in this structure. It then follows a pattern of rising action, explanation/backstory, climax, falling action, and resolution.

The Hero’s Journey: Begins with a call to adventure/action.

The MC then meets a threshold where their transformation begins. The MC then faces challenges and tribulations, meeting a mentor and one or more helpers along the way. The MC then faces an abyss/dark moment that symbolizes death and rebirth. They should have some kind of revelation at this point that spurs real transformation and leads to atonement. The character then returns to regular life.

Seven-Point: The seven-point structure is similar to the 3-Act structure

It has added structural elements the writers is expected to follow more closely. It consists of: The hook, plot turn 1 (and introduction of conflict), pinch point 1 (apply pressure to protagonist via antagonist usually), midpoint (MC responds to conflict with action), pinch point 2 (more pressure that makes achieving the goal less likely or harder), plot turn 2 (story turns toward resolution), and the resolution (the climax).

Snowflake: Start with one central idea and add to it.

Once you have your central idea, keep adding more ideas until you have a full plot arc. This structure is based on expansion of a central theme or idea. It starts very generally and becomes more specific as the details are developed. This can be very structured (start with one sentence, expand to a paragraph, summarize each character, etc.) or be approached more fluidly.

Three-Act: Based on Greek storytelling/theater.

Specific plot elements happen in each act. Act 1: Introduce characters and setting, present the inciting incident. Act 2: Introduce a problem that grows more complex as the story progresses. Act 3: Raise the stakes, characters face challenges and growth, protagonist finds a solution.

Disturbance/Doorway: Something disturbs the character’s regular life early in the story.

Doorway 1 pushes the MC further into the story. There is no turning back once it happens. Doorway 2 brings the MC to the final battle. Again, there it no return, and it often leads to disaster before a resolution is reached.

Five Milestones: Focuses on five main plot points and leaves the detail to be more flexible.

1) The setup introduces characters and the world.

2) The inciting incident introduces the main plot concept.

3) The 1st Slap sets the stakes and introduces the larger plot. The conflict is usually external at this point.

4) The 2nd Slap makes everything worse by adding more layers of conflict and barrier to the MC reaching their goal.

5) The climax should be tied to the inciting incident and wrap up the plot arc in an exciting and memorable way. It should then naturally flow into a resolution.

Narrative: Focuses mainly on story and plot.

It is less restrictive on when and where story/plot elements occur. It also uses the Fitchean Curve of crises driving the rising action to the climax, then falling action leading to the resolution. Exposition is limited and the story focuses more on the action and crises.

For some film examples of unorthodox story structures, check out this list!

Posted in creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Foreshadowing vs. Foretelling

Foreshadowing is a great way to create anticipation in the reader, but it can easily be confused for foretelling.

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Foretelling is to predict or tell the future before it occurs (a prophecy), while foreshadowing is to presage or suggest something in advance. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes a big difference in a story.

Foretelling is direct and explicitly tells the reader what will occur. While this is more common in young children’s literature, it’s usually not the best choice for other fiction forms. Foretelling takes the discovery away from the reader. It doesn’t make them work to understand the hint and can spoil the mystery or anticipation.

Foreshadowing involves the reader more full yin the story by asking them to put in the effort to not only pick up on the hints given, but remember them and fit them into the rest of the information and events. Readers feel more invested in the story when they feel like they are participating in it.

What do these two look like in fiction? Here are a few examples:

detective-152085_1280Foretelling: Had I known the darkness forming in my mind weren’t my own thoughts, I would have attempted to defend myself.

Foreshadowing: These thoughts feel so foreign, but I can’t deny they’re in my mind, constantly nudging and pushing me to see Alex’s words and actions more clearly.

In the first example, the reader is told the dark thoughts come from an external source and the character has lost control of their own mind. This asks the reader to do no work and requires them to simply wait for the character to realize the manipulation or see how it all shakes out. Reader investment and participation is very low.

In the second example, there is a hint that the dark thoughts aren’t usual for the character, but is contrasted by the hint that the change might be needed…if Alex’s words and actions truly are harmful. This creates anticipation because the reader doesn’t know for sure whether the character is being manipulated or is starting to see things more clearly. This creates a sense of wariness and anticipation to figure out the truth. Readers will pay more attention to find more clues and figure out the mystery. Reader engagement and investment is high.

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Using non-chronological story structure elements effectively

Focused on story structure, I was recently discussing tactics other than the usual chronological structure with some other writers. It was an interesting discussion of not only how to use these, but some general thoughts on these devices.

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Past prologue:

This is a device detailing an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation.

This is one of the most common non-chronological devices used in fiction, and the first one that comes to mind for me is the first chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It’s not listed as a prologue, but it happens ten years prior to the next chapter, so it’s really a prologue.

This gives the reader enough information about the situation to get them interested, but it doesn’t infodump everything the reader needs to know to dive into chapter two. It only gives enough background to let the reader know something strange and interesting, and quite dangerous, is about to happen.

Past prologues can be overused and can end up being very tell-y and not show-y enough. Use them with caution and with purpose!

Future prologue:

This device details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention.

One of the writers in the discussion mentioned that she doesn’t like future prologues because she finds them very jarring as a reader. She felt a prologue should naturally be something that happens before the main story. Another writer mentioned these have been very popular lately and are beginning to feel overused and a bit annoying.

Laini Taylor’s “Strange the Dreamer” was mentioned as a good example of a future prologue because it reads, at first, as if it’s a past prologue. As the reader continues on, they realize that isn’t the case and this realization causes more worry and tension for the reader.

Alternating timelines:

When using this device, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods.

“As Long As Love Lasts” by Jea Hawkins was mentioned as a good example of alternating timelines. The story shows a relationship on the edge of collapse then alternates to the story of an aunt and how a relationship ended for her. The house connects the two storylines, and the aunt’s story helps to inform the reader about the couple’s failing marriage.

Flashbacks:

Flashbacks break from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past as a complete scene.

Slaughter’s “The Good Daughter” was mentioned as a good example of flashbacks. The timeline flashes back to an event from the two sisters’ childhoods, then later flashes back to the same scene and telling it from the other sister’s perspective. This allowed for more detail and seeing the event from multiple perspectives.

Parallel timelines:

This type of timeline device tells two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other.

I recently read Amy Harmon’s “What the Wind Knows” and loved how she handled the timeline changes. It wasn’t a traditional parallel timeline, but at the same time it was. Without giving away too much, I really enjoyed how multiple timelines were in play simultaneously and they all came together at the end really beautifully without any confusion or lingering questions.

Time jumping:

This is when a character moves through different time periods. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes.

“The Kept Woman” by Karin Slaughter was mentioned as a good example of a time-jumping story line. The first half of the book investigates a crime, and just when the reader thinks they’re beginning to put all the pieces together, the timeline jumps to before the crime and progresses forward through the events from a different perspective.