Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, understanding and applying story structure is the foundation of any successful book.
Once you understand story structure and apply it, you’ll write a story that works every single time.
The Three-Act Story Structure
A story is made up of three acts. You have the first act, which comprises the first 25% of the novel, the second act, which comprises the next 50% of the novel (broken into two parts), and the third act, which comprises the final 25% of the novel.
The first act takes place during the first 25% of your book and introduces the characters, the setting, and themes. You’ll also find the Inciting Event and First Plot Point in the first act.
The second act comprises the next 50% of your story. It is generally broken up into two parts: reactive and proactive. This is where your character pursues his goal in an attempt to right his world. It’s where he’s faced with obstacles and learns how to be more effective in attaining his goal.
The third act takes place in the final 25% of the book. This is where your character is faced with the ultimate conflict and final resolution.
What is a plot point?
A plot point is an event that directly impacts the story and character development. It basically is an event that closes the door behind a character so they’re forced to move forward in a new direction.
Plot Points Defined:
Inciting Event: This is the event that disrupts your protagonist’s status quo and sets the story in motion.
First Plot Point: This is point of no return for your characters. This is the event where your character reacts to what disrupted his normal world. This is the moment that catapults your character into the first part of Act II, where he’ll be reacting to what just turned his world upside down.
Midpoint/Second Plot Point: This is a major scene that turns things around for the protagonist, so rather than reacting (as he did in the first half Act II), your protagonist is now being proactive, in other words, taking matters into his own hands.
Third Plot Point: This is where things begin to escalate toward the climax. You should be taking your readers on a ride from this point forward!
Climax: This is the moment your readers have been waiting for! This is the moment where your character fights back, where forces collide. This is where we bring the primary conflict to the point of irreversible resolution.
Resolution: Now it’s time to wrap things up, to leave the reader satisfied with a preview of your character moving on with life, however that may look.
Now that we understand the three-act structure and plot points, let’s take a look at the story structure of “Stand by Me.”
Inciting Event (12%): The boys are hanging out in their tree fort on an uneventful summer day when Vern brings them some disturbing news. He overheard his brother and his friends talking about a dead body (a boy their age) in the woods about 30 miles away. After much deliberation, they decide to go in search of the body. Up to this moment, there was no adventure; they were simply a group of young boys hanging out in a tree fort playing cards on a normal summer day. Word of the body and the decision to go in search of it was the beginning of their adventure — the beginning of the story.
First Plot Point (25%): They tell their parents they are going on a camping trip, pack up, and leave town on foot in search of the body.
Midpoint/Second Plot Point (50%): They find a spot to camp for the night. They sit around the campfire and open up to each other (especially Gordie and Chris). This point marks the beginning of the second stretch of their journey.
Third Plot Point (75%): They reach the spot where the body was noted to be. From this point forward we build to the climax.
Climax (88%): The boys have found the body and Ace and his gang show up (Vern’s brother and friends). Ace threatens Chris with a knife when the boys refuse to let Ace and his gang take credit for finding the body. The boys instead make the decision to call in an anonymous tip about the body, realizing nobody should take credit for finding it.
Resolution (98%): Vern, Gordie, Chris, and Teddy return home and slip back into their normal lives. This is where the narrator takes over, recounting their fates and brings the story to a close.
Now that we have a better undertanding of story structure and plot points, it’s time to brainstorm.
I start off by creating a storyboard. First, I list all my major plots points on the board, then add scenes as the story progresses. Sometimes I add the scenes as I write them, sometimes I jot down the idea of the scene and stick it on the board so I don’t forget it by the time sit down to write it.
Here’s a picture of my storyboard for Sanctum (Coming Soon!). (Please ignore my inability to draw a straight line, lol! The great thing about storyboards is that they are for your eyes only, a tool to give you a bird’s eye view of your novel. They don’t have to be fancy, or perfect, or beautiful — just efficient.)
You can see how I’ve broken my story down into acts, and I use sticky notes to mark each scene. You can use a whiteboard with sticky notes like I did, a piece of poster board, a chalk board, an Excel spread sheet, or even a simple piece of paper. Whatever works best for you! I like using the white board or a poster board with sticky notes, because it makes it easier to rearrange scenes as necessary without making a mess!
I hope you found this brief overview helpful!
Jennifer L. Harris is the co-author of The Fearless Writer Guide, The Providence Series, Sincerely, Grace: And Other Short Stories, and The Catalyst Series. She’s also a writing coach and editor at www.jenniferlharris.com as well as the host of The Fearless Writer podcast.
When Jennifer is not writing or working with clients, you can find her hiking, reading, or playing an Evanescence song on the piano.