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Monday, April 29, 2019

When and How to Weaken a Passage

You might think this a tongue-in-cheek post, a joke, but you may be surprised to know it's the real thing. Yes, although uncommon, there are times where you may need to actually weaken a scene.

Sounds crazy, right?

Not for the first time, it recently happened to me.

I like to write scene by scene. But one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cons to that is having to fix cohesion in the novel as a whole afterward. And as I've been trying to do that in my own WIP, I've had to weaken multiple passages.

But it's not just me.

I've worked with authors that I've had to ask to do the same thing.

It's like when you order a fancy dessert at a nice restaurant. You know, the kind where you take three bites and can't finish it because it's so sweet, so much, so rich? The same thing can happen in creative works. You may be thinking that this triple chocolate fudge cake topped with ganache is some of your best work--and that may be absolutely true--but the client can't eat more than a quarter of it.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, writing is a collaboration between the creator and the reader. And even if your triple chocolate fudge cake is amazing it may be that the reader really needs some vanilla with it, not more chocolate.

For the creator, it's the worst sometimes. Especially when you already made the triple chocolate fudge cake topped with ganache--and it's perfect.

When to Weaken a Passage

At the root, you really need to weaken a passage simply when it comes off as too strong. The strength can be manifested in different ways:

1. You're reiterating, amplifying, or building on something that has already been conveyed to the audience well. 

Some might be reading that and thinking, well, yeah, that's obvious--you need to cut it because it's repetitive. But it may not actually be that obvious, especially if it's something you are building on. It may not be repetitive, directly.

This was my most recent problem. I had a powerful scene (I still love that triple chocolate) that was amplifying an important character trait of my protagonist. But because of previous subtext, even if this particular facet hadn't made it onto the page, the audience had already gleaned enough of it to satisfy the point. Building and amplifying on that trait, even when rendered well, was annoying. It was too much. It came off too strong. And it actually made the character kind of obnoxious. It put too much power and emphasis on his dominating traits.

The scene on its own worked very well.

But when put into the context of the whole novel, it was too much. Too rich.

2. You have too many powerful emotions close together

We are often trying to create a powerful, emotional experience for the reader. But it's entirely possible to make it too powerful.

Now, I'm not talking about melodrama, which is a different thing.

I'm talking about a lot of genuine, raw, emotional moments.

Sure, at the climax, you usually really want to stack all this on, but even there you can overdo it.

Do you remember learning about pacing as a writer?

When it comes to pacing, it's entirely possible to not only go too slow, but to go too fast. If you never let the reader catch a breath, they won't like the book. They'll feel exhausted. Even get a little annoyed. Finally, having so much of the same pacing actually makes the reader have a less powerful reading experience, since it's so much the same. It loses its effect.

The same thing can happen with powerful emotions. If every single emotion is maxed out and super powerful and rendered powerfully on the page near each other, it's too much!

It's not "over-dramatic" necessarily, but it's just "a-lot-a-dramatic."

3. The writing itself is too beautiful, too powerful, too dramatic, or too rich for too long.

While most of us are usually trying to render things on the page more beautifully or powerfully, other writers' words may have too much of that.

It's the triple chocolate analogy again.

It may be the best triple chocolate ever created.

But most mortals can't keep eating it. It'll make them sick.

This kind of writing is not to be confused with purple prose, which is a specific style of writing that happens when a writer is trying to write beautifully, powerfully, or dramatically, but hasn't learned the techniques yet of how to actually do that.

No, this situation happens to writers who actually know how to render things that way on the page, but they just render it too strong for too long, to the point that it's difficult for the reader to keep taking it in, cognitively.

When that happens, it's time to tone it down.

 4. You have too many excellent ideas too close together. 

As writers, we may feel like we get a million ideas, sometimes even for a single scene (other times we pray to the heavens that the muse will just please give us at least one to get us started).

Here's the thing.

All the ideas we choose to put on the page may actually be really great, really amazing, really excellent ideas.

But it's possible that keeping all of them is just too much awesome for the reader to ingest at once. We've added more and more chocolate. It's amazing.

But they can't eat it.

In some cases, having too many good ideas too close together can actually muddy the story and make it confusing. It's hard for the audience to know which component is meant to have their focus. And there is so much, the audience can't appreciate each individual piece.

Now, you can get away with a lot of excellent ideas.

But like the other three, it is possible to go overboard in some situations.

Unless you read a lot of unpublished fiction, chances are you probably haven't actually encountered what it's like to try to read passages that are literally simply too strong to ingest. Even with 7+ years of editing, I still have only seen it, at most, a dozen times. But it's a real thing, and I want my followers to know it can happen.

Maybe you have struggled to become a great writer for years. Well, the strengths you have worked so hard to nail can actually become weaknesses if you aren't willing to back away from the ganache. Congratulations, you have succeeded in learning how to render power on the page.

But the story still needs to be digestible.

It sucks, right? But there may be times where, for the sake of the reader, you may need to actually weaken your passages so they can enjoy them.

How to Weaken a Passage

If you've made it to the point where your passages are too strong, there may be a good chance that you'll have a mini panic attack with what I'm about to say. After all, most of these are no-no's--because they can weaken writing. You've probably sworn a lot of them off so you could write powerfully (which is maybe part of the problem).

1. Tell, Don't Show

One of the first, most basic rules we learn as writers is to "show, don't tell." This is because telling is weak, nonspecific, and can keep the reader from being fully immersed in the story.

All horrible qualities that might be perfect for weakening a passage.

Just so there is no confusing, telling absolutely has a place in storytelling and should be present in 99.9% of novels. But showing should be used more.

If your passage is too strong, you might want to swap out some of the showing for telling, which will make it easier on the reader.

