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January 2, 2014

Why Story Structure Matters

Inside view of top of clear dome's structure with text: Why Story Structure Matters

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?

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20 Comments on "Why Story Structure Matters"

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Carradee
Story structure even matters when you’re being experimental—which is something some writers seem to ignore. Even writers like Robin McKinley and J.R.R. Tolkien have story structure. Structure is what makes a story a story. There are also multiple levels of structure, from the story level all the way down to the sentence level. Personally, I tend to “wing” structure for longer stories (though I’ll plug them into a spreadsheet to make sure it at least approximates the “appropriate” pacing). I have a natural “ear” for it, and while some of my stories are a bit off-kilter on the structure, they’re supposed to be—because the narrator’s off-kilter, too. It fits. Some readers can’t stand it, but those have contacted me about how much they love it. Are those off-kilter stories marketable to a general audience? I doubt it. According to the Wattpad stats (which are admittedly in beta and have some obvious signals of not being entirely accurate), only about a quarter of readers who start the first one finish it. But I’ve somehow managed to end up one of the most-followed users on that site. (I know because Wattpad sent me a nice e-mail about it.) I’m the type of pantser who starts with a character and situation, then sits down and figures out some of the “big picture” points to hit after the initial energy wears off (which tends to be about the 10% mark, so it can be a clue about when something I intended to be a… Read more »
Krysta

First of all, happy new year! My job gets busy during holidays, so I haven’t been lurking in all my other internet haunts either…

On prologues: After going over my first drafts, I find that my prologues usually turn out to be a summary of my worldbuilding/backstory. It might not be good for the best draft of the story, but it’s good for me in the long run. Truly good prologues are hard to write!

Story structures is important for story telling, but it is also important to try and deviate from it at times. As a reader, I’d get bored if all stories follow a formulaic structure. I wouldn’t mind reading ‘breather’ chapter where the scene doesn’t contribute a lot to the rising tension/stakes, but develops other parts of the character.

I think I pay the most attention to the story structure during the first draft and plotting. On the next drafts, I only look at the story structure when I get stuck editing/rewriting or believe the scene doesn’t flow smoothly. I like to think myself as a plotter with the story and a pantser with the story beats… (An opposite of you?)

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
In general, I agree that having the story beat sheet kind of structure is good. But I’ve seen some interesting examples that don’t follow this structure, but still engaged me as a reader. So like Carradee said, there will always be some authors who prove a certain rule wrong, lol. Or more like rule of thumb since the rule DOES work in many cases. But maybe I have a higher tolerance for stories with weird structures because some literary classics are very experimental, so I got used to such wackiness, lol. I understand that not all readers would be as desensitized as I am towards bizarrely structured stories, though. As for examples, there are some stories that have an odd sequence of events, I.e. it’s not the standard, chronological type. It’s not even the reflecting back to my dark past; or terrible thing X happened and this is how it all came about type. I’m thinking mostly about Margaret Atwood right now. Authors like Atwood arrange their story scenes in seemingly random order, with no clear chronological order at all. In fact, it feels SO unchronological that I’m usually quite confused about what’s really going on. (Well, okay. My confusion came less from the lack of time order, and more from how a lot of things were only hinted at but not explicitly shown. And A LOT of stuff only leaves you guessing, lol.) I recently read a contemporary book where the scenes are very scattered too. Each chapter features… Read more »
Robyn LaRue

Good food for thought, as usual. It also helped me clarify a weak turning point in my current WiP. Thanks!

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