Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Structure Primer

What is this odd and blurry diagram? A toddler's crayon scribbles?

Nope. This is large-scale structure, one rendition of what is sometimes referred to as Aristotle's incline.

We're going to kick off our structure talks by looking at this diagram and some simple definitions. Most of you probably know this stuff already. But we want to take the time to go through it just so we all know we're on the same page.

And then, once we establish the foundation, we'll move into a discussion of the openings of books. Preview: They almost always start in the wrong place, and we end up having to do first chapter revisions on -- what would you say, Alicia? 75% of manuscripts? 80%? 90%? All I know is that it feels like a bonus when I get a manuscript with a good opening.

So. To Aristotle. Some of you may have seen a map like this in your high school English classes. Or perhaps you've seen similar diagrams that focus on the angled portion, the line between the circles. I like the above diagram because it goes into a bit more detail than other version's of the incline.

If you were to map a typical story beginning on page one and through to the last page, it might look something like that diagram. We begin in the ordinary world, usually with our protagonist, sometimes with our antagonist.

Ordinary World: In simplest terms, this is the starting point, the place and space all the characters occupy before the initiation of the conflict.

Protagonist: There are a thousand ways to define the protagonist. Someday maybe we'll talk about that in more depth. For today, we'll define the protagonist as the focus character for the story -- the character who plays an important role in most of the scenes.

Antagonist: The antagonist is the person or thing standing in direct opposition to the protagonist. Antagonists can be people, but they can also be circumstances.

In the ordinary world, the protagonist is coasting along, maintaining whatever his or her status quo might be. Then one day, something happens to disrupt the flow. This something can be positive or negative. It can be the death of a loved one, or a winning lottery ticket, or a dead body found in an alley, or the arrival of a prince charming. It can even be as simple as a decision: I'd like to walk the Appalachian Trail.

Inciting Incident: The event, positive or negative, that disrupts the status quo of the ordinary world.

Once the inciting incident occurs, you're out of the ordinary world and into the plot. (Plot is not structure -- we'll also examine that notion in another post some day.) The inciting incident, more often than not, also introduces the conflict or directly leads to the conflict.

Conflict: The opposition of the antagonist to the protagonist. (Special note to romance writers: you sometimes have a dual-protagonist structure that results in dual conflicts, external and internal.)

If your inciting incident is: death of a loved one
Your conflict might be: return of a prodigal relative intent on stealing an inheritance

If your inciting incident is: arrival of a prince charming
Your conflict might be: he's competing for the promotion the heroine wants

If your inciting incident is: a dead body found in the alley
Your conflict might be: a killer on the loose who might strike again

If your inciting incident is: a winning lottery ticket
Your conflict might be: misplacing the ticket

This little exercise takes us through the flat portion, bottom left of the diagram (ordinary world) and into the circled part (inciting incident and introduction of the conflict).

Next time, we'll look at another way to break these pieces down. For now, your homework is to look at one of your manuscripts and identify your protagonist, your antagonist, and your inciting incident. You might find this harder than expected, especially the inciting incident.

No comments: