If Your Story Is Missing This, It’s Not Complete

It’s easy to get caught up in writing advice. You’ve probably read quotes from authors romanticizing the process by saying things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Is that going to change your story? Is it going to be the single piece of information that turns you into a best-selling author? Probably not. Most big name authors don’t like to talk about story structure. That’s because a lot of them have felt their way toward the correct structure through trial and error, talent, or persistence. What if I told you that you can skip the process and jump straight to the information that even most of the pros don’t know they are relying on? You can. It’s out there for you to grab. In fact, a quarter of it is right in this article.

So what is this thing I speak of that no story can live without? It’s a first plot point. If your story does not have a first plot point, it will not succeed.

If your first impulse to hearing the word “structure” is to cringe and throw your ink-well and quill across the room, just take a deep breath and hear me out. Structure scares many writers because they see it as a threat to their creativity. But structure is the backbone of your creativity. At least, it needs to be if you want to have your work read (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day). It’s the secret to successful If you were an architect and wanted to build a beautiful cathedral, you would need several types of knowledge and creativity. You might need the talent to carve intricate stonework, put together stained glass windows, and choose furnishings that enhance the atmosphere. All of that is great, but if you don’t know anything about basic engineering, you’ll at best build a shaky cathedral that might collapse at any moment, and at worst have a pile of beautiful artwork sitting atop a misshapen mass of stones and rubble.

Going into a story with the belief that your talent and love of storytelling is enough is no different. When done well, structure is invisible. That means the reader will only notice your characters, your concept, your voice, your theme, and your plot. Using accepted structure in no way compromises yourself as a writer.

Can I address every element of structure in one blog post? Technically yes, because this post could be as long as I want it to be. But for the sake of clarity, no. So for today, I’m going to focus on the first and most critical element of structure. It may not be pretty, and it may not be fun to think about, but it is absolutely essential that you understand the basics of structure if you want to be a storyteller.

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The First Plot Point

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in or what your style is as an author, there’s a critical point in your novel where you must place a specific moment: that moment is the first plot point. according to Larry Brooks (who, by the way, is the wizard of all things structure and taught me everything I know), the ideal placement of the first plot point is between 20 to 25% of the way through your story. You can read books all day and watch every movie there is without consciously realizing the need for a first plot point, but once you see it, you’ll notice it every time. If you’re a reader, you learned a long time ago that it’s unwise to give up on books before about the 60-70 page mark. Ever wondered why? It’s because the first plot point makes or breaks a book. 

I’ll get into more detail on the first plot point at the end of this article, but it’s not a solo act. A successful first plot point requires preparation.

Getting There Smoothly

If you don’t want readers to feel like they have to suffer through the first 20-25% of your book, don’t worry. There are structural tools to help liven up part one. If you’re an unknown name, you can’t expect readers to trust that you know what you’re doing and slog through the first 25% of your book without any reward. So get to know the tools at your disposal and use them well.

The first tool is a hook. There are several ways to hook readers, but many writers are surprisingly bad at identifying them. Here’s something many writers hate to hear: your voice as a writer is not going to hook a reader. You may grab some initial interest with your writing voice, but just like the most delicious pesto sauce imaginable, it can’t be served alone. So how do you write a good hook then?

Show the reader something that raises a question—and make sure they want the answer. For example, a man might kiss his daughters goodnight and appear to be the model father in all ways imaginable. But he might then go down into the basement where he has a woman bound and gagged. This raises questions. If he loves his daughters, as he appears to, why is he risking their safety? Why is he risking his freedom? Why is he doing this in his house? Is he only pretending to love his daughters, and if so, why? I could go on, but you get the idea. In simple terms, the more questions you can raise that compel readers to demand answers, the better.

There’s often a fine balance at play in the first pages of your book. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. You must create conflict, build character, establish your world, introduce the character’s inner demons, foreshadow the events to come, and maybe introduce a portion of the supporting cast. Not always, but often, a story that begins more slowly packs the biggest punch when it kicks off. Usually that’s because the more of this information that gets packed in before the first plot point, the more compelling it becomes, and including all of this information can slow down the pace.

