Story Structure: What’s the Purpose…for Readers?

by Jami Gold on March 9, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Metal cans connected with string with text: What Does Our Story Structure Say to Readers?

Ever wonder how many of the writing “rules” have a reason beyond just “because I said so”? *smile* It’s easy to think of the rules we’re supposed to follow as being given from on high and forget that most rules or guidelines started with an understanding of how to improve our writing.

For example, many of us have heard the advice to avoid head-hopping. Without understanding why that “rule” exists, we might decide to ignore it simply because we feel contrarian. However, if we understand why it exists, we’ll know better what pitfalls await us (and how we might avoid them) if we decide the break the rule anyway.

In the case of head-hopping, the advice likely started because writing styles changed over the years away from omniscient point of view and toward a deeper, more emotionally intimate point of view (POV). With that deeper POV, head-hopping disrupted the intimacy between reader and POV character, potentially pulling readers out of the story.

In other words, sure, we can head-hop if we want to, bouncing between POVs without an indicator to give readers warning. But the cost is that our readers will potentially feel less connected to our characters (and might find it easier to close the book).

Another area of writing advice that we tend to accept or reject on face value is story structure. But as with the head-hopping issue, it’s best to know the rule before we break the rule, as that way we can weigh the cost first. And in the case of story structure, thinking about why those “rules” are the way they are can also help us write and revise our story.

Story Structure 101

Story structure—at the most basic level—is how a story is put together. From our youngest days of reading, we’ve seen that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Each of those three sections (or three Acts) has a purpose:

  • Act One: introducing the story, character, and problem
  • Act Two: adding complications
  • Act Three: resolving the story or problem in some way (failure counts too)

I’ve written all kinds of posts about the story beats and turning points that belong in each of those sections. As I mention in those posts, story structure (and the beat sheets that quantify the turning points of a story) simply gives guidelines on the timing of story events.

No matter what we call them, we’d usually have at least four major turning points in our novels:

  • Near 25% (end of Act One), a starting point for the main conflict:
    • an event that drags the protagonist into the situation —or—
    • an event that forces a choice to get involved
  • Near 50% (middle of Act Two):
    • an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
    • an event that adds new stakes to the situation
  • Near 75% (end of Act Two):
    • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution
  • From about 80-95% (Act Three), an ending point for the main conflict:
    • an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist

A contrarian new to story structure might look at that list and sniff, “I don’t write to formulas.” So let’s talk about the real point of all those events: creating a better storytelling experience for readers.

Believe it or not, those guidelines for story beats don’t exist just “because I said so.” *grin*

Story Structure Has Two Purposes

Stories are structured they way they are not just because that’s how we’ve always told stories, all the way back to the ancient Greek epic poem the Iliad by Homer. Instead, stories are the way they are for two reasons:

  • #1: The Storytelling Purpose

As noted in the breakdown above, stories need those elements for basic storytelling.

A story needs to open with a “before” to show how things change at the “after.” They need events to drag characters into the story, force them to get involved, and trigger changes.

Change is hard, and our characters won’t do it unless the stakes force them to. The obstacles they encounter reveal their inner strengths and weaknesses. If the goal (or the change) was easy, they’d have completed it before the story started.

In other words, without the major story beats, we wouldn’t have a story.

  • #2: The Reader Purpose

However, there’s another layer to story structure that we don’t talk about as often, and that’s how stories need those elements to communicate to readers.

Each of the major story beats exists for a reader-specific reason as well. In other words, without the major story beats, our story—if it felt like a story at all—wouldn’t give readers as much satisfaction.

Maybe by understanding those reader-specific reasons, we’ll be more successful at ensuring those turning points are strong enough to do their job. Let’s take a closer look at what readers get out of story structure.

How Do Readers Benefit from Story Structure?

#1: What Readers Need from the 25% Mark

The first major beat mentioned above takes place around the 25% mark. Different story structure systems might call this event the Catalyst, First Plot Point, or the End of the Beginning (the names don’t matter—only the function).

  • The story purpose for this event is to create a “point of no return” for dragging the protagonist into the story.
  • The reader purpose for this event is to let readers know what the story is going to be about.

After this plot event, readers should have at least a hint of (and in many cases, a fairly good idea of):

  • the story goal
  • the main conflicts/obstacles blocking that goal
  • some of the antagonists/villains working at cross-purposes
  • some of the internal issues (such as a character’s false belief or backstory wound) complicating that goal

Those all work together to tell readers who they’re rooting for or against, what they’re rooting for or against, and what a satisfying ending will look like.

