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Story Structure: Linking Beginnings and Endings

As you near the end of your project, it’s important to consider the link between the beginning and the end.

Linking the Beginning to the Ending

The beginning and ending of a story should not only be strong, but they should be related in some way.

This may be through reiterating the stated or implied theme at the beginning again at the end of the story, referring back to the symbolism used throughout the story, using situation to mirror or contrast the beginning, coming back to a specific action or piece of information, or other similar methods of tying the two scenes together.

The ending will have more meaning to the reader if the beginning and the end tie together in a meaningful way. To be meaningful, the final scene should relate to the overall concept of the story, which should have been layout or hinted at in the early chapters.

Look back at the beginning scene and consider what message it communicated to the reader, particularly what promises it made, what theme(s) it introduced, what changes the character needed to make in order to find purpose or happiness, etc.

Once you isolate that message, look at your ending scene and make sure that you are fulfilling reader expectations. This may mean fulfilling a promise, completing a character or story arc, or coming back to a theme or concept important to the story or character.

The ending scene should fulfill reader expectations set in the early chapters so they put down the book feeling satisfied.

Final Scene Crafting Detail to Consider

When reviewing scenes, there are a few important factors to consider:

  • Make sure scenes have the right balance of details to create a full scene without bogging it down.
  • Descriptive details should be pertinent to the action, help create mood and tone, or accentuate the dialogue.
  • Details should use all relevant senses to create a full picture of the setting, the characters, and the emotion.
  • Details should reveal something relevant to the character or story and not be superfluous. A clenched fist shows anger, fidgeting conveys unease, food and clothing choices set the stage and reveal preferences, etc.

The structure of a story determines how well it will be told. Poorly thought out or constructed stories frustrate readers and confuse the purpose of the story.

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Story Structure: Scene Position, Purpose, and POV

Where a scene is located in the story structure, what role it plays, and whos tells that section of the story are important elements in deciding how to craft a particular scene.

Positioning

Opening scenes should introduce characters, set up the story premise, and give hints at backstory. Don’t go overboard on any of these elements. Orient the reader, and fill in the details later in order to avoid overwhelming the reader with too much information or names to remember.

Middle scenes should continue to introduce and work through complications, provide twists, and increase the stakes. These scenes contain the bulk of the story. They should build on each other and provide story progression. Scenes that lag or lack clear purpose should be eliminated or revised to prevent the reader getting bored.

Climactic scenes will build to a climax, and are typically toward the last third of the book. They are often shorter and use high levels or emotion and action. Be careful not to string too many climactic scenes together. This can overwhelm the reader. Give the reader a break every so often with scenes more focused on recovery, discovery, or introspection.

The tone, feel, and purpose of a scene should correspond to its place in the story.

Purpose

Every scene must have a purpose. That doesn’t mean that every scene needs action. Purposes might include advancing the plot, revealing something about the character or world, or providing information about the overall plot, highlighting change, etc.

For writers who outline, it is usually easier to make sure each scene will have a purpose before it is written. For pansters, this may be more challenging, because you don’t always know where a scene is going when you start writing it. Pansters need to revise critically to make sure there are not superfluous or meandering scenes.

The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. For example, This scene will show David blowing up and scaring Emily away by proving to her that he can’t control himself. If a scene doesn’t have a purpose, it likely doesn’t need to be there or need to be revised with a stronger focus on accomplishing something relevant to the story.

Point of View

It is important that a scene be told from the most impactful point of view.

This is usually the character who is most impacted by the events of the scene. If you find that emotion isn’t coming through in the scene like you wanted it to, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. Think about what the stakes are for each character involved and who has the most to gain or lose by the outcome of the scene.

POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene. Make sure you have a firm purpose and then evaluate who will learn the most, change the most, react more strongly, risk the most, etc.

There are exceptions, of course, often stylistic ones. If the emotional elements are so strong they may impact the reader in a negative way or be overwhelming, writing the scene from a peripheral viewpoint might be a better option. This may be the case with traumatic experiences or a particularly gruesome encounter.

