Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Basic Building Blocks of Good Story Structure

Hey there! This is Camy Tang, and Cheryl is letting me guest blog today!

She wanted me to talk about the basic building blocks of good story structure because I tend to naturally look at stories on a structural level. When I do telephone consultations for my Story Sensei critique service, most of my clients are looking for help to fix their novels’ story structures.

Lots of times, I’ll like a book because of two things: 1) good pacing and 2) likable characters.

For likable characters, I use a book that has solved all my problems: Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. He has an entire chapter on little tips and tricks to make a character likable and why that works for a reader.

Pacing is something that writers don’t necessarily think about, because the truth of the matter is that each book has its own unique pacing that’s right for that particular story. One book’s fast pace isn’t appropriate for another book’s slower pace, and vice versa.

But it is possible to tweak a book’s pacing to be the best possible for that story. And that’s where story structure comes in.

Story structure is like the framework of a house. You can hang the walls and the roof, apply drywall and paint it all pretty, but if the underlying framework isn’t strong, the house isn’t well built.

Therefore, a book’s story structure has to be well built, just like a house, for the story to be the best it can be.

If a book has solid story structure, the pacing of the scenes and the purpose of the characters will fall in place naturally, on their own. And if any of you know me, I’m all for less work for the author! LOL

How to get good story structure? Here’s my quick and dirty list:

Inciting Incident: This starts the story. This is the incident that thrusts the characters on their goal for the entire book.

Character External Goal and Motivation: Psychologically, readers tend to be more engaged in a story with a character who is proactive about achieving her goal than a character who is reactive to the things around her.

Being “proactive” could be actively (or tenaciously) pursuing a goal or endpoint, but it could also be passive, like withstanding an enemy force (like in Tolkien’s The Two Towers where the Men are trying to hold Helm’s Deep against the Orcs) or escaping someone trying to kill her (like in any horror slasher movie). A “passive” goal is NOT less filled with conflict, however, and the character is still stalwart in achieving the goal.

Two to four Major Disasters: Most books and movies break down into 2-4 “major” events of conflict that happen. I don’t know why the number hovers around three—I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a psychological reason for it.

The key of good structure is that these Major Disasters directly work against the character’s external goal (above). They can’t be just “bad things that happen” to the character—they have to have some purpose against the character’s goal.

The reason is that when this is true, the Disasters have more emotional impact on the character, since they’re thwarting the character’s goal. More emotional impact usually means more reader engagement in the story.

Box the Character in Toward the Climax: Dwight Swain puts it very well in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer: Essentially, that you slowly box the hero in, little by little, and then in the climax, you give the hero a choice between either two very bad choices or two very good choices (not both at once).

Forcing the hero to this type of choice heightens the emotional impact again (which means more reader engagement in the story) and makes for a more exciting climax. It also brings into play the hero’s morality, forcing him to make a moral choice. More emotion! More reader engagement!

Realistic Resolution: Be wary of a nice ending that ties everything up in five pages. Your reader has invested time in reading the book—therefore, she wants you to take the time to tie things up satisfactorily.

In my opinion, the above five things are what form the “framework” of a good story. If you have these, your pacing will usually naturally fall into place without problems (and without added stress on the writer!).

I hope that helps any of you writers out there. Thanks for having me here, Cheryl!

Camy’s new book is out now!

Camy Tang


The Grant family’s exclusive Sonoma spa is a place for rest and relaxation—not murder! Then Naomi Grant finds her client Jessica Ortiz bleeding to death in her massage room, and everything falls apart. The salon’s reputation is at stake...and so is Naomi’s freedom when she discovers that she is one of the main suspects! Her only solace is found with the other suspect—Dr. Devon Knightley, the victim’s ex-husband. But Devon is hiding secrets of his own. When they come to light, where can Naomi turn...and whom can she trust?

About Camy:

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. She used to be a biologist, but now she is a staff worker for her church youth group and leads a worship team for Sunday service. She also runs the Story Sensei fiction critique service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every week, and she ponders frivolous things like dumb dogs (namely, hers), coffee-geek husbands (no resemblance to her own...), the writing journey, Asiana, and anything else that comes to mind. Visit her website at http://www.camytang.com/ for a huge website contest going on right now, giving away fourteen boxes of books and 24 copies of her latest release, DEADLY INTENT.


Anonymous said...

Hey, great post, Camy. I'm in a crit group and we're going through Swain's stuff. Really good. Challenging too!

Thanks. Have a great day.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Excellent post, Camster!

Camy Tang said...

Thanks, Lynn!

Thanks for having me here, Cheryl!

PatriciaW said...

Good summary regarding story structure that will help me out of the writing corner I find myself in at the moment.

Camy Tang said...

I feel your pain, Patricia! I hope you get out of your corner!

Project Journal said...

I really liked this post too, Camy! You must be very busy with this blog tour...I wonder where else you're going! Lol!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Patricia and Hannah, thanks for stopping by!



Project Journal said...

Thanks for having Camy post Cheryl! : )