Novel Writing

Studying the four-part story structure

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...
I wonder if someone will one day turn my crappy apartment into a shrine to my writing? | William Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable sits in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi in Oxford as a museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second half of my novel is shaping up to be the toughest to figure out. The first half seemed to flow straight out of my subconscious mind and onto the page without much thought or effort on my part. Which is strange, considering I had no idea where I was going with my story at the time.

Now that I know where I want to go, I can’t seem to figure out how to get there. A recent Writer’s Digest blog post titled, How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending got me thinking about my story’s structure again.

In the early stages of writing my novel, I considered my overall structure many times and in various forms. It’s something I might not have done if not for the fact that I was taking an advanced novel writing course and was forced to do so by my professor. I am glad she did though, because that intense examination of structure really helped me get my story moving.

After reading the aforementioned Writer’s Digest post, I decided to lay out my story using the “four parts of effective storytelling” discussed in the post. (Hopefully this will lead me to my own killer novel ending.) The author suggests that an effective story consists of “four parts, four unique contexts and discrete missions for the scenes in them, divided by two major plot points and a midpoint.”

When I examined my story, I realized that it does indeed take place in four unique contexts:

  1. The story begins in the secluded barn in which M.’s father has kept her and her sisters hidden for their entire lives.
  2. The story moves into the outside world of M.’s father and step-mother’s home and continues into the greater outside world of the capital city. She believes she has taken control of her own life and is making her own decisions, but really she is not.
  3. M. loses control of her whole world and is dragged off to the barrens where she will live for several years with her husband.
  4. The story will end at the enclave where M. will learn her true place in the world and take control of her own destiny, for real this time.

While these four unique contexts consist of four unique physical locations, they also mirror what is going on with my protagonist as a person. She starts in a secluded barn where she is isolated from the outside world. She then moves out into the greater world and begins to realize just how little she knows about life.

In the third context, she literally moves to a barren wasteland where her life will become a barren wasteland due to several poor choices she made. In the end, she will escape to an enclave which is, in many ways, as isolated as the barn from which she escaped. Except now, she will be there because of the choices she has made rather than through the choices that others have made for her.

What type of story structure does your WIP follow? Or do you find the examination of story structure to be limiting? Please share in the comments below.

~Mandy Webster

2 thoughts on “Studying the four-part story structure”

  1. I read the Killer Ending post and had a mixed response. The four-part structure is interesting and helpful, no question. My problem was the undercurrent that Pantsers write without an outline as a result of a stubborn refusal to structure, because they think they’re above such things. I would love to outline and write to a structure, it would save much redrafting and plot hole filling. Unfortunately, if I make any attempt to plan my writing, I write from left brain and it comes out like an academic essay (too many years of studying literature rather than writing it!) Hopefully when I have a few more novels under my belt I’ll either a) have structure embedded in my subconscious so my Pantser writing comes out in a four-part structure or b) I’ll be able to outline without my inner editor killing my muse! I like the sound of a novel writing course, I’ll have to look out for one. Maybe that would help put my inner editor in her box!
    Good luck with nailing your own killer ending.

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