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How to Structure Your Novel: Story Arc and Character Arc

If you’ve read my Pikes Peak blog this month and have come over from that site to continue our discussion of story, then welcome. Here we will get a little more in depth about the issues of story. Unfortunately, people have built entire university classes, how-to books, as well as initiating blood feuds on the proper way to right a book.

First of all, unless your name is George RR Martin, JK Rawlings, or Stephen King, you cannot sit on your high throne telling people how to write books. Please understand this is NOT what I’m doing. I just want to share some insights that I made while writing my first and second unpublished novels.

 

The Story Arc: Three ACT Structure

I have come to believe that the three act structure (or the five act, if you’re doing the Freytag model,) is not only logical, its biological. Our human brains just don’t want to process a story that doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why the vast majority of stories, plays and films follow it. But let’s dig deeper.

Within the three act structure are some hurdles your character must face, or else the story falls flat. Each act has these beats and your character must hit them in order to move the story along.

(Remember, I use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat organization system, so grab a copy if you want more details.)

 

The Catalyst

This is that moment when the protagonists world changes. She becomes aware of an issue that will push her out of her comfort zone. For Catniss Everdeen, it was the lottery where her sister was chosen. For Luke Skywalker, it was finding the 3d video of princess Leia. The hero or heroine hasn’t decided to go at this point. All that has happened is they are presented with a glimpse into another world.

 

The Call to Adventure, the Debate and its Acceptance.

At some point a wise old person shows up, hints at what may happen next, and gives the call to adventure. Your protagonist isn’t really sure they want to go. They might have loved ones to take care of, or they’re scared of change. Maybe they lack self-confidence and just need to believe in themselves. Regardless of the situation, they need to think about the offer.

Eventually, they accept. (We wouldn’t have a story if they didn’t.) Whether they boldly go, or are timid, or even petrified, the protagonist must choose on their own.

I saw Suicide Squad in theatres, like a lot of people. While it was a fun romp, the story had many flaws. There’s a scene, just about at the end of Act 1 where the characters have micro bombs implanted in their necks to make them compliant.

While I know this is a trope from the comic book, it kills a lot of the story. 1.) These villains aren’t redeemable because they’re forced. 2.) There’s little tension among the team because at no point in time will anyone try to run away after Slipknot. 3.) When their second opportunity for redemption comes around after Col. Flag destroys the remote controlling the bomb, we know its hallow because you can make a pretty good guess that the real bad guy, Amanda Waller, has her own version of that box. Your protagonist has to choose on their own, to be the hero.

 

The Mid-Point

This is where all the marbles are. This is the point where your hero’s true character begins to show. The plot directed threat is either minimized or non-existent at this phase. Any failure is a personal failure and not directly the fault of the antagonist. Any victory is stale and leaves the tastes of ashes in her mouth.

It’s at the midpoint that Roy Hobbs, the hero in Bernard Malamud’s debut novel, The Natural, is riding high on success and fame. He’s even dating the team’s owner’s niece. But it all goes bad. The fame and celebrity turns sour as the team’s winning streak ends.

The midpoint is also where we foreshadow all the bad stuff that’s going to happen to our protagonist, very shortly. She thinks she’s figure it out. That she’s conquered her fears, her enemies and her obstacles. Heh, heh, heh! Boy is SHE IN FOR A SURPRISE!!!!!

Author James Scott Bell wrote a lovely little help-me guide called Write your Novel from the Middle. In it, he says the following:

                                          At this point in the story the character looks at himself. He takes

                                          stock of where he is in the conflict (and) . . . has either of two

                                          basic thoughts. In a character driven story, he looks at himself

                                          and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming?

                                          If he continues the fight of Act II, how will he be different? What

                                          will he have to do to overcome his inner challenges?

                                         The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. Its where

                                         the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him.

                                         At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way

                                         to go on and not face certain death. That death can be physical,

                                         professional, or psychological.

                                                                (Bell, p. 22-23)

 

Most great stories have powerful midpoints where the character is facing an internal challenge. Once the character has figured out why she is really struggling against and fighting for, then we can go back to the external challenge.

