On Pacing and Structure: Easy Structural Tips and Tricks

I’m using this post as a sort of FAQ post for simple Structural ideas which I want to write about without writing up a whole post about them.

  • Q
    • This structure nonsense makes no sense. Do I really have to follow a formula? I don’t want my story to be formulaic.
  • A
    • Do whatever you want. It’s your story. Lots of good books don’t use structures. And maybe if you’ve consumed enough media in your life, you might already have an unconscious idea how to do structure without instruction.
    • Personally, I only start thinking about my story’s structures after I’ve written the story. Structures are useful tools for diagnosing problems you might have. If you have a slow point in your story, trying to compare your story to one or more structure formula might help you find where you’re going wrong.
    • Also, being ‘formulaic’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Only well read readers can detect stuff like formula and structure; most normal people just read and understand the surface-level of the books they read.
      • For example, the book ‘Eragon’ was super popular despite the fact that it was more or less a beat-for-beat retelling of Star Wars. Because the target audience of ‘Eragon’ was a bunch of kids who never watched Star Wars, none of them knew it was formulaic. To them, ‘Eragon’ was innovative.
  • Q:
    • What is a story’s Structure? 
  • A:
    • Structure is the narrative skeleton of the story you’re trying to tell.
    • Structure, when done well, is invisible to the reader. Books with poor structure can have good plot, good characters, good prose and setting- but nonetheless don’t quite work.
    • Example: You’ve probably seen the trope of the heroes facing impossible odds going into the climax of a story, but somehow they pull out the victory despite those impossible odds. Well, in a poorly structured story the heroes might face impossible odds in their very first battle, and easy odds in the final battle. That would be a case of poor structure, because a story should go from easy->hard, to show your protagonists improving.
  • Q
    • Do I have to follow a structure perfectly?
  • A
    • No! Structure formulae are just guidelines. You can add or subtract stages from them.
    • Example: Structures sometimes call for your protagonist to conquer an obstacle, such as ‘The Road of Trials’ stage of the Hero’s Journey structure. During the ‘Road’ you can include one or more ‘trial,’ aka obstacle your character has to conquer. Each obstacle represents an additional beat which is not in the original formula, but the formula readily accepts additional try-fail cycles at that point.
  •  Q
    • What is tension?
  • A
    • Tension is a nebulous sense which readers feel. It’s somewhere between ‘suspension of disbelief’ and ‘pulled through by the seat of your pants.’ A story should be lowest tension at the beginning, and highest at the climax. Tension is increased by the presence of unanswered questions, unexpected twists, reversals of fortune (usually not going in the protagonist’s favor), and other similar unpleasant tasks which occur to the course of the plot.
    • Note: one important way to maintain tension is that whenever the protagonist conquers an obstacle, they do not completely defeat it. By not completely defeating it, it leaves the tension of that obstacle unresolved, so you can resolve it at the climax of the story.
      • For example, in a fantasy story you can have a dragon guarding a key. The heroes defeat the dragon, scaring it away to get the key. The dragon comes back at the end of the story to help the Dark Lord in the final fight with the heroes. In such a way an act 1 or 2 obstacle raises the tension of the novel overall. If the dragon is killed early on, that does not increase the tension of the climax of the story.
  • Q
    • What is plot?
  • A
    • Plot is the story you are telling. In a romance novel, the plot is the two romantic leads falling in love and getting together. In a mystery, the plot is solving the mystery to catch the criminal.
  • Q
    • What is the internal plot? What is the external plot?
  • A
    • If you’ve read some of my entries, you’ve noticed me use the terms ‘internal plot’ and ‘external plot.’ Here is what they mean.
      • Internal plot: this is the character growth plot arc, where the protagonist learns a vital character lesson. For example, that character learns how to trust people (Nona Grey in the ‘Book of the Ancestor’ trilogy), or reconciling with their past mistakes (Ista dy Chalion in ‘Paladin of Souls’), or gaining friends (Harry Potter in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’).
