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Author Topic: Plot structure and pacing  (Read 10154 times)

Offline Yora

Plot structure and pacing
« on: April 27, 2015, 12:48:38 PM »
Big topic that can be very elusive and almost impossible to pin down, but make a huge impact on the quality of a story. Some writers simply start writing and keep on writing until they think the events of the story have reached a good point where you can stop. That works for some styles and when you have an audience that enjoys simply being along for the ride, but you really have to be exceptionally good at making every scene exciting in itself if you write without any real structure for the story as a whole. And I believe even most writers who don't plan out the structure for their story in advance later go back and change or remove scenes and chapters that are too drawn out and don't really contribute much relevant things to the work as a whole. And then you're still applying structure by hammering out dents and smoothing out notches to get the story in a nice and clean shape.

So what is actually plot structure that works well for a story and leads to good pacing? The most basic and common answer is that a story has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End, but that answer is totally banal and completely useless. Beginning only means first scene and End simply means last scene, that doesn't tell us anything.
I think what most people who say such a thing actually mean is that a story has an Introduction, Development, and a Conclusion. Those seem like much more useful terms to me.

Things get a bit more complicated when people start talking about Three Act Structure, and I am not actually convinced that there is actually something meaningful behind that term. While everyone appears to be completely sure what it means, nobody seems to agree with each other what it means.
Unfortunately, I don't actually have any lesson to tech here. I am really looking for comments from people who know some things about this whole stuff of plot structure and pacing. I found two interesting articles on the subject, which don't support the notion of three arc structure either: So you want to be an author and What's wrong with three act structure. One does not have to agree, but it's certainly points to get started thinking about it.
Something I did notice is that over the last year I enjoyed a good number of Japanese comics and movies, which I liked in particular because things turned out in unexpected ways. With american fiction there very rarely, if ever, are any unexpected turns in the story. A very surprising detail might come up that very much shakes up what has already been established and learned before, but it almost always happens pretty much exactly at the part of the story where you expect it to be. You don't have to know how many issues a comic series will have to be able to tell in which part of the conventional story structure you are right now. Because of that you can very accurately anticipate when a plan will fail, a villain appear, or a betrayal take place. Since I've not read or watched nearly as many Japanese stories, the plot often makes turns into directions I didn't anticipate before. Japanese readers most likely anticipate most of them, but that still highlights a very important point. When you look at writers as a whole, they keep using the same structure that makes their stories very predictable.
I absolutely love it when you see the hero having gained the special weapon that can defeat the villain and they have their big confrontation, and it just doesn't work. The hero is defeated, the villain wins this round and even all the other characters are just as surprised with no idea what they are supposed to do now. Or when it turns out the antagonist is not really that evil but actually very reasonable and might even get the protagonists to join his efforts. Or have the two great champions have their big showdown battle in the middle of the story and they both kill each other. There have to be many more ways to get interesting plots with good pacing than always repeating a condensed version of the Hero's Journey. You know "Normal guy gets called to be a hero, but he doesn't want to, then the kind old guy talks to him and convinces him to do it anyway, he gets his special training, meets his new allies and his love interest, bla, bla, bla..."

When people talk about three act structure, they often simply mean that it has Introduction, Development, and Conclusion, but also that there "needs" to be a point where the protagonists gives up and accepts defeat before he gets roused for the final great battle. And when you get into fantasy and sci-fi, the protagonist usually has to get a special weapon or device before he is ready to face the villain. And of course, after the defeat of the villain the story is over. Even romantic comedies work by that formula. (Great counterexample is Breaking Bad where the protagonist and main antagonist have their great showdown, but since the source of all the trouble was never the antagonist but the protagonists pride, the show isn't over at that point as the problem has not yet been solved.)

An interesting approach I've found is Kishotenketsu, which structures a story into four segments: Introduction, Development, Twist, and Conclusion. But the interesting part is that the Conclusion is a reexamination of the introduction and development in light of the twist. It's a structure that aims at changing established belives instead of reafirming them. When the Hollywood hero despairs and wants to give, he is abandoning his ideals and values that he displayed in the first two thirds of the story, but then he gets back on the feet with more conviction than ever. The message often being "You were great, and now you are even greater because you know how awesome you are." Which is narratively not very exciting, and philosophically highly problematic.

So yeah. Open discussion on plot structure and pacing, please.  :D
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2015, 01:06:36 PM »
I think the reason that the "three act" thing is so popular is that it highlights two things: at the beginning of the story you need to introduce the character and the world, and there should (usually) be a climax that releases the tension and wraps up the story. I think those are both important lessons to learn (even though they're rules that you can actually break and still have a good story), but people take it too far and stick to the structure too much. It's definitely more prevalent in film and tv than it is in books, though a lot of it is people retrospectively identifying the turning points just so they can claim it fits within their preferred structure.

I do like the 6 part plot structure, because it's a good shorthand for integrating character reaction and plot, but I do think even that is a bit too restrictive if you want to create something that really catches the readers unawares.

