The quick and dirty guide to structure, or stories are made of threes

“I’ll sit down and write a novel,” you say. You have plot ideas, you have characters, maybe even a setting with elaborate maps and history. But sitting there with all the pieces of what will become a novel someday strewn around you leads to a sinking realization; somehow you have to figure out how to put it all together. You need a structure.

Structure doesn’t have to be terrifying. You don’t even need a hard hat, but you might get a lot of headaches along the way so stocking up on ibuprofen won’t hurt.

The first point of structure: your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Otherwise known as three acts. In act one, you introduce your cast of characters and set up your main conflict. In act two, you build on everything you introduced in act one, building towards the big crisis when everything goes boom. In act three, the story goes boom, resolution, the end. You can get more complicated than that, but you’re going to need a lot of ibuprofen before it’s over and your liver can only take so much of that, so I’d recommend keeping it simple. Three acts. Divide your major story events into things that happen in the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Next, the golden triangle of fiction. Your golden triangle is made up of a protagonist, an antagonist and an ally. If any of your sides are missing, you have a structural problem you must solve. “But I’m writing a story about a guy stranded on an island,” you cry. “How can I have an antagonist and an ally?”

Go rent the movie Cast Away. Tom Hanks had an antagonist (isolation). He had an ally. (Wilson) The antagonist can even be different in different scenes. You can be creative with your structure, but you need those roles fulfilled to write compelling scenes. If your scene structure keeps falling down, check your triangle for missing sides.

“Wait,” you groan, clutching your head. “What is this scene you speak of?”

I’m so glad you asked. After the three act structure, after the golden triangle, you get scene and sequel.

“I thought you said novels were made of threes,” you say, getting suspicious. “That’s two things.”

Right. Scenes and Sequels are made up of Motivation Reaction Units. And each of those three things has three parts, too.

In a scene your character has a goal and a conflict that ends in disaster. In a sequel your character has a reaction and faces a dilemma that ends in a decision. Goal, conflict, disaster; reaction, dilemma, decision. Threes.

“I don’t see why I need a scene AND a sequel,” you mutter. Building a novel is starting to seem like a lot of work.

Think of a scene as dropping a bomb and a sequel as showing the impact crater. You can’t just write a book full of explosions that don’t matter to anybody. The explosion has to matter, and the sequel is where you give it space to matter and to have impact and to drive the story onward to the next scene. Shortcuts in story structures will lead to the whole thing collapsing and having to start all over.

And now we come to the final set of threes, the motivation reaction units. You’ll need your ibuprofen for these, I always do.

Your character is faced with a motivation. There will then follow an emotional response, a reflex, and then a rational action or speech. MRUs give you the greatest opportunity to cut or expand a scene that needs to be longer or shorter. If you find the whole MRU is unnecessary, you can cut the whole thing, from the motivation to the last rational action/speech. If you need it but need to tighten, you can reduce the characters’ emotional reactions and and reflexive responses and rational actions/dialog to one each. You can use clever writing to imply the first two and skip to the end with the action or dialog in one or two sentences. Or you can use it as an opportunity to expand the scene, adding more emotional reaction, reflex, rational response.

Leading us to the final point, as long as your structure is sound, you can expand or contract at need. Tighten up scenes/sequels. Tighten up MRUs within scenes and sequels. Cut whole scenes/sequels/MRUs that you don’t really need. Or do the reverse. If your climax doesn’t hit hard enough, beef up the scenes/sequels that lead to it, giving it more drama. Give more space to the resolution afterward, tying up all the loose ends and coming to a truly satisfying conclusion that doesn’t feel skimpy.

To sum up: Stories are built in threes. Get your structure right and your story will stand strong. Don’t run out of ibuprofen before you’re done hammering at the MRUs. And there’s your quick and dirty guide to story structure. Go forth and build.

What makes you keep reading?

Yesterday while I was pretty much incapable of anything but reading, thanks to the child who shared her flu, I read Flirt. I’ve been tracking all my reading for the year at Goodreads, and I like having some place to track what I’m reading and what I think about it. But for this book, I really didn’t know what to think when I finished. I wasn’t capable of too much thought (see “flu”), but I kept chewing it over in my brain.

Here’s the thing; Laurell K Hamilton excels at creating a world so real it’s easy to believe in, and characters you become invested in. I don’t know how you rate a thing like that, but she’s currently rating it by her income and number of times on the NYT list. I’d say those are pretty good indicators that she’s pleasing her audience.

The ability to emotionally involve and move a reader isn’t something everybody has. I read a lot of books that are technically competent but have no spark. I can read as much as a quarter of the book before I toss it aside because I just don’t care who lives or dies or becomes a Jehovah’s Witness.

There are books that have what many people call flaws or even bad writing. Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and Laurell K Hamilton are frequently accused of this. But when you entertain that many people, get that many readers invested in your story, your world and your characters, it’s hard to say “bad writing” with a straight face. Harlequin Presents novels fall in this category, too. They consistently hit store bestseller lists. They are not what a writing teacher would point to as stellar examples of how to write. Even in RWA’s Rita contest, they usually don’t score well. But they involve and move people emotionally.

That’s difficult to do. If you think it’s easy, really look at how many authors can do it. Then look at how many can do it consistently.

Books today compete with a lot of other media for time, attention and dollars. If I want my books to be the ones readers will pick up instead of playing a game, watching a movie, or looking at LOLcats, I’d better study what Harlequin Presents, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer and Laurell K Hamilton are doing. Because those authors are doing what’s nearly an impossible feat; getting a reader emotionally involved and invested in nothing more than printed characters on a page.