I recently did this. Instead of showing that my character was mad, I simply stated it on the page: "He felt mad."--definitely weaker and (unfortunately) just what the scene needed. In some cases, you may need to just label the emotion rather than fully render it.

2. Deviate the Reader's Experience

This relates to my second method, which is deviating the reader's experience from the character's. When we tell, the reader is naturally less immersed in the real events in the story, which means there is a slight (however small in some cases) deviation.

Our characters are experiencing powerful things. Sometimes that power accumulates and becomes too much if we don't deviate enough in the manuscript. You can weaken a passage with this method by using the right subtext, tone, or by telling.

For more on this technique and when and how to use it, see "Deviating the Reader's Experience from the Character's."

3. Use To-Be Verbs

To-be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, been, being) are naturally weak because they don't actually convey anything except "existence." This is one of several reasons why new writers are told not to use them.

But when a passage is too strong, it's definitely an option to consider.

If the passage is written too beautifully and dramatically, to-be verbs will help tone that down.

If the passage has too many excellent ideas to take in, to-be verbs can naturally make it easier for the audience to take in, cognitively (precisely because they don't actually tell us anything but "existence.")

They can also tone down just about any strong passage, but those are two instances where they may be particularly helpful.

4. Cut Word Count

This might seem like stating the obvious. The smaller your triple chocolate dessert is, the more likely the consumer can actually eat the whole thing. Shorten the powerful passage to make it easier on the reader. Cut words or cut concepts in the passage itself. Save the power and length for what matters most, what is most significant. This article relates.

(Note: However, weirdly, in other situations, you may actually need to add more length--add more vanilla writing to spread out the bites of pure chocolate.)

5. Use Vanilla Words

Some words are naturally simplistic. The to-be verbs are an example. The word "guess" is simpler than "hypothesize." Look for opportunities to use simpler words to add the vanilla.

Look for words that have these qualities:

Short Syllables - Use words that have few syllables. Choose the word "dance" over "promenade," for example.

Familiar > Unusual - Choose words and concepts that are more familiar or common to the audience. For example, choose "guess" instead of "hypothesize."

Simple > Complex - Similarly, choose words and concepts that are simpler. The more technical you get, the more the audience needs to slow down and digest.

By following these techniques, you should be able to weaken your Hulk-smash-power passage, and the hardest part should be a broken writer heart at having to.

Monday, April 22, 2019

How to Convey an Established Relationship Quickly

I was once reading two story openings that were frankly amazing at conveying an established relationship in a matter of pages or even paragraphs. Many stories revolve around the protagonist meeting new people, such as in a typical Hero’s Journey plot. But perhaps even more stories (and often including even the Hero’s Journey to some extent) revolve around relationships that are established before the novel begins.

Many new writers have a difficult time conveying such relationships quickly, and to be honest, it can even be tricky for more experienced writers to figure out sometimes, especially if the relationship is very significant.

Whether you are working with best friends, significant others, parents and children, schoolmates, rivals, or downright enemies, here are several methods to help with that.

1. Communicate What’s Normal. 

Every established relationship has been . . . well . . . established, meaning it has behaviors and attitudes that are typical in it. In one of the story openings I read, the protagonist had to deal with two, mean, cruel older sisters. First the meanness was rendered, and then validated through narration. In the second one, what was normal of two brothers was simply conveyed through the way they talked to one another. In both cases, I immediately had context for what was typical.

2. Refer to or Imply an Off-Page History. 

Every established relationship has a history: how the characters met, what events have taken place between them, and how they got to where they are now. In some cases, they may have a “reoccurring history.” For example, every Saturday they happened to both be at the dog park, and that’s how they became friends (or enemies).

3. Have a Character Predict How the Other Will Behave or React. 

This immediately conveys that these two people know each other very well. Again, it can be more reoccurring: “Samantha always got cranky when she ran out of chocolate.” Or a specific moment: “I could already picture Monica’s eye roll before I delivered the news.”

4. If the Relationship is Long-Term, Give Us a Sense of How it has Changed. 

A lot can change between first falling in love and being married for ten years. Whether it’s a friendship, partnership, or even an enemy, naturally there will be some degree of growth or at least change. Give us a glimpse of how the relationship we see on the page now is different than it was before.

5. Round out Likeness with Foiling, or Opposition with Likeness. 

One of the mistakes that is easy to make is to have participants in a positive relationship exactly the same, or participants in a negative relationship exactly opposites. But almost nothing can make a relationship feel more authentic and well-rounded quicker than having some of both. This means that even two best friends should disagree with or dislike each other to some extent, in some aspect. It’s better if you can even make them opposites in some way. On the other hand, with an enemy, there should be some similarity and likeness between the characters, maybe even admiration (even if the viewpoint character doesn’t want to admit it). This will immediately make the relationship feel more complex.

For a more in-depth look at these some of these points and at creating powerful positive relationships between characters, check out my article "Creating Relationships Readers Can't Resist."

Monday, April 15, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Climax, Denouement, Epilogues, and Endings

Endings tend to be a bit easier to write, because you've already set everything up and now you're resolving conflict after conflict, but the story can still blow up in your face if you don't handle it right. Or maybe you are one of the more uncommon writers that really struggles with endings. In either case, this article will help you structure the last portion of your story right.

Here is the (hybrid) structure I'm following, with the pieces we've talked about over the last few weeks now filled in:

Beginning ("Orphan" State)
(Prologue)--primary function is to make promises to the reader
Hook--draws the audience in by getting them to look forward (in openings, contrasts work well in particular)
Setup--establishes the current sense of "normal" while introducing key story elements
Plot Point 1 (or "Inciting Incident")--disrupts the normal and sends protagonist in a new direction.

