This week I set out to test the idea that commercially successful middle-grade fantasies stick fairly closely to a certain plot structure. If that turns out to be the case, I also want to learn how closely they stick to the structure. In other words, what’s the range of variation?
My reason for doing this is simple. I’m a writer, and plot structure is my Achilles’ heel. Test readers and other writers tell me I’m good at creating engaging characters. I’ve learned to put these characters in peril, my action scenes are healthy enough to pass muster, and dialogue is my greatest strength. However, something’s still lacking. Two of the nine people who have read my middle-grade fantasy did so quickly and enjoyed it. The rest are slogging through as a favor to me. They find it easy to put the story down for weeks or even months, and some never pick it back up. So what gives? How is my work different from the world of writers who successfully engage a large number of readers?
It took me a month of intensive work to figure it out. I talked with my test readers and with other writers. I bought a one-month subscription to Writer’s Digest online tutorials and listened to as many tutorials as I could. I searched the Web for advice and started reading and reviewing one middle-grade fantasy a week to learn more about the genre. Gradually the mist has cleared, and even I–not the brightest porch light on the block–can now see the crux of the problem is structure. My plotting deviates from traditional plotting, and not just by a little. It lives in a galaxy far, far away. I’m not saying everyone has to stick to traditional structure to succeed, mind you, but I figure the folks who successfully color outside the lines probably know where those lines are. I don’t.
It’s clear that I need to get a better grip on plotting. Unfortunately, most descriptions of story structure frustrate me. I just don’t get them. I can generally follow the writer or speaker until they’ve explained what an inciting incident is. After that, they lose me. The rest either sounds like magic (too vague) or rocket science (too complex).
Finally, though, I found a description I understand, although I had to read it several times before I even comprehended the basics. The description is by thriller writer Larry Brooks, and you can find it here, on his website. In brief, as I understand it, the structure goes something like this:
- 0%, page one: a hook that gets you interested. Could be an intriguing voice, mysterious or otherwise fascinating bit of information, humor, or action big or small. Something promising, anyway. In the section that follows, you learn about the hero’s status quo, their story to this point, and what they have to lose. You get some foreshadowing of things to come.
- 20%, inciting incident (also called plot point one): A change in the hero’s status quo caused by the antagonist, be it a storm, bad guy, or whatever. The hero’s circumstances shift and s/he now has a need, quest, or goal but doesn’t yet know how to take effective action. If the hero tries to take action, s/he’s thwarted by an inner demon or demons.
- 35%(ish): a reminder of the serious nature of the antagonist.
- 50%, midpoint: Reader, hero, or both get information that changes their understanding of what’s happening. The hero can now be proactive rather than reactive.
- 60%(ish): another reminder of the serious nature of the antagonist.
- 75%, plot point two: Hero gets final information needed to fully succeed. No new information or characters after this point.
This structure isn’t universally accepted as the gold standard, but because I more or less get it, I decided to use it as my baseline. That is, I’ll map out the structure of the middle-grade fantasies I’ve reviewed on this blog to date and compare them with this structure to see whether, how much, and in what ways they deviate. If nothing else, I figure this will give me a better grasp of this specific way of structuring plot, which by golly is more know-how than I have now. The next step will be to come up with a nice, trite plot of my own and see if I can actually put the technique into practice. Knowing me, it’ll take a try or two . . . or twelve.
I’ve structure-mapped one book so far: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. As usual, it took me donkey’s years, but I’ve learned a lot. The Lightning Thief deviated from the baseline plot structure, but not by much. For one thing, the writer included all the basic structural elements, and for another, each element appeared in the correct order and in approximately the place it should be.
The biggest deviation was the length of the second third of the book–the part between the midpoint (when the hero starts being proactive) and the second plot point (when the hero gets the last bit of information needed to complete the quest). This section was twice as long as is standard according to the baseline structure. Mr. Riordan seems to have realized this and gives the reader two reminders of the terrible nature of the antagonist during the section instead of the standard one.
I also learned something else: I read too fast and miss stuff. During this second, slower reading of this book for structure, I found I’d missed a ton of humor in this book. I bet the book’s target audience, reading at less than warp speed, would not miss this humor. I will now revise my review of The Lightning Thief to give the humor a much higher mark than I originally did.
I’ll keep dissecting the structure of middle-grade fantasies and I’ll keep you posted about what I find. If I manage to do this with a nice, large sample of books, eventually I might even be able to check whether a book’s Amazon.com sales ranking is higher if it sticks closer to the formula–another of my hypotheses.
By the way, a couple of weeks ago I promised to write a list of middle-grade fantasy subgenres, and I haven’t forgotten that promise. It’s going to take longer than I thought, though, because I haven’t read widely enough to have a good grasp of the wide range of middle-grade fantasy that’s out there–everything from mermaids to steampunk. I’ll keep reading, though, and I’ll keep blogging.
Happy New Year!