Story Structure: the First Quarter Debate

Story Structure: the First Quarter DebateDiscovered a new aspect of writing craft this week while looking at story structure: the First Quarter Debate powering our story opening.

Freelance editor and BookTuber (there’s a compound word with so much right and wrong with it) Ellen Brock  posts on writing craft and this week summarised the essential components of the difficult first quarter.

I know, it’s all difficult.

The opening of most story structures give us the ordinary world, the Inciting Incident (or ‘call to adventure’) and leads up to the First Plot Point.

In Derek Murphy’s Twenty-Four Chapter structure, the story opening goes like this:

  • Really bad day
  • Something peculiar
  • Grasping at straws
  • Inciting incident
  • Call to adventure
  • Head in sand
  • Pull out rug
  • First Plot point

That gets us through Act One.

You see this structure in everything from Pride and Prejudice to Star Wars.

The Essential Debate

Ellen Brock talks about the Debate phase of the story. This comes after the Inciting Incident destroys the protagonist’s status quo. It’s a life changing event or an external threat that leaves the protagonist between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

This is where they have the debate (internal, external or both) about what to do next.

You’ll see the character initially in denial, trying to maintain or restore their status quo and resisting the Call to Adventure.

Brock’s take on the Debate phase is the lack of easy choices. With the status quo or ‘ordinary world’ destroyed, there’s no going back, only a decision to make; which of the undesirable, difficult and unavoidable paths to take.

Brock concludes, the protagonist has to face reality and acknowledge the stakes, impaled on the horns of a dilemma, until the First Plot Point comes crashing in as the decider.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth struggles on for the sake of her sister until Darcy presses the Bingley’s to leave Netherfield and return to London.

In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tattoine but won’t out of loyalty to family. With the attack on the farmstead, his mind is made up to join the Rebel Alliance.

The Debate phase is about the character struggle, not about country dances or spaceships and robots.

In Media Res

The trouble with starting in the middle of the action as I do, there’s very little status quo or ordinary world to disrupt, it’s already gone. My main protagonist is already on one of those difficult, undesirable paths. The struggle is how to bring the second protagonist along with her; she can’t complete the plot without him. But she can’t tell him that, however much she wants to. He’s the one resisting the call, she’s resisting telling him everything which will drive him away. This is how the Debate phase takes up almost the whole first quarter of Book One. So the next round of editing needs to focus on his resistance and her persuasion.

The