Friday, January 16, 2015

Story Structure, SiWC Masterclass

Okay, this is the last SiWC post, and this one I didn't actually plan to put up... mainly because I'm having to type this all out by hand now instead of just copying/pasting my notes, and my arm is pretty sore from too much computer work during the past week.

Since I *won* the draw for a free SiWC pass in 2013, I didn't have to pay for the 2014 conference. Because of that, I sprung for a Master Class with the author Eileen Cook (she's also from Vancouver, which is awesome :p), and this was absolutely the high-point of this conference for me.

Since it was a Master Class, I don't feel that it's right to post my notes from this class, but I think it is okay if I post about the story structure component.

One of the greatest disadvantages of being a dyslexic writer is that anything to do with structure/grammar makes absolutely no sense to me.

And I'm not exaggerating here... Ask me to define, or recognize, anything more complicated than a 'noun' and you really will believe I have a learning disability.

My understanding of sentence structure/grammar/etc comes down to three things: repetition (tons and tons of reading), aesthetic instinct (which I believe is also from repetition), and several extremely basic grammar rules that I can understand/recognize... like, when listing three or more things, you put a comma in between them.

Story structure... thinking about it, hearing about it, having it explained to me nearly always puts me into panic-mode... like being parachuted into a non-English-speaking country without money or passport, it absolutely overwhelms me.

Which, I know, most of you probably don't think of that as a big deal... especially those of you who have had your stories critiqued by me. I'm so thoroughly analytical about big-picture stuff that maybe no one has noticed that I almost never talk about the actual structure. And I'm pretty sure it's a major weakness in my own work -> this failure to properly understand structure.

BUT, because I generally like to make things difficult on myself, and because I never want to accept my own limitations, I signed up for this Master Class on editing.

...and finally got the first story-structure explanation that makes sense to me. And you know I like to joke around and say I'm the lowest common denominator... if it makes sense to me, it'll make sense to anyone!

I decided to post this here because I just typed it out for someone else...

So here's the story structure layout that succeeded in hammering basic comprehension into my thick skull:

1) setup -> what the world looks like

a) inciting incident

2) new situation, have to make decision of how to deal with it

b) decision/change of plans (this happens @ the 25% mark)

3) progress -> work towards the goal

c) point of no return ->can no longer go back to the person they were before the decision (this happens at the 50% mark)

4) complications/higher stakes

d) major setback, often death (75% mark)

5) Big push, have to keep going

e) Big climax

6) Aftermath -> what the world looks like now

This is simple. This makes sense to my brain. This I can plug in basic components and *see* the structure of my story.

As an example, I'd use TRoRS, except for the fact it's such a weird story (structural weirdness is only the beginning) that I wouldn't know where to begin.

So how about a story I've talked a little bit about, an older manuscript that a very reputable agent ripped apart and told me to either re-write it as upper YA or MG because, as it currently exists, falls into neither category... (in other words, it's a mess).

Query for this story (so everyone has at least an inkling of what I'm talking about, and this is probably the first 'decent' query I ever wrote):

Where desert wasteland meets raging sea, people die hard, fast and young, but fifteen-year-old Simon doesn’t care about other people, or even about himself. All that matters is protecting his ten-year-old brother, Hector. Everything else can get sunk.

Orphaned, sold, and forced to dredge silt from the local river, Simon is fast to talk his way into a safer job in the red district. Hired by a brothel madam to rehabilitate her daughter, Simon thinks he’s made a good bargain until they meet twelve-year-old Faith. The girl doesn’t talk, she only screams, bites, and lashes out whenever someone gets close. Turning Faith into a normal person seems impossible and the madam has only given them four weeks. If they succeed, they will be fed and clothed until they reach adulthood, but if they fail, they’ll be sold back into indentured slavery where a single slip could mean their death.

Desperate to keep his brother safe, he uses whatever tricks he can to keep Faith’s interest, even when it puts her in danger or he is beaten by the madam’s hand. As the deadline draws closer and Simon’s careful plans begin to fall apart, he must choose where his loyalties lie and which promises he must break.

Told in alternating viewpoints between Simon and Hector, SIMON’S OATH is a 73,000 word YA Fantasy in which two brothers survive by their wits as they struggle, separate, and test the fragile, familial bonds that both tie them together and weigh them down.

And now, this is what that story looks like, following that structure layout:

1) setup -> what the world looks like I started the story with Simon bringing Faith her breakfast, and she basically freaks out. Hector is terrified they'll get sold, Simon reassures him. Simon gets beaten. World building stuff (since it's not based on any specific real world/culture/place/time).

a) inciting incident Simon figures out Faith is always watching the water... and steals a tile with shells in it to (hopefully) catch her interest, and it does. Faith speaks for the first time ever.

