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February 11, 2016

Using Ebooks to Understand Story Structure

Roof structure with text: Ebooks: a Shortcut to Story Structure

When we’re on the writing learning curve, we have to learn so many aspects of the craft that we can become overwhelmed. We have to learn how to develop characters, follow grammar rules, include settings and emotion, etc.

One aspect that many writers struggle with is learning story structure. Story structure refers to how we can organize a story so it creates a satisfying experience for readers.

If we’ve ever had a friend try to describe a movie, book, or a real-life event and they keep rambling or going off on tangents, we understand the importance of a good structure for making a story enjoyable. A story that goes off the rails will be confusing (“Wait, who was that character again?”), boring (“Sorry, I zoned out for a second.”), or worse.

On the other hand, we might have a friend who can make their daily check of the mailbox sound like an adventure. We just know there’s going to be a point to their story, so we remain enthralled with every twist and turn.

In other words, good story structure is an important element of good storytelling. While our friend could use good story structure and still be bland in the storytelling, it’s harder to imagine a well-told story that rambled or went off on distracting tangents or dragged on too long, etc.

So let’s take a look at how we can better understand what story structure is, and how we can learn from other stories how to use it in our own…

What Is Story Structure?

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)

There are many story structure systems out there that then take this basic understanding and further divide those Acts into smaller chunks. Depending on how we draft stories, we may want lots of mileposts to keep our story on track or we may want just vague ideas.

There’s no right or wrong answer. All that matters is the finished story at the end.

How a Well-Timed Joke Relates to Story Structure

In my posts about beats, beat sheets, and turning points, I’ve talked about how the most important of those mileposts are found in every story structure system. No matter what those mileposts of our story’s journey are called, certain functions are needed in a story:

  • a starting point for the main conflict
  • a twist(s)
  • an ending point for the main conflict

Like with other language-related skills, such as telling a joke, timing is important. Story structure (and the beat sheets that quantify story structure) simply give guidelines on the timing of those events to improve storytelling.

Story structure and beat sheets keep a story well-timed so a point isn’t being dragged out or shortchanged. Just as much a poor timing can doom a joke, the same can happen with our stories.

How Do We Know What the Timing Should Be?

Some aspects of a story’s timing are obvious. Characters and story questions need to be introduced in the beginning. The resolution comes together near the end. Etc., etc.

If we’ve studied beat sheets or story structure, we’ve probably seen different percentages for where events should happen. Most of the beat sheets I offer here (like the Basic Beat Sheet) include these percentages:

  • Near 25%, 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%:
    • an event that changes the protagonist’s goals/choices —or—
    • an event that adds new stakes to the situation.
  • Near 75%:
    • an event that steals the protagonist’s hope for a solution.
  • From about 80-95%, an ending point for the main conflict:
    • an event that forces the protagonist to face the antagonist.

However, the different systems don’t all agree on what those percentages are, so that tells us these numbers aren’t set in stone. They’re guidelines, not our-story-will-suck-if-we-go-over-a-page rules. *smile*

Getting “close” might mean that the story events (or the scene containing that event) occur within 5% of the recommended page number. As long as the pacing and development work, we don’t need to worry about readers counting pages to see how close we got. Story flow trumps the percentages.

Why Those Percentages?

There’s a reason we aim for certain percentages. In particular, those four story structure points mentioned above are important for our storytelling timing.

For example, around the 25% mark, the protagonist should be committed on some level to pursuing the story goal and the story questions and stakes should be established, etc. Readers subconsciously recognize this point of the story, as the introductory stuff is done, and readers are ready for the meat of the story.

Yet we need time to get those characters, goals, and stakes established in our story, so it would be difficult to reach that point in the story earlier than 20% (the 25% mark minus a 5% variation). At the same time, if we spend too long getting to that point (beyond 30%), our story beginning might feel slow, like it’s all setup and no story.

In other words, timing is important for the feel of a story.

Seeing the Percentages in Action

Most—but not all—stories roughly follow those percentages. So if we want to see for ourselves how hitting those marks in the “right” place helps the story (or how a story is affected if the percentages are off), we can analyze other stories.

I’ve mentioned before how we can use examples to learn beat sheets, and K.M. Weiland has a post about the ways we can analyze other stories to learn more about storytelling. In her post, she talks about marking up print books, but the process can be even easier if we use ebooks.

If we have an ereader that displays percentages for how far we are into a story (such as with many Kindles), we can watch those percentages to compare our story-reading experience with the story structure.

(Obviously, this will work best with ebooks without significant front or back matter. If an ebook has an excerpt of another story at the end, that would likely throw the percentages off.)

