Tag Archives | story structure

How to keep a literary novel afloat in the middle.

That’s right. Let’s dive into Act II of THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. And learn to stay afloat in Act II!

Break into two: (protagonist must make a proactive decision)

Again. This was easy for me to find. Remember the debate? It’s answered. Lennie strides into Act I by saying yes. She finally is willing to play her clarinet with Joe and all her grief comes pouring out. Joe is stunned. But it wasn’t just a random decision. In order to avoid Toby and grief, she decides to play.

B story: (the love story – not always romantic)

In Act I, Joe pursued and Lennie pushed him away. But now the world is upside down and they set off on the rocky road of love. They play together. They have fun together. And surprise, surprise because at times, Lennie feels joy.

Fun and Games: (the heart of the book – why we read it)

Why did I pick this book up? What were my expectations? I wanted to read about a girl dealing with her grief and moving on and figuring out how to do that. So, with her newfound decision of playing the clarinet comes other brave decisions. It’s really hard to call this section Fun and Games, but don’t take it too literally. It’s a breather before the tension spikes.

You’ll have to read the book to find out what those brave decisions are. #sorry

Midpoint: (stakes are raised significantly; another big game changer)

Again, in a plot-driven novel, the midpoint should be obvious. In a literary, character-driven novel what turns out to be a game changer is just on a smaller scale but still huge in Lennie’s world.

In Chapter 20, exactly half way, Lennie finally talks to her best friend, who she’s been ignoring. She tells her everything. This is huge! Lennie is letting someone into her life in a healthy situation.

Bad guys close in: (Things get even worse.)

In a character-driven novel there is no regrouping of the antagonist and his minions. It just isn’t like that. But, stakes are raised. Definitely.

I’ll just say that Lennie learns that Bailey, her sister, had secrets. Big secrets! And in her grief, she makes mistakes that affect her budding relationship with Joe.

All is Lost: (no hope left)

In chapter 30, Lennie is in her room. So many things come to a head. She realizes how Bailey’s secrets affect her too, and Joe is not coming back. And even worse, as the days pass, she no longer hears Bailey’s heels clicking in the hall. She’s getting used to her sister’s absence. Her sister’s clothes now smell like her, since she’s worn them so much. In all areas, Lennie has no hope left.

Dark Night of the Soul: (How does the protagonist feel about everything?)

Through out Chapter 30 we know exactly how Lennie feels. Miserable. Then her friend, Sarah, forces her to go to the movies. They see Joe and Rachel together. Rachel plays first chair clarinet, and Lennie plays second. But we all know that Lennie is better. At the end of this chapter, Lennie decides to challenge Rachel for first chair. (Who is this girl, who at the beginning wouldn’t even play her clarinet?)

And that ends a wonderfully structured Act II. Onward!

Can you find some of these elements in the middle of your current wip? Do you agree or disagree with me?

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Practice, practice, practice – how do you practice?

I’ve coached my daughter’s soccer team for the past four years.

No more.

This week she’s trying out for the middle school team. The teams will be based on skill. For years it’s been all about equal play and having fun.

No more.

For years kids are told in youth sports that it’s not about winning. (Yeah, right.) Then they get older and it’s all about winning and playing time. Some players advance with natural skill and some by hard work.

I encouraged my daughter to run over the summer. To get in shape. Before it really counts.

And she’s glad she did. (That’s what happens when you have a coach for a mom.)

So, between novels or while writing a first draft or while revising – what do you do to practice writing? Do you know your weaknesses?

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I break down novels for structure. And I’ve learned a lot. I mean a lot. More than I could put in a blog post. All my Plot Busters posts? Well, sorry, they weren’t about me trying to share my expertise. That was me processing what I was learning.

Here are some ways to grow:

  • Reading (a lot)
  • Free writing in a journal

Help me fill out the list. What do you do to grow as a writer and bring new skills to each manuscript?

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Story Structure vs Voice in YA

Structure doesn’t sit in a bubble all by itself. Many factors make a story outstanding: emotion, character, voice, premise, the writing.

And they’re all interconnected.

Last summer, I broke down and analyzed ten different middle grade books – because that’s what I was writing at the time. More recently, I analyzed a movie and another mg, Princess For Hire. All this time, I’ve been reading YA, looking for a book that fits the bill when it comes to structure.

And so far I’ve come an interesting conclusion. One I didn’t expect.

But first let’s talk about middle grade.

Almost every single MG book followed the three-act structure perfectly. Some better than others, but it was definitely there. And the books I loved followed it absolutely perfectly. The authors used structure to their advantage to bring out the emotion and inner conflict. Maybe I got lucky with the books I picked?


Younger kids have a shorter attention span and need tight structure. What do you think?