Discovery writers definitely do most of the structure and pace adjustments after the fact. I think that a discovery writer's first draft is basically an extremely verbose story plan, since they then have to hack it all up and change things around to make it work.  :P
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #2 on: April 27, 2015, 01:19:49 PM »
Random thoughts from a reader:

Basically, I love when the "Introduction, Development, and Conclusion" order is subverted, and don't follow the 'normal rules'. Or at least, not in the 'expected way'.
For example, the big battle is right at the start, or the middle. Ending with a big battle just seems almost boring, now.
Or when you get thrown into a fully developed story right from the first pages, as if lots has happened that you just missed, and it takes a while until you actually get who everybody is (and this will work perfectly for a re-read, too).

I like a good balance of action and exposition... or better yet, exposition via action or characters' thoughts.
But it must make sense and flow properly. The other day I read a short story that kept changing voices and tenses and direct/indirect writing without any gaps, sometimes almost in the same paragraph, and it was awful and clunky.

I love those stories where you don't breathe for 100 pages, the action and twists and discoveries are so quick, but please, no more. I'll faint otherwise. I'm all for staying up late reading just because I can't put it down, but I don't want to fall from exhaustion while the action is still speeding ahead.

And a more general idea. This is what I feel *now* - after several years of intensive fantasy reading.
Would I have thought like this before, even 5 years ago? Definitely not. So I do believe that there is an audience for each type of book (pace and plot), and there should be more 'traditional' stories as well as more 'different' types of plot.
But there also should be a way of identifying which is which on the cover, hehe - maybe 'fantasy level 1 - begginer' up to 'fantasy level 5 - jadded reader who's done and seen everything' :D
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Offline Yora

Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #3 on: April 27, 2015, 02:13:36 PM »
I think the reason that the "three act" thing is so popular is that it highlights two things: at the beginning of the story you need to introduce the character and the world, and there should (usually) be a climax that releases the tension and wraps up the story. I think those are both important lessons to learn
Reminds me of a story Brandon Sanderson told of a student who asked to learn about editing, which almost no writing students ever ask about. And so as an asignment, he had the student go through The Eye of Argon and mark everything that he thought was good and bad. And when they went over his asignment later, the story wasn't actually that terrible. It had an introduction, characters, dialoges, a plot, and a conclusion. Still a terrible story, but it covered all the basics at which apparently plenty of aspiring writers and writing students fail.  :D

I was wrong! All wrong! It wasn't Sanderson at all, it was high school and not university, and actually not a video that I saw but a written article. But here it is: Proofreading The Eye of Argon[url].
« Last Edit: May 01, 2015, 03:56:17 PM by Yora »
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #4 on: April 27, 2015, 02:22:57 PM »
I think the reason that the "three act" thing is so popular is that it highlights two things: at the beginning of the story you need to introduce the character and the world, and there should (usually) be a climax that releases the tension and wraps up the story. I think those are both important lessons to learn
Reminds me of a story Brandon Sanderson told of a student who asked to learn about editing, which almost no writing students ever ask about. And so as an asignment, he had the student go through The Eye of Argon and mark everything that he thought was good and bad. And when they went over his asignment later, the story wasn't actually that terrible. It had an introduction, characters, dialoges, a plot, and a conclusion. Still a terrible story, but it covered all the basics at which apparently plenty of aspiring writers and writing students fail.  :D
Lol that's awesome. Just goes to show how much further you have to go once you've mastered the basics I guess!  ;D
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Offline Nora

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #5 on: April 27, 2015, 04:01:42 PM »
Rules are rules. They're good to know and master, but eventually made to be bent or broken. Picasso was so good at drawing, at 12 he started using his left hand in drawing classes out of boredom. He's more than entitled to his later works, that focus on "deconstructing", and he does it well precisely because he knows perfectly how to construct.
I guess in writing one could say that most original authors would all be able to craft a decent "intro, twist, developement, conclusion" story. It's a basis to master, it isn't necessarily what makes them good.

It reminds me... When I met my boyfriend he sent me this pdf from the guardian that his teachers in uni (creative writing) had them all read over. Here it is, a compilation of different authors on the "rules for writing fiction" :
Spoiler for Hiden:












I got annoyed by the first one, Elmore Leonard, who keeps saying "never do this (..) unless you're like X, who's super good at doing it and still pulling it off", giving the definitive impressions that all his rules are bullcrap, as long as you manage your way around them. I guess that's the real hint...
« Last Edit: April 27, 2015, 04:34:46 PM by Nora »
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Offline Yora

Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #6 on: April 27, 2015, 04:38:53 PM »
They are actually more like guidelines...

Offline Nora

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #7 on: April 27, 2015, 04:51:29 PM »
They are actually more like guidelines...

Haha! Exactly what my boyfriend said to convince me to give some berth to Elmore. I agree of course. But it's hard when everything is a guideline and everything can be broken. Just like you said by quoting Sanderson, there is not even real security in following them.
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Offline wakarimasen

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #8 on: April 27, 2015, 05:40:23 PM »
In these kind of discussions I always recommend Robert McKee's "Story". It's about screen writing but the breakdown of the three act approach, of types of narrative and of beats is useful whatever medium you're trying to tell a tale in.

So far I've found that I like to plan a plot structure so that I know I'm not going to wander off in to a dead end. Then I write to flesh it out, giving myself plenty of leash. If I do something that involves changing the plan then I don't beat myself up about it, just go with it.

I'm hoping to get more into the editing side of things in my latest attempts, to try and chisel a better crafted piece from my raw materials. Interestingly, writing short stories on this forum has been great for encouraging that.

Offline JMack

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #9 on: April 27, 2015, 05:57:17 PM »
Looking at the Rules for Writers, they are fascinating and much to choose from. Fascinating, of course, for their variety and for the fact that all were true to their authors (or at least amused them because they thought they sounded clever).

I am hoping to try different approaches on this whole X-act structure thing and the plan vs discover approach.

Had no idea what a beat sheet was until @Raptori referenced them. I downloaded several, and am working one story using the approach. These different beat sheet structures all go after the X-act concept, but in different ways. I like the internal story/external story idea of them.

Meanwhile, I find the easiest thing for me - though only so far for very short stories - is when a sentence comes to me as the story beginning, and from that sentence the complete idea forms or enough to get started. I think this is probably lazy, but I'll take it for now.

The other night, I heard: "They moved into the house when winter paused." I had no idea beyond that, but it is becoming a strange story about a technology entrepreneur, suddenly wealthy, who finds that some types of services for the ultra-rich come with unexpected costs.
« Last Edit: April 27, 2015, 05:59:35 PM by Jmack »
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Offline ultamentkiller

Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #10 on: April 27, 2015, 06:29:09 PM »
I know I'm being a big fanboy here, but there's only one series I've read that has shocking things in unexpected places. The Light Bringer Saga.
Other than that, it's hard to surprise me with anything. I never thought about it involving the plot twists happening in predictable places, but now that you mention it, I see it.

Offline cupiscent

Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #11 on: April 28, 2015, 04:00:54 AM »
I've been largely ignoring three-act and variant structures recently in favour of protag/antag reversals. (Which I picked up from The Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel.)

My basic plotting goes like this: the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist should be the core driver of the main conflict of the story. The story starts when something happens that kicks the protagonist into a position of conflict with the antagonist (this is the inciting incident). From there, there should be a steady sequence of beats where who is ascendant shifts. These reversals should escalate, until the finale.

For a super simple example: In a farm accident, Joe discovers he can do magic. (Protag ascendant; inciting incident.) Joe is targeted by the King's Minister, who wants to control all magic, and forced to run away. (Antag ascendant.) Joe falls in with rebels and fights back. (Protag ascendant.) The Minister burns down Joe's old farm and kidnaps his sister. (Antag ascendant.) Joe storms the castle and showdown ensues. (Finale and protag victorious.)

If that example were going to be a novel, I'd probably think that there are too few big reversals to sustain the wordcount, but it might work for the shorter scope of YA. Also, of course, this doesn't include subplots, like the adventures of the friend who runs away with Joe, or Joe's romance with the head of the rebels. This is a skeleton. It gives me the absolute core, which I can then hang with the muscles, skin and clothes of a whole story.

Of course, often what I find once I've plotted a story like this is that I can very easily fit it into a standard structure or beat sheet. But I find that thinking about the story as protagonist versus antagonist reversals helps me establish and manipulate the tension and pacing of the plot much more easily than coming at it from a set structure.

Offline Skip

Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #12 on: April 28, 2015, 04:46:20 AM »
But, Nora, everything is a guideline. There are no rules. Which is to say, there are hundreds of rules. Only none of them are rules. They're not even a code.

Every rule can be broken but only if you can get away with it, and you'll never get away with it for every reader. More to the point, perhaps, you'll never get away with it for every agent or publisher.

Here are two of my rules. 1) only break rules on purpose. The corollary to this, of course, is that you must learn every rule. In order to know when you are breaking it. 2) keep the reader interested. Toward that end, all is allowed.

Those may be the only rules I have. It's hard to tell when you make them up as you go along.
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Offline Nora

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #13 on: April 28, 2015, 06:01:31 AM »
But I agree Skip! That's precisely why I was aggravated by Elemore. I wanted to shake him a bit and ask him who had died and made him god.
Coming from an artistic background, I don't like receiving long lists of "never do this, never do that" especially when it's all been done successfully. He just needs to put a bit of water in his advice wine in my opinion.  ::)
My own rules are "write in proper English", "enjoy yourself" and "write a story you'd like reading"
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Offline ArcaneArtsVelho

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Re: Plot structure and pacing
« Reply #14 on: April 28, 2015, 07:42:11 AM »
This is a skeleton. It gives me the absolute core, which I can then hang with the muscles, skin and clothes of a whole story.
But isn't that the case even with the (simple) three act structure? I mean, that is just the starting point and doesn't necessarily define the pacing or even the final structure of the story once you start to flesh it out with sub-plots, twists and whatnot.  :-\

My own rules are "write in proper English", "enjoy yourself" and "write a story you'd like reading"
I like those rules.  :)
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