Story structure

Interesting post at Write to Done: The Art of Story Structure

Keeping in mind that there are multiple methods that authors use to structure and outline their stories, we’ll focus on some of the main aspects that remain the same throughout each technique

These are, briefly: the opener, the catalyst, growing tension, the climax, the end.

The catalyst is the same thing as the inciting incident, and that can be part of the opening, of course, as mentioned in recent posts here. I think I do prefer the term “catalyst” now that I think about it. “Incite” has a connotation of tension and anger, while “catalyst” just means the thing that causes movement, that starts the story moving, that begins a change. I’ll try to remember to use the term “catalyst” from now on.

Anyway, practically everything longer than a short story is going to have the catalyst, but then repeats that go from growing tension –> problem/resolution over and over. Four times, five, six, it depends on the length of the story, but multiple iterations for anything nonvel-length.

As a rule, when those iterations are occurring, each problem is likely to be more serious or emotionally intense than the last until the climax finally occurs.

One way to get a low-tension novel is to have the repeated problems all be low-stress; that’s probably a slice-of-life story. Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share is an example. Another is to have each problem resolve before the next problem appears; that can produce a comfortable, engaging story for the reader who isn’t into high-tension and extreme-crisis stories, at least not at the moment. That’s like The Book of Firsts by AKH or Six Ways to Write a Love Letter by Jackson Pierce, and though both of those are romances, I’m sure you get that kind of story in other genres.

Other stories really lean into ratcheting up the tension with a structure that goes problem –> worse problem –> worse again —> super terrible –> mega extreme crisis –> at last the climax. I think the Hunger Games trilogy fits this pattern, for example.

In between we get all sorts of novels that kind of go problem –> resolved –> different problem –> bigger problem –> whew, resolved –> different problem –> bigger problem –> crisis –> climax and resolution –> falling action –> final ending.

In other words, they’re doing different things at different times, with some problems that resolve right away and others that linger, with unexpected consequences and resolutions later. And I do think that the climax usually ends with a resolution that is important, but that the falling action of the denouement comes after that, so there’s the climactic resolution but that isn’t the same as the ending of the story. So it’s all complicated in the real world. Still, it’s interesting to think about structural patterns in novels.

The linked post details seven story structures. I think these are all supposed to be variations on the above theme. I’m not going to detail them all — you can click through if you like, but let’s look at a couple to get an idea of the variations offered in this post.

First: The Dean Koontz structure. The terms for the structural high points are entertaining. Here they are:

  1. The sooner the trouble, the better
  2. It’s all downhill from here
  3. Utter hopelessness
  4. Success against all odds

That seems about right! A lot of Koontz novels do follow that kind of pattern. The post says “success or failure against all odds,” but with Koontz himself, it’s always success. That’s why I like his novels much better than various other horror novels: because I depend on Dean Koontz to provide success and not kill the characters I like best. There’s an exception, in a sense, with the Odd Thomas series. But that ending still offers success and is not really tragic, despite the ultimate ending. I do think that Koontz isn’t always that great a writer, BUT this series shows some of his best work. Also, I like his dogs. There’s a ghost dog in this series.

I often, not always but frequently, do appreciate a story that starts right out of the gate without a lot of setup, so I like the idea of “the sooner the better” for the catalyst. I began a new-to-me fantasy last night and stopped after two pages, not for any fault in the story at all, but because I could see there was going to be an extended period of setup and I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe I’m in the mood to re-read something instead. That way I can relax and enjoy a slow unfolding of the story.

Anyway, there’s a lot to be said for a fast start. Though downhill all the way can be too high-tension for me at the moment. That’s where it can be good to be reading a familiar author whom you trust will eventually provide a non-tragic ending.

Okay, what’s the next story structure?

Second: In Media Res. Oh, that’s a completely different sort of fast start. This story structure goes:

  1. Rising action
  2. Backstory
  3. Climax
  4. Denouement
  5. Resolution

And all I can say is, you better be (a) quick to get out of the backstory, or (b) a really good writer, because I am not that patient. I mean, at all. Maybe I used to be a more patient reader, but these days if you begin the story and then stop short on a cliffhanger and say, “You know, back when I was a child, my mother told me …” and begin an extended backstory segment, there’s a good chance I’m not going to follow along for that.

The greater problem with in media res is that starting off with unknown characters struggling against unfamiliar opponents in an unfamiliar setting is just asking a lot of the reader.

