This blog post is brought to you by the twisted but brilliant mind of Avrin Kelly. Avrin Kelly is an American horror and urban fantasy novelist. She also runs a blog where she posts the creepiest short stories.
You can find more of her work on Amazon.
Today, I thought it might be fun to talk about story structure and how much it has helped me in my writing journey. I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t like to be constricted by plot points or beat sheets, but that doesn’t change the fact that these points are prevalent in any meaningful story whether we want them to be there or not.
A lot of times, when tackling a new short story, the seven point story structure is not far from my thoughts.
Seven Point Story Structure:
First Plot Point
Pinch Point 1
Pinch Point 2
Second Plot Point
There are only 7 beats, which makes it easier for me to get to them all with very few words. When writing flash fiction, usually my first sentence is the “hook”.
HOOK- Reggie’s sweaty fingers slipped off the ledge and he began to fall.
With this hook, as readers, we are asking questions like: how far is Reggie going to fall? Is Reggie going to die? Why was Reggie holding onto the ledge in the first place?
These are all great story questions to start with and they are all encapsulated with a one-sentence hook. ‘In media res’, or in the middle is always a great place to grab your hook from. It starts with action, and it makes us question what’s happening. It drives us to read on and learn more.
FIRST PLOT POINT- When Alex pushed him, Reggie’s hand shot out and grabbed the side of the building. He’d held on for dear life, he’d prayed. He wished that Alex would see reason and grasp his arm in a climber’s embrace, saving him; but she didn’t. He told her he couldn’t fly. That it was an impossibility
In this part of the story, we begin to see more of what’s going on around Reggie. Not only is Reggie stuck in a situation he can’t get out of (the first plot point/inciting incident all rolled into one), there’s a time constraint looming over him, and it’s powered by gravity.
The antagonist is Reggie’s own death. Man versus the inevitable. He’s falling, and if something doesn’t happen quickly, our character will meet his death.
PINCH POINT ONE- The wind rushed past his face as he fell. It was hard to breathe. He thought about his life and the way he’d lived it. He cursed himself for
how he’d never taken the time to absorb the city and its beauty. He’d never fully lived. He hadn’t spent enough of his time doing the things he’d loved. Now, he was seeing this world and all its beauty for the last time. The ground zoomed closer as he fell. He couldn’t die like this, in fact he refused to.
In the first pinch point, we are reminded of the horror Reggie is facing. He’s about to die, he’s been betrayed by someone named Alex (who pretty much murdered him when she pushed him off the ledge), or so it seems. BUT, something has changed.
Even though everything is working against Reggie, (gravity, Alex, his own fear of death) he has a goal and his goal is to live. He’s survived the pressure of the first pinch point and come out stronger. His motivation is renewed. He’s not going to die like this.
MIDPOINT- Reggie scrambled to find something to hold on to. Anything that might stop his plummet. He grunted when his fumbling hand grabbed something. He slid down the side of the building as his fingers gave under the weight of his own body coupled with the force of falling. Finally, his boots met a tiny ledge on the side of the crumbling building and he stopped.
He had a chance.
He growled as the side of the building scraped his forearms and stomach, cutting into his skin.
He used his well toned arms to pull himself up a few inches. In that moment, he was thankful for all the physical training he’d suffered through in the last few months. When he’d joined Alex and “The Angels”, a militant group that believed in fighting the wrongs of the world rather than just talking about them, he thought he was doing something good. The right thing, but now, he was having doubts. How could they just murder one of their own comrades? Push him to his death and tell him to fly? It was absurd.
In the midpoint of a story, the character will often find “new information” that gives them the strength to move forward again. In Reggie’s case, he finds something to hold onto that stops his fall. The midpoint is the turning point. The spot where your character stops reacting and starts acting. Their mind goes on the offense instead of the defense. They decide to fight back. For Reggie, he thwarts gravity and begins to climb up.
Also, we touch on theme in this section too. The fact that ‘good and bad’ is never ‘black and white’. The world we live in is drawn in a grayscale. What looks ‘right’, from one vantage point, may be completely ‘wrong’ from another.
SECOND PINCH POINT-
Reggie slipped and slid downwards half a story.
He slowed, but didn’t stop until his boots hit something protruding off the side of the building. Finally.
“Alex,” he screamed towards the top of the building. He saw her look down at him from several stories above. “Help me.” he groaned. Sweat ran down his forehead. The pain in his fingers was almost unbearable, but not nearly as bad as the pain in his back.
Fire shot from the backs of his calves all the way up to the top of his spine. Had he hit something as he’d fallen?
He screamed, his uneasy grip loosened. The pain got so bad, his hands trembled until he couldn’t hold on anymore.
Oh no! The readers gasp, they wonder, is this story about a man who dies, or a man who lives? We still want to know why Alex pushed him. Is she crazy? Why was he hanging out with her in the first place if she is crazy? You shouldn’t hang out on rooftops with crazy people, it’s just not wise!
