When structuring a story, it’s helpful to think in terms of a beginning, middle, and end, with each part fulfilling a distinct purpose. But the three elements don’t necessarily have to occur in that order. For example, it can be quite effective to have the main character die at the beginning of the book and then devote the rest of the story to what led up to it. Consider the flashback method of storytelling, in which the narrator starts the story in the middle of things and then thinks back (or uses some other means) to reveal past events to fill the reader in on pertinent information before continuing with the story.
There are no hard-and-fast rules with regard to how much of the book each phase should occupy, and the sections are not clearly delineated. You won’t go wrong if you devote roughly 20 percent of your novel to the beginning, 70 percent to the middle, and 10 percent to the end.
Sounds like a simple concept, right? Perhaps it is simple in some respects, but keep in mind that getting from beginning to end requires a certain structure in order to create an engaging and exciting experience for the reader. How the book is organized—how the plot is unveiled to the reader—makes a difference.
Let’s dig a little deeper by starting with some definitions.
· Beginning—where the stage, mood, time period, and tone for the rest of the story are established; the main characters are introduced; and the protagonist's problem is defined.
· Middle—where the story builds; everything comes apart; the tension is the greatest; and the conflict climaxes.
· End—where the major conflict in the story is resolved; (in most cases) all loose ends are tied up; and the reader learns how the story has changed the protagonist.
It is essential to include all the elements of each section—skimping on any of these will leave the reader confused, bored, or just plain uninterested.
Great novels grab readers' attention right away and keep it. This takes work—a lot of work. Not only does your novel need a good beginning, middle, and end, but so does each chapter, paragraph, and scene. While most of the following discussion applies to an entire novel, much of it applies to chapters, paragraphs, and scenes as well.
The pattern of the beginning, middle, and end of a story is called narrative arc. Narrative arc gives a story backbone and is the overall structure and shape of rising and falling action and/or emotion in a story. A good arc will help to engage readers from start to finish and deliver a satisfying conclusion.
In addition to grabbing readers’ attention with a great hook, the beginning of a novel needs to set the stage, the mood, the time period, and the tone for the rest of the story. It should introduce the main characters, the protagonist’s goal(s), and his or her problem or challenge(s) in reaching this goal—the situation that drives them from their "normal" life toward something different, a conflicting situation that will give the story its reason for existing. Without the above elements introduced early on in the story, readers may become confused or frustrated and put the book down.
In plot-driven narratives, events tend to be more important than characters, and the writer must make sure all the plot points tie together smoothly and logically. As you focus on the events, tie in the characters’ roles and their motivations for doing what they do. In plot-driven stories, it’s about how your character reacts to and participates in the events.
Character-driven narratives tend to focus more on internal conflicts than external ones. Your focus should be on developing characters that readers can connect with by putting them in situations that showcase who they truly are.
By the end of the beginning of the story, readers should:
· Understand what type of story it is—romance, mystery, fantasy, etc.,
· Have a feel for the world in which the story takes place,
· Know the main character and his or her goals,
· Have formed a bond with the main character,
· Know what obstacles lie ahead for the main character in reaching his or her goals,
· Be familiar with the other significant characters in the story, and
· Feel compelled to continue reading.
By accomplishing these things, you will have built a strong foundation for the rest of the story.
The middle of the story is where tension, character conflict, the protagonist’s journey, and narrative momentum build to a peak. Middles contain the meat of the story, and therefore something needs to be happening at all times for readers to maintain interest. The middle—typically much longer than either the beginning or the end—consists of three primary phases.
In the first phase of the middle, a series of events that raises the stakes for the main character begins to complicate matters, causing an upsurge in the story's suspense or tension. The rising action further develops the conflict between the main character and whatever obstacles he or she is facing, creating a series of predicaments that eventually rises to a climax.
A good example of rising action occurs in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer at the Cullen family (rescued vampires) baseball game where Bella is a spectator. When some outsider vampires fixate on her in the stands, and one of them smells Bella, the action rises. The miscreant vampire chases Bella while the Cullen family attempts to protect her. The chase rises toward a near-deadly climax.
This is the point of greatest tension in the story and is the turning point in the narrative arc from rising action to falling action. The point of climax is where everything goes wrong for the protagonist, where conflict is the greatest. No matter what form it takes, whether it's intense action or a quiet internal realization, the climax needs to be tied to the protagonist's conflict—which was conveyed in the beginning of the book. The climax should reflect the ultimate test of the protagonist's capabilities against the odds he or she is facing.
