The simple secret to a successful story structure

Guest post by Pamela Freeman

If you’re planning out your structure, it can be overwhelming. All the graphs of three-act structures, all the pacing advice, all the ‘do I have a midpoint reversal’ panics… But there is a simpler way to consider if your structure is solid. And that is: does the climax and resolution answer the question of the book? What’s the ‘question of the book’?

In every book, the first third to one half sets up at least one overarching question. Specific genres have questions which define them, and which are generally the big overarching question in the book. This question drives the story.

For example, the big question in a murder mystery is either ‘whodunnit’ or ‘howcatchem’ – that is, ‘who is the murderer’? Or, when the murderer is already known to the reader, ‘can the police/detective bring them to justice’? In a romance, the big question is always, ‘Will these two people have a happy ever after?’ In an epic fantasy, it’s usually, ‘Will good triumph over evil?’ or ‘Can we save the world?’ In science fiction, it’s often, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ And so on.

If you read a genre a fair bit, you’ll be able to come up with the overarching question that genre (or sub-genre) usually poses to its readers. This is true even for literary fiction, which has a lot of sub-genres which revolve around specific ideas/questions.

For your structure to be successful (that is, for the story to be satisfying to the reader), you need to answer that overarching question. What that means is that the climax and resolution have to be directly related to the question. If they’re not, the reader may enjoy the book, but they won’t be satisfied by it.

It also means that many of the complications in the book will be about the obstacles to getting that question answered. And those obstacles are basically other questions, which are strongly related to the overarching question, and which make your book your own.

For example, in a romance, the question is ‘will they get their happy ever after?’ For the story to work, you need obstacles. Complications. And, typically, those obstacles will be both external and internal to the characters. So, you might have external obstacles like the two characters being so busy at work that they have no time for a social life. And you might have internal obstacles like one of the pair being afraid of commitment, and the other being still half in love with their ex. 

In the above example, each of these obstacles is a question:
Will they realise that work isn’t all there is to life?
Will the commitment-phobe find the courage to take a chance?
Will the still-in-love one realise that their ex isn’t worth their time?

You can see that, in order to get to the happy ever after – or, in a different kind of book, the sad ending – these questions need to be answered. Figuring out what these questions are is a great way to start plotting your story. Because, for every question, there needs to be a scene or series of scenes which pushes the character to an answer for that question.

Using this method is also a great way to edit. Because every scene has to have a role in either setting up a question, or in answering one. But that’s probably another blog post!

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