Character arc and theme are introduced. Usually at this state, the protagonist believes in (or illustrates) a "false" thematic statement.

Middle ("Wanderer" State)
After Plot Point 1--the protagonist is reacting and responding to what's happening, while perhaps accumulating friends, mentors, love interests, etc.
Pinch Point--The antagonist applies pressure to the protagonist and is shown to be a formidable foe
Midpoint--Something new enters the story or the context shifts and the protagonist moves from reacting to acting. She becomes more proactive.

The theme is questioned, explored, and tested, usually through multiple characters. The character is confronted with and illustrates his weakness.

Costs and stakes escalate by either getting bigger or more personal or both.

Middle ("Warrior" State)
After the Midpoint--Now empowered, the character is more proactive in trying to defeat the antagonist
Pinch Point 2--The antagonist applies pressure to the protagonist and is shown to be an even stronger, formidable foe
Plot Point 2--Made up of two parts: "The Darkest Hour" and "The Final Puzzle Piece." Protagonist moves into a "martyr" state.

The characters struggle with their inner demons, testing the thematic statement.

Costs and stakes continue to escalate.

Ending ("Martyr" State)

These parts belong in the ending, which is what I'm talking about today. 


We've grabbed the audience and setup the story in the beginning; disrupted the protagonist's sense of normal with the inciting incident; hiked up stakes and costs; questioned, explored, and tested the thematic threads; applied pressure through pinch points; and moved our hero from a warrior to a martyr as they experienced the "Darkest Hour" and put together the "Final Puzzle Piece."

To be fair, that last bit sometimes happens during the climax. During the final battle, the protagonist may experience the darkest hour and put together the final puzzle piece, completing their character arc, and finally reaching the "martyr" state.

Nothing in writing is purely black and white. And there are always variations and exceptions. And when it comes to story structure, some of it depends on how and where you decide to slice and dice it.


In the climax, the protagonist faces the antagonistic forces head-on, ready for the final battle that determines who (or what) wins the established conflicts.

Remember all those conflicts, stakes, costs, arcs, and themes you setup?

Now it's time to test, prove, and resolve them in the showdown.

It's hard to be exact on what needs to happen in the climax, because a lot of it will depend on what came before.

There might be a twist, surprise, or devastating cost.

But to be most effective and most successful, whatever is in there, needs to have been at least foreshadowed prior to this moment in some degree. It can be twisted. It can be shifted. It can be bigger or worse than expected. But it usually needs to be at least alluded to prior. If not, the audience may feel cheated; if it's something that helps the hero win, it's likely a deus ex machina.

Promises made (almost always) need to be kept. So if you promised a battle with a dragon, it better be there.

If promises aren't kept, whatever happens needs to be just as significant or more significant than what was promised. For example, maybe the monster is actually something worse, more terrifying, more formidable than the promised dragon.

In great climaxes, the story exceeds the expectations.

Stakes and costs will be escalated yet again. This is it. Everything is on the line.

Additionally, the climax is a great place to cross opposites--cross the broadest conflicts with the most personal conflicts for maximum impact. Character arcs are usually finished by the end of the climax, proving the thematic statement.

Often during the climax the protagonist will ultimately have to face the antagonistic force alone. The hero should ultimately be the savior, or in rare cases, if she can't literally, makes a final sacrifice that allows the others to deal the death blow.

For a more in depth look at some of these mentioned elements, see my article "How to Write Exceptional Endings."

In Spider-verse

The climax begins when the heroes confront the villains at the collider in the final fight. The heroes hope to return to their dimensions and Miles hopes to save Brooklyn. The antagonist, Kingpin, is set on seizing his wife and son from another dimension no matter the cost. He's willing to kill heroes, civilians, and destroy his own dimension. Those conflicts must now be resolved.

Stakes and costs are escalated. This is the moment where the protagonist could die, something he is reminded of when Kingpin taunts, "Not even the real Spider-man could defeat me. Why do you think you'd be any different?" The cost is the real deal.

The stakes are escalated in that multiple dimensions are coming into Miles's dimension.

Character arcs. Usually by the end of the climax, character arcs have been completed. The most personal, internal conflicts cross paths with the broadest conflicts. And the ugly inner demons may raise their heads one last time in the final fight. Peter B. Parker reveals he wants to stay in this dimension and die so that he doesn't have to go home to face his failures with Mary Jane. When attacking Kingpin alone, Miles gets brutally beaten and struggles to get up. Gwen comes to terms with making friends again.

Themes. After having been explored and questioned through the middle, the themes are finally tested and proven. Miles does get back up after getting knocked down. Peter B. Parker does return to his dimension to face his personal problems. Gwen Stacy does make friends with each of them. But the theme is also refined. Is there really any garantee that if you always want to get back up that everything will work out? Not necessarily. After all, the Peter Parker from the beginning, who was the epitome of the thematic statement, died despite having it all. Prowler, who at one point says, "You know me, sir. I never quit," didn't follow through when he realized the person he was trying to kill was his nephew, and Prowler died from that choice. Even Peter B. Parker remarks at one point, "Not everything works out." Which is why the sub themes of choice and faith come in.

Peter: How do I know I won't mess it up again?

Miles: You won't.

Peter: . . . It's a leap of faith.

So Peter chooses to go back and take that leap of faith.

However, as the ending continues it's shown that not quitting will get you further than you ever thought possible, as is exemplified when Miles says, "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask," which finally extends the theme to the audience. YOU can do all sorts of things you never thought you could do, as long as you always get back up.

Everything in the final showdown is foreshadowed in some way prior. 

Promises are kept. Miles and the other Spider people face off Kingpin and the villains in a battle over the collider that could destroy Brooklyn.