 

The Dark Night of the Soul

The Dark Night of the Soul mirrors the midpoint in many ways. But just because it is a reflection of the inner turmoil, doesn’t mean it has to have the same structure. The midpoint, as I wrote on the Pikes Peak Blog, can either be a false victory or a false defeat. Why? Because the space between the midpoint and the Dark Night of the Soul should be real defeat of the protagonist.

Oh, this is also the place where mentors go to die, or at least disappear from the story. Gandalf, Obi Wan, Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games, all leave right after the bad guys strike back.

With a solid loss in their column, their mentor dead or missing, the protagonist must figure out a new way to do things. She has to work it out on their own and come up with a how and a why.

Think of the Dark Night of the Soul as a mirror image of the Catalyst and Debate from Act 1.

Again there world has changed, again they have a choice to continue on or turn back. (or even die.) The must choose.

Like Act 1, Act 2 end only when the character chooses on their own to continue the struggle. Our Heroine will answer this second call to adventure with an affirmative.

 

ACT 3

WE’RE NOT DONE YET!!!!

Now our heroine has to find allies, create a new plan, attack the problem/villain, and win the day! It’s all downhill from here! This is the fun part of the story. Things are coming together. The heroine has learned her lesson and has conquered her internal problems so she can face the external.

This is where the reader gets his payoff for sticking with your story. This is where the satisfying ending comes in! This is where the heroine achieves victory – or not.

Your protagonist could still lose. Tragedies can be fun, too. Three of my favorite movies are Rocky, Glory & the Empire Strikes Back. The protagonists don’t win in any of those films. The story is better for the loss.

Or, how about Gone with the Wind. Scarlet loses the man she loves at the end of that book. (Movie, too.) Yet we know she is stronger for it. We also know she has clarity in her life – for once she is clear that Ashley is not for her.

Or, you could give a bittersweet ending.

Roy Hobbs never plays baseball again at the end of The Natural. While we are saddened for him, we know he is content because he has won Iris and is now a family man.

Just remember, the good guys don’t always have to win.

 

Denouement

NOW I get to impress you with my French! The Denouement is the final scene of the story, after the climax and the resolution of the external struggle, or plot. The word comes from the French word denouer, meaning to untie. It is in the final scene were the tension of the story is resolved. The loose ends are gathered. The questions answered – for good or for ill.

I have read a lot of authors who seem to mail this ending in. The Climax seems to be the real ending to a lot of stories, so this post climax scene sometimes feels awkward to me.

If you’re working on your first story, I challenge you to make this scene memorable. As memorable as the climax where the bad guys get what’s coming to them! Give the reader some peace of mind that the protagonist is finally happy & at peace.

(Unless you want a sequel.)

 

Character Arc

This entire blog post has been about the story arc. The ups and downs of your character. But I hope you noticed something. Every part of the story arc we’ve gone over today, The Catalyst, the Call to Adventure and its acceptance, the Mid-point, the Dark Night of the Soul, the move into Act 3, and the Denouement, can all be used as frameworks for your character arc.

See, a character arc is a set of scenes in your novel. They are a story within your story about how your protagonist grows as a human being. They should have weaknesses that the story exposes. Later on in your story, the bad guys or problems should force the heroine to improve herself or get lost. The six scenes I’ve mentioned earlier perfect opportunities sketch out that character arc.

 

Our Denouement,

Whew, we did a lot today! Before I go, I would encourage you to think about the structure of your story. Now, if you’re a pantser and not a plotter like me, it doesn’t mean you can’t use what I’ve written about in both blogs. As a seat-of-your-pants writer, your plot will be more organic, than structured and that’s OK. Just keep in mind the three act structure as you write your kick ass novel.

I do want to leave you with my bibliography of books I use to organize and write. Here they are:

 

Author Book
Blake Snyder Save the Cat
Blake Snyder Save the Cat goes to the Movies
Blake Snyder Save the Cat Strikes Back
James Scott Bell Write Your Novel from the Middle
Stant Litore Write Characters your Readers won’t Forget

 

 

BONUS BOOK!

Leigh Michaels     On Writing Romance   This book taught me the structure of Romance stories. It was clear and concise with lots of examples. Good stuff!

 

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