It’s no secret that I’m a proud pantser (writing by the seat of my pants), and yet I’m a firm believer in story structure. My writing worksheets for story and scene construction make that latter point abundantly clear.
But I haven’t discussed before why story structure is so important. Recently, a couple of situations reminded me how story structure lies at the core of our ability to tell a story.
A simple question from one of my readers about prologues and beat sheets led to a bigger discussion about the roles different scenes play in our stories. My reader wanted to know whether we’d include a prologue’s pages in the word count of a beat sheet.
I could have just said “Yes” and called it a day. But I think it’s important to understand why a prologue would be included in the page and word count for beat sheets. And understanding that point might help us understand the importance of story structure in general.
Prologues Are Part of the Story Too
If we wrote a story and told an editor, “Keep reading. The story really starts on page ten,” the editor would tell us to chop the first nine pages. Whether they’re called prologues or chapter one, the beginning of our story counts.
If we could cut the first scene or two and the story arc wouldn’t change at all, we haven’t started in the right place. That’s why beat sheet calculations need to include the pages of a prologue. If it’s not part of the story, a prologue doesn’t belong at all.
In the email to my reader, I shared my experience with prologues. I have one story with a prologue (so I’m definitely not anti-prologue *smile*), which shows the behind-the-scenes inciting incident. In other words, I could call it chapter one and it wouldn’t change the story structure. The prologue belongs at the beginning of the arc.
On the other hand, I finished drafting my seventh story on New Year’s Eve (Yay!), which I originally thought might have a prologue. But even before I started my first draft, I realized the prologue would be all backstory. The information in the scene didn’t become important to the story/character arc until later (at about the 80% mark!), so the scene could be told in flashback later, but it didn’t belong as a prologue.
The difference was where the scene fit into the story’s arc and structure. A story starts just before things begin to change and ends when the change is complete. Some prologue scenes will fit into that story beginning spot and some won’t—and the latter probably shouldn’t be prologues.
Story Structure and Beat Sheets Are the Story Arc
When it comes to storytelling, arcs—a change over a beginning, middle, and end—create the sense of a story. No arc, no story.
A story’s beats are the events that force the characters to face dilemmas and make choices. If the characters aren’t making choices, if they’re not deciding on this path or that path, there’s no opportunity for change. There’s no arc.
If we have scenes that don’t matter, or they’re tangents to the story, they’re not just a problem because the page numbers of our beat sheet tell us our pacing is off. They’re a problem because they make the story arc zig when it should zag and zag when it should zig. In short, they interrupt the flow of the storytelling.
I’ve said before that a story’s arcs and themes give a story a sense of purpose. Story structure and beat sheets are really a way of quantifying the ingredients of an arc to enhance our storytelling ability.
A Broken Story Structure Equals a Broken Story
I recently read a story with an incredibly cool premise and fantastic characters and worldbuilding, but the story itself didn’t work for me in the end. The narrative didn’t include some scenes I expected, probably to create mystery and intrigue. At first, I reacted as a reader and felt cheated.
But that was just my opinion, right? It wasn’t that the technique itself was wrong. Or was it?
Then I put on my editor hat, and started digging into the story’s structure. I discovered one of the missing scenes was the Inciting Incident and another of the missing scenes was the Black Moment/Crisis.
Do you see the problem? If they were random scenes, the technique might have worked. But by withholding the scenes for those important story beats, readers never saw the characters face their dilemma, never saw them make their choices, never saw them change.
No change, no arc, no story.
Story Structure Isn’t about “Rules”
Story beats exist because they fulfill a purpose. If we skip the inciting incident or the End of the Beginning turning point, readers miss out on how the character takes their first steps from their “before” situation.
- What forces them to become involved? (conflict and stakes)
- Why do they make that choice? (motivation)
- What do they hope to accomplish with that choice? (goal)
Without showing those elements in a scene, the character’s arc is never established. The dots between the “before” and the “after” points become all zigzag-y and randomized.
Similarly, if we skip the Black Moment, the character never experiences a crisis of faith or hope. Without that, the story’s situation might seem like no big deal to overcome, weakening the story or character arc.
The same goes for the other major story beats, like the Midpoint and Climax. Without them, the reader misses out on the goals, stakes, and motivations driving the story, and the story and character arcs are never fully established. And all of that weakens the storytelling.
Story Structure: The First Step of Revising
All of that said, it’s perfectly fine to mess up this stuff in our first draft. It’s okay to draft random scenes and zigzag all over the place. Heck, as a pantser, I change my mind on what plot event will create a turning point all the time.
But when we revisit the story, when we revise, that’s when we need to analyze our story structure. Or if we struggle with self-editing, we might need knowledgeable alpha readers (alpha readers are for rough drafts and come before beta readers) or a developmental editor to help us out.
When reopening a completed draft, we can check:
- Does the story have a proper arc (beginning, middle, and end)?
- Does the story have turning points (choices for the characters)?
- Are there any missing or misplaced beats?
- Do the stakes (consequences) increase throughout story?
- Do the conflicts make sense (for antagonists’ goals and motivations)?
- Is the story arc smooth (follows cause and effect)?
- Are there any scenes not acting or reacting to a beat?
- Do the scenes between beats react to the previous beat and/or lead up to the next beat?
It’s my belief that any story can be fixed, but the trick is knowing how to fix it. Often, analyzing the story structure will provide those answers we need. And by learning more about story structure, we might be able to avoid problems from the start. *smile*
Do you agree or disagree that story structure is important for storytelling? Do you pay attention to story structure during drafting? How about during revisions? Are you able to self-edit for story structure or do you struggle with making sure all the pieces are in place and that they all flow well?Pin It