We’ve talked about story structure before on SciFi Ideas. In a previous article, A Sexy Guide to Structuring Your Story, we discussed the four-part story structure and looked at Nick Pemberton’s “Good Sex” strategy. The “Good Sex” strategy was taught to me by my old college lecturer. It deals with the peaks in interest and excitement that occur within a well structured, well paced story.
The four-part story structure and the “Good Sex” strategy go hand in hand and you can read about them both by clicking here. In this article we’ll be looking at the four-part story structure specifically, and we’ll be applying it to an example for the sake of clarity.
The Four-Part Story Structure
It’s common to hear people say that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This is essentially useless. It’s like saying that a piece of string has one end, another end and is made of string. Every sequence of events has a beginning, middle and end; it’s one of the fundamental laws of time. You’re obviously going to start writing your story at one point in time and end it at another, and your characters are likely to experience a similar journey.
It’s much more useful to consider a story as having four sections. These are the introduction, complication, climax and resolution.
You can see the four-part story structure in various works, from printed works of literature to movies, and even some computer games. We’re going to use the movie Jurassic Park as an example (most people on Earth have seen it at least once so it’s a pretty safe choice).
Let’s look at each section now.
The first part of a well-structured story is the ‘introduction’. This is also known as the ‘set-up’.
The point of the introduction is to set the scene and introduce your characters. Show us who they are, what they’re all about and find a way to make us connect with them on a basic level.
In most cases, this is all the introduction requires, and it should be kept brief (you’ll want to get your story moving as soon as possible). However, if you are writing a heavily concept-based science fiction story (a dystopian novel like Orwell’s “1984”, for example), you may want to take some time to explain your world-concept here too. You don’t need to say too much though; you can keep building your concept or world as the story progresses.
Jurassic Park has a fairly simple introduction. We meet the main characters and they all go on a helicopter ride together. Once they reach the island, we have everything we need for the story to begin.
However, Jurassic Park also has what could be seen as a ‘prologue’. This is a short section before the introduction begins. It’s designed to entice the audience with a snapshot of what’s to come. You might call it a ‘teaser’. In Jurassic Park, the prologue is the short scene at the very beginning in which a Velociraptor is introduced to the ‘raptor pit’ and kills one of the park technicians.
The ‘complication’ is the largest and most complex section. This is the meat and bones of your story, and all the fiddly tendons and ligaments too. In this section you can add lengthy explanations, develop characters and create exciting chase sequences. Pretty much anything goes.
If you were to write a murder mystery story, this would be where the bulk of the investigation takes place. In a horror, the minor characters are picked off one by one.
The complication section of Jurassic Park gives us a number of interesting and exciting scenes, including the science fiction explanation of how the dinosaurs are created, the brilliant “Where’s the goat?” scene and the T-Rex car chase. The characters become separated and begin to develop. Dr. Grant is forced to take care of the kids, Hammond begins to realize he’s made a big mistake and Dr. Malcolm gets a powerful lesson in humility.
I would say that the complication begins the moment you see the first Brachiosaurus. Many writers ascribe the beginning of this section to a singular event or change that causes the characters to act, which seems very sensible. Using this definition, you could argue that the complication begins when the fences are powered down and the dinosaurs escape. However, that’s a fair way into the film. When the main characters (minus Tim and Lex) see the Brachiosaurus they become emotionally invested in the park, and that, to me, is the moment of change from which the story unravels.
NOTE: It is likely that the writers of the screenplay were instead following the traditional ‘three act structure’, as many still do. In this structure, the T-Rex escaping would probably mark the beginning of the second act.
Nick Pemberton’s “Good Sex” strategy tells us that the complication should be a roller-coaster of peaks and dips in excitement, gradually building into the climax. However, it often doesn’t work this way. In many larger works, by which I mean novels and movies, as opposed to short stories, there is a distinct lull between the complication and climax sections. This could be considered a calm before the storm, serving to accent the drama and excitement of the climactic scenes.
The climax is where things really heat up. This section contains the most exciting and pivotal moment of your story. In a murder mystery, the detective calls all the suspects into the parlour to reveal his findings. With horror, the main character faces his fear. In an epic, it’s the final battle.
In Jurassic Park, the climax deals primarily with the Velociraptors, the scariest of all the dinosaurs. The big ‘end of level boss’ that is the T-Rex also makes a return, initiating a Man vs. Raptor vs. T-Rex vs. museum exhibit grudge match.
It’s interesting to note that most of the climax takes place indoors (the visitors centre, the control room, the kitchen). There is a very good reason for this. By enclosing the action in a confined space, the drama becomes intensified. The characters must confront their enemies and their fears head on – face to face.
It’s what some would call the “final roof-top showdown”. Other climactic clichés include the “ticking clock” and the “red wire/blue wire decision”.
While most character development typically happens in the ‘complication’ section, where characters are forced to react to complicated changes in their circumstances, the ‘climax’ often shows us just how much the character has developed through the course of the story. Characters may have become more confident and empowered, and may demonstrate this by kicking a raptor in the face or by using their awesome computer skills. However, some writers choose to use their climax section to force a major development in their lead character. Perhaps they face a climactic decision, or have to take an action they ordinarily wouldn’t consider.
The ‘resolution’ (or conclusion) is the final section of any story. It is also one of the shortest (usually comparable in length to the ‘introduction’).
I won’t presume to tell you how your story should end – every story will be different. It may be that the good guy shoots the bad guy, or that a major disaster is averted. What is important, however, is that the end of a story should never be abrupt. This is the purpose of the final section.
A story transitions into its resolution when the final climactic event occurs. The resolution then shows us the aftermath, winding things down slowly and demonstrating, once again, how the characters have been changed by their experiences.
Our hero goes home to his wife and kids, and puts his greasy Die Hard vest into the wash. In a murder mystery, the killer is sent to jail and vows his revenge.
Jurassic Park has a very simple and elegant resolution. The characters escape the island in the very same helicopter in which they arrived, thus bringing us full circle. While Dr Grant had previously hated children, he now has his arms around Lex and Tim. He looks out the window to see a flock of birds, leaving us with two final thoughts – isn’t it awesome that dinosaurs evolved from birds, and what would happen if the dinosaurs could leave the island?
Leaving your readers with a final thought is a very effective way to end a story. It will keep them thinking about your story long after they close the book, and encourage them to discuss it with others. Encouraging your readers to think will also enable them to further connect with the characters and participate in their journey. In this section the characters reflect on what they’ve learned, and the final thought encourages the reader to do the same.
Written by Mark Ball