Storytelling Essentials: Story Structure

Storytelling Essentials: Story Structure – Act 1

Like it or not, all good stories have an underlying structure that has been purposely put in place to keep you involved throughout the course of the tale. In screenplays, structure is so straightforward and strictly adhered to that certain beats are expected to take place on specific pages. In novels, especially those of the literary variety, structure is much more negotiable, and one can get away with adhering to it loosely (not if you want to be a best-selling author, however). So, what is this big-bad-structure-thing that you fear will suck all of your creative juices dry?

Relax, it’s nearly the foundation to the incredible skyscraper you’re about to erect. Let me point out the basic elements of the first act. From here on out, you would be wise to look for these parts in every movie you watch or book you read. Trust me – you will start to notice them, and become a better writer for doing so.

Act 1 –

This is where we get to know the protagonist. What does she want? What are her goals? Give the reader a reason to empathize with her. The sooner the reader can connect to your protagonist on an emotional level, the better.

Inciting Incident – Theoretically, this should occur as early as page 0. Many argue it should come later. In a 120 page screenplay, anywhere between pg. 8 – 15 is appropriate. The inciting incident changes everything for your protagonist – it gives them a reason to take up a new quest. Whether it be the death of a parent (like in my novel, A New Kingdom), the attack of a terrorist, or the sudden outbreak of Malaria, the inciting incident makes the protagonist’s former way of living impossible. Their leisurely life has been taken from them – and the only way they can ever to return to it is to take up a new quest.

1st plot point – This marks the end of the 1st act and the beginning of the second. In screenplays, it typically falls between pg. 25 – 30. It is the decision of your protagonist to take up their quest. They know what they want, and they’ve decided to go after it, even if they haven’t figured out how to succeed yet. The antagonist, or ‘the force that stands against the desires of your protagonist’, is known at this point.

I will introduce you to the remaining acts in other posts, and hopefully get more in depth with any concepts that may seem alien to you. Act one should take up the first quarter of your story, in case you were wondering.

 If you want to learn more about story structure, I highly recommend Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. I know it had a huge impact on my approach to writing, and I could have never gotten my current position as a script analyst without first understanding the concepts laid out in that book. Kevin Brown, my good writing friend whose blog can be found at creative mysteries.net, also agrees that it was a tremendous influence and help to him.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Author of A New Kingdom

The Writers’ Dream

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Back is hurting, ass is sweaty, tired of hunching, always pressing,

Got to get back on my feet got to get those words to seep –

Through my fingers, from my pen, to the desktop, repeat again.

How many drafts does one book take, how much perfection do readers crave?

Doesn’t matter, I don’t care, I know one day it will get there.

Perseverance? That is shit. Try to spend one year like this.

Learn to get up when you’re damper, know each word from front to backwards.

See description and how it lies, find out what meets readers’ eyes.

For it is not the talk of bees, nor the words that make you pleased.

What readers want is not so much, just to read and feel a rush.

To stimulate the modern mind, without much pictures in faster times,

To do the work of talking grand is indeed one dumb-ass of a plan.

They did not come here just to see the mind of yours and learn you’re deep.

They came instead to just relax, to grab a book and eat a snack.

To keep them going for one night, to let them think your book reads right.

Get them thinking it’s a treat, get them wondering why ‘Jack leaps’.

Raise a question, submit the answer, in the middle fill with banter.

Do this once and you’ll achieve, fulfillment of the writers’ dream.

– Thomas M. Watt

Writers Digest Writers Conference

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I went to a writers conference this weekend. At the conference, there is a thing called a ‘Pitch Slam.’ Now, if you’ve never done this, and you are a writer, I highly advise you to fork up the money and go to a writers conference. The pitch slam alone is worth it.

Why?

Because it gives you a chance to meet face-to-face with an agent. You will pitch your novel, and they will either request an email from you, or insist you please leave their presence immediately. The benefit is you get to find out where your novel stands, and build up a new-skin for enduring the business end of writing. 

If every agent rejects your manuscript, it is a good thing. Either learn how to pitch better, or set the piece of garbage down, go outside, and try to pretend like you are a normal human being who doesn’t know what this drug called ‘writing’ is all about. Time saver. 

Now, as for the writers conference in general, it was one of the coolest experiences of my lifetime. There are lectures all weekend covering all the facets of writing. From those who wish to learn more about the craft, to those which wish to learn more about business. 

And I pride myself to a point of bone-headed-arrogance on never bothering with ‘tricks of the craft’, but even I learned something which will be pivotal to my story, in relation to suspense and captivation. Here’s a hint – When your character is motivated to succeed in his quest by a good heart, it isn’t quite as exhilarating as the knowledge that he will certainly be murdered if he fails.

Furthermore, besides the lectures and the pitch-slam, there is the collection of writers. Writers ranging from your typical, “Aw hell, I’ll write a book shit. What’s it but a few purty words put to-gather?” To my new friend Joe, who is spending this entire week pitching screen plays to Hollywood execs. And yes, he’s already received some serious investments for his online show, “Precipice.” You can check it out at http://www.precipicetheseries.com 

Then, lastly, there is the canoodling. You get to talking with these people. The writers, the speakers, the agents, the teachers, the published authors. On Saturday, we all stood around and gingerly sipped alcoholic beverages with one another.

Word of advice from McWatty9 – If you ever want to make a great connection with someone, get drunk with them and talk about B.S. the whole night. Trust me, you will make a far greater impression then pitching your book to someone who just finished listening to book pitches for twelve hours.

So, in summary, if you are truly serious about getting published, go to one of these events. It is far easier to ‘make a name for yourself’ with a handshake and an introduction then it is to write so many published articles your name is ingrained in every reader’s memory. 

Thanks to Writers Digest for hosting a great event.

– Thomas M. Watt