Here’s what I realized so far about YA books: (because I’m still researching.)

  • The books follow structure but it can sometimes be looser, less defined.
  • What a book might lack in structure it makes up for in other areas like voice, premise, humor, or dialogue.
  • Many YA writers follow structure naturally – but they don’t all use it to the full advantage.
  • The structure is there but the midpoint, the climax, or plot points could be stronger.
  • I could careless about the structure I loved the story and voice that much.
  • I loved the character so much I didn’t care if there was a scene with her shampooing her dog.

But some things definitely happen in the YA books I love:

  • Hook
  • Voice
  • Great character
  • Inciting incident
  • As the story continues more is revealed and the tension increases.
  • There may or may not be a midpoint.
  • Second half of the book – the tension is doubled with bigger reveals.
  • Something devastating happens but there isn’t always a true dark moment
  • Climax (And even that depends on if the book is part of a sequel.)

I’m sure there are YA books out there I like that also have exemplary structure. I’m just starting on the journey to find them. (I don’t analyze all the books I read.)

Were you surprised that a lot of YA has less defined structure? Do you think it’s because teens have a longer attention span? How important is structure to you in your writing? I wonder if these YA books I already loved would have been even stronger with great structure. (Who cares other than me?)

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What exactly goes into Act I anyway? (And a winner!)

Thanks to everyone who tweeted and blogged and entered the contest – or just showed their support! You’re all awesome!

You’ve seen me break down Act I of a movie and a high concept book. But what exactly will I do for the winner of the Act I crit?

What I want to know:

  • Title
  • Logline
  • Genre (YA or MG or adult) (I have seen a difference in structure between the two!)
  • Estimated number of words
  • What author or book would you compare your writing to?
  • Were you trying for high concept or no?
  • What draft will I read: first draft, revised draft, or polished draft?
  • Give me a brief description of the ending climax.

So many questions might seem silly, but the answers will affect how I critique your first act.


I will look to see if your protagonist:

  • offers the most conflict in that situation,
  • has the longest way to go emotionally, and
  • will appeal to a large demographic.

I will look to see if your main character’s motivations can be narrowed down to what Blake Snyder calls a primal urge – love, survival…etc.

Act I:

Opening Image

Tone, mood, style of your opening line and pages. Was I hooked? Did I care about your protagonist? Was the first chapter relevant to the story?

Theme Stated:

Somewhere in the first half of Act I, I will look for a posed question or offhand remark reflecting what your story is really about. If I can’t see one, I’ll let you know!


Hero, stakes, story goal

Six things that need fixing – problems/flaws. These will be mirrored in the third act, showing the change.


This is the game-changing event when something happens to set the story in motion!


Your main character might know what to do but he/she needs to make sure it’s the right choice. In MG this could be a few paragraphs or half a chapter. A question is asked of the hero and in the end they need to say, yes!

Break into two:

This is the defining moment when your main character leaves the old world behind and gets started on his story goal.

There you have it.

And the winner of the copy of SAVE THE CAT and an Act I critique is…..


(I don’t know about you but I’m going to be going over my own Act I to check for these things too!)

Thanks everyone!

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For the love of structure

I break down and analyze books for structure. It’s not a new idea but not one I always followed. I’d say, “Eh, I’ll just read and soak it up.” When I analyzed my first book last summer I was amazed by all I learned.

Over Christmas, I read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. Love, love, loved it. It’s a must read for novelists and screenwriters. I break down my movies and books according to his beat sheet.

One of my goals for this year is to be more active in growing in craft. So after I broke down my first movie, I processed what I learned by writing it down for a blog post. And it helped even more.

How To Train a Dragon: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Fifteen tips I learned from HTYD.

(I was amazed to learn that Blake Snyder worked on the screenplay for HTYD. At his website, here’s a breakdown of the movie. And yes, it’s slightly different than my breakdown.)

You might wonder why I broke down a movie first. Well, I’d read a book with the intent of using it, but when I’d finished analyzing it, I came to a conclusion. The book did not have a great structure, and I think suffered because of it. So, I couldn’t use it for my blog. I was bummed. Later that week I sat down to watch a movie with my kids. When I recognized great structure within the first few minutes, I grabbed my notebook.

For many, story structure comes naturally. And for me, it does to a certain point, but when I tweak my story specifically to structure – guess what? My story is stronger.

Structure affects almost everything.

  • Pacing
  • Conflict
  • Tension
  • Story arc
  • Character arc
  • Emotion
  • Theme

It’s worth it to apply story structure techniques to your writing whether you’re a pantser or a plotter.

Next I’ll be breaking down a book I found had excellent structure. Yay!

PRINCESS FOR HIRE by Lindsey Leavitt. It starts Friday!

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