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Story Structure: Chronological and Non-chronological

How you tell a story in time can make a big difference in its effectiveness. Chronological timelines are the the most common, but non-chronological structures can also work very well when done with careful planning and attention to detail.

Chronological Structure

The story is told largely in chronological order, meaning events are told in the order they occur. Brief flashbacks or flashforwards may be included, but they are not the main storytelling device.

This is the most common story structure used and the easiest for readers to understand. It is important to make sure the order of events and passage of time is clear to the reader. You can achieve this by establish the setting/time in the first few chapters to orient the reader, and then staying consistent throughout the book. This is especially important in anything not set in a current time period. If there is a flash forward or backward, give clear indication of the time change, either through exposition or noting the time change.

During editing, check for inconsistencies, such as injuries, broken items, or people coming or leaving and ensure there are proper healing time, things broken stay broken or get fixed, the people involved doesn’t change without being mentioned to the reader, etc. It’s easy to forget little details and have someone using a whole item that was broken in an earlier chapter, or forgetting an injury should hinder movement or ability, or forgetting about a character who existed in the background of a scene.

Non-Chronological Structures

Past prologue: This type of structure details an important event that happened in the past and has effected the current situation. This is commonly used when there is too much backstory detail to work into a present conversation without info dumping. The reader is given all the pertinent information in a past prologue to orient them in the current time when the story begins.

Future prologue: This type of structure details a tension-filled or dramatic future event meant to capture readers’ attention. It is most commonly used to show an unlikely or startling endpoint of a character or story, then reverts back to the present to show what led to the unexpected event. This should not be used simply for shock value to attract a reader’s attention. It should be important and relevant information the reader needs to know when beginning the story.

Alternating timelines: With this structure, past/present or present/future timelines alternate between different characters or the same character in different time periods. This is often used to show a comparison of experiences or times, or to brings two timelines to an eventual intersection.

Circular timelines: In this type of structure, the story ends where it began. It is used to create a sense of departure from and return to the original structure. Characters still undergo transformation and are affected by events.

Flashbacks: A flashback breaks from the current story to tell of an event that happened in the past, as a complete scene. It can be located anywhere in the story. It is used when more details are needed than what can be conveyed through a recap or explanation, or when the reader needs to “experience” the moment to full understand it. Flashbacks should be used minimally to avoid distraction and breaking the story flow.

Parallel timelines: This is used to tell two stories chronologically in different time periods. Both move forward together and inform the other. This is often used to compare two periods of time and how characters experience those time periods. There should be a link between them that sheds light on one or both storylines.

Time jumping: This is when a character moves through time, either forward or backward, or a combination of both. Scenes are connected in some way and inform the other scenes. Outside of an actual time-traveling storyline, this can be used to show changes in a character, situation, place, etc. in different time periods.

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Story Structure: 3-Act Structure

One of the most commonly taught and used story structures in the 3-Act Structure. In this post I’ll break down each act and what should be in it.

Act 1 – The Beginning

Act one compromises about the first 25% of the story and has three main parts.

  • Introduction: The introduction should establish who the main characters are and what their “normal” life looks like at that point in time.
  • Inciting Incident: The inciting incident presents a situation that will prove to be a catalyst for change and which will set the story in motion. In a romance novel, this is usually the meet-cute.
  • Plot Point 1: This first major plot point will introduce the central conflict and present a call to action for the character. The character(s) then react to the inciting incident and call to action, usually accepting the call and setting themselves on the path of the story and character arcs.

Act 2: The Middle

Act two compromises about the middle 50% of the story and contains the bulk of the plot.

