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Let's talk about Plot Structure

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Jan 16, 2018.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    This is my last talking point in response to Devor's question on has writing advice changed?

    Plot Structure.

    Now, plot structure is very close to my heart for a few reasons. For me, plot structure is the concrete frame where I get to hang my beautiful tapestry. Plot structure, whether it is hero's journey, or three act structure, or seven point story structure, or four act structure... whatever it is, it gives my logical brain the pattern and order it needs in order to let my creative left brain go crazy.

    When I first started writing seriously a number of years ago I was a chronic "non-finisher." Beginnings were easy. But about halfway through the middle I would give up. I knew the ending I wanted (maybe a little bit)... but the middle would get so muddy and boggy and boring and random... I would quickly abandon it and move on to another project that seemed more sparkly and exciting... only to give up again.

    What I was missing was structure. A road map to keep me focussed forward on where my story was going and WHY. I needed a concrete way to keep track of what needed to happen where. I needed a map of pinpoints so I knew where I was going and how to get there.

    Once I started writing to the basic, thousands of years old, three act story structure I actually started FINISHING stories. That is huge. That is a big deal if, you know, you actually want to sell them.

    Story structure has been around for thousands of years. The three act story structure is one that most people unconsciously recognize. When they are presented with a story that has been written in the standard three act style there is a sense of calm and fulfillment because we have come to expect the story to follow a certain pattern and cover certain plot points.

    When a story does not cover these details then it may create a sort of noise or dissonance in the mind of the reader. It may feel either "unfinished" or "not quite right" or perhaps "Meandering in random ways that doesn't make sense."

    Maybe it starts too early, and the reader is left to wade through four chapters of pre-story before anything happens. When something does happen they wonder, what was the point of all that first stuff?

    Maybe it starts too late, and the reader has to constantly stop and ponder "Who is that guy again?" "What are they trying to do here?" And then finally, toss it away to find something else because they couldn't figure out what the heck was going on.

    IF you receive stories fully formed in your head from start to finish and you can simply sit down and write it all out, then you probably don't need to worry about structure too much. You may inherently have a basic structure in your head.

    If you are a chronic non-finisher, or you are finding your stories are not getting the impact you would like from readers, try reading up on structure. You may find it gives you the pieces that have been missing from your puzzle.

    Some people have very specific plot points they HAVE to cover by a certain word count (me.) Others have a looser structure. Others don't think about structure at all.

    NONE OF THESE ARE WRONG.

    Thoughts, Scribes?

    Does structure help, or hinder your process? Do you have a structure you consistently use? Is it a pattern of specific plot points you try to hit with a specific word count? Or is it a loose and flexible assortment of plot points you more or less try to cover by the time the manuscript is finished?
     
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  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think structure helps.
    I invented my own plot structure based on albums by the Who. It's based on character arc progression since 9/10 that's what a story is ultimately about. It can be as loose or as rigid as you want. In fact, I find that part of the fun of plot structure is being able to play around with it.
    I think a big mistake writers make is thinking that plot structure is a strict mathematically formula that they need to follow instead of seeing it as a tool to help tell a story in the most efficient way.
     
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  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ha! Love this! One of the first structures I used was one I designed myself based a Tea Party (Canadian band) album. Triptych, for other Tea Party fans out there ;)

    It was an emotional arc, where each scene or story section was represented by a song from the album and the feeling it gave me when I listened to it.
     
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I've been looking at the forums the last day or two and I've seen all these talking points pop, and I really wanted to get in on it, but I haven't had the peace of mind to sit down and do it, or even decide where to start. I think this is the one though. Here's where I start.

    When I began writing I had a vague recollection of hearing something about acts and how story escalates, or something like that. However, at the time I was a storytelling genius and I didn't need to bother with such things, so I just wrote without bothering with the crutches of mere mortal writers.

    At some point, after joining these forums, I began taking an interest in the various different types of advice people were handing out, and tried to get my head around them. Eventually, I even got around to reading a bit about story structure. I'm not one for grand epic action scenes, and I was having issues with the concept of tension, so when someone brought up kishotenketsu as a story structure without tension I was all over that.

    I read up on it, checked out a few stories, and even wrote an article for the front page here on MS. I also tried a few stories using this structure, and it sort of worked out reasonably well for me.

    Outlining is important to me, and what following this structure did was allow me to very early settle on the flow of the story. Instead of only having an end goal with the story I now had four different sub goals that would work together towards achieving the end goal. In this way, having a structure is really helpful to me.

    I've recently - last year or so - given up on four act structure and started focusing on three act structure instead. I came to the conclusion that I ought to put some effort into learning the basics (three acts) of creating a story before trying to get fancy with it (four acts). I still very much like the idea of kishotenketsu, but I think I need more practice as a storyteller before applying it in a serious way again.
     
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  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Your story is very similar to mine. I really didn't start making progress with my writing until I started to research structure. I found it kind of ran parallel to my background in computer science. In CompSci, there's a thing called design patterns. For the sake of this discussion, think of them as common structure patterns that one can used when designing a program.

