Marcus Sakey and Sean Chercover Story Structure Secrets

Sakey and Chercover, the dynamic duo of mystery fan and writing conferences, held a 90-minute workshop for writers at the recent Murder and Mayhem in Muskego confab that was, in a word, fab.  The topic:  story structure.

I go to conferences primarily to rub shoulders with the great and to learn their secrets.  Often this is a matter of gathering up the wheat among the chaff… the chaff being amusing stories and ruminations, interesting and fun, but not super-helpful to the writer.  So when they’re actually out-and-out telling their secrets – awesome!

Three-part story structure can be summed up as get your hero up a tree in act one, throw rocks at him in act two, and get him down in act three.  Not particularly helpful.

Marcus (left) and Sean share story structure secrets

Sean and Marcus gave a lot more structure to this three-act structure.  Think of your story as Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3.  Each act has ten scenes, more or less.

Act 1:  In this act, you introduce all your characters, do your foreshadowing, drop in various clues.  It’s all leading up to the pivotal scene, where your protagonist decides to take action.   That’s the transition to Act 2.  Does that mean that you don’t open with a bang?  Nope.  You can still find a body on page 2.  But for your main character, something decisive must happen that ups the stakes.  It’s a critical personal turning point, where the cop decides to lie to his superiors so he can work the case alone, because he’s afraid the killer is his brother.

Act 2:   This act is all the action.  2A is fun and games.  The chase is afoot.  2A is where we fall in love with the characters and learn all about that fictional world.  The Act 1 tease pays off in 2A.  As the writer, you let your protagonist show off  their  strengths and meet the challenges.  At the same time, they are mostly losing… they find out a fact, but it’s not as meaningful as they hoped.  Or it leads them down a rabbit hole.  They start to see how strong and capable the villain is.  How is this possible if you’re writing in the first person?  By their acts, you shall know them.

The transition from 2A to 2B is a critical juncture for the book.  It’s where things suddenly turn much, much worse.  Sometimes there is a false brightness – your protagonist has figured out who the bad guy is and the cops are closing in.  Then the phone rings and it’s her daughter.  She’s been kidnapped by the bad guy.  Now your lead character has to call off the cops, rescue her daughter, and vanquish the foe.  2B is all about digging your protagonist out of a deep, deep hole… one she’s dug for herself, preferably.

Act 3 is resolving the story.  Although this is typically the shortest act, don’t rush it.  Unless you’re Agatha Christie, better not have all the characters in the drawing room with Hercule Poirot pontificating.

My take away:  dang it, the book I’m currently editing is skimpy in 2B.  2B or not 2B?  Act 1, good.  Critical juncture at transition to Act 2?  Good.  Fun and games in  2A?  Yep.  Turning point where things get worse and it’s her own fault?  Also good to go.  2B – things get worse and worse?  Yeah, two scenes.  Too short.  Act 3 – a closing scene (a little bit too Hercule Poirot-like) and epilogue.

I had set myself a goal of finishing up by Sunday.  I think I’ll extend that to New Year’s Eve.

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