Thursday, January 19, 2012

Connecting Your Opposite Turning Points In Story Structure - Part One

One way to look at a story's structure is like a mirror placed at the midpoint that displays the first half in the reflection, which creates the second half. Everything you have in place from the opening to the midpoint should have a partner that evenly matches up to it from the midpoint to the ending.

Rather than look at your structural points in one long list from start to finish, take your outline and tear it in half, then flip the second half upside down and set it next to the first half, side by side. Like this:

Opening                            Closing

Set-up                               Grand Finale

Catalyst                             Break Into Three

Debate                               Dark Night of the Soul

Break Into Two                 All Is Lost

Fun & Games                   "Bad Guys" Close In


Midpoint aside (for details of what the midpoint is all about, click here), each point is paired with another point in the complementary half. The paired points are similar in nature, but also opposites. Like a reflection in the mirror.

Opening and Closing

These are the most obvious. They are at the furthest points you can go in either direction. Wherever your story starts, it must end with something significantly changed. If there isn't a clear opposite in your opening and closing, then everything in the middle is pointless. If the ending makes your story feel pointless, then your reader will feel, at the least, dissatisfied, or at the most, irate for having wasted their time.

To ensure the opening and closing "match up", take the very first page of your manuscript and the very last page and (you guessed it!) place them side by side. Is the tone of the ending opposite of the beginning? Is there a clear change in the viewpoint character's... viewpoint? Has something in the story world significantly changed?

Any of those things, among others (too many to list), can add to reader satisfaction upon finishing the story.

I've used this example before and I'm going to do it again, because it's just so perfect. Watch the opening of How to Train Your Dragon, and then watch the very end (after the climax). The similarities make it circular, satisfying, but you can also see a clear change. Not surprisingly, the story doesn't feel like a waste of time.

Set-Up and Grand Finale

Neither of these are turning points, really, but they still match up. The set-up is Act One and the grand finale is Act Three. In the set-up part of a story we are building up toward the main premise, giving all the important elements a push-start into the plot. In the grand finale all of those things are wrapped up.

Whatever is introduced in the set-up makes a final appearance in the grand finale. All the story questions are resolved here, including the main one at the climax. They are not all resolved at the same time, though. You have nearly 25% of the story's total "page time" to wrap up each individual thread in natural succession.

You have the same amount of page time for the set-up as well, but Act One is tricky. The set-up encompasses the entire first act, including the catalyst and debate. It overlaps them. And I know that might be confusing, so just look at it this way: every can of worms you open in Act One must be collected and re-sealed by the close of Act Three.

Catalyst and Break Into Three

Both of these points are attached to a major decision made by the protagonist. The catalyst comes right before a major decision, and the break into the third act comes right after a major decision. So in that sense, these are both major transitional points in the overall story arc.

And they are completely opposite.

The catalyst is usually something largely out of the protagonist's control that inevitably forces them into making the decision that pushes them headfirst your premise (detailed explanation of that can be found here). The break into act three is a result of the protagonist's choice to fix everything, no matter what the cost.

In the first half the protagonist feels more like they are being pushed around at something or someone else's will, not their own. They are still proactive, making decisions, but they are ultimately not in this situation by choice. In the second half the protagonist owns up to everything that's happened so far and determines how to settle it "once and for all."

If you view these two points in terms of opposing viewpoints from the protagonist toward their situation, the importance of these points in the story will be easier to clarify.

A good example of this is in Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall. At the catalyst Sam realizes she is not only alive (after dying the night before), but she is also reliving the same day as yesterday. This pushes her toward the main premise without much choice on her part.

At the break into act three, Sam makes a firm decision to do what she feels will break the curse. Nothing happens by chance here. All the cards have been dealt and she determines how to play her hand.

Next Wednesday we'll cover the remaining three pairs of opposites. If you have any questions about the points in today's post, please feel free to ask in the comment section below.

Happy writing,


  1. Wow! This is an amazing way to breakdown and cross check a plot. Thanks. Your brain is WAY more organized than mine.

  2. Wow. Never in a million years would I have thought about structure like that. I am the opposite of organized when writing. I don't know if my mind can work logically like that for the length of time necessary to make sure it all adds up. But, it definitely gives me some things to think about, so thank you!

  3. This is something I would recommend doing at the revision/editing stage, not the first draft/creative stage. Because yes, it is very analytical. It's also much easier to see all of these points for what they need to be when you have a complete story to work with.

  4. oooooh I like the way your brain works! Thank you Jenny Hansen for tweeting this :) When do we get to see Part 2?

    1. Part two will be posted next Wednesday, the 25th. Glad you found this helpful!

  5. This was super helpful. I am going to watch How To Train Your Dragon again and see what I can glean from it.

  6. This is a great way to look at story structure. You explain it well. Thanks, Lydia!

  7. Great post, Lydia. I'm only recently beginning to take apart the story structure to see what makes it work. These examples make good sense to me. I look forward to reading more of your future thoughts on this.

  8. What a great idea, Lydia! Thank you so much for sharing your layout idea for structure with us.

  9. Thanks for posting! This is excellent!

  10. I still think Kal Bashir's hero's journey POV at is the way to go.

  11. Bookmarking this. I finished NaNo this year, and still have no clear idea of what direction my plot will take, only the final outcome and a few major events along the way. I'm only about halfway through writing my novel - at what point do I have to consider how to connect all the structural points? It's going to be more than one book, which makes the structuring and plotting even more of a headache.

    1. Hi, Elisabeth.
      I can only tell you what works for me, but it might not necessarily be the best process for you.
      I use the points listed above to make a rough sketch of my plot before I even start writing the story (any length, from short story thru novel), then I use that sort of like a compass as I'm writing the first draft. I can still be flexible and change things, though, if needed.

      And that's why it's necessary for me to go through all the points again *after* the first draft is complete (things will inevitably change). It's at this stage that I'm much more strict about structure. My suggestion to you at this point would simply be to "finish the first draft" then go from there. It's easier to put all your ducks in a row when all of them are clearly within sight.

      I would also suggest reading and studying a book that is specifically about story structure before trying to apply it to your novel. My two favorites are SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder, and PLOT & STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell.

  12. Thanks for this! I already know about SAVE THE CAT but was having trouble with the reflection of the scenes, because I imagined that Break into 2 had to line up with Break into 3. I'm revisiting the plot after stalling out near the end. This helps!


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