    Any way, for me, structure is a way to focus and organize my thinking. I used three-act and 7-point structure for the big picture stuff and scene-sequel for the scene to scene. For my main plot, I try to hit plot points at specific times, but I'm flexible about it. I tend to work by scene numbers. So if I plan out 50 scenes for a novel, I want to hit the mid-point climax to the main plot at around scene 25.

    It never happens exactly there because I'll add scenes or take them out as needed, shifting the mid-point climax up or down as needed.

    I'm having a hard time articulating this, but with my secondary plots, I try to design scenes so that the unfolding of their plot points complements and complicates things. This can get pretty tricky if I'm trying to advance three or more plots in a scene.
     
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  6. Corwynn

    Corwynn Troubadour

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    I think you've finally hit the nail on the head about what I've been missing all this time. I too am a chronic non-finisher (and in many cases a chronic non-starter), because I rarely have any idea of where I want to go with a story.

    Your analogy of a puzzle is appropriate. For me, it's not about lacking pieces, I think I have most or all of the pieces I need by now, it's just that I don't know how to assemble them in the right pattern.

    Without structure, plot appears to be a vast blob that I have to negotiate my way through. The problem is, I don't have any sort of map or directions to get from point A to point B. In fact, I don't even know what points A, B, etc. even are.

    It's high time I read up on conventional plot structures. I thought I didn't need to bother with them before, but apparently I do. I cannot paint a picture without a canvas, nor build a house without a frame. Hopefully, having these templates at my disposal can help me get my story ideas off the ground.
     
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  7. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Structures are good. I found that they were of more help after the first draft than before; that is, they help me analyze something that is in front of me, but they aren't much help in planning. For one thing, they presume I know the ending. So far, that's been the case for me, but I know it's not for others. How is one supposed to plan three acts when they don't know how it ends?
     
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ha! I have to know how it ends. I always plan beginning and ending first. Sometimes end is all I have and I have to work backwards from there. Middle is muddy. I need waypoints. lol.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Jim Butcher calls it the Great Swampy Middle. You might take a look at his essay on that.

    For that we like to say it's about the journey not the destination, the early stages of plotting are often all about the destination, to the neglect of the journey. Sometimes that's the physical journey but often it's character development. I find that the most difficult, but also the most rewarding to work through.

    To your mind, should we distinguish between structure and plot? To me, the former is highly abstract and generic, which the latter is more nuts and bolts. Sometimes it's so nutty I bolt.
     
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  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    The entire point of these talking points was so that we could narrow in on exactly what "writer advice" is and how it is (or isn't) useful, as well as how it has (and hasn't) changed instead of trying to lump it all into one abstract umbrella of "useless writing advice."

    So yes, defining terms is a wonderful idea.

    As I see it, plot is the way the specific writer shows the moving parts from beginning to end?

    Structure is when you apply specific waypoints or plot points? I'm not sure.

    Yeah, for me it's backward. When I say I have an end first, it's usually because I have an image in my mind of a "changed character". I see an Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of his journey... becoming the good man, and I want to know how that journey happened. How did he learn that lesson?

    So for me character development is the first thing I plot. The physical journey is the hard part.
     
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, sometimes I don't. I plan out two acts and then either sit on them for a bit until I figure out the third act, or I just start writing. It will come to me eventually or at least a place holder will. I threw out the whole second half of a book once.

    Other times, I think about the character and their starting point. If the character changes, then the end has them being in the opposite situation as their start point.

    For example, in Star Wars Han Solo starts as a selfish smuggler that was only in it for the money. He ends as a rebel hero that put his friends ahead himself. Once I know stuff like that, it's just a matter of figuring out how to get there and what the end situation is that puts an exclamation point on the arc.
     
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  13. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    My first two attempts at writing my debut fantasy novel failed because I wasn't paying attention to story structure. I didn't understand this until I studied story structure. HeliotropeHeliotrope posted about story structure some time back, which I am so grateful for, and have saved in a separate file on my computer for easy reference. (Hope you don't mind, Helio.) I read K.M. Weiland's blog posts and books on story structure and character arcs. I discovered I had instincts about story structure, but these instincts had not always served me well, or I had dismissed them, because I didn't understand structure.

    For my third attempt, I put the story structure advice to use. My outline focused more on the major plot points and motivations / emotions of characters at those plot points, and not so much on the actions the characters took to go from one place to the next to the next. When I'd used action-based outlines, I hadn't given any thought about tension or pinch points or even pacing. I was outlining pure plot, with a mindset of reaching a desired outcome without regard to the reader experience.

    When I paid attention to structure, I was able to keep a lot of what I'd written before, but reorganized it. This helped both pacing and structure.

    I intend to submit the result of this third attempt to agents, once I get it polished. I threw out most of the second half of the previous revision and rewrote it from scratch. I outlined the new material as described above, but when I came to write it, decided I wanted to veer from the outline. So I did, but I made sure the new material still adhered to three-act structure. I'm thrilled with the result. While I broke from my outline, I still adhered to structure, and the story is better for both, my having broken outline but also applying structure. Because of its structure, it doesn't feel as aimless as the previous revision. I'd felt good about having finished a novel length work before, but the feeling I had with finishing the draft of this third revision was magnitudes beyond good. I'm excited about what I'm producing and can hardly wait to submit it to agents. I wouldn't feel this way if I hadn't applied the concepts of story structure.
     
