I have been giving more attention lately to the original material I gleaned from The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne which I admire very much even though my first nine books have all been pantsed in the most egregious manner.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the principles he develops are not in my head when I sit down to write. It means, as I believe he points out somewhere, that we all know “story” because it is presented to us ad inifinitum from our birth to our death.
The former English major in me, though, is constantly at war with the freebooting, non-outlining brigand that I’ve become. I want to have order. I want to have justification. I want to have, above all else, technique to support the emotional thrust of my fiction. Because, all else considered, I want my fiction to produce emotion because reaching that goal, I hope, will also produce entertainment.
Back to Shawn Coyne. In fact, back to almost everyone that you read who talks about plot mechanics for stories. Very simply, all modern fiction has a three act structure. This is the line from Robert McKee to Coyne and even up to Dwight Swain, who is still my favorite re-read every couple of years. At the same time, though, we learn from Larry Brooks—and numerous others who all have terrific credentials—that there are nine, or sometimes ten, “points” that must be hit in every story. “Must” because otherwise the story will fail to satisfy the reader.
Now here was the dilemma for me. Reconciliation. In the midst of the points that a story must hit was a point called the middle turn where the protagonist or main character was headed one way but events pointed a different direction. And this turn should alter the internal goal at a minimum, or often better, a combination of external and internal goals.
Harkening back to my boyhood lingo, “Dude, that’s four acts, not three.”
Coyne presents the Five Commandments of Storytelling, and I couldn’t agree more. They are useful at the macro level (the Global Story as he terms it) down to the scene level, and even down to the very beats of the story. What confused me, though, was that the Foolscap sheet that he begins with. It has beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff as the three “acts” of the story’s structure.
Not so fast.
Let’s go back to that notion of a “middle turn” that’s so prevalent in the vital points of a story. In my mind—admittedly a feeble and aging mind—we truly are looking at a four-part structure:
The world get complicated
The world collapses
The reborn hero emerges.
I accept that those tags are muey hyperbolic, but they serve the purpose of helping me think about what needs to take place, in a chronological sense, within each section. Or as I like to call them: act.
I like to think back to Robert Ray’s analysis of Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, a mystery/thriller that is one of my all-time favorites. The second act is capped off by the introduction of the American policeman in Arkady’s life, giving him a renewed understanding of the scope of the problem (and the consequences of failing to solve it), and then providing an additional motivation to reach the inevitable conclusion.
So, then, Coyne, Swain, McKee, Brooks, and let’s include some of my other favorites such as Libbie Hawker, Robert J.Ray, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Algis Budrys, and Lester Dent. They all point to this four-part notion as far as I can tell.
Now, what difference does it make?
I’m now bogged down on my tenth story, a novella-length episode for the Tales of the White Shadow series. Until I glommed onto this concept of separating the story into four parts and then holding up the mirror of the Five Commandments to each part, I was essentially caught in a storytelling maze. But some light is now directing me toward my goal, and before I begin my next effort at a long-form story, I will be sitting down with the Foolscap sheet developed by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne, and I will modify it to include four parts, not three, and then I’ll actually take some time to think most of the story through before I fire up the Scrivener.