Inciting Incidents

So your hook is over, and it has probably only been about 7 to 20 pages. You still have around 50 to 60 pages to go until the first plot point. It’s often not enough to just coast your way to the first plot point. There’s a fine balance at play in the first pages. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. The safer option is to use inciting incidents, or moments that foreshadow and or lead toward the first plot point. The first plot point in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is his trip to and arrival at Hogwarts. You may want to argue that it’s when he goes down to get the sorcerer’s stone with Hagrid or when he finds out what Hagrid was actually doing for Dumbledore, and it’s worth side-tracking for a minute to clarify why that’s not the case. Remember that:

  1. The first plot point redefines the hero’s goal or begins them on the path toward the ultimate conclusion of the story.
  2. It occurs between 20 and 25% of the way through the book.

So the Hogwarts Express fits first of all because of it’s location—right at 25% of the way through the book if you don’t count chapter one (and you shouldn’t, because it’s essentially a prologue). Beyond that, his boarding of the train is highly representative of his new mission. Harry’s goal for a while is just to keep his head down and survive. But through the first 25% of the book, he gradually and then rapidly realizes there’s another option. It’s only when he boards the Hogwarts Express that he can really be considered to set out on his journey to be a wizard.

So what is an inciting incident? To put it simply, it’s a moment that hints at the first plot point to come and/or the antagonistic force in your story. Think of these as your doses of excitement. This is how you inject energy and interest into your story while you work your way to the all-important first plot point. If you were writing a thriller where a girl is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, you might have her in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation when she notices a man wearing a hoodie watching her. Maybe he gets up and leaves when she makes eye-contact. That’s it. It takes a few lines, she notices, reacts briefly, and the story marches on. But what you’ve done is charged your story with more tension. You’ve also made sure the first plot point will be even more satisfying when it comes. Do this often!

The First Plot Point

Yes, it’s finally here. Or if you skimmed to this point, here it is. . . immediately. The first plot point! As I said earlier, this is the point where your real story launches. Your character and readers may have thought they knew what the story was, and maybe they were close, but this is the point when it really kicks into gear. If it was a love story, this is the point when the girl realizes her boyfriend is losing interest. If it’s a murder mystery, this is when the detective realizes the latest victim is his daughter. If it’s a crime-thriller, it’s when the duo slips up and has to start running from the cops. If you aren’t gathering it from my examples, it can be highly dramatic (like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix) and waking up in a vat of goo, or it can be subtle but powerful, like in The Hunger Games when Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek, essentially agreeing to play the game within the game, which defines her goal and the story from that point forward.

In The Matrix, you might have thought the story was going to be about fighting these “agents” and trying to kill them, but you weren’t really sure. When Neo takes the red pill, suddenly it becomes clear. The stakes are bigger. It isn’t just about one person fighting some agents, it’s all of humanity fighting for survival. That’s a big shift. In The Hunger Games you might have thought Katniss saying the famous line, “I volunteer as tribute!” was the first plot point. For starters though, it occurs way too early in the story for that. It’s more of a delayed hook and an inciting incident. You might have thought it was when the games began, but the games aren’t the real story. The real story is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. Her alliance with him occurs right at the precise moment it should, and signifies a huge shift in purpose from that moment and onward. The games are an excellent backdrop that are interesting enough in their own right. They could have worked as a story by themselves, which is likely part of the reason the series was so wildly popular.

Final Thoughts

Structure is essential. It’s the figurative foundation upon which you build your story. Neglect the formula, and your foundation will be weak. But the formula is out there, so why waste your effort trying to figure it out on your own? If you don’t believe me, go look at any successful book. You’ll find all of these elements lined neatly where they should be, give or take a few pages, especially among new published authors.

 

If you found this information useful, check out my article on Larry Brooks’: Story Engineering. His book is so helpful that it honestly feels like cheating.

 

 

Should You Bother Outlining and Planning Your Story?

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The first word you put down says a lot about what type of writer you are. Is it the first word of your story, the first word of your outline, the first word of a text to a friend that you’re about to start a story? For many, very little thought goes into  this aspect of our writing because we assume that what’s natural is what’s best. Well, maybe you owe it to yourself to challenge that assumption. Planning out aspects of your plot, setting, and characters can benefit all writers. On the other hand, allowing a little more flexibility can get the creative juices going.