Expectations are Exceeded. In this story, other, seemingly insignificant elements are brought back in during the final battle to help exceed our expectations. That ridiculous shoulder touch thing Aaron teaches Miles? Miles uses it defeat Kingpin. The stupid cartoony stuff about the pig? He's literally using cartoon elements to fight, dropping anvils and pulling out items that are way to big to fit in his pockets. Everywhere during this fight scene, elements that have been present elsewhere are coming back into play for a stronger impact. Remember that, find ways to resonate with what happened earlier in the story.

Protagonist faces antagonist alone. After sending everyone to their proper dimensions, Miles faces Kingpin alone for one final fight, where his character arc and newfound abilities are proven. Some of the best elements of this moment come from the writers playing the concept of the "orphan" state. Remember how most heroes start in a literal or figurative orphan state? This whole time, Kingpin has been trying to get his family back--he's in an "orphan" state too! What does he say in the final fight to Miles? "I'm going to make sure you never see your family again!" What does Miles say? "I'll always have my family." And to top it off, the person Miles was most "orphaned" from, his father, is there watching and now supporting him ("Get up Spider-man! Get up!"). Miles is no longer alone. He has friends and family. And he gets back up and defeats Kingpin.

Martyr State 

During the ending of the story, the protagonist is in a "martyr" state, which I talked about last time.  Like all the other states, it can be literal or figurative. But at this point in the story, the heroine has sacrificed or is willing to sacrifice her "life." In some cases, this is literal. Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Harry in Harry Potter, are literally willing to sacrifice their lives in order to defeat the antagonist. In many cases, it is figurative. Christopher Robin in Christopher Robin is willing to sacrifice his lifestyle. Hamilton is willing to sacrifice his most extreme characteristic: his resolve to never throw away his shot.

In the ending, we must see that the protagonist is truly ready to sacrifice or give up whatever has been holding him back from success.

This change will then be validated in the denouement.

In Spider-verse

Miles enters the marytr state when he truly commits to give up giving up. It turns out that's what has been holding him back this entire time, even in his personal life, and in school. He doesn't want to work hard. He doesn't want to be amazing. He doesn't want to deal with expectations. He wants to quit. Quitting is easy. Getting up over and over and over again is hard. But when he truly sacrifices his natural tendency, he starts being successful. And the ending proves that it works.


The antagonist has been defeated, so now that means we need to hurry and end the story right? Wrong. Partially. Denouements are another element in storytelling that I feel are often misunderstood. It's not just about ending the story quickly. It about validating everything that has changed.

Remember all the crazy things we've just dragged the audience through? Well, we need to validate that all those things actually happened and that the sacrifices paid off (in some rare endings, you may be validating that those sacrifices didn't pay off, but let's stick with the general for today). In a romance, you need to validate that the couple are actually together and in a great relationship--this might be done with a marriage or marriage proposal. If anyone died, we need that validated--we may need to see the protagonist attend a funeral. If the antagonist has really been defeated, we need to see that their power is gone from this world.

What we do not want to do is end the story by undercutting the entire experience we just created. This is just another reason why a story that ends with "it was all a dream" is so horrific. It undermines everything. Another example of this is Lost, where audiences found out at the end that the characters had just been dead the entire time. This doesn't mean you can't ever have loose ends, but you should not undermine everything you just slaved so hard to make.

The denouement also complements and foils the setup. While the setup works to establish a current normal, the denouement works to establish a new normal. So often in a lot of stories (and this relates to the Hero's Journey story structure), you'll see direct similarities between the setup and the denouement. At the beginning and end of (almost) every Harry Potter book, Harry starts at his aunt and uncle's and ends there, and yet things have changed.

If there are any loose ends or unresolved conflicts, they will typically be addressed and handled in the denouement. 

In a series, the denouement may function a little differently. You will be validating the major changes of the story, but may leave or suggest loose threads that will play a part in the next story.

Never forget Mickey Spillane's sound advice: "The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book."

This is true for any book, series or not. If it's a series, it sells the next installment. If it's not, it leaves people wanting to buy the next book you write.

In some stories, the denouement may actually be one of the most powerful parts, because you are validating one change after another after another in a short amount of space, so it has a profound emotional impact. (Almost) Never skimp out on it.

However, like the setup, you don't want it to be too long either. Remember, they complement each other. Just like you don't want to give a play by play of "normal" in the setup (super boring), you don't want to give a play by play of the new normal in the denouement. Validate and convey what you need to and then move on. Keep it short enough to stay interesting but long enough to cover the important parts. 

In Spider-verse

The denouement succeeds in all these ways. It validates all the changes. Kingpin is officially caught (Miles shows him stuck in a web). The relationship between Miles's dad and himself (even as Spider-man) is repaired and at least tolerated. This is further validated by Miles saying, "I love you," when in the setup he refused to say it unless he had no choice. Now he means it and wants to say it.

Peni is shown safe in her own dimension repairing her robot. Spider-man noir is shown safe solving the Rubik's cube (one of his struggles). The pig is back in his dimension. Gwen Stacy is staring at a picture of her new friend. And Peter B. Parker, despite the fact he at one point would literally rather die, brings flowers to Mary Jane, in an attempt to repair their relationship.

Then we have the protagonist, Miles. What is he doing? He's attending school and applying himself. He's putting up his art with his dad. (See how these things directly complement the setup?) Which, in the process, validates the death of his uncle. He's being Spider-man. And he's no longer an orphan. "Whenever I feel alone, I remember my friends out there who get it." And best of all, he's overcome his internal weaknesses and embodied the true thematic statement: "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to. Anyone can wear the mask. YOU can wear the mask."

All of us can do things we never thought we could do, as long as we get back up.

Do you see how powerful a properly crafted denouement can drive home the point?