2) new situation, have to make decision of how to deal with it Seashells, in the mythology of the world, are cursed, so Simon returns the tile and plots to bring other pretty things... Faith wakes to discover it's missing, chaos ensues. Well, partly due to the shells, more because she's being given a bath. This is the first time Simon/Hector feel sympathy for Faith instead of fear, and they go out looking for new things to show her. The brother's fight and separate.

b) decision/change of plans (this happens @ the 25% mark) Simon convinces Hector they need to get Faith outside, H reluctantly agrees, but still explores on his own and decides they need to go to the mausoleums where (potentially) there are more shells/sea stuff that they can steal.

3) progress -> work towards the goal Simon talks to Faith, working on convincing/manipulating her to go outside, the brothers head to the mausoleums to steal more shells to lure her out... they steal some, but they also find a huge overgrown garden.

c) point of no return ->can no longer go back to the person they were before the decision (this happens at the 50% mark) Because they were stealing shells, Faith freaked out while they were gone and the madam beats Simon when they return home. They essentially 'steal' Faith outside the next day, Simon pushing Faith due to his anger with the madam.

4) complications/higher stakes When they return, the madam hits Hector, and Faith freaks out, but Simon is able to calm her (which is a big deal). The madam gives permission for them to take Faith out again, since she seems a little 'better', but at the same time, kind of writes them off and reiterates the ultimatum. They are running out of time. The brothers take Faith out more, explore the city, Simon manipulating both Faith and Hector. Hector gets resentful/jealous. Faith almost drowns. Hector starts to mistrust his brother. They take Faith to the mausoleums and Hector rebells -> heading into the wild garden that Simon is afraid of.  If I understood more about structure when I wrote this story, I would have more crap/bad things happen here, especially in the garden, as it's essentially their own little paradise. I don't think I raised the stakes enough here.

d) major setback, often death (75% mark) The madam finds the seashells (the ones S&H stole from the mausoleums, which are considered cursed), and in her fury at them bringing shells into her house, she sells Hector to the dredge-line. The brothers are now separated for the first time ever, and Hector could easily slip and die.

5) Big push, have to keep going On their own, Hector starts to find confidence in himself, while Simon starts to fall apart -> he's obsessed with keeping his brother safe, and feels he has failed. Simon's not allowed to take Faith outside anymore since the madam doesn't trust him, and Faith breaks down, causing so much chaos that the madam finally relents. Simon starts taking Faith to the garden daily. Both brothers, on their own, plan for the future in their own way.

e) Big climax the caravan returns, which is the madam's deadline for 'fixing' Faith so she can convince Faith's father to take the girl with him. Simon makes an absolute mess of things by lying/manipulating others and Hector ends up saving the day. I also think this is a point where the stakes were not high enough...

6) Aftermath -> what the world looks like now Okay, this is totally a point where I failed with this MS. Essentially the story ends in the very next scene after the climax so there is no satisfactory resolution.

Part of the reason my end was so crappy is that I wrote the last 30,000 words in 10 days. I was so exhausted by the time I got to the end, it just kindof petered out.

As it turns out, this was also an excellent exercise in making a rough synopsis of the story :)

Really, until I just did this exercise a few minutes ago, I had no idea whether this story conformed to proper structure in the least... so not only did I learn something at the class, I learned something 5 minutes ago putting it into practice.

Definite high-point :)

...and now I kinda want to rip this story apart and re-write it ;)

No, Alcar. Faith and Simon will NOT end up together in a love-love relationship... /shudder/ the thought still creeps me out.

Well, hopefully that was as helpful for you as it was for me (it kinda blew my mind, to be honest), and if it didn't, well, you got a glimpse at an old manuscript of mine that is not 'trunked', but has definitely been put on the back-burner for a while.


  1. HAHAHAHA. It's as if you KNEW what I was going to suggest in a comment :)

    And: Huh. Going to work on that system with new project-idea, I think.... the idea is based on a single thing someone told me in HS and a story seed I discarded in a project long ago.

    1. I filled in the template for SCARLIGHT too, and was amazingly happy with the fact that it fits pretty well... and it was great that it made me think hard about what specifically the inciting incident is, and the 'change of plans' point.

      I should really try it for AotD as well... since that is a more plot-driven story than I've ever written before, and I'm not entirely sure where they are (according to the template), but probably in the complications/higher stakes section.


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)