If you ask K.M. Weiland, it has a lot to do with the story’s structure.
K.M. is an award-winning blogger and author of Amazon bestsellers, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.
I discovered K.M. after reading her Civil War short story, “One More Ride in the Rain,” set in the waning days of the Civil War about four Confederate cavalrymen taking refuge in a widow’s shack. I’ve since bought her book on story structure, finding it an easy read and valuable resource for understanding and avoiding the pitfalls of story structure.
I asked K.M. what prompted her to tackle this kind of self-help book for authors: “It revolutionized my own writing process. It excites me too much not to share it,” she says.
I’m looking forward to her next book from Writer’s Digest Books, Jane Eyre: The Classic Annotated for Readers and Writers, the first in a series with annotations geared specifically toward writers.
Below, she opens up about story structure, including three of the most common pitfalls, and an example of story structure done right.
Proper structure is vital in creating powerful and memorable fiction. Story structure is instinctual to most people. It’s embedded deep in the human psyche. It’s certainly not an arbitrary set of guidelines, and it’s also not something exclusive to our era. We find the classic three-act structure across centuries and continents.
That being so, we have to ask ourselves, Why? The answer, of course, is that structure creates stories that not only balance the rise and fall of action, but also time the important turning points, so that they have the best chance of impacting and resonating with readers.
What writer doesn’t want to do that? A conscious understanding of structure allows us to understanding the theory behind story, which then allows us to discover why certain stories work and others don’t—and how to make sure our stories land in the former group.
Q. Q. What are key pitfalls of story structure—and what can writers do to avoid/correct those pitfalls?
a. Starting too late/too early.
Beginnings are always going to be one of the toughest areas in fiction, simply because there is so much we have to get right in them. One of the most important things we have to get right is the timing. Beginnings need to begin as close to the action as possible in order to cut any potentially boring or extraneous info. But they also have to begin early enough to give readers time to get to know the characters before the action really heats up.
b. Mistaking the inciting event for the key event, or vice versa.
Most writers are familiar with the “inciting event” as being the moment that kicks off the story. But we don’t hear as much about the “key event,” and this can end up creating a lot of confusion. The inciting event starts the story’s action (e.g., war is declared), but the key event is what involves the protagonist in that action (e.g., he joins the Army). Up until the key event, he could conceivably continue his daily life, unaffected, without ever having to enter the melee of the story.
c. Skipping the Midpoint.
Writers often struggle with the “sagging middle” of their stories. More often than not, this is the result of an MIA or weak Midpoint. The Midpoint, which (surprise!) occurs smack in the middle of story is a dramatic event—sometimes even more dramatic than the First Major Plot Point at the 25% mark. The Midpoint marks an end to the characters’ reaction phase in the first half of the book and spurs him to start taking control and taking action against the antagonistic force. As long as your Midpoint is present and accounted for, you’re not likely to struggle with a saggy Second Act.
Q. Q. What is the most memorable story you’ve ever encountered that really got structure right?
If you enjoy a book or movie, you can pretty much bet it was properly structured. In fact, it’s difficult to find any improperly structured stories that have made it as far as Hollywood or traditional publishing. Movies are particularly great for studying structure, since we can almost always time the plot points down to the minute.
One of my favorite examples is George Lucas’s original Star Wars:
1. First Act: In which characters, settings and stakes are introduced to the reader (e.g., in Star Wars: A New Hope, viewers meet the droids, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Luke, and Obi-Wan and learn what is at stake for the characters on a personal level and the galaxy as a whole).
2. First Major Plot Point: In which the First Act ends with a definitive event that forces the character to react (the murders of Luke’s aunt and uncle lead Luke to his decision to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan)
3. First Half of the Second Act: In which the character reacts to his new plight and tries to regain his bearings (Obi-Wan hires a ship to Alderaan, and Luke starts learning about the Force).
4. Second Major Plot Point or Midpoint: In which another definitive event occurs, this time forcing the character out of his period of reactions and into action (the Death Star captures the Millennium Falcon).
5. Second Half of the Second Act: In which the characters begin to come into their own power and take definitive action against the antagonistic force (Obi-Wan goes off on his own to shut down the tractor beam, while Luke, Han, and Chewie decide to rescue Princess Leia).
6. Third Major Plot Point: In which the character’s actions seemingly lead him to a place of defeat (Obi-Wan dies and the Empire places a tracking beacon aboard the escaping Falcon).
7. Third Act: In which the character must rally for a final assault against the antagonistic force (Luke and the Rebels use R2-D2’s schematics of the Death Star to plan a last-ditch assault).
8. Climax: In which the conflict between protagonist and antagonistic force reaches a deciding moment (Luke blows up the Death Star).
9. Resolution: In which the loose ends are tied up, and the characters react to the events of the climax (Princess Leia passes out medals).