Here are three examples of story climaxes:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Nick Dunne is a big-city magazine writer married to Amy, a woman with a substantial trust fund. After she goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, everyone (including the authorities) thinks he had something to do with her disappearance. The climax of the story occurs when Nick discovers and then plans to disclose the true story of what Amy did to create her disappearance.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling is about Harry, an orphaned boy raised by his aunt and uncle. When he is invited to join Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he discovers he's a wizard, and his adventures begin when he and his new friends attempt to unravel the mystery of the Philosopher's Stone. The climax occurs when a professor puts a hex on Harry during one of their games, bringing to light tension between good and evil and shifting Harry’s concern from winning the game to surviving.
Set in the early 1930s in a racially divided Alabama town, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is the story of lawyer Atticus Finch, who strives to prove the innocence of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. The story climaxes when the verdict is read, which leads to Finch’s loss of faith in his fellow man.
The climax is where the protagonist will often have to make critical choices—where a change in their thought process, ideals, beliefs, physicality, or lifestyle occurs—one that will guide their actions through the rest of the story.
Immediately following the climax, when conflicts and problems in the story have come to a head and prior to the story ending, events will begin to unfold that cause a release of tension in the plot. This connective bridge between the climax and the resolution is called falling action. This is the time in the story when, given the circumstances of the climax, the protagonist deals with the consequences. The protagonist’s world has changed since the beginning of the story, causing him or her to change and figure out how to reach his or her goal(s) in spite of the roadblocks.
This is not to say that during the falling action phase there has to be a lack of conflict, drama, or tension. These elements are merely aimed in a different direction—toward a conclusion—giving the reader satisfaction that rooting for the main character all this time has been worthwhile.
Three primary things need to happen at the end of the novel—loose ends are tied up, the major conflict in the story is resolved, and the reader knows how the story has changed the protagonist. It should be clear what truth protagonists have learned or not learned about themselves in the ending—their inner growth, how they’ve changed, how they’ve grown. A good story ending must make the plot meaningful and the purpose of the story clear for the reader. An effective ending is often a new beginning for the protagonist.
Most readers want to feel some sense of satisfaction when they've completed reading a book. That's not to say every story has to end with the character(s) living “happily ever after.” While most readers prefer a happy ending, they generally do not like overly predictable ones. My fourth novel, Regarding Anna, has an unpredictable ending, and in the more than 700 reviews it has gotten on Amazon, the most frequent comments are about how the reader loved the ending because they hadn’t seen it coming. Even in romance novels and good-versus-evil stories, for example, where the general outcome is predictable, a slight twist to the ending will keep them from being boring.
A good ending won't be too abrupt, flat, or drawn out. But whether the ending is gradual or sudden, it should make the reader feel some strong emotion, such as happiness, sadness, surprise, pleasure, or shock.
As much thought should be given to the last sentence of the book as the first one. Whether it's a leisurely sentence or a sharp one, it should reinforce the book's central theme, portray a sense of completion, and leave the reader satisfied. A good ending will make the reader sorry to see the story come to an end.
Here are a few different types of endings to consider:
· Straightforward—The protagonist accomplishes his or her goal.
· Full circle—The ending completes a loop, bringing the reader back to the prologue, opening line, scene, or chapter.
· Surprise—Something happens that is unexpected by the reader.
· Lesson learned—The story ends with a lesson or moral you want the reader to get from the story.
· Cliff-hanger—You leave the reader in suspense, often setting the stage for a sequel.
· Happily ever after—You close with a fairytale ending where everything turns out for the best for the protagonist and usually all the other characters.
· Sad—An ending that leaves readers feeling sad but intellectually satisfied.
· Shock and awe—Typically created by introducing a final twist to the plot, you leave readers horrified, appalled, astounded, outraged, angry, disgusted, or disturbed. (Most often used in horror, crime, and thriller novels.)
You do not want your ending to be any of the following:
· Vague—Especially in genre fiction, when important plot points are left up in the air, it leaves readers to speculate what happened, which will not be satisfying for them.
· Flat—Regardless of genre, readers expect to feel some type of emotion at the end of the book. Bland endings are generally disappointing.
· Drawn out—Once all the loose ends have been tied up, it’s time to end the story.
· Unsatisfying—If you promise readers something, and then you fail to deliver, they will feel cheated, dissatisfied.
· Clichéd—Overused endings generally aren’t well received. Examples include: It was all just a dream. The character had been talking to a ghost all this time. The butler did it.
· Coincidental—Having lightning strike the bad guy just before he’s going to do his dirtiest deed is not very insightful.
No hard and fast rules exist for structuring a story. But whatever path you choose, the story should flow in a logical, understandable order.