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Know your story structure! (Photo by Phoxie Photo)

Know your story structure! (Photo by Phoxie Photo)

Last summer I started a Facebook Group for all my writer friends, because I saw National Novel Writing Month fast approaching, and I knew I was going to be doing a lot of cheerleading, and I really only wanted to say any given thing one time. In a lot of ways, it was a precursor to this blog.

Now I find myself waist-deep in a manuscript markup, with an entry in my posting schedule labeled, “Structure of a Story,” and it suddenly occurs to me, “I’ve said this before!” So I popped over to Facebook and dug it up. If you’re in Mightier than the Sword, you’ve already heard all this from me before. Then again, this is some of the most important information for a storyteller to get figured out, so it might be worth reading over again.

Anyway, at some point, we’ve got to move the discussion from, “How do you make a really great sentence?” to “How do you make a really great story?” There’s lots of milestones along that path — descriptions of setting, descriptions of events, compelling dialogs, scenes, chapters, acts, it goes on and on. But before you can really make much progress on any of those intermediate things, you’ve got to understand your ultimate goal — you have to understand exactly what a story is.

I’ve consistently found that the most popular definition of “story” for writers is “a description of events with a beginning, middle, and end.” Most new writers get irritated at that for being too simplistic a description, but that set of elements maps directly to something called the Conflict Resolution Cycle.

The Conflict Resolution Cycle

A story generally follows a single main character, known as the protagonist. (A story dedicated evenly to a large group of characters is called an “ensemble piece,” and the group is generally treated as a single protagonist. The Conflict Resolution Cycle is generally a lot clearer when you have a single protagonist, so we will approach it from that perspective for this discussion.)

In short, the Conflict Resolution Cycle is this:

  1. A Big Event disrupts the protagonist’s life, creating Conflict
  2. The protagonist seeks to get rid of the Conflict to restore the previous normalcy to his life, but doing so requires that he overcome Obstacles along the way.
  3. Eventually, in a scene called the Climax, the character overcomes the final obstacle which allows him to achieve Resolution so that his life can be comfortable once again (at least in the sense that the story’s Conflict is resolved).

Step one of the cycle contains two components. The first is a Big Event that introduces the story’s Conflict. The second is the Conflict itself, which persists throughout the story. Conflict might be self-doubt, or depression, or a crippling injury — these things impact the character’s life and drive his actions, but they aren’t really story-worthy on their own. For a story, you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. To achieve that, you’re looking for the Big Event.

The Big Event

Big Events aren’t hard to come up with. Maybe he proposes, or she finds out she’s pregnant. Maybe he gets fired, or she finally gets that promotion she’s looking for. Maybe alien warships appear over his townhouse, or the arcane magics her tribe has used for eons suddenly, one day, stop working.

Murder mysteries make it easy, because the Big Event is someone dying, which disrupts the life of the detective until he can figure out whodunnit. That’s your whole Conflict Resolution Cycle in a short, easy formula. Someone dies, detective overcomes obstacles to figure out who did it, and once he knows (and justice is done), his life returns to the normal it was before the mystery.

Looking back over that list of possible Big Events, it bears saying that it doesn’t matter whether the Big Event is good or bad – only that it disrupts the protagonist’s life. A wanted marriage proposal can do just as much to disrupt someone’s life as a nasty breakup. Both start with a big event, introduce change (conflict) that drives the character’s behavior, and is eventually resolved (one way or another) which allows a return to normalcy.

This is the heart of your story. A lot of writers want to lay a clear foundation, and show what a character’s life was like before the Big Event. It doesn’t hurt anything for you to write that down, because it helps you, as the writer, understand the character you’re inflicting these things on. Some of that material may even come into play in flashbacks or dialogue, but the actual story starts with the Big Event. As long as you’re still learning, just plan to have the Big Event happen somewhere in the first three pages. If you don’t get to it by then, consider your first page prewriting and take it out of your story. Keep doing that until you hit the Big Event within three pages. Page one is better. First sentence is best.

Overcoming Obstacles

The popular refrain “get in late, get out early” is built upon the Conflict Resolution Cycle. Start the story with the Big Event, and end it as soon after the Climax as possible. There’s your beginning and end, and the middle is everything that happens in between. This middle portion is called “Overcoming Obstacles,” and it allows the character a chance to impact his world, even as he is being impacted by it.

In a Murder Mystery, the first obstacle is a lack of information. Someone’s dead, and the protagonist has no idea who’s responsible. That’s an obstacle, and the character responds by gathering information.

Or perhaps you want to add some spice to your genre novel so the protagonist is retired, and the first obstacle isn’t his ignorance but his reluctance to get involved at all. He has to get past that, though, before he can restore his life to normal.

It is important, as a writer, to present obstacles in a believable way. If the retired detective can just refuse to take the case, and his life goes back to normal, that’s the most reasonable path for him to take to complete the Conflict Resolution Cycle. Obviously, it makes for a pretty poor Murder Mystery, so if you want your character to go through the story you have to present both the Conflict and the Obstacles in ways that force the character to engage. Make the victim a close family member of the detective, or give him an obsessive personality that forces him to take the case.

Of course, these principles apply no matter what genre you’re writing in. Always keep in mind that your protagonist’s goal isn’t to have an interesting story, it’s to return his life to normal. It’s your job, as the writer, to set up an environment and a cast of characters that will become an interesting story, even as they pursue normalcy. Most of that interesting stuff happens in the middle.

In a way, every obstacle is a mini-story. The obstacle itself interrupts the protagonist’s pursuit of Resolution, so it acts like a Big Event. He overcomes the obstacle by finding ways to deal with it, and once he does, he’s able to go on with his quest. These mini-stories are usually presented in the form of scenes – either one cycle per scene, or half of a cycle per scene, such that the protagonist encounters and explores a new obstacle in one scene, and then finds a way to overcome it in the next. Usually, the solution of one obstacle becomes the root of the next obstacle.

So the detective might gather enough clues to figure out who his most likely suspect is, but that suspect is also his boss. He’s overcome one obstacle – ignorance – and run square into a new one – the political impossibility of accusing his own boss. When he tries to overcome that obstacle by finding proof, he discovers his boss couldn’t have done it – resolving that conflict – but finds out that someone even more important did do it – a new conflict.

That’s the cycle, and it keeps spinning along like that through your story until your protagonist can overcome some final obstacle that lets him freely pursue his resolution.

Resolution, of course, is another matter altogether. I’ve more than used up my word count, so I’ll save that discussion for next week. In the meantime, focus on finding the story within your plot, and recognizing the highs and lows as your protagonist moves along.

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