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  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I'm glad it was helpful!
     
  15. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Inkling

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    HeliotropeHeliotrope for me, structure comes into play mostly after drafting/editing. (I am a ruthless cutting-room floor style editor. I don't physically destroy my work, but will not hesitate to yank scenes, etc and cut it out completley, or re-write from scratch. I guess that's the artist in me...no problem scraping paint off a canvas and starting over if the painting isn't working for me lol)

    I now write fairly regularly, in short "scene-sessions" because that's what I can manage with the time I have. I write those scenes and connect them together with notes, outlines, etc and continuously expand details as I go. The structure is whatever makes sense after shuffling this stuff around. It reveals itself. While I've had some formal creative writing classes, I don't feel compelled to to follow any one structure well before I have anything to write about. It might actually be the furthest thing from my mind.

    I will do myself a favor to curb the dreaded never-finishing... I write multiple 'thematic' endings depending on the details I'm currently cultivating. The end of the story is allowed to shift in details, but if I'm staying within a theme for my MCs character arc (ex. redemption, avenging, acceptance, defiance, etc. ) it's easier to manage.

    So, to your analogy... you want a great frame to hang a tapestry on. I start with the threads.
    Once woven into fabric, and assembled into quiltblocks, I'm willing to reassemble the individual sections into something people can then recognize and understand as a 'quilt'. That, to me, is all the structure I need... if I assembled the narrative correctly. I'm sure I'm subconciously influenced by recognizeable structures, even in this chaotic approach I'm working with.

    But, for now at least, I can let myself wander, explore and create in a more organic fashion between key plot-points.
     
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  16. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Without having studied plot structure I doubt that I ever would have figured out how to truly write a book. That's just me though. Some people figure it out naturally. Not me. So I wrote with training wheels for a couple years and learned to ride for real. Now it's gotten easier for me to write a structured story without any guide. I start with an idea, characters, setting, and a general sense of the conflict and go. Things do get murky for me towards the end. Somehow, I'm able to fully carry a story past the middle with no real issues. My efforts get hung up somewhere around the 3/4 mark. I'll get stuck for a few days, maybe less, never more because going fast to the end is what helps me finish (otherwise I never would).

    I edit as I go, doing several passes of the manuscript by the time I type the last word. Then I go back and revise--but the structure is already there because I put the foundation in place already. Most of my mistakes thereafter don't really have much to do with structure but mostly things like conflict, characterization, and whether things are believable/entertaining enough.
     
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  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Plot structure is fascinating, when first studying screenwriting many moons ago it felt like a eureka moment until I looked at my stories and plotted them... and, they all hit the points.

    The key to my destroying the mushy middles was not the main plot, where I kind of naturally wrote in the modern 3-act structure, but fleshing out the subplots with structure. For whatever reason, I didn’t naturally flesh out subplots like I did the main.
     
  18. LadyKas

    LadyKas Dreamer

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    I have found that in rewriting this first story structure is a big help i have half the plot mapped out by chapter and each chapter having three mini sequences to cover. I love the rise-peak-fall structure of stories. No matter how long a book is if each chapter has that flow and leads into a larger flow i will follow it to the end. Right now i have the rise and peak of my story ploted. Its the fall that im.....falling short on.....(cymble roll). I have no idea how the make the ending epic with out being to short. How do i send my character on a epic quest: secret mission or hazardous military march. Oh well I'll get there.
     
  19. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I don't have much fear of never finishing, I find I just fear finishing in a timely fashion, which is mostly why I don't do contests, and am not eager to get into publishing, I would hate to start a series and leave everyone hanging while I spend forever getting back to it.

    As a writer, I tend to plot it all out in my head and work to get the rough draft out. With the rough draft, I tend to go back and fix it up and make it pretty, using the rough as a kind of outline for the whole piece. But....reading the comments above, I feel I might be due for a lesson on story structure, and see how it helps. I do feel my current one would flow more quickly if I had an outline written out, but somehow I never find the energy to make the outline. It like, if I have time to write, I would rather move the story along than work on its tools. Maybe I will disciplined and work on the tools.

    Where would we find this?
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2018
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    FWIW, pmmg, (and wasn't that a fun string of letters?)
    Writing an outline feels like real writing for me. But I write in complete sentences--death to noun clauses! I consider it thinking on paper. By writing out what I think is going to happen, and how characters react, I work out important details. Also, I should say that just as I rewrite, I re-outline. That is, I will sketch out the whole story ... hah; what I think will be the story ... but as I'm hip-deep in chapters I regularly come across not just a scene but a set of scenes, of possibilities, and I'll again return to my thinking on paper. By analogy, it's a bit like the initial outline is the painter laying out the basic composition of the work, but he still needs to sketch individual figures, and all that comes prior to the actual painting. (I realize that's but one of many different ways in which to work)

    All that above is by way of saying you might give "thinking things through on paper" a go, and not worry about whether it's "truly" outlining or not.
     
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