Learning about Turning Points

If we’re not sure we understand what a story’s turning points are, we might be able to watch the percentage on our ereader to identify those beats (assuming a story is well-written).

On virtually every story I read, I can feel a shift as the story moves into “committed to the goal” mode, and almost every time, I’m around 25% into the story. On stories where I feel like we’re limping toward the end, I often notice that there’s no Black Moment around the 75% mark.

As I mentioned above, readers don’t count pages to see if stories are off. However, subconsciously and instinctively, humans understand storytelling. And by paying attention to these percentages while reading, we might learn to identify turning points by feel.

Analyzing a Story’s Percentages vs. a Story’s Pacing

We can also analyze percentages from another perspective. Instead of just using percentages to learn to identify turning points, we can also use percentages to analyze pacing.

  • Is there an Inciting Incident around the 10% mark?
  • Is there a point near 25% where the protagonist commits to the story goal and the stakes have been established?
  • Does something near the 50% mark add a twist or new understanding?
  • Is there something near the 75% mark to make the ending seem in jeopardy?
  • Etc., etc.

If any of those story points don’t exist (or if they’re more than 5% off), how does that affect the pacing? Do we find ourselves itching for the story to start or to make progress, etc.? Or did a story aspect feel underdeveloped?

From that analysis, we might see where we disagree with the usual advice on percentages. Personally, my Resolutions are often longer than the beat sheets say because I use them to wrap up emotional arcs and subplots too.

(Of course, whether those scenes count as part of the Climax or as part of the Resolution is a different question that might depend on how we define aspects of our story. *smile*)

Or we might see why those percentages do make sense. If we start feeling like a story is slow to get going, and we glance at the percentage on our ereader and see that we’re at the 32% mark, and we’re still not sure what the story goal is, that tells us the importance of that percentage. (Or it might tell us that the author didn’t write a strong enough turning point for that 25% mark, and we missed it because it didn’t fulfill all the requirements for the beat.)

We can often learn a lot by analyzing other stories. Learning about story structure—how it affects a reader’s impression of storytelling, how it affects pacing, what to look for in a turning point, etc.—can be easier if we use ebooks and percentage-read displays on ereaders. Story structure can feel like a nebulous skill to learn, but connecting the ideas to tangible stories might help. *smile*

Do you struggle with understanding story structure? Or are you not sure what the point of story structure is? Do you ever pay attention to the pacing of stories, or how the turning points affect the pace? Have you used the percentage-read display on an ereader to analyze a story before? What did you discover?

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22 Comments on "Using Ebooks to Understand Story Structure"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Cool idea! But yeah if there’s a lot of back matter, it may not work. Some eBooks have page numbers displayed that only count the actual story, though, so we could use that instead if it’s available.

Oh about how readers subconsciously know when the main plot points should occur, do you think it’s a good idea to let authors use their intuition (feeling) for where their plot points should be? If readers can feel them, shouldn’t authors be able to too? I know the thing about the author being too in love with their story that they may not see some flaws, but does that blindness to flaws always happen? Some future reader can correct me if I’m wrong, haha, but I think I can feel when the main plot points should be, and can feel if the pacing is too slow or fast while I’m writing the story. Very often I will feel anxious because I feel the part I’m writing is too slow, too fast, over-developed, or rushed.

Christina Hawthorne

When you start talking about structure I become giddy. You’re the structure guru and have already taught me so much. Thank you. I recently took one of my novels and refit its pieces parts until they adhered to proper structure, which I’d somewhat ignored in my ignorance when the story was written. The original was close enough that reworking was possible, but when the structure was properly aligned the difference was astonishing. Yes, trimming and eliminating are necessary, but the pacing improvement is extraordinary.

L Rita St. Claire
L Rita St. Claire

Hi Jami,
Thanks for this post. Last month I transferred my completed manuscript to my Kindle. Using one of your beat sheets, I was able to determine where my pacing was too slow. The percentages helped me improve my story’s structure.

I love your blog and appreciate your helpful advice.
L Rita St. Claire

Laurie Evans

I’ve done this, I love it! It’s really helped me learn story structure. But only if the book doesn’t have a lot of front and back matter. I’m very visual so this has been very helpful.

Teresa C.

There’s some really good stuff here. 🙂 I read through your article quickly but will return to study it because it’s meaningful.

T

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Pamela

Hi! Thanks for this information. I’m in the midst of my first draft. I have the barest sketch of an outline but began to wonder about my overall story pacing. Now I’m set. I’m going to gauge where I am. Cheers!

Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor

I love the analogy of the person who can make collecting the mail fascinating. I know people like that! As a novice writer, you’ve got some really useful tips here for me to take on board.

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