The Types

To understand why you should care what type of writer you are, it makes sense to first familiarize yourself with the possibilities. There are two broad types of writers. To put it simply, there are planners and doers. However, each type is more similar to a spectrum than a box.

Planners

Planners, as the name implies, plan. For some, planning is an extensive process that can take weeks and involves collecting research and planning out the smallest details of their characters and settings. For others, it’s a much more brief process of creating a skeletal framework for your story to fill in. Most writers do at least a little planning, even if it is mental.

Doers

Doers let the story and characters come to them as they write. How will the story end? They may not be sure, but believe the right ending will reveal itself as they become more familiar with their story. How will the chapter end? It will end when they reach a point that feels like a good ending. And if they don’t reach that point, maybe they’ll just try again. It’s all about discovery and letting the story unfold naturally and organically.

Advantages of Planning

Planning has a few very nice advantages. Probably the biggest advantage is that it allows the author to provide very satisfying endings. Think of the type of ending where “it all comes together”. One of my favorite authors who exemplifies this is Brandon Sanderson. The endings to his books are typically very satisfying because he knows how his story will end. This lets him methodically build in clues and steps that lead naturally to that ending. It also allows for the satisfying realization that you actually had enough clues earlier in the book to figure out the unexpected aspects of the ending, but would have had to read carefully.

Another advantage is that books, particularly in the science fiction or fantasy department, can become as complicated and intricate as you want. If you have a document tracking characters first and last names, relations, rank, or physical descriptions, you can avoid the moment when you forgot what name you gave to that guy forty chapters ago and avoid having to go back and sift through until you find it; writers have closed their word processors for the day over less.

Disadvantages of Planning

While it offers great advantages, planning does have a few drawbacks. For example, there is a sense of satisfaction and fun from jumping into a chapter and letting it take you where it will. If you have already planned your story extensively, it can feel like you’re just going through the motions when you sit down to write.

Many want to jump right in and get started. The idea of sitting down to think about their story in detail before they start it is enough to keep them from starting all together.

Others will argue that characters are more realistic and relatable if they are created organically. Though I would step outside the point of this section to say that very few writers will create natural and believable characters just by winging it. The natural human tendency is to make our characters do what we would do. We also tend to make them do things for the reasons we would do them, or the reasons we would like to see them get behind. It takes a little artificiality and a meticulous mindset to systematically avoid this.

Advantages of Doing

One of the biggest advantages of casting aside the planning and just jumping in to your story is that it’s fun. At first. It’s as close as you can come to reading your own book as a reader would. You don’t really know what someone is going to say next and everything is a surprise. How exciting!

Disadvantages of Doing

Disadvantages already? I forgot more advantages of doing? Nope. That was all. I’m admittedly a little biased, but I also come from the perspective of a former “doer” purist. I was the kid who would sacrifice a letter grade on my essays in school out of spite because I refused to outline my essays. So naturally, I approached writing the same way. I always loved my first chapters. My second chapters weren’t quite as good, then my third chapters started to drag. It started feeling like I was at the head of a runaway train before long.

Eventually, I would be stopped in my tracks by the overwhelming feeling that each new “discovery” I made about a character, the setting, or my plot, seemed to contradict something I had added earlier. “Dang,” I would think. “This scene is only going to make sense if X happens, but if X happens, I have to go back to scene 2 and make Y happen. But to make Y happen in scene 2, Z can’t happen in scene 1. . .” That was usually when I would close the word processor.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, so what. You’re disorganized and I’m not. I don’t have that problem.” Maybe you don’t. But even the best writers who write as they go create a very different style of book than planners. The style isn’t necessarily worse, but a true “doer” is going to write a story that has fewer connective themes running between scenes. They will also likely feel more episodic and meandering. You might not even feel like you know what a character wants or who they are until a third of the way through the book because the author probably hadn’t figured it out yet.

Final Thoughts

The message I want to send is that every writer can benefit from planning. Refusing to try is a disservice to yourself as a writer. To claim that planning stifles your creative juices is to lump all planning into one box. Imagine planning a painting. Would you just grab a random color and start making a line? Hopefully not, because most painters realize their art will be more beautiful if they take a second to think of composition.

Try it out. If you’ve never planned and think you’ll hate it, try it anyway. There’s nothing more detrimental to your writing than believing you are an expert.