        • Elsewhere you might see the internal plot called a Character Arc, or a Character plot, or a B Story.
      • External plot: this is the outermost plot arc of the story. As I said above, in a romance novel, the external plot is the two romantic leads falling in love and getting together. In a mystery, the external plot is solving the mystery to catch the criminal.
        • Elsewhere you might see the external plot called the A Story, or just plot.
      • Often times this vital character lesson gained in the internal plot is used to resolve the external plot.
        • In the ‘Book of the Ancestor’, Nona begins the series friendless, but by trusting her friends and her mentors (internal plot resolution) she ultimately is placed in a position of power needed to save her civilization (external plot resolution).
        • In ‘Paladin of Souls’, Ista is deeply jaded towards the gods. She used to be a woman of faith. A curse was placed on her family, and the gods charged her to lift the curse. She failed, and her husband and son died. She lost her faith. But after she reconciles with that past failure (internal plot resolution), Ista is able return to the gods and use her faith to save her family and nation (external plot resolution).
        • In ‘Harry Potter’, Harry was made an orphan by Voldemort, and was raised in an abusive and friendless situation. But because Harry befriends Ron and Hermione at Hogwarts (internal plot resolution), they are able to help him confront and defeat Voldemort (external plot resolution).
      • You can have more than one internal plot and more than one external plot. Just be careful, juggling plots like that can be difficult.
  • Q
    • What is a try-fail cycle?
  • A
    • A try-fail cycle is when your protagonist must face an obstacle, and fail defeating it, only to try again. Above I mentioned a dragon guarding a key; maybe the heroes failed to defeat the dragon the first time they fought it, and were scared off. The heroes come back later, maybe after they’ve gone through a training montage or gotten a McGuffin, and are able to defeat the dragon the second time.
    • An author uses try-fail cycles in their literature to make the protagonists struggle to succeed, so when they ultimately do succeed it’s more rewarding for the reader. Whenever a structure calls for an obstacle, you can slot in a try-fail cycle. Indeed, in the Hero’s Journey structure, the pair of steps I call ‘Finding the Plot, For Better or For Worse’ and ‘Success!’ form a try-fail cycle when put together.
  • Q
    • What is a training montage?
  • A
    • A training montage is a series of scenes, which when put together, show your protagonist improving at whatever skillset they are developing.
  • Q
    • What is a McGuffin?
  • A
    • A McGuffin is a dohicky around which the plot revolves. It is a plot contrivance, which people are chasing.
      • Maybe the good guys need the McGuffin Sword to stab the Dark Lord.
      • Maybe the cat burgler wants to steal McGuffin painting to sell to the highest bidder.
      • Maybe the private detective wants the McGuffin clue which will prove their client is innocent.
    • I like to think of McGuffins as objects which characters are chasing, but do not have any emotional investment in. The cat burglar isn’t hunting the painting out of a love of art; they’re going to steal it to make money. The McGuffin, in the end, is just a contrivance.
  • Q
    • What is a storytelling beat?
  • A
    • A Storytelling beat is a development in the plot which directly influences what happens. Characters cause beats, characters are forced to react to beats, and characters take part in beats. The beat might have a large influence on the final outcome of the plot, or only have an impact in one scene in particular.
    • For example,
      • Examples of major beats include
        • Your protagonist suddenly discovers that she is pregnant, throwing the rest of her life in another direction.
        • Your protagonist discovers they are the secret heir to the kingdom, throwing the rest of their life in another direction.
      • Example of a minor beat includes
        • Your protagonist decides to go out and have coffee.
          • Note: don’t add minor story beats frivolously. Only include a minor story beat like this if the minor beat later on leads to a major one. Such as ‘While at the coffee house, the protagonist meets their One True Love.’
    • A storytelling beat can also be called a plot point, or pinch point

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