Then at the very last second, we see that somehow Gwen Stacy is talking to Miles from her dimension. This creates a thread of a loose end. In other words, Spider-verse is one of those magic things that agents love to hear: a standalone story with series potential.

From another perspective, this moment simply shows the audience that all these characters may somehow be able to communicate with each other despite being in different dimensions. They aren't alone.


Like a prologue, your story may or may not need an epilogue, and some stories can work in either case. Epilogues function mainly in two different ways.

1. They offer additional needed closure. In some stories you may not be able to tie everything up in the denouement. You may need an epilogue to finish it out. This can be especially true if it seems "too soon" to close some unresolved components in the denouement. 

2. They start more loose threads. If you have another installment planned after this one, an epilogue can promise that there is more to the story. This works well when you want a lot of closure for the current installment, but want to signal to the audience that there is more. You tie up everything in the denouement, but then start some new threads in an epilogue.

In a lot of ways, the epilogue complements the prologue in type and structure. It may be a bit theatrical. It may be a short teaser. It may close out the story in two different ways (one component is dealt with in the denouement and another is dealt with in the epilogue). It may provide an alternate viewpoint that didn't belong in the main story. It may be displaced in time. Or it may give additional information. Check out my article on the different types of prologues, and you'll see that it is so. 

In Spider-verse

Whether or not the after credits scene functions as a true epilogue is debatable. In some ways it does, and in some ways it's just a fun after credit scene to make people laugh. I'm leaning more toward the latter. But let's talk about it.

Of the two purposes above, it mostly fits into the second. It starts something new. We're introduced to another spider character who now has the ability to intentionally travel to other dimensions, successfully. What does that mean? Perhaps it's similar to Gwen talking to Miles at the end. These spider characters will interact with each other again. There is more to the story.

But as the scene plays out, it ends more as another opportunity to get one last laugh out of the audience. That's fine, for a superhero movie.

Or maybe that ending is intentionally ambiguous. One interpretation works better for a series, and the other works better for a standalone. Maybe the writers intentionally wanted to have it fit for either, as they wait and see if they can get funding and support for another film to happen.

Whatever the case, you can watch or read other epilogues and see how they either add more closure or add more loose threads.

And that's story structure explained.

Now what? Do you need to follow all these components to write a good story? Not necessarily. Heaven knows there are plenty of writers who are successful without knowing about these things at all. However, I will argue that whether it's intentional or not, most writers who write successful stories will hit the majority of these components in some way, even if it's completely done subconsciously. We've seen and been fed this story structure so much, from such young ages, that if we don't follow it to some degree, something will feel off or wrong, even if we can't pinpoint or communicate what it is exactly. In fact, we may even misdiagnose the problem. But if this has been helpful to you, go ahead and use it. If you feel like it's paralyzing you, don't worry about it so much. This is meant to help, not hinder. Do what works for you. And there are other sliced and diced forms of story structure you can look into.

In the future I want to grab some other stories and break down how they fit these elements, briefly, so you guys have examples of how it works for vastly different narratives.


This article series was influenced by Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, the Seven Point Story Structure, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, The Hero's Journey, and even the basics of Freytag's Pyramid.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Pinch Points, Midpoints, Plot Points, and Middles (Part 2)

This post focuses on the second part of the middle, aka, the "active" or "warrior" phase of the story, and will take you from the midpoint up to the climax.

For the beginning part of story structure--the prologue, hooks, setup, and "orphan" phase--visit this page.

For the first part of the middle, between the inciting incident and the midpoint, or the "reactive" or "wanderer" phase, visit this page.


At the midpoint, new information enters the story that changes the context. It moves the protagonist from reaction to action. He stops being a wanderer and turns into a warrior, trying to fight back and attack, usually with a clearer goal or a more refined strategy. In other words, he is now more empowered than before.

Midpoints can be mind-blowing. Or they can be subtle. In the film Interstellar, the midpoint also serves as a twist. The context shifts and the audience and protagonists realize that there never ever really was a plan to save the humans on Earth. It was all a ruse to provide people hope. Once Cooper learns this, he changes into warrior mode, determined to do whatever it takes to return to Earth and/or save the people there.

Other midpoints aren't as drastic. It might be the protagonist sitting down to eat and suddenly having a profound realization that changes the perspective of everything she's been reacting to.

In Spider-verse

The midpoint in Spider-verse happens at the very end of the scene where Miles and Peter B. Parker steal the computer from Alchemax, and it goes into the very beginning of the next scene, the bus ride with Gwen Stacy.

Prior to this, even if Miles and Peter have a plan, they've largely been responding. And the only reason they need to go to Alchemax in the first place is because Miles himself broke the override key.

However, by the end of this scene, a few things have changed that steer us into the next phase:

1. Miles learns how to unstick intentionally
2. And how to use his web, intentionally
3. By this point, he's learned how to listen to his spider senses.
4. Peter and Miles begin working together as a team

In other words, things they were reacting to are starting to get under control. Sure, Miles still doesn't have control over all his powers, and maybe that's a variation, but it works because he has control over the iconic, main Spider-man powers.

On the bus ride afterward, Gwen Stacy reveals she knows where they can go to make another override key, promising they'll make sure the new one doesn't break, and thus giving Peter and Miles a clear plan and a clearer path to defeating the antagonist.

Warrior State (and Character Arc)

From the midpoint to the climax, the protagonist is in a stronger proactive or "warrior" state. Armed with what they've learned as a wanderer (which may include having mentors, friends, and helpers), the protagonist is ready to make more proactive efforts or actual attacks on the antagonistic force.  According to Larry Brooks, they may literally fight back, hatch a plan, enlist assistance, demonstrate courage, or show initiative.