The second pinch point of the story not only reminds us of what’s at stake, but reinforces the theme and our original story question. Why did Alex push Reggie? What ‘vantage point’ is Reggie looking at the world from, versus Alex? How is Alex justifying her actions unless she knows something he doesn’t?
SECOND PLOT POINT-
His fingers started to slip.
“Rise up.” Was all she said from above. “Evolve. You can do this.” The wind carried her voice to his ears and his stomach sunk.
What she was saying was nonsense. Reggie couldn’t believe he’d thought she had all the answers. He’d trusted her, thought she was teaching him how to be strong; to be a soldier in a world full of thinkers and talkers.
Was this part of his training? Did she expect him to live?
A sharp pain between his shoulder blades made him dizzy enough to forget the importance of holding on. It was the kind of pain that could make a person do unbelievable things just to avoid it.
He felt his skin rip. He screamed; the agony was so unbearable, so overwhelming he never even heard his own guttural cry. He let go of the ledge.
At this point, we know something is up with Reggie and Alex. We’re beginning to suspect what is going to happen at the end of the story. We’ve foreshadowed and dropped clues throughout the other parts of the tale. Now, all we have left is the resolution. The resolution is a big deal. There’s a lot of pressure, we don’t want to let people down. We don’t want it to be rushed, and most importantly, we want it to make sense and tie into the beginning or into the theme in some meaningful way.
It’s time to confirm or deny our reader’s suspicion, put them out of their misery and drop that literary microphone— and hopefully shock them, (seeing as they think they know what’s about to go down….)
[Insert evil laugh here]
Note: If you were to write a three-sentence blurb about a story, the first sentence would be the first plot point, the second sentence is the second plot point and (finally), the third sentence would be your (spoiler addled) resolution.
Reggie faced the wall as he fell. He could see his silhouette against the building’s facade as he dropped. But his fear was no match for his pain. He doubled over in midair, his knees tucked against his chest. A protest caught in his throat. He watched as ugly, gnarled wings sprouted from his back. Dark, webbed things with claws poking out from each joint.
“No.” He sobbed, but his cry was cut off as the aberrations between the blades of his shoulders began to do their job in earnest. He flew.
He had no control over these new, foreign body parts. Now that he knew what he was, he didn’t know if he wanted to escape meeting the ground below in a bloody reunion.
Reggie flew upwards, until the building’s rooftop was beneath him. On the roof in nearly the same spot Alex had looked down towards Reggie only minutes before; were the shadows of two winged creatures.
One was Reggie, his wings demonic in nature, misshapen and gory. The other was the silhouette of an angel. He admired her perfectly formed wings. Feathers made of light made her wings appear so bright, even her shadow looked divine.
“So this is what you wanted.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. He knew his time with The Angels had come to an end, and maybe his life would soon follow.
Alex smiled as she unsheathed the sword at her hip.
“We thought you were one of us when we recruited you. You showed all the signs.”
“I’m still the same person. Let me fight beside you. I still believe as you do.”
She shook her head. She was disappointed but not heartbroken, and that stung Reggie more than he would’ve liked to admit.
“You know you can’t.”
“But I flew.” He cried. “I did what you wanted.” He screamed at her, spittle flew from his bottom lip. “Don’t abandon me, Alex.”
“Yes, you flew.” She whispered as her wings flapped powerfully, the glowing city lights at her back. She looked at the beauty below her, then back to Reggie. “But you don’t have the right wings.”
A story’s resolution should wrap up any stray plot bunnies you have running around. It should encapsulate the main point of what you wanted to tell. For this unnamed piece, the theme was points of view (actually, this piece had many themes, but the most prevalent one was the one about ‘vantage points’). How we see ourselves and how others see us. (The reflection on the side of the building, Alex looking down on Reggie from the top of the building, Reggie looking up at her, and the final instance, the doozy, where he saw what she really was via her shadow on the rooftop).
Also, I think it’s important to note, that if you don’t answer at least some of the questions that you’ve worked so hard for your readers to become curious about, then you have to ask yourself: “Am I writing a story or a list of cool events?” (or horror), because sometimes is okay to hit your readers with a “what kind of monster was that?” kinda cliffhanger.
I do it all the time. =)
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of books that just list cool events and some of them are extremely entertaining– but most stories have a purpose. Most stories are built to lead their reader up a mountain. At the top of this pretend mountain of words is a moral, a message, a lasting emotion and/or a point. But that’s the difference between a story and a list of events: a story has a theme, a point, and characters that learn something even if it’s as strange or off the wall as ‘I have demon wings’.
I hope my ‘attempt’ at a story breakdown was helpful for you. I’ve struggled with story structure for a long time now, and I’m slowly learning that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a way to make sense of things that need to happen for a short story to come together in a way you and your readers will both enjoy. Everyday, I get a little bit better and a little bit closer to understanding what makes a story great. What makes people keep reading? What makes a piece of writing epic vs just being okay? Maybe one day I’ll be able to answer that question without any doubt or hesitation, but until then, I’ll be at my computer/ phone, probably writing away like a crazy person!