I’m currently in the throes of yet another draft, which came after what I thought was an “almost-there” draft. As in, my novel was complete, front to end; my characters had their adventures, survived, changed a bit, and were looking ahead to the future.
Then… I realized my structure was weak. Well, I SUSPECTED my structure was weak, but hoped my readers would ignore this. But readers, as it turns out, have no tolerance for wobbly supports and back I went to my index cards and notebook.
At which point, a question arose from one of my friends–what is the difference between structure, plot, and beats?
Hmm… GOOD question. I found that although I knew the answer instinctively, I still stammered when attempting to explain.
This is the form the story takes. A plot may have different structures and different genres sometimes require different structures as well. The most basic example of a structure is three acts:
- Act 1: Introduce the problem
- Act 2: Have your protagonist contort themselves into a pretzel whilst attempting to solve this problem
- Act 3: Solve SOME problem, which may or may not be the original one, depending on your genre and philosophical leanings.
Within these acts you may have additional structural supports, such as the inciting incident, which upsets the good or bad equilibrium introduced in Act 1, and forces your protagonist to move on to Act 2, and the climax, which is the culmination of all of the protagonist’s efforts in Act 3.
None of this is the Plot.
The plot is the story.
For example, Alice follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole, eats some suspicious cake, has a psychedelic experience with playing cards and an invisible cat, and then comes home.
Or, a bunch of British schoolboys end up shipwrecked on a deserted island and try to govern themselves
How you tell your story is the structure.
This term came out of screenwriting and novelists have now widely adopted it to flesh out and shore up their structure. Often, a critique partner will tell me “this chapter needs an extra beat to finish it off”.
A beat is anything from one scene to a combination of scenes performing the function of taking the plot from structure point to structure point. The beat can illuminate a moment of change (Alice decides to eat the suspicious cake), or show a problem (the British schoolboys alone, no adults for thousands of miles).
But what the heck are novelists doing nowadays?
Several times now, I have read books, popular books, with rankings and ratings to die for, that don’t seem to follow these structures. They have plots, sure, but the story kind of just… potters along. We are introduced to crackerjack protagonists, people, and sometimes animals, who are good and special and have plenty of obstacles to overcome. And then we just follow along as life happens to these characters. We root for them. We want them to have a nice life. But they don’t battle monsters, or bad guys, or even ill health. They simply live.
In another instance, I came across a character that didn’t even change at the end of the book. The character’s flaw was explained and justified in back flashes, but their own understanding of what made them did not help them change.
In other words, more and more, books are being written that don’t seem to follow these structures I’m trying so hard to stick to, and these books are POPULAR. Readers LIKE them. Critics like them. I like them.
So… what to do? Follow the rules? Break the rules? Does it depend so much on genre conventions and author credentials? I’m genuinely seeking answers. Let me know what you think.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.