They may not always be successful (after all, the story isn't over), but they are brave and intentional. And not only will they be fighting the antagonistic force, but their inner demons as well (which relates to character arc and theme).

In Spider-verse

Now having learned how to stick and unstick, web sling, and listen to his spider senses, Miles is more equipped to carry out (the original) Peter Parker's plan to destroy the collider. He's accumulated a mentor and a friend (and some of the wanderer phase bleeds out just a bit, because he's about to accumulate a few more) to help him on his way--and they are now working together. They are ready and willing to address the antagonistic problem, more directly. And Miles in particular is going to be the one to save the other spider people and send them home (at least that's the plan and attempt at this point.)

Just as much, they are going to be confronting their inner demons too, which in this story, relates to quitting.

Miles, crumbling under everyone else's expectations of him, is going to want to quit progressing. ("I don't know if I can do it. I'm tired of letting everyone down.")

Peter B. Parker, haunted by his failure as a husband and fear of being a father, is going to have to confront that, and he'll have second thoughts about returning to his home dimension. ("You needed me, and I wasn't there. If all I'd given you was the . . . bread that you deserve. We could fill this whole room with bread.")

Gwen Stacy, stuck with having to work with five other people she relates to (not to mention a live version of her dead best friend), is going to be unsure about making friends with them. (Miles: "If you ever open up a slot, maybe we could be friends.")

Worth noting is how these arcs change at the midpoint. By the midpoint, Miles is now planning not to fail. He's trying to reach his potential by succeeding at something new, and he does succeed. (And he's not going to stand by and watch Spider-man die again.) Peter, who fears and is annoyed with kids in the first half of the middle, at the midpoint is now working successfully with Miles. And Gwen Stacy, who has isolated herself from friendship, considers maybe making friends.

Pinch Point 2

We have attack mode. We have skills. And friends. And we have a proactive plan.

Great! Just in time for things to get worse! Like the other pinch point, the second pinch point is the antagonistic force applying (painful) pressure on the protagonist. Because guess what? Now that the hero is stronger and better, we need to show again that the antagonistic force is still a formidable foe--even more of a formidable foe.

Stakes and costs will rise.

Conflicts will broaden and deepen.

Let's see this in action.

In Spider-verse

Pinch point two begins when Miles discovers that his uncle is actually the Prowler. Bam! That conflict just deepened (became more personal). And guess what? It broadens too! Because as Miles runs back to Aunt May's house, it turns out he was followed, which means now we have a big fight on our hands.

Pinch point two is bigger than pinch point one. Instead of having 2 - 3 villains to deal with, you'll notice we now have 4 - 5. Likewise, we have more heroes. And Prowler is trying to kill Miles.

At the end of the second pinch point, Uncle Aaron dies. That's a big personal cost to Miles.

Despite being armed as a warrior, this is not going to be an easy win.

Plot Point 2

Remember at the start of this series when I complained how a lot of terms in the industry are ambiguous? Like plot point one/the inciting incident? Well, the term plot point two can be a bit ambiguous too. But whatever you call it, make sure you understand the concept.

Plot point two (my hybrid version 😅) is made up of two parts: The all-is-lost lull and the last-piece-to-the-puzzle moment.

Most people I've found say plot point two is the second part. Others say it's the first part. Whichever it is, in most successful stories, these two things usually happen in some way, and they again pivot or propel the story in its final direction.

In some stories, they may seem to happen within the climax portion. In others, they occur just before. It all depends on the finer points of the story's structure and how you want to slice and dice and define it.

Part 1: "All is lost"/"Dark night of the soul"/"Darkest hour"

Whatever you call it, before the (typically) last piece of realization/information/context enters the story that allows the hero to win, there is a painful lull where everything feels lost and hopeless.

A mentor may die.

A big failure may take place.

The antagonistic force pulls out something unforeseen and seemingly unconquerable.

Friends and colleagues turn on one another.

Or any other number of devastating things.

It can be internal and personal. Or external and broad.

Not all stories have this moment, but I'd argue that it exists in most successful stories in some way, to some degree.

Part 2: "The last piece to the puzzle"

The last bit of information, realization, or context shift happens or fits into place that allows the hero to defeat the antagonistic force. It pivots the story to the "final chase." Often, it relates to the protagonist finally fully overcoming her inner demons (and therefore manifests the thematic statement by completing the character arc).

It is the moment where the hero moves from being a proactive warrior to becoming a martyr.

Like the orphan state, the martyr state may be more literal or more figurative. But it means the heroine is ready and willing to sacrifice herself. She might be literally willing to sacrifice her life. Or, it might be that she is willing to sacrifice a characteristic or quality of herself or lifestyle.

This is why it often relates to character arc.

Because the inner demon that the protagonist has been struggling with is overcome and "sacrificed" in order to save the "world." The old version of the protagonist is "sacrificed" to overcome the antagonist.

That's my opinion anyway.

So the dad that is working too much may now be willing to quit his job.

Hamilton is now willing to "throw away his shot" (literally and figuratively).

Or perhaps it is more literal.

Harry is willing to die in order to defeat Voldemort.

Whatever it is, after plot point two, the hero is more than a warrior, he's a martyr.

In Spider-verse

After the death of Prowler, everyone realizes that Miles isn't capable of playing his part in defeating the antagonistic forces, precisely because of his inner demon: He can't always get up after getting knocked down (thematic statement). As much as they would like to rely on him, they can't trust that he'll be dependable to save them and all of Brooklyn. Even Peter Parker ultimately deals the blow by "tying" Miles up so he can't be involved.

It's the worst of the worst. Miles has failed in the worst way.

To top it off, the fact that he can't meet their expectations and be who he needs to be means that one of the other characters must face death, because in carrying out the plan, they'll be stuck in this dimension and die in the process (escalating stakes and costs).

