We’ll wrap this up today . . . great information – for sure! J Rita
Ingredient #5: Change
Think of a caterpillar entering a cocoon. Once he does so, one of two things will happen: He will either transform into a butterfly, or he will die. But no matter what else happens, he will never climb out of the cocoon as a caterpillar.
So it is with your protagonist.
As you frame your story and develop your character, ask yourself, “What is my caterpillar doing?” Your character will either be transformed into someone more mature, insightful or at peace, or will plunge into death or despair.
Although genre can dictate the direction of this transformation—horror stories will often end with some kind of death (physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual)—most genres are butterfly genres. Most stories end with the protagonist experiencing new life—whether that’s physical renewal, psychological understanding, emotional healing or a spiritual awakening.
This change marks the resolution of the crisis and the culmination of the story.
As a result of facing the struggle and making this new discovery, the character will move to a new normal. The character’s actions or attitude at the story’s end show us how she’s changed from the story’s inception. The putty has become a new shape, and if it’s thrown against the wall again, the reader will understand that a brand-new story is now unfolding. The old way of life has been forever changed by the process of moving through the struggle to the discovery and into a new and different life.
Letting Structure Follow Story
I don’t have any idea how many acts my novels contain.
A great many writing instructors, classes and manuals teach that all stories should have three acts—and, honestly, that doesn’t make much sense to me. After all, in theater, you’ll find successful one-act, two-act, three-act and four-act plays. And most assuredly, they are all stories.
If you’re writing a novel that people won’t read in one sitting (which is presumably every novel), your readers couldn’t care less about how many acts there are—in fact, they probably won’t even be able to keep track of them. What readers really care about is the forward movement of the story as it escalates to its inevitable and unexpected conclusion.
While it’s true that structuring techniques can be helpful tools, unfortunately, formulaic approaches frequently send stories spiraling off in the wrong direction or, just as bad, handcuff the narrative flow. Often the people who advocate funneling your story into a predetermined three-act structure will note that stories have the potential to sag or stall out during the long second act. And whenever I hear that, I think, Then why not shorten it? Or chop it up and include more acts? Why let the story suffer just so you can follow a formula?
I have a feeling that if you asked the people who teach three-act structure if they’d rather have a story that closely follows their format, or one that intimately connects with readers, they would go with the latter. Why? Because I’m guessing that deep down, even they know that in the end, story trumps structure.
Once I was speaking with another writing instructor and he told me that the three acts form the skeleton of a story. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that until I was at an aquarium with my daughter later that week and I saw an octopus. I realized that it got along pretty well without a skeleton. A storyteller’s goal is to give life to a story, not to stick in bones that aren’t necessary for that species of tale.
So, stop thinking of a story as something that happens in three acts, or two acts, or four or seven, or as something that is driven by predetermined elements of plot. Rather, think of your story as an organic whole that reveals a transformation in the life of your character. The number of acts or events should be determined by the movement of the story, not the other way around.
Because story trumps structure.
If you render a portrait of the protagonist’s life in such a way that we can picture his world and also care about what happens to him, we’ll be drawn into the story. If you present us with an emotionally stirring crisis or calling, we’ll get hooked. If you show the stakes rising as the character struggles to solve this crisis, you’ll draw us in more deeply. And if you end the story in a surprising yet logical way that reveals a transformation of the main character’s life, we’ll be satisfied and anxious to read your next story.
The ingredients come together, and the cake tastes good.
Always be ready to avoid formulas, discard acts and break the “rules” for the sake of the story—which is another way of saying: Always be ready to do it for the sake of your readers.
This article was written by Steven James.
Not sure if your story structure is strong enough to woo an agent? Consider:
Story Structure Architect - WritersDigestShop.com