While on this topic, Crime Reads has a good post about worldbuilding when starting in media res.

All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the basis for the movie Edge of Tomorrow, starts pretty much smack in the middle of an all-out firefight through the point of view of a soldier wearing power armor. It’s also a time loop story, which becomes apparent a little later on. We don’t even know until several pages in that the enemy is an alien invasion force. You’d think that’d be the hook, but no. The hook is the immersion.

And then there’s the first chapter of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, which starts with the absolutely killer opening line “As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk.” And just gets weirder from there.

What these examples all have in common is the utter confidence of the prose and the absolute surefootedness of the pacing. Both of these things, when done right, are worldbuilding—and they do it in less space than paragraphs of exposition. And yet it’s so hard to find.As a reader, I hate being spoon-fed exposition. … I want to put in the work to understand. More, I want to feel it—whatever it is you’re saying—viscerally. Most of all I want to be let into the story yesterday

I would say that of course it’s hard to find books with that kind of opening because utter confidence with the prose and absolute surefootedness with the pacing is uncommon, plus a really skilled writer may not choose to start in media res. There are plenty of other ways to start. But at the moment at least, I also feel that I want to be let into the story at once, immediately, with as little set up as possible. Of course that’s not always how I feel. I loved the effective but veeeerrrrry slow opening of From All False Doctrine, for example. The catalyst there is the meeting of the four people on the beach and from there we have a leisurely opening that is not quite as meandering as it might appear.

I haven’t read the abovementioned novels, but I have to say, The Quantum Thief does indeed offer a killer opening line. Have any of you read it? What did you think?

Before moving on to think about other types of story structures, I think Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi might be an example of an in media res kind of opening. I’m not sure. But it leaped to mind for me. Here’s the beginning:

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

The Ninth Vestibule is remarkable for the three great Staircases it contains. Its walls are lined with marble statues, hundreds and hundreds of them, Tier upon Tier, rising into the distant heights.

And here we have a peculiar sort of in media res opening in the first two sentences, then a step back for worldbuilding in the next paragraph. I thought of this opening because it’s very definitely an example of utter confidence of the prose and absolute surefootedness of the pacing. I found this story immediately compelling, even though it’s so odd, because of the quality of the writing, the instant appeal of the protagonist, and the poetic setting.

Let me see, what other story structures are offered by the linked post … oh, a VERY EXTENDED Hero’s Journey structure, so detailed it’s practically an outline. Meet the Mentor, for example. That’s really too detailed, imo. Not every Hero’s Journey is going to include a mentor. Though possibly a lot do. I mean, I can think of some that definitely do fit this structure, mentor and all.

If I were looking around for a Hero’s Journey novel I’ve read recently, I might pick Sherwood Smith’s Phoenix Feather quadrilogy. That is a truly classic hero’s journey, but slow, especially at first; with multiple protagonists, multiple mentors along the way, a lot of tests, allies and enemies; a lot of ordeals to face and overcome; and then a return home, but as a different person, a better person; and with “home” redefined and also better than it started.

I should re-read this one from the top. Especially since it’s about as low-stress as a Hero’s Journey is likely to be, for many reasons, including how quickly the Big Bad Guys are defeated whenever they are actually encountered.

But moving on. What’s next?

Ah, the 7-Point Structure, much vaguer. Hook, plot turn, pinch point, midpoint, pinch point, plot point, resolution. The pinch points, it says here, “increase pressure on the protagonist.” I wondered, as I don’t recall hearing that term before.

Oh, the next after that isn’t a structure, it’s a method. You’ve heard of it, I’m sure: Write a one-sentence pitch, expand that into a synopsis, then write out detailed summaries of the character backstories — I’m recoiling pretty hard at this point. It goes on and on. For the writers who want to create a world bible and character sketches and a complete outline before writing the novel, sure. For me, no. Let me go on to the next story structure …

Oh, the very basic Three-Act structure. The Set-up, the Confrontation, the Resolution. I don’t know why you’d even bother. While the previous structure seemed way, way overdoing it, this seems practically as far on the other side of the spectrum.

Then the post ends with Bell’s “A Disturbance and Two Doorways,” which I don’t recall hearing about before, but that’s certainly evocative. This could just as easily be called The Catalyst and two Choices, each of which, once taken, can’t be unchosen.

