Making Sense of Story Structure

In my teaching on fiction writing, I often talk about the importance of disasters. But there’s an essential ambiguity that needs to be explained. We’ll talk about that today.

Philomena posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Can you explain how the concept of the ‘three disasters plus an ending’ for the overall structure of a novel (which you refer to in the snowflake method) ties in with the ‘goal, conflict, disaster’ structure of each individual scene.

Randy sez: The structure of a story has different levels. At the top level, a story can be summarized in a single sentence that tells the premise of the story. At the next level of detail, the three act structure, you typically have a beginning, middle, and end, tied together with three disasters.

The first disaster glues the beginning and middle together. The second disaster serves to add tension to the story right at the midpoint of the middle. The third disaster glues the middle to the ending.

So I often say that a story is “three disasters plus an ending,” although a story is really a whole lot more than that. (See Chapters 8 and 13 of my book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, to get all the details on the high-level story structure.)

The next level of story structure is the synopsis (a several-page document that sketches out your story in paragraphs that each summarize several scenes).

The next level of story structure is the scene list, which spells out what happens in each scene.

The next level of story structure is the scene itself, and this is the fundamental unit of story. By that, I mean that any scene can stand alone as an independent unit and it will make sense to a reader who comes to it without any knowledge of the rest of the story. (It might not make complete sense, since the reader may be missing lots of information, but the scene has a beginning, middle, and end of its own that function as a “story within a story.”)

Most scenes are what I call “proactive scenes” in which the focal character of the scene begins with some sort of goal in mind. As the scene progresses, conflict arises — our hero can’t get what he wants. This continues for most of the scene. At the end of the scene, there’s a setback. (I prefer to call it “setback” these days instead of “disaster” because I don’t want to confuse the issue. The setback at the end of a scene can be minor or it can be major.

For most scenes, the setback at the end will be some minor thing. But once in a while, when the scene is pivotal to the story, the setback may be a major disaster. In fact, it may be one of the “three disasters” that we talked about earlier.

That’s how the setbacks and disasters are related. A disaster in the large-scale structure of the story is always a setback in one of the scenes. But most of the setbacks in the scenes are not disasters for the large-scale structure of the story.

By the way, if you’re at all interested in story structure, you really ought to check out the detailed roadmap for stories that Larry Brooks spells out on his blog at StoryFix.com. I listened to Larry speak about this at a recent conference, and his presentation was excellent. He’s got a book coming out in February that is devoted to story structure. I’m looking forward to getting it when it comes out.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Blog of the day: Check out agent Rachelle Gardner’s discussion today on revision letters. Rachelle recently had Camille Eide, (one of my Loyal Blog Readers and a member of my monthly critique group) as a guest blogger to talk about how Camille survived Rachelle’s revision letter. A revision letter is always traumatic. (If it isn’t, then it really doesn’t do you much good.) Today, Rachelle talks about why a revision letter is necessary to a writer. Normally, you get a revision letter from your editor as part of the process of editing your book. When you’re lucky enough to have an agent who writes you a revision letter, you have a golden opportunity to improve your craft before your editor does. Which makes it that much more likely that someday you’ll actually sell the book and HAVE an editor.

3 Comments

  1. Sheila Deeth September 8, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    I just went to storyfix. Thanks for the recommend.

  2. Judith Robl September 9, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    Randy,

    Good post, as usual. Thanks for the links. You can never have too many good sources of accurate information.

  3. Kim Miller September 9, 2010 at 5:24 am #

    ‘Three disasters and an ending.’ That is a concept I can relate to. I had the same reaction when you once said, ‘Throw in an exploding helicopter.’ Thanks for both.

    And thanks for the links to Larry Brooks and Rachelle Gardner.

    Rachelle’s blog on revision letters reminded me of how pleased I was to get the in-house editor’s response to my manuscript. She understood the story, saw the problems and let me know where it needed correction, and she recognised the loose bits that needed pruning. I followed 95% of her recommendations (some of her comments related to her lack of knowledge of motorbikes etc).

    When I had completed the revision I printed out the MS and read it in one sitting. It was like the story had been teflon coated, it was so smooth and easy to read. I’ve had several teenagers tell me how easy it was to read – that is the result of a good editor and a disciplined following of her advice.

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