Story structure is a big subject. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books written on the subject. There are lots of approaches, spreadsheets, beat sheets, and other tools that can help writers structure a novel. In fact, there is so much information, it can become overwhelming. In the next few posts, I’m going to try and simplify some of the main points of story structure so that you can, piece by piece, get an overview of things.
The bad news:
Most stories use a very similar story structure.
The good news:
Most stories use a very similar story structure.
What does that mean? How can it be both the good news and the bad news?
As humans, we tend to like a certain series of events. Whether you’re talking ancient myths or the current bestseller, most stories have a lot in common. There’s lots of talk about the reasons for this, but I like to think of it like a baseball game. Baseball games all have basically the same rules, even if some rules may vary a little from league to league. Three outs, four balls, Nine innings. Four bases. But every single game is different from every other game. Why? Different lineup. Weather. Different ballpark. Player dynamics.
So just because your story has a structure that’s similar to a million others, it’s still different and unique.
What do all stories have in common?
There are several elements that are vital. In this post I’m going to break down the first element:
The Setup or Slice of Life: This is where you introduce your main characters and their basic situations. You also need to introduce a problem or a conflict to drive the story forward. This section will vary in length and detail depending on genre but the main pitfall is confusing The Setup with a Backstory Dump. They’re not the same. Make sure you give your readers enough to keep them interested and COMPELLED to keep reading. That’s all you need. Don’t give into the urge to dump everything you know about your characters and your setting in the first twenty pages. It will slow down the narrative and make the reading slow.
Here’s an example:
Sam Smith was tired. The smell of grease wafted from the grill making him feel queasy. Another late night with his friends. Too many beers and too little sleep. At thirty, he was getting too old to live like a college sophomore. But with a felony conviction, it wasn’t like the Fortune 500s were beating down the door to his apartment. He needed some cash. Fast. If he had five thousand dollars, he could tell his boss to fry his own eggs and he could take the classes he needed to get his commercial drivers license.
The Backstory Dump
Jeremiah Samuel Smith, Sam to his friends, worked at Slick Willie’s Ham and Eggs. Every morning from five until eleven, he stood at the grill and cooked eggs and toast and bacon. He’d been working there every since he got out of jail. Five years ago, he’d made a big mistake. He’d stolen the identity of the man who lived next door to his parents and taken out six credit cards in his name. By the time the cops figured it out, Sam had spent $25,000 he could never repay. His lawyer, Braxton Paisley IV, who had an office at 123 Maple Street, helped him get a decent deal but he still did jail time and had a felony on his rap sheet. Now, it was hard to get a decent job. Sam loved trucks. He had since he was little. His mom and dad bought him a toy eighteen wheeler for his fifth birthday and it was love at first sight. More than anything he wanted to drive trucks. He could make a good living at it too, but first he needed to get the money to sign up for some classes at the local community college, ABC Technical. The classes were offered every semester and cost $4876.47. The classes were starting again soon and he really needed the money.
See what I did there?
If you read the above paragraphs, you’ll see that both contain the same character and the same problem: Sam’s stuck in a crappy job because he’s a felon and he needs money to go back to school. So even if, as the writer and creator, I know all the things in the second paragraph, I don’t need them in the setup. It’s way more compelling if, later in the story, Sam tells Georgia, his new love interest, about the toy truck mom and dad bought him. By holding back the details of his crime, you’re leaving the reader wondering what he did. Was he framed? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? We don’t need to know the lawyer’s address and we don’t need to know the exact cost of the CDL course. As the writer, YOU may need to know these details, but the reader doesn’t. At least not yet. Not until it’s relevant to the story.
Which one might keep you reading? (Although I admit, Sam is not at the top of my most compelling characters list.)
In The Setup, the devil really is in the details.
I hope this helps. In the next post, we’ll talk about the second element, the Inciting Incident.
Happy writing, peeps!