Miles asks when he'll know he'll be ready. Peter explains that you won't. It's a leap of faith (a secondary theme).

To make the lull even more lully, Miles's dad comes, and we're reminded that they have drifted even further apart since the beginning of the film. However, his dad explains a few key things. While Miles has been told (and has stated himself) throughout the movie that he "doesn't have a choice," his dad reveals that he believes Miles will be amazing at whatever he pursues (releasing the pressure of his dad's expectations (a secondary theme)), and whatever that is, is his choice (another secondary theme).

At this critical point, we see themes coalescing. For this story, the secondary themes are the final puzzle piece. Miles doesn't need to fear that he won't meet others' expectations; it's his choice what to do and become; and that choice is put into action by a leap of faith.

Empowered with these thematic statements, he's ready to be Spider-man, aka, the martyr. He immediately venom strikes his hold, turns invisible, and gets his own Spider-man suit. He has let go of his old self and inner demons and has become a true hero, willing to do whatever it takes to save others.

All of these changes and thematic statements will be tested, proven, and validated in the climax and denouement.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Pinch Points, Midpoints, Plot Points, and Middles (Part 1)

Some writers find the middle of a story very difficult to write. They know the beginning. They know the end. But they don't know what comes in between. After this article, you should have the information you need to start filling in that middle! And filling it in, in interesting ways.

As a quick recap from my post on beginnings, this is my (hybrid) structure I'm following:

Plot Point 1 (or "Inciting Incident")
Pinch Point
Pinch Point 2
Plot Point 2


This is influenced by Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, the Seven Point Story Structure, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, The Hero's Journey, and even the basics of Freytag's Pyramid.

And I'm taking the heroes through these stages:



The bold words fit in the middle.

I'll also be including character arcs and themes and talking about escalating stakes and costs.

So let's do this. 😈

Middle (or Rising Action)

We've covered the beginning. Made promises to the audience through the prologue (if you have one). Opened with some juicy hooks that get the audience looking forward (thereby enhancing anticipation and therefore tension). Introduced key characters, arcs, themes, and established a sense of normalcy. Shown how the protagonist is a figurative (or literal) "orphan." And then confronted him with a moment that will change his direction and disrupt said normalcy: plot point one/the inciting incident.

After Plot Point 1: Reaction

Plot point one changed something. It changed the story from setup to reaction.

Something happened, and now your character has to respond to it. Life is no longer "normal." He may even try to pretend it is, but it can never be quite the same. A new conflict has been introduced, and it's taking shape. It is threatening his old way of life, his safety, or it is introducing a new dream or opportunity. What is he going to do about it?

The character has a new need or goal.

And he's going to react to it. He will be in a state of reaction up until the midpoint. That doesn't necessarily mean he's not trying to solve things; it doesn't necessarily mean he's reacting passively either (though in some stories he might). But he doesn't yet have full grasp or control of what just entered the story. It's beyond him in some way.

How he responds may convey a great deal about that character.

In Spider-verse

Plot point one happened when Miles got bit by the spider. He literally will never be the same after that. So what does he do? He reacts to his changing body.

He wakes up and his pants are too small.

Reaction: "I must have hit puberty."

So he has to go to class in clothes that are too small for him.

He's reacting to all his changes--his thoughts are too loud, he's sweaty, he's become more perceptive

He runs into Gwen and gets his hand stuck in her hair. They both are reacting, a lot. Miles is trying to get unstuck, but Gwen must shave her hair. As the morning goes on, Miles is sticking to everything: walls, ceilings, clothes, even pigeons. (Notice how this section also introduces us to his new powers.)

He realizes that this is just like Spider-man, so what does he do? He reacts by trying to get more answers--retracing his steps to find the spider he actually got bit by. Which leads to the first pinch point.

Pinch Point 1

Nobody likes getting pinched. Not even those obnoxious kids who didn't wear green on St. Patrick's Day to instigate pinches. You know the ones. You pinch them, and they reveal they are secretly wearing green so they could pinch you 10 times. 🤦‍♀️ (Talk about antagonistic forces.)

A pinch point relates to the antagonistic force. It's what you would imagine. It's the equivalent of the protagonist getting pinched by the antagonist. It might be a small pinch or it might be one that leaves a nasty bruise. Whatever the case, it reveals to the audience that the antagonist is a legit force and foe.

Typically, the pinch puts pressure on the protagonist, forcing her into action.

If the antagonistic force has already been introduced, this moment heightens the sense of pain, pressure, or tension and reveals the antagonist to be worse or "more" than what the we gleaned prior.

If the antagonistic force hasn't yet been introduced, then this is his/her/its introduction.

In some pinch points, the hero may not actually be present, but the audience perceives that the antagonist is going to be a legitimate problem for the hero, even if the hero herself is unaware.

In Spider-verse

Since the antagonistic force hasn't yet been introduced, the pinch point does that, while also illustrating that Kingpin is a legitimate foe to be reckoned with.

After finding the dead spider, Miles's spider senses (which he is still discovering/reacting to) lead him toward the collider, where he finds Spider-man fighting off villains.

We see the collider in action. We see Spider-man in action. And we see Kingpin in action.

And what does he do? As soon as Miles has someone to talk to and get help from (Spider-man promises to teach him), Kingpin kills him. If that's not a pinch, I don't know what is.

But we aren't done yet.

Kingpin sees Miles and sends Prowler after him to kill him.

Now we have seen the antagonists, and we know how powerful and formidable they are. They just killed THE Spider-man.

Miles is now the only who knows about the collider, and it will destroy all of Brooklyn if he doesn't stop it! The pinch point puts pressure on him and forces him to act.

