story structure | intuition versus knowledge

I wrote last week about reading Story Structure—Demystified by Larry Brooks and discovering a perfect execution of the four-part structure in the last novel I had read, Delirium by Lauren Oliver.

Here’s what nagged at me: This structure wasn’t new to me. My earliest finished novel hit the milestones like this:

First Plot Point at exactly 25%: The main antagonist reveals himself.

Midpoint at 47%: The storylines of the human and alien protagonists converge. United, they stop running and start to fight back.

Second Plot Point at exactly 75%: A betrayal makes a minor antagonist ally with the protagonists, setting up a joint effort to defeat the main antagonist.

I plotted my next novel and divided it into four parts. Each part served its correct purpose: Setup, Defense, Offense, Climax. Each ended with an event that changed everything.

So who needs to learn about story structure? I was a pro at this stuff. Right?

Wrong.

I panstered that first novel. The plot milestones fell into place after rewriting segments spanning tens of thousands of words. My original antagonist became too likable, too justified, and teamed up with the good guys. I had to grab a minor character and go back as far as possible to build him up as the new main antagonist.

I plotted the next novel, and based the four parts on a vague recognition of the three-act structure of films with a midpoint.

That doesn’t mean I knew what I was doing. My next novel was the best and most mainstream so far, the one outlined in the most detail. The shape of its plot structure looks like a Glaucus Atlanticus.

The best candidate for First Plot Point comes at 44%. That makes the break into the climax seem like the Midpoint. Rewrites had only swelled the novel before the First Plot Point. I quit working on it because of this—and I hadn’t even discovered Larry Brooks yet. I just knew the novel wasn’t balanced, without understanding why.

Intuition worked for me up to a point. But to stay on track, I needed knowledge.

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story structure

Last year, I read Story Structure—Demystified by Larry Brooks. I finished the read with mixed feelings. Larry had made a good argument about the “absolute necessity” of writing a structured novel. It sounded easy enough to apply.

But I wasn’t convinced.

I sat there for several minutes, questioning this “absolute.” Thing was, Larry’s examples of books that exhibited the four-part structure weren’t part of my personal experience.

So I grabbed the last novel I read. Delirium by Lauren Oliver (my daughter’s book; I read a lot of YA thanks to sharing books with her). I wouldn’t rate Delirium one of my favorites, but I did feel as though I was in the hands of a master storyteller.

I flipped to the back. About 440 pages. Multiplied by .25, that means the First Plot Point should fall around page 110. I flipped there…

Lena, the main character, lives in an alternate present where love was declared a disease and is “cured” at age 18 by a procedure on the brain. Until 18, the state strictly monitors and separates boys and girls, lest they catch the disease and infect others.

Lo, page 110 is in the middle of the chapter when a friend opens Lena’s eyes to an underworld of unauthorized music—love songs on forbidden websites—and secret parties where boys and girls mingle in defiance of the rules. Like the First Plot Point should, this revelation changes Lena’s trajectory. Her “ordinary world” is gone and she’s now in the “exotic world.”

440 divided by 2 puts us at page 220 and the Midpoint, which should be where the character stops running and starts on offense.

Indeed, there it was. In Part 1, the Setup of the novel, Lena met Alex, who seemed interested in her. After the First Plot Point, Lena spent all of Part 2 trying to avoid letting this curious young man take her eyes off the prize of the “cure.” Running from Alex. Running from love.

Page 220 is in the middle of a chapter where Alex rescues Lena during a raid of an illegal party. This thrusts them together in hiding, and Lena’s heart changes. The Midpoint changes everything as dramatically as the First Plot Point did. Lena stops running from love and spends Part 3 pursuing love with Alex.

The Second Plot Point begins the climax of a novel. Right in step, page 330 is in the middle of the chapter that kicks of the climax. Lena and Alex are in love. She can’t go through with the cure. This means they’ll have to escape to the unregulated “Wilds” outside the city fences. Thus begins their final confrontation with the system that outlaws their love.

The Pinch Points were in Delirium as well. The moments midway through Part 2 and Part 3 when the reader is reminded of the stakes.

I’ll say it again. Not one of my favorite novels, but I felt like I was in the hands of a master storyteller. The plot of Delirium wasn’t a series of random turns down bumpy dirt roads, but a well-planned, structured roller coaster that smoothly delivered surprises right on queue, right to the end of the ride.

Was I convinced of the “absolute necessity” of this four-part structure with each part playing its proper role in the story? I was well on my way.

More in a later post.


About the picture: We see plenty of thunderheads forming in the West Texas skies. The twin columns in the picture on the right made me do a double-take before I snapped the picture.