  • Confrontation: During the confrontation, the main character faces the first obstacle to achieving his or her desire or goal. In a romance novel this is often something that will prevent a real relationship or keep the main character’s apart, either physically or emotionally.
  • The midpoint: At the midpoint, the main character faces the central conflict in some way. The realization causes a change in the character. This is often a revelation about the self, information about another character, shocking news, reflection on the main conflict, etc.
  • Rising action: During the rising action, the stakes must rise for the main character, building up to the central conflict he or she must face. This is usually achieved through subplots and new information about the central conflict.
  • The second plot point: This is the highest point of tension. It is a crisis that makes the desired ending seem impossible. This should use high emotion to engage the reader and make them concerned for the character. This MUST be believable enough to make the reader think a happy ending may not be possible. This should be big enough that it can’t be resolved easily.

Act 3: The End

Act three compromises the last 25% of the story and contains the worst moment for the characters as well as the resolution or climax and the final ending.

  • Pre-climax/darkest night: In this blackest moment, the character faces the possibly of not achieving their goal during a final clash with the antagonist and deals with the fallout of the crisis The character may realize a new goal that will help them move past the crisis (often alone).
  • Resolution/Climax: This is the final moments of the main conflict where it is resolved by providing an answer to the main problem/conflict. This is normally a single scene, but may extend to several scenes if the resolution/climax is complicated or involves interactions with multiple characters.The main conflict’s resolution MUST be believable and not a simple misunderstanding. The solution should be real and still have an element of risk. The benefits of taking the risk should outweigh staying safe.
  • Denouement:This final ending fulfills all promises to the reader. Make sure to tie up loose ends, answer questions, underscore the theme, in order to leave the reader satisfied.

There is, of course, room to make changes or try new tactics within a 3-Act story structure, but it is still important to make sure you hit all the main elements in some fashion.

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Why worldbuilding is important in all genres

Fictional settings, whether modern in the real world, sci-fi, fantasy, or paranormal, require some level of worldbuilding.

The world your character lives in should have an impact on the story

Setting should transport the reader to that location and not feel like it could have taken place anywhere. Worldbuilding is creating a fictional world that still feels realistic.

Details make all the difference in worldbuilding, and keep a setting from feeling generic. Highlight unique and quirky elements and integrate them into the storyline and character profiles.

When worldbuilding, consider which of these will be relevant to the story:

Layout and geography, what lies beyond the immediate setting, politics, laws, and governing systems, culture and traditions, weather, local plants and animals, jobs, economy, imports/exports, history, enemies, and allies, folklore and urban legends, details only locals would know, and the hero’s feelings and opinions about the place.

All of these will affect the character’s views, way of thinking, actions, choices, and lifestyle.

Details make the difference in worldbuilding, whether high fantasy or the corner coffee shop. However, the level of detail depends on the genre.

Unless the color of every mug in a coffee shop is relevant to the story, leave it out. Developing an intricate system of magical spell-creation requires a higher level of detail so the reader can understand the process.

Details MUST be relevant, no matter the genre.

What characters eat can indicate location (coleslaw on pulled pork sandwiches in the south), income (another Ramen noodle dinner!), personality quirks (all food must be yellow), and more. Irrelevant details confuse readers and cause them to look for hints or twists where there aren’t any. Remember the advice that if you mention a gun in scene 1, it better be fired by someone by the end of the story!

Once you have the foundation and are starting to add details, do so in logical layers.

Real world example:

Choose the city relevant to the story line -> choose a professional that makes sense for the location and character -> choose a neighborhood with access to or amenities that will help progress the story -> choose frequently visited locations that provide opportunities for conversations, action, or conflict -> develop hobbies that allow for character growth, etc.

Paranormal example:

Choose a mythology base -> tweak the base to suit major plot points -> develop main powers/beasts that provide conflict between two or more groups -> develop rules for powers/beasts that keep winning from being too easy -> develop goals for each opposing group -> develop individuals goals that clash with others/the group -> develop individual power/beast uniqueness that needs to develop, etc.

In every genre there is a logical progression to worldbuilding and every element added should impact the characters and story in a meaningful way.

Incorporate details like region, weather, local plants and animals, etc. into a story to make it feel more real to the reader.