If we’ve ever read a book that didn’t have a satisfying ending (or if we’ve received feedback about an unsatisfying ending in our story), we could probably go back to this plot point and see that reader expectations weren’t set up properly.

  • Seeing what characters long for and/or are willing to fight for tells readers about the story arc.
  • Seeing what a character’s false belief or backstory wound is tells readers what to expect from the character’s emotional arc.

For example, the First Plot Point of the original Star Wars didn’t create the expectation to defeat the Empire. Rather, by the 25% mark, the story goal alluded to was delivering the Death Star plans to Alderaan in hopes of finding a weakness. That ultimate goal—finding a weakness to attack the Death Star—was fulfilled.

Whatever hints or goals or longings are established here create reader expectations about the journey they’re going to read. A well-developed First Plot Point will setup and match the story, plot, and character/emotional arcs of the story.

#2: What Readers Need from the 50% Mark

Obviously, the Midpoint story beat takes place around the 50% mark.

  • The story purpose for this event is to deepen the goals, conflicts, obstacles, and/or stakes for the protagonist.
  • The reader purpose for this event is to remind readers of the goals and stakes before things really hit the fan.

If we’ve done our job, the conflicts and stakes should have increased by the 50% mark. The more the protagonist faces and attempts to overcome, the more heroic they appear.

But from the reader’s perspective, at this point in the story, the character (and readers) should have a better idea of what they want, what’s standing in their way, and how much it will cost them to win. Readers have to be in the protagonist’s corner, which means understanding their struggle in the upcoming Black Moment and why they’re not simply a glutton for punishment when they rally.

Whatever goals, conflicts, and stakes are established here give final form to reader expectations. If a character’s goal by the end of the story will be different from what was established at the 25% mark (due to character growth, etc.), that change should be hinted at here.

A well-developed Midpoint will twist reader understanding of the story by more strongly hinting at the changes, growth, and obstacles the protagonist will need to overcome. That twist (not necessarily a story twist, but a tweaking of what readers expect or understand) adds depth and meaning to the story for readers.

#3: What Readers Need from the 75% Mark

Somewhere around the 75-80% mark, the protagonist will face their Black Moment.

  • The story purpose for this event is to create a trigger that forces the protagonist to leave some aspect of their old life behind, kicking off the change necessary for the story ending.
  • The reader purpose for this event is to leave the resolution of the story in doubt and make readers more emotionally invested in the story.

The Black Moment makes the protagonist (and the reader) lose hope for a satisfying ending. The protagonist’s wounds and false beliefs should be fully on the page with their failure. It should look like we’ve written ourselves into a corner.

The better we crush our characters’ hopes, the more heroic they’ll look if they can overcome them. (Or if they can’t, the more tragic the story will be.)

From a reader perspective, we’ll look like a stronger author if we can take away readers’ hopes and then turn around and deliver a satisfying ending anyway. Readers want to be surprised, and pulling a victory from the jaws of defeat will do the trick.

A well-developed Black Moment will not only create a strong deficit the character has to overcome, making their victory loom even larger in comparison, but will also set up a twist on reader emotions as their hopes are dashed (and later reignited).

#4: What Readers Need from the 80-95% Mark

The Climax of the story takes up most of Act Three, from 80-95% (or thereabouts).

  • The story purpose for this event is to provide a reason for the protagonist to face their fears and strive to overcome the obstacles blocking them from their goal.
  • The reader purpose for this event is to deliver an emotionally satisfying ending and to inspire (or potentially warn, if a tragedy) readers with the depiction of the character’s struggle to overcome.

The Climax is not only the culmination of all the arcs of the story, but it’s also core of the emotional attachment and release readers experience during their reading journey. Even in strictly plot-oriented stories, readers still experience the emotions of tension, fear, mystery, dread, etc.

Those emotions are often the reason readers read. So the goal of the Climax is to deliver on the emotional promise we’ve been building throughout the story.

A well-developed Climax will fulfill the reader expectations for the plot and character arcs set up in the First Plot Point and/or tweaked at the Midpoint. That doesn’t mean resolving the story the way readers expect (we wouldn’t want a too-predictable story), but that the resolution will touch on the issues brought up throughout the story.