Escalate Stakes and Costs (Broaden and Deepen)

In the middle of a story, stakes and costs should either broaden or deepen or do both (you've heard me talk about this before.)

The stakes are what the protagonist has to lose; it is what is at risk in the story. The costs are what it takes to save that. And both need to escalate through the middle.

In Spider-verse

In the beginning of the story, all Miles had at stake was his academic future and his relationship with his dad. But now the stakes have broadened. If he doesn't stop Kingpin and the collider, everyone in Brooklyn will die!

And it's going to cost a lot to stop that from happening. As we just saw with Spider-man, it may even cost Miles his life. At the very least, he's going to have to learn to harness his spider powers.

But the stakes also deepen. They become more personal. His family lives in Brooklyn, so they could die too. And right now, his relationship with his dad is becoming more strained. Miles feels more alone now than he did before. Because he knows his dad hates Spider-man, he feels he can't turn to him for help.

As the middle continues, you will see that the stakes and costs become more and more personal, and even broader as he learn this conflict not only affects the people here, but the other spider people (and therefore by extension, their dimensions).

Wanderer State

Complementary to the reaction part of the story, is the "wanderer" phase. A wanderer doesn't really know what she is doing or where she is going. She's going in some direction, because she is in motion, but she's largely responding, like we talked about. During this state of being, the protagonist often accumulates sidekicks, mentors, friends, partners, and anyone else that is going to help her on her journey, as she's wandering around trying to make sense or fix everything. If these characters were already introduced or foreshadowed in the setup, we'll now get to know their "true identities" (figurative or literal) and "magical abilities" (figurative or literal). This section is particularly common in the Hero's Journey story structure.

In Spider-verse

Even after Peter Parker's death, Miles is still reacting, but now he is not only reacting to his abilities, but to everything related to Kingpin. He is trying to makes sense of what is going on and how to solve the problem. He is trying (dismally) to learn to use his spider abilities. But it's not enough. He needs more help. He needs more knowledge.

In steps Peter B. Parker, from another dimension, who becomes the reluctant mentor.

But that's not the only person Miles meets. He gets to meet Gwen Stacy . . . the real Gwen Stacy.

And he also accumulates a number of other side characters who have abilities that can help him.

Thematic Threads and Character Arcs

In the beginning, we introduced the theme and the main character's arc. Those two things almost always go hand in hand. The arc demonstrates and validates the theme. The theme puts words to the character arc and provides the takeaway value of the story.

In Amanda Rawson Hill's fabulous article on theme and character arcs, she explains that the protagonist starts in a state that is the opposite of the theme. They start with a "false theme statement." (Note: in some rare stories, the character can start with the true theme statement, but probably 95% of stories start with a false theme statement, and starting with the true theme statement is extremely difficult to write, in part because the character can't have that arc. In either case, the middle is handled somewhat similarly.)

So what happens through the middle?

The story forces the protagonist to question their "false theme statement" (what they falsely believe to be true or right). So the middle should be dealing with theme by getting the protagonist and the audience to question and explore different points of the theme topic. It will test theme statements.

One of the biggest problems I see happen here with writers, is that they start implementing correct thematic answers too early. Those should come at the end of the story. Right now, in the middle, we need to see characters struggle with the theme. We need to ask real questions about the theme topic. Sure, the thematic statement can be mentioned, but it shouldn't fully fit or be realized yet, for the protagonist.

The theme statement is only really meaningful when it's realized after there is a struggle--just as with most parts of storytelling.

One of the best ways to include thematic questioning and exploration is to have characters with different perspectives on the theme topic. Another is to include more plot elements that explore it. And since those often go hand in hand, you can do both. (You can read more about that here.)

In Spider-verse

Like I talked about last time with beginnings, the theme in Spider-verse is not quitting. It's getting back up no matter how many times you get knocked down.

But what does Miles believe in?

He wants to quit. In fact, his teacher even calls him out on the fact that he's trying to quit school.

In the middle, he's still wanting to quit. He asks his mom if she's ever thought of moving out of Brooklyn. What does his mom say? "Our family doesn't run from things, Miles."

But Miles hasn't fully embodied the theme yet. He doesn't fully, really believe it yet, because he hasn't experienced it yet.

And guess what, there are other characters who have different perspectives and interactions with the theme that call the thematic statement into question.

At the collider, Spider-man can't get up. Miles asks him if he can. What does he say?

"I always get back up." --this is the same Spider-man from the prologue.

But what happens? He literally isn't able to get back up, and he dies.

That definitely calls some things into question.

Then we get Peter B. Parker. And his whole introduction is a perfect antithesis to the thematic statement, in fact, they literally overlap. While he's saying that he never gives up and always gets back up, his actions are saying the exact opposite. He failed his marriage. He failed at his finances. He failed at personal health. He failed at personal fitness. He doesn't really thrive off being Spider-man. He's literally crying curled up in his shower and eating pizza. He's interacting with the theme differently than the other characters.

Gwen Stacy. Failed to save her best friend. Unlike other characters, she hasn't quit completely. She's still Spider-Gwen, in a band, doing dance and school, but she quit making friends. She sorta got back up--with limitations.

Uncle Aaron, dying in the alley, what does he say to Miles? "I just wanted you to look up to me, and I let you down." Aaron didn't live up to his expectations and potential either. And when he's dying, what does he ask Miles to do? "You're on your way. Just keep going." aka, don't quit.

You can see similar things happen with other thematic statements in the story, like about choices and faith.

But the middle asks us to question the theme topic and demonstrates real struggles with it. The theme isn't simple. And it's not easy.


At the midpoint, new information enters the story that changes the context. It moves the protagonist from reaction to action. He stops being a wanderer and turns into a warrior, ready to fight back and attack.