Whether you’re a writer or reader, chances are you’re familiar with the traditional story structure of a novel. You probably had a diagram of it in your high school English class. The first section is the setup, the middle part is the conflict and the final section is the resolution.
This is the structure I followed when outlining my novel. As a result, in the setup I introduced my characters providing some backstory, and described the setting. The inciting incident was at the end of the first section and was the thing that propelled the story onward into conflict.
This model has been used for so long, I didn’t even question it. In fact, in all the books I’ve read about the craft of writing, structure was rarely mentioned – and even then it was to reinforce the traditional story arc. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right? After all, we learn all about Cinderella and her chores, and meet the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters long before the invitation to the ball arrives (inciting incident).
Here’s the rub: modern audiences (me included) expect to be hooked on a story right away – especially reluctant readers.
As a result the story structure has changed in that the setup is much shorter. We learn about characters through their actions and relevant backstory is woven into the novel rather than being dumped all at once, in the beginning.
In Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets them Go, Les Edgerton talks about the modern story structure and how to incorporate what he calls the primary elements (inciting incident, initial surface problem, story-worthy problem, setup) and secondary elements (backstory, opening line, language, character introduction, setting, foreshadowing) of an opening scene.
The Hunger Games follows this newer model and I admit, Suzanne Collins hooked me right away. My challenge now is to study more book beginnings to find the ones that grab me and then analyze which story structure they follow. Since Edgerton is also a novelist, I’m going to start with his novels – after all, he has literally written the book on great openings. I’d like to see if he can put his money where his mouth is.
Honestly, I think there’s nothing wrong with the traditional story structure – but I don’t have a problem with prologues, epilogues, adverbs or adjectives either. They’re not inherently evil. They’re just out of vogue. If the agencies and publishing houses aren’t buying them, best I not try to sell it to them. Hmm, it seems the path to rejection is paved with outmoded literary devices. 🙂
Here’s a video of Les Edgerton talking about his writing style and method.