For example, even in a negative-arc story like a tragedy, where the goals remain unmet, the resolution would likely include elements such as:

  • facing off with the antagonist,
  • acknowledging the character’s emotional longing,
  • addressing the character’s backstory wound and/or false belief, etc.

Depending on our genre and story, those elements won’t necessarily be wrapped up in the bow of a too-neat ending. But mentioning where things stand at the end of the story could be enough for readers to feel that those arcs experienced changes—meaning that the story had a point and purpose, adding to a sense of satisfaction for readers.

Strengthening Our Story for Storytelling and Readers

A setup of expectations, a twist of understanding, an emotional gut-punch of despair, and a final sense of satisfaction—that’s what story structure can deliver to readers. Without story structure, those elements won’t be as strong—or might not exist at all.

But with those story beats in place, readers are more likely to get the type of story they want. The story will feel like it leads to a conclusion that’s somehow both unavoidable and surprising, while leading readers on an emotional journey of ups and downs.

A story that’s potentially better—and more engaging—that’s what readers get out of books that follow the guidelines for story structure. And revising with reader needs in mind can help us strengthen our story no matter our goals. *smile*

Do you pay attention to story structure when drafting? What about when revising? Have you thought about why story structure is important from a reader point of view? Do you disagree with any of my points? Do you think keeping reader needs in mind can help us strengthen our story?

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11 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Rebekah Martin March 9, 2017 at 7:31 am

So so true. I’ve been reading books lately for blog tours, and most are self-published, but as I’m a self-publisher, I feel like I want to help them, if I can. But so many stories lack any kind of structure and have left me feeling cold. As a reader, it’s terribly frustrating.

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Jami Gold March 9, 2017 at 8:35 am

Hi Rebekah,

Yes, a good friend of mine hates torturing her characters, so she struggles to make the Black Moment dark enough. 🙂 But it really does enhance the emotional experience for readers to show real problems to overcome. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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K.B. Owen March 9, 2017 at 8:09 am

A very timely post, Jami, considering our conversation yesterday! *wink* Thanks so much for this. Bookmarked and will definitely be re-reading it as I structure the new story I’m plotting. I should probably pull out my copy of Wired for Story as well!

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Jami Gold March 9, 2017 at 8:26 am

Hi Kathy,

LOL! What do you think triggered my idea for this post? 😀 Thanks for the idea!

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Donovan Quesenberry March 9, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Greetings,
Great post. It’s great to re-read the basics. I find this easy to comprehend, but hard to write, hit the beats just right, produce just the correct amount of emotional depth, etc. But I do love a well structured story.
I watched the latest Mission Impossible movie a couple of times, Rogue Nation, trying to identify all the beats, and predict the structure points. It seems to hit everything correctly. And I thought it was very well structured. I would love to write something like that.
Stay Well,
Don0van

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Rhoda Baxter March 9, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Great post. I try to use structure to help outline the story (I’m midway between plotter and pantser). It’s good to be reminded Why it’s important. Thank Jami

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Sieran March 9, 2017 at 8:47 pm

Good point especially about making it clear to readers what to expect from the story. I hated this Chinese literary classic with a vengeance because it SEEMED to be a very feminist story, when it’s actually a very anti-feminist and misogynistic story. XP Most painful and depressing reading experience ever. (Guess how many stars I gave this book? ^_^)

I’d like to add that we can give some extra clarification on what our story will be like, by mentioning things in the blurb. For instance, some authors will explicitly say in the blurb that there will be no cheating. Many other authors also promise in the blurb that there is a happily-ever-after ending. I myself will probably talk about the promised HEA too. In fact, I also want to say in the blurb that my story is highly relationship-focused, and not just on romance, but on many platonic relationships too, e.g. friendships, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, teacher-student relationships, relationships between allies, between enemies/ rivals, between classmates, etc. Plus, I would like to mention that there are a lot of discussions on philosophy, art, and literature, just in case there are readers who dislike that kind of thing.

P.S. A lot of authors put warnings for explicit sex scenes in the blurb too. I’m wondering whether I should put a warning that there are NO sex scenes in my story. XD Just in case some readers were expecting to see those scenes.

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Lois March 12, 2017 at 6:56 am

Thanks again for another great article. I wish I had known these beats when I first wrote my draft. I am now revising and applying them to my novel– it’s a lot of work but finally my writing doesn’t feel lost and wandering. Your explanations are very clear– great teaching. Such a big help, thanks.

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