SPOILER ALERT! This post contains examples of story structure elements from the novel The Hunger Games (Book 1), by Suzanne Collins. If you’re one of the twelve people on the planet that hasn’t either read the book or seen the movie, this post might potentially spoil some surprises for you.
In Self-editing Your Novel, Part 1, we talked about how our stubborn brains insist on taking their own sweet time, and why you need to put your manuscript on the back burner for a while. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to review your novel’s structure. The way to do that is with outlining. Whether you outline from the start or write by the seat of your pants, when your novel is finished, it should be outlineable.
Disclosure: I’m a copy editor, not a structural editor. Outlining the story is usually someone else’s job. But this post covers the basics, which is a place to start if you’re a newbie, and a place to refocus if you’re not.
Create an outline of your novel, using the chart below as a guideline. Write a short description of Act I, Act II, and Act III, and of each major plot point. Be sure to write how each ends, because that will help you see the flow better, and help you know whether or not you need to rearrange some scenes. This outline will come into play again and again.
Next, add descriptions of chapters (and scenes within chapters). List the scene’s characters in your descriptions, and jot down the word count where each major plot point begins, so you know if your pacing is about right.
Sample NO: CHAPTER 13: PP2: Katniss runs from fire and hides in a tree.
Sample YES: CHAPTER 13: PP2 (pg. 190) Katniss escapes and soaks her burns. She hears Peeta and five Careers, and climbs a tree. Cato and Glimmer both try to get to her, then decide to wait. As night falls, Katniss notices Rue in the next tree. Rue is pointing to something.
We’ll get back to the reason that you’ll want to name each character as you outine, but for right now, before you start your outline, read the explanations and examples after the chart.
MAIN STORY STRUCTURE (PLOT)
ACTS AND PLOT POINTS
A novel tells a story in (usually) three Acts, or three main parts, with three major plot points. A plot point is an event that changes the way your protagonist understands things to be, and forces the story to go in another direction. You’ll have many twists and turns throughout your novel, but there should be three major plot points that give structure to the story.
ACT I SETS UP THE STORY. Act I typically spans the first 25% of the book. It describes the setting, sets the emotional tone (with word choice, not with telling), introduces the main character(s), and establishes the “everyday normal” before the action starts.
- The Hunger Games, for example, opens with Katniss talking about providing for her mother and little sister Primrose in “District Twelve: the place you can starve to death in safety,” since the death of her father in a mining accident. It is the day of reaping and Prim is afraid, sleeping in bed with their mother. But Katniss skillfully hunts food, which is both illegal and part of her day-to-day routine. In Act 1, we learn who Katniss is, where she is, and what motivates her.
PLOT POINT #1: THE INCITING INCIDENT comes at the end of Act I. The inciting incident is an event that slaps your protagonist out of her everyday normal, and spurs her to react. The incident can cause your protagonist to feel emotion, but the incident is not that feeling.
- In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident comes when Prim is chosen as tribute. That single event jolts Katniss to volunteer to take her sister’s place, and sets the story in motion. Katniss’s goal remains the same as her everyday normal: to take care of her family.
ACT II PRESENTS OBSTACLES. Act II spans from around the 25% mark to the 75% mark.
The first half of Act II is reactionary. Act II starts with the protagonist reacting to events set in motion by the inciting incident. Obstacles (events, actions) interfere with the character’s goal. Each obstacle is worse than the last.
- In the first half of Act II in The Hunger Games, Katniss reacts to leaving by saying goodbyes, reacts to a drunken mentor by convincing him to do his job, reacts to the publicity by putting on a show. As events intensify, she reacts to actions in the arena by running, hiding, searching for resources. Throughout all this, Katniss still has the goal of getting home to take care of her family.
PLOT POINT #2: THE GAME CHANGER comes in the middle of Act II, smack in the center of the novel. The Game Changer is an event that changes everything, including how the protagonist thinks and acts. Up to this point, the protagonist has been reacting to events set in motion by the inciting incident. From Plot Point #2 on, the protagonist makes deliberate choices to obtain her goals, and those choices will directly cause setbacks (disasters) that increase in magnitude as the story progresses.
- In the second half of Act II in The Hunger Games, Katniss connects with Rue. Though forced by circumstance, Katniss deliberately sets the deadly tracker jackers on the Careers, which causes her to get stung herself. She runs, but then chooses to return to a dead body to collect bow and arrows, and that choice results in Peeta getting badly wounded. After finding Rue again, they form an alliance and a friendship, and Katniss realizes that the leadership of Panem makes life hard for every district. Katniss plans deliberate action: In order to raid the Cornucopia, she temporarily separates from Rue, and that choice leads to Rue’s death.
ACT III STARTS WITH PLOT POINT #3, AND CONTINUES WITH FALLING ACTION TOWARD THE CONCLUSION. This starts at the 75% mark of your novel.
PLOT POINT #3: THE DARKEST HOUR is the event that brings your protagonist to her darkest and most hopeless moment. But remember, it’s not an emotion. The plot point is always an event. All of the protagonist’s actions to this point seem to have made the situation worse. Now this final event causes yet another change of mind and action.
- In The Hunger Games, after Katniss and Peeta manage to outlive the others, the Capitol announces that they changed the rules. Only one can survive. This is the darkest hour. Katniss gambles on a show of unity, sharing the poisonous berries in defiance during the live broadcast. The Capitol responds by stopping them, allowing them both to live.
The CONCLUSION wraps it all up by demonstrating how these events have changed your character(s). With a nod to the beginning, show your protagonist living in her “new normal.”
- After the Capitol decides to let them live, Katniss plays up the love story ruse to stay in good with public opinion. At the conclusion of The Hunger Games, Katniss is not just breaking the law by hunting for her own family’s survival. She’s taken on responsibility for all the citizens of Panem in defiance of the Capitol.
If you’re wondering about naming those characters in your summary, I haven’t forgotten. It’s coming soon.
COMMENT FOR A CHANCE TO WIN FREE COPY EDITING
As my holiday gift to my readers, if you comment during the month of December 2015, I will add your name to a drawing. If you comment and also link back to my blog, I’ll put your name in twice. After December, I’ll pick a commenter at random. That commenter wins one free copy editing by me, up to 65,000 words ($5 per 1000 words after that). If you can’t use the editing, you can gift it to someone else (one person), but it has to be scheduled before March 2016 (can be scheduled for a future date) or the offer expires.
UPDATE: This contest is closed. Winner has been notified.