Well, this is an interesting post, though I do think it is useful to think of actual novels that might be seen as fitting into each structure. Though the vaguest structure is going to be difficult to see when embedded in a real story, and the thing that wants you to create a world bible and all the rest of it definitely doesn’t count as a structure at all.

I’m curious: does TANO seem to be a high-tension story? To me, no. I would say TANO’s structure goes something like this:

Set up –> catalyst –> problem –> new problem –> crisis! –> action (what I think Bell might call a Doorway and I might call a choice to act) –> resolution –> new problem arising from the original problem –> worse problem –> choice to act and resolution –> second crisis! unresolved –> falling action –> problem –> problem from a different angle –> climax and resolution. And then the epilogue recasts the second crisis and resolves that.

To me, this is not a high tension type of structure because several problems are presented, but then are resolved long before the story reaches the climactic scene. Also because of the period of falling action after the unresolved crisis, which leads into a milder (if increasing) kind of tension and problem.

Also because Tano doubts himself probably much more than the reader doubts him.

And finally because the movement in the various relationships is always in a positive direction. To me, that always reduces tension, almost always in a good way. I don’t like reading about misunderstandings, especially not extended, serious misunderstandings. I prefer to see relationships move in a positive direction with only minor stutters. That’s how the relationships work here, not just among the young men, but the adults are much (much) less condemnatory than Tano expects. I think the reader is in a position to understand that better than Tano and that also reduces tension.

On the other hand, I knew a lot about all this and a reader may have a different perception! Did you perceive this as a lower-tension or higher-tension story when you read it?

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5 thoughts on “Story structure”

  1. I think tension partially depends on elements outside the book. Part of the reason Tano is lower tension for me might be because I know you as an author, so I know what lines you won’t cross – it’s a trust thing.

    Re: Quantum Thief, I read it, remember nothing about it, but that’s what goodreads reviews are for (in my case, anyways). Going back to what I wrote, looks like it has some cool comp sci and game theory concepts, lots of neat worldbuilding, almost zero character development. Made it through the first book but wasn’t invested enough to continue. (So, good book, just not my kind of book.)

  2. I agree with SarahZ that reduction of tension is partly trust in the author. I don’t have to spend a whole book thinking “please don’t go there, please don’t go there” when I am certain the author won’t go there. It’s one of the reasons I can read T Kingfisher’s horror books when I generally don’t like horror. I also agree with you that it’s a lot structure. How challenging are the problems, and how many of them pile on at once?

    I’m also reminded of the line from Kipling about “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”

  3. I sometimes use a structure because the story refuses to take shape in the middle without my pointing out that it needs some shape.

  4. I mostly read Tano as a recovery story… as somebody learning to trust again. This makes it a smaller story than many others in the sequence as far as outside events go – there’s no evil sorcerer bent on enslaving everyone, no Sarai’i bent on completely annihilating everyone – but I like small stories too. To me, Suelen was a small story as well… and no less enjoyable for it. Although Tano is bigger than that one – there’s the small matter of the group’s survival at stake here as well as the recovery thread; Suelen *never* had me wondering whether he’d make it back alive (nor was it a recovery story – rather a “meeting of cultures to help one of them” tale), whereas in Tano the group’s survival wasn’t assured at all.

    And I also trust this series to not have me going “please don’t go there”, as OtterB put it… although Tano pushed that envelope a bit!!! Honestly, I don’t think you could have made his original father any MORE twisted and sadistic – even the blasted sorcerer in Tuyo wasn’t quite that bad. Poor Tano. And it massively changes what I *thought* he was doing at the start of Tarashana, too… my God, he was just *running away*. No plan at all beyond just getting away from his tribe; anything to get away – he was honestly just a frightened kid even though technically he was an adult… and I adored the character who helped him run. (I am also, however, HOPELESS with names and I have forgotten the name of this character.)

  5. Vayu, but I’m hopeless about names too and wouldn’t remember if I hadn’t typed it a thousand times.

    Yes, Tano was certainly focused on getting away. His options were pretty bad even after he did get away, and worrying about his little brother didn’t make anything easier.

    Honestly, if you think about everything we saw of Tano in Tarashana, there was no possible way to interpret his backstory as anything but *extremely* abusive.

    I have to add, Yaro was not worse than Lorellan. We’re going to hear more about Lorellan in Tasmakat. Mad sorcerers really are the worst. Granted, Yaro was close to that bad. I do wonder what “ill luck” actually means to the Ugaro. Maybe someday we’ll find out.

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