Structuring Your Story

Today I came across the blog Storyfix, and author Larry Brook’s 10-part Story Structure Series. In it, Brooks lays out his take on the 4-act structure, and presents it in a straightforward and easily useable way for writers of screenplays and novels to make use of when planning their work. Here’s a sample:

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s abetter way.

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful.

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate.

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

It took me about 90 minutes to read the entire series of articles (which are like a condensed 10-chapter textbook on story structure), and I found that even for someone as familiar with story structure as myself it was still an interesting read. Brooks presents his ideas in a clear approachable fashion, and the way he frames and explains his way of structuring a story is insightful.

One thing I got from the article is the realization that I’m what Brooks calls a “Blueprinter”, which is another take on the whole Plotter/Panster dichotomy. A Blueprinter outlines the key elements of the story structure, but not the details, and then just writes the parts in between those key points. So far, that seems to be the best way to write for me, since I like an element of improvisation, but at the same time I need to know where I’m going so I can direct my writing towards that goal. I’m still trying different styles of planning stories, but this resonated as it’s already something I’m doing.

The one critique of this series I have is that I found the articles tent to get less specific and more vague as they go along. The initial articles are pretty solid, but the later ones (like the one on Pinch Points) get extremely unclear as to what exactly he wants the reader to do with this idea. (Short version- Pinch Points are where the audience (but not necessarily the hero) gets to see what the antagonists are really up to and how screwed the protagonist really is, so that we can build tension.)  He also pretty much ignores the whole issue of climax and how the Second Plot Point is a lead-in to that climax. I can forgive some of this because how a story ends can really vary a lot depending on who writes it, and it’s hard to set down hard and fast guidelines, but I have seen other writing instructors (like Blake Snyder) do it better.

Speaking of Snyder, Brooks has his own version of the Beat Sheet to go along with his story structure, which you might find useful to take a look at after you’ve read the articles. (Since it’s a condensed version of that advice.)

In any case, this series is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re someone who has trouble with structure or are trying to figure out the best way for you to plan your work. The way he presents the parts of a story as working together is pretty solid, and I will be taking some of what he says to heart when thinking about and planning my own stories. Overall, I found this series to be an elaboration on Lester Dent’s Formula in many ways, and I think that’s a good thing, since he takes what Dent offers and reframes it in a way that works for stories as a whole, not just pulp adventure works.