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September 14, 2021

Story Problems? Check Your Structure

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m digging into a different way to improve our writing. We’re going to look at how big-picture issues can cause hidden problems, and specifically: How can our story’s structure affect our story—and readers—in surprising ways? Let’s take a look…

Learning Writing from Reading: Advanced Edition

Chances are that we’ve all heard advice to learn how to improve our writing by reading more. Sometimes the advice tells us to read bad writing to know what to avoid. Sometimes the advice tells us to read good writing to know what to do in our own work.

However, one of my favorite techniques is to analyze good writing…that nevertheless doesn’t work for us. *smile*

When I’m wearing my developmental editor hat, I know that I have an easier time focusing on story-sized issues when most of the writing is in decent-ish shape. In other words, if every other sentence contains a typo or grammar mistake, I’m distracted from the big-picture issues I’m supposed to be finding, as my brain snags on all the little things instead.

Similarly, we might have an easier time analyzing what works or doesn’t work for us by looking at stories with good writing—good characterization, plotting, pacing, etc.—and yet something about it just leaves us unengaged. With just that one issue to focus on, we can really dig into why that one aspect didn’t work for us and learn what we could do differently.

Case Study: Learning from Surprising Answers

I had the idea for this post when I read the latest book from one of my favorite series a while back. As part of a favorite series, the writing was top-notch as usual. The plot, characters, pacing, and so on were all well-developed.

Yet something about the story—specifically with the heroine—left me cold. I just didn’t feel an emotional connection to her, and that left me more distanced from the story than I wished.

Because the writing and story overall were excellent, I was able to dig into what created the problem for me. I knew it wasn’t any of the usual characterization issues, but the answer I found surprised me.

I discovered that I didn’t sympathize with her false belief (that the hero didn’t really love her). Okay, why didn’t I sympathize with that? I dug deeper.

Because the hero so obviously showed his love, her false belief didn’t ring true…until it was revealed late in the story that, years earlier, she’d overheard something he’d said about her that damaged her trust in their relationship. Ooo, backstory wound stuff, right?

But because that wound hadn’t been hinted at throughout the first part of the book, by the time she reveals this hidden pain in the second half of the story, I’d already gotten the impression that she was being dense because the story needed her to be. Not good.

What the 25% Mark Story Beat Should Do

In the first act of any story, readers need to see at least glimpses of the obstacles in the protagonist’s way of the story goal, or else readers will think there’s not a story there. Or, as I did, they’ll think the complications exist just to add word count before the end.

This goes back to the underlying purpose of the story beat—from readers’ perspective—at the 25%-ish mark: let readers know what the story is going to be about.

To create a strong story for readers, the 25% mark beat (often called Catalyst, First Plot Point, or End of the Beginning) needs to establish:

  • the general shape of the story-sized problem
    (so readers know what the story will be about)
  • the initial story-sized goals
    (so readers know what to root for)
  • at least some of the stakes/consequences if they fail to reach the goal
    (so readers understand their motivation)
  • at least some of the obstacles/conflicts/antagonists
    (so readers know there is a story here and the goal won’t be reached immediately)
  • some level of commitment to the story goal by the main character
    (so readers see the potential of story momentum)
  • a sense of the character’s false belief, Michael-Hauge-style Identity, backstory wound, or other internal issues — at least in character-focused stories
    (so readers can see the shape of the character’s internal/emotional arc and/or the issues complicating the goal)

Obviously, many of those elements will evolve throughout the story (and may actually be introduced before the 25%-ish mark), but by the 25%-mark beat, readers should have an idea (or at least see hints of the potential) for most elements of the story. The elements listed above 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.

For the story I read, without any hint of that backstory wound in the first 25%-ish (or even in the first half) of the story, that issue was never established as a conflict. Instead, the only established internal conflict was just her not believing in his love, which (given everything he did for her) was kind of stupid. All that led to me not feeling sympathy for her distrust, as the conflict felt fake and author-driven, and in turn, that led to me feeling emotionally distanced from the character.

The Answer—and the Fix—Resided in the Story’s Structure

The good news is that this type of structure issue is easy to fix. All we need to do is make sure we’ve laid out those hints and glimpses to give readers an idea of how conflicts and obstacles are going to create our story.

How can we use story structure to prevent reader issues? Click To Tweet

It’s easy to assume that story structure is just some “writing rule” passed down from on high, but believe it or not, there’s a reader reason for why stories are structured the way they are. So if we fail to follow structure guidelines, it’s going to affect readers’ experience.

In addition, readers bring their innate familiarity with story structure to their interpretation of our writing. If we don’t let them know through subtext or hints that something’s going to be problem, they might assume our story will be boring for lack of obstacles.

If we don’t want our story judged by readers’ preconceived ideas, we need to give them a better way to measure whether our story is “successfully” written, and that all starts at the 25% mark of our story. By including hints of the obstacles to overcome, we give readers a clearer measurement for how to “judge” our story.

Along those same lines, if we dig into well-written stories that don’t work for us as readers, we might discover other insights that help us improve. And as my example from this story shows, delving into the reader purpose of story structure might help us fix many problems in our writing. That’s what my guest post is all about…

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Story Not Behaving? Try Going Deeper into Structure

Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing more about story structure at the 25% mark, including:

  • why it’s important to include internal issues in our hints of story conflict
  • what misunderstandings readers might reach without the right structure details
  • how glimpses of internal issues keep readers rooting for our characters
  • how understanding the reader purpose of story structure could help our story in unexpected ways
  • an example of how to give a hint of “more to come” in just a few words

Have you ever found yourself surprised by not connecting with a well-written character? Were you able to figure out why? Have you ever analyzed well-written stories that leave you cold? What did you discover? Do you have any questions about this topic? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Leah
Leah

Not sure if we’re talking about the same story, because I had a similar issue with a book I recently finished. I really struggled with the first 30% and then it picked up briefly, but there just wasn’t enough (believable) conflict to keep the story going, making it drag. And his love for her was so obvious! I honestly thought it might’ve worked better if this had been a novella.

And yes, it wasn’t the writing–the writing was top-notch–but it was the story. Though I’m also not ruling out that perhaps my expectations for this book were too high, because I usually adore her stories and one of them ranks among my all-time favorite romances.

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