The Drama of Structure

As a reminder, dear readers, I work in theater and I write mysteries. And dramatic structure rules my worlds.

What, some of you are asking, is dramatic structure? Basically, it is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement/resolution. In theater, dramatic structure keeps the audience coming back for the second act. I found this diagram, which lays it out very well.

Dramatic StructureMysteries are structured in much the same way, though the inciting incident (the event that launches the story) doesn’t have to come at the beginning. Remember, plays are stories told aloud, with no voice overs or flashbacks (usually). Novels and fiction can shake it up a bit.

In mysteries,  dramatic structure includes plot point one, plot point two, climax, denouement. Plot points are where the stories take a hard pivot. Crudely put, it is where you drop the body. Or you arrest someone. Or the prime suspect gets killed. The climax is where it all comes together. And the denouement is a short bit at the end, where the reader (or audience) catches her breath. Or the sleuth explains what just happened.

I am a plotter, and I use Scrivener. What that means is as I am outlining the book, I am trying to keep the balance in check, and can visually see what is happening by having the scenes on separate cards, and the plot points tagged. Spacing (pacing) between the plot point one, plot point two, and the climax need to be fairly equal. Which makes sense–you don’t want to build up tension, change it up on the reader, and then take forever to drop the other shoe. And you also don’t want to rush the end. The tension/action is constantly moving upward, with brief respites between scenes.

I write this post because I am working on a new book, and realized that my pacing was WAY off. Unless I was writing a novella. And while I am a plotter, I do have to adjust as the muse strikes. Every scene serves the structure in some way, so I need to add some, move others, and maybe rethink the plot a bit. Never mind the sub-plot (which has its own arc). If it gets lopsided, I need to adjust. I’ve been doing a lot of adjusting, and also been rethinking what my pivot points are. I haven’t always used dramatic structure so literally in my writing, but it has turned out to be a really helpful tool.

How do you plot your stories? Do you plot your stories? Any other structure thoughts/hints?

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J.A. (Julie) Hennrikus writes short stories that have appeared in the award winning Level Best Books and is the current president of Sisters in Crime New England. As Executive Director for StageSource her vast knowledge of the theater brings a unique perspective to her writing.

19 thoughts on “The Drama of Structure

  1. Excellent explanation – thank you! I use the eight point arc for plotting… as a basis and then the rest is left to a meandering, whimsical imagination. 🙂

  2. I never used to be a plotter, but now I’ve become a convert. It makes things much easier to know where you are headed. I still save room for new ideas though.

  3. Great post. I have used a similar three act format… Within a 13 point guideline I reworked from a 15 years ago article… “write your screenplay in 90 days.” I adjusted it for my stories … shorts to novel length. Also use the real 3 x 5 card method … and in Word .doc, write up the 13 points and fill in. Still a lot of work. One also can add and toss variations of problems and solutions.

  4. Honestly, I’m a little hopeless in the way that I do my stuff all different. My most recent novel I pretty much didn’t construct I just wrote it, most of if chronologically. The next one I working on I did kinda the same, but often woke up in the middle of the night with the ‘perfect’ word or phrase or idea…maybe my novels have no structure at all! Panic panic! Ooh, I don’t know now!

  5. I’ve been writing a mystery serial novel and found that a lot of these points are way off, mainly due to the peacemeal way I’ve been writing it. But because it’s out there in the wild I’ve decided to cut it short and end it while I can it a fairly neat, albeit abrupt way. Then I want to go and clean everything up properly and see if it takes me where I wanted it to go.
    Good advice here, thanks!

    • I got great advice about this once–write the book you need to write, then look at it again and make sure it hits the points. This works for pantsers as well. Good luck with your series!

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  7. The fact that you suddenly twigged that your latest book wasn’t working (despite the structure?) says to me that you DO write by the seat of your pants despite everything. Don’t we all – ultimately?

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