There are so many tasks a writer must complete to finish a manuscript, from developing believable characters to organizing a plot from beginning to end. The latter, called story structure, is a common thing authors struggle with when writing any piece.
I recently discussed this frustration with Jeri Maynard, author of children’s books, young adult fiction, and screenplays. She also finished a two-issue spinoff comic book for Michael Watson and his FreeStyle Komics. In addition to her writing, she also teaches the craft weekly to a few students and offers a number of workshops about various topics.
She was definitely a fantastic person to talk to about story structure and the craft of writing!
Reinfried: Thank you so much for speaking with me about this!
Jeri Maynard: Thank you for the opportunity to talk a bit about the craft of writing! I appreciate it.
R: So let’s talk about story structure. It intimidates many people – myself included – because it feels like it takes away from the creativity that goes into writing the story. How do you feel about it?
JM: I understand exactly what you mean, and thought the same way until I started writing screenplays, which require structure to tell a story in ninety minutes. In theory, it’s a tool to help you tell the best story possible. Either way, you’ll find yourself looking at the structure of your story at some point in the writing process. Just keep in mind, nothing can take away your creativity except yourself!
R: So what does story structure look like?
JM: When I teach my students to write, we look at four things:
- The main character (the MC)
- The problem
- The difficulties solving the problem
- The solution
In short, that is the beginning, middle, and end. This is otherwise known as:
- Act 1: The Problem
- Act 2: The Conflict
- Act 3: The Resolution
Specific things or events happen in each act. In the first act, you meet the MC, create a question the reader wants answered (the setup), and set your character off on his or her journey (the inciting incident). It doesn’t include backstory or much world building at this point.
In the second act, the MC struggles to achieve their goals and will meet intense conflicts. World building and backstory enrich the piece at this point.
The third and final act is the climax and the resolution.
A story with a simple structure often includes: the setup, inciting incident, mid-story reversal/twist, climax, and resolution.
Or it can include all the major plot points: the setup, enticing incident, new situation, change of plans, progress, point of no return, complications, raised stakes, major setback, final push, climax, and resolution.
Different writers call these different things, but they are all used to propel the story forward at break-neck speed. Some are pantsers and some are plotters, but regardless of which one you are, they are crucial to your story structure.
R: Panters? Plotters? What are those?
JM: Some people say, “I just sit down and write until I get to the end.” They are called pantsers. Other people say, “I make a complete outline with everything planned out before I start.” They are known as plotters.
R: One isn’t better than the other, though, right?
JM: No, of course not, but both kinds of writers will have to do story structure at some point. The plotters do it before they write, and the pantsers do it during editing. I also think there is a good middle ground which I’m currently calling (for lack of a better name) plot pantsers. These writers know the beginning and end. They may have a good mid-story reversal point or two and know where their MC meets the point of no return, but they may not know every major conflict or how the conflict leads to the next one.
R: Oh, I’m totally a pantser.
JM: Personally, I slide a bit closer to the plotter side since I use the typical screenplay plot points for my MC, my antagonist, and any other major characters. That helps me focus on keeping the conflict real and intense while still being character driven.
Keep in mind that it isn’t a question of whether a story is plot driven or character driven. Every story, even action ones, are driven by characters in conflict having to face the next plot step. It isn’t an either-or choice, but it’s both! Some stories may have more character and others more action-based conflict, but if your character is being dragged through the muddy swamp by an alligator with ninjas chasing her, I want to be rooting for your character and not the alligator or ninjas. Even if your character sits and lives in her head, please let something happen to her, even if it’s all imaginary.
R: So characters in conflict drive the plot.
JM: Conflict is the heart of the plot. It raises more questions, creates a barrier to reaching a goal, raises stakes, and so on. But conflict isn’t a crisis, though. If your mother is in the hospital, that is a crisis. If you get to the hospital and your sister won’t let you see your mother, that is a conflict.
Think of it this way: Your character wants or needs something, but conflict interferes with reaching their goal.
Each conflict should raise the stakes, be more intense, and directly affect the MC. Every decision they make has serious consequences that lead them farther away from their need or want or goal. Conflicts that aren’t driven by the MC’s decisions aren’t effective and should be cut.
We can go back to our MC with the alligator and ninjas – anything that interferes with her getting away from both can be a distraction. The reader wants to know two things: why is she there now and how will she escape. Thinking about the time she didn’t buy a pair of Jimmy Choo’s isn’t helpful unless it’s tied to the current conflict in some way. Or maybe she did buy them and can use the spiked heels as a weapon.
R: Wow, when you break it all down like that, story structure sounds pretty fun, even for a pantser like me! Thank you so much for all of the advice!
I will definitely have Jeri back for a second interview, as there is much more to discuss on this topic. Until then, check out Jeri’s newest book, a YA contemporary re-release called Panda Girl!