In my last post I compared character arc to an orange. Today I’ll do the same thing to story structure. Like an orange, a story is made of separate and distinct parts. We call these sections scenes. Each scene, like every novel, needs a character with a goal. There are many scenes within the classic three act story.
I was taught, and I still believe it to be true, that in a healthy relationship emotional intimacy is closely tied to physical intimacy. If things happen in a civilized manner, physical intimacy progresses hand in hand with emotional intimacy. Interesting, but what does emotional and physical intimacy have to do with writing a book? Well, this synchronization is also important with character development and story structure--the character arc needs be in sync with the plot's momentum. This is crucial to remember when writing a romance, but it’s important to keep in mind when writing any story. I’ll use my novel The Rhyme’s Library, a mystery, as an example.
In the opening scene, Blair's brooding about her bad boyfriend is interrupted by a child who needs help rescuing a kitten.
Recap: scene 1
We’re introduced to Blair. We empathize with her because we’ve all had a bad boyfriend (or two) and who wouldn't like someone who helps children and small animals?
Blair goes to the basement in search of a box to hold kitten on the drive home and finds her crazy aunt Charlotte’s dead body. This is the inciting incident—or the part of the story that disrupts Blair’s everyday world. This the point of no return.
When Blair realizes that she’s not alone in the library and that the other person in the library maybe responsible for her aunt’s death, she runs. In her hurry she bumps into our hero, Alec Rawlings. This is called the meet-cute—which is not a term for attractive hamburger or a juicy steak. The Urban Dictionary describes the meet-cute as the scenario in which two individuals are brought together in some unlikely, zany, destined-to-fall-in-love-and-be-together-forever sort of way (the more unusual, the better)
Is that the end of Act 1? No. We still need to meet all the other players, the potential murderers, the police, the friends of the library, members of the band and bad boyfriend, Drake. Recap, of Act 1. In Act 1 we introduce Blair, her everyday world and the inciting incident that disrupts her world. Act 1 ends when Blair is pushed off the cliff and she realizes these things:
1. The police are not going to investigate Charlotte’s death.
2. Her own sanity and safety are in danger.
3. Drake is married. (Because, remember, this is just not a novel about discovering who killed Aunt Charlotte, it’s also a story about Blair discovering who she is and what she needs in a healthy relationship.)
Blair comes face to face with Drake’s new wife in the scene immediately following her dive off the cliff, because the character arc and story momentum are hand in hand, just like emotional and physical intimacy.
The first part of Act 2 is sometimes called the wandering phase. This is where Blair needs to do all she can to discover who killed Aunt Charlotte and why. She cleans out the basement, searches for clues, interviews her aunt’s agent, old friends, and suspicious characters. She is learning everything and anything about Aunt Charlotte and possible motives for the murder. Simultaneously, she is also learning about herself.
The second half of Act 2 happens when Blair has learned everything she needs to know. She realizes she’s strong enough and smart enough to catch the killer. . This is her “ha-ha moment." She also confronts Drake and because she’s suspicious of Alec, she gets rid of him as well. (Because, remember, this is not just a story about Aunt Charlotte's murder.) Blair formulates and executes a plan and works beautifully, but the blackmailer is not the killer. This is called the false victory. Watch for it. It happens in almost every action film.
Blair resumes her normal, but of course, there is no peace when murders run loose, and soon Blair meets the killer. Because this is a mystery, there is the final reveal when the killer spills all the secrets and the inevitable black moment, when everything is lost and Blair is looking down the barrel of a gun. Only she can save herself.
Act 3, the dénouement, or final resolution, is where order is restored to Blair’s world. It’s not so different from before, but the murderer has been captured, Blair is stronger, wiser and bad boyfriend free, and because this story has a healthy dose of romance, Blair's story ends with a kiss.
As all good stories should.