I know, I know. Structure is one of the least sexy topics when it comes to writing. Structure is four walls. It’s a set of rooms into which you must cram your big, wide world and characters and plot. This has to go there, and that has to go here, and no you can’t fit a dining room table in the bathroom, are you mad?
But here’s the thing: the rules exist for a reason and it’s a good one. Because as much fun as creating is, it is also messy. And no matter how much we love making them, no one wants to read a mess.
In this post, I’m going to break down the main components of story structure. So, if you’re already deeply familiar with them maybe you’ll want to just come back for part two when I talk about how to apply structure to your story. But if you don’t know what the components of story structure are, or if you know them but don’t feel like you fully understand them, then this TANGLED–inspired look at a well-structured story is for you!
(Spoiler Alert: This post discusses the ending of TANGLED as well as the ending of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL)
Most stories follow a three-act structure and within those acts there are six major beats: the inciting incident, the deciding incident (yes, I made that term up), the midpoint, the dark moment, the climax, and the resolution.
Act One begins with, or very near, the inciting incident. This is the thing that shakes up our protagonist’s world and sets the story in motion. For example, in TANGLED the inciting incident is when Flynn Rider comes to Rapunzel’s tower.
This is sort of an inciting incident trope: a stranger comes to town. Someone new enters the protagonist’s world and there is a shift. Rapunzel’s life up until that point had a monotonous rhythm (as she tells us in song), but then Flynn shows up and completely changes the tempo. This leads us to the next major beat: the deciding incident.
This is different from the inciting incident because the protagonist has more agency. By that I mean, the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist, while the deciding incident happens because the protagonist does something about it (i.e. makes a decision).
Rapunzel strikes up a deal with Flynn and decides to leave her tower so that she can go see the lights.
This is when the story truly begins because Rapunzel has officially moved out of the space in which we first found her. In other words, her life has begun! And with it, Act One has ended.
Next, we move to Act Two, near the end of which will be the midpoint. (In part two, I’ll talk more in-depth about the stuff that leads to the midpoint, but here I’m focusing on the major beats). The midpoint, which can also be called the midpoint reversal, should be the center of your book in more ways than one; the midpoint should reveal what your story is about, i.e. the central internal conflict on which everything hinges.
Rapunzel and Flynn almost drown. This near-death experience leads to two revelations: Flynn’s real name is Eugene Fitzherbert, and Rapunzel has magical hair that glows when she sings.
In the immediate aftermath, Eugene and Rapunzel have a fireside heart-to-heart that leads to further revelations: Eugene was an orphan who became Flynn Rider to seek glory and wealth, and Rapunzel has never left her tower before. And whether or not the characters know it, we as the audience realize that this journey they are on is about more than seeing floating lanterns and getting back a crown; it’s about finding the place where you belong. Both Eugene and Rapunzel have felt so alone all their lives, and what they are really searching for is belonging.
So, now we know what TANGLED is really about, and there has been a huge shift in the story. The relationship between Eugene and Rapunzel has changed, and the emotional consequences of that change will raise the stakes and carry us into the emotionally-wrought dark moment.
The dark moment (which will either be at the end Act Two or near the beginning of Act Three depending on your midpoint) usually follows a moment of victory or peace, when the characters think they’ve finally got it figured out and everything is going to be just fine.
Rapunzel has finally seen the floating lanterns (they were gorgeous), and she and Eugene are about to kiss and realize their new dreams.
BUT THEN. Rapunzel sees Eugene sailing away on a boat with the crown in hand and believes that Mother Gothel was right all along. She goes back to the tower with a broken heart. Eugene wakes up tied to the boat at the base of the kingdom where he is arrested for his crimes and sentenced to death.
It’s a HUGE misunderstanding, and we yell at the screen, throwing handfuls of popcorn and pillows in our frustration. We want Rapunzel to realize that Mother Gothel is the true villain. We want Eugene to get free from prison and rescue Rapunzel. They were so close to getting what they truly wanted, what the story is about: belonging! And right now, we can’t really see how anything is going to be fixed before the story reaches The End…but, we hope. We gather the pillows we didn’t throw to our chests and hold our breath.
This emotional reaction is what you want readers to feel with your dark moment. It will send the story hurtling to its climax.
The climax is the peak of the story’s essential conflicts that have been steadily rising since the inciting incident.
Rapunzel realizes she’s the lost princess, and Mother Gothel goes full villain to keep her from doing anything about it. Eugene gets free of prison and rushes to Rapunzel’s tower…only to find Rapunzel chained up and Mother Gothel waiting with a knife. Rapunzel begs Mother Gothel to let her save Eugene in exchange for her willing servitude, but Eugene can’t stand to live if it means Rapunzel loses her freedom; he cuts her hair, killing Mother Gothel and also himself.
“You were my new dream,” he says. “And you were mine,” Rapunzel responds. She cries and sings over his body, while we sob into our pillows and mostly empty bowls of popcorn. But there’s a spot of bright amidst the tears–the last drop of magic heals Eugene in a dazzling display of light. They embrace and kiss. We smile and cry new tears of joy.
Several conflicts reach their peak in TANGLED’s climax: Rapunzel discovers her true identity; Mother Gothel is revealed as the villain and defeated; Rapunzel and Eugene express their true feelings. This converging of the central conflicts is crucial to the climax (wow, that’s a lot of C’s), and is what gives the story emotional resonance. We tend to think of stories in a linear way, but they’re really more of a web, and the climax is where all the threads meet. You want everything to come to a head at once to pack the biggest punch plot-wise and emotionally for your readers.
Now, the climax and the resolution are often grouped together because one usually immediately follows the other. In TANGLED, we move right to Rapunzel meeting her parents, and Eugene being pardoned for his crimes. They have both found the belonging they desired in Rapunzel’s family, the kingdom of Corona, the dudes from the Snuggly Duckling, and each other. And so, Act Three has ended, as well as the story itself.
Sometimes, however, the resolution takes a little longer to develop. In that case, the climax completes Act Three, and the story ends with a short Act Four where everything is more fully resolved.
For an example of this, I’ll turn to another wonderful Disney movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (POTC). The climax of POTC is the big battle between the cursed pirates and the British navy, which ends with Barbosa dead and the curse broken. The resolution is when Will and Elizabeth prevent Captain Jack Sparrow’s execution, and he is allowed to escape.
My stories usually end up with four acts instead of three. Overall, I think the four-act structure may be more common for stories that are meant to be, or have the potential to be, the first in a series. The fourth act and longer resolution leaves room to set up the conflict for the sequel.
For example, Commodore Norrington tells his men that they can afford to give Jack one day’s head start. Now the audience knows that there is the potential for a new story involving the characters they have come to love.
So, those are the basic major components of structure! If you’re still having trouble with any of these concepts, something that I’ve found helpful is to take my favorite stories (be they books or movies) and break them down into the basic three-act, six-beat structure. Feel free to share what you come up with in the comments, or to ask any questions you may have that I didn’t answer. We’d love to hear from you!
Check back next week for part two, when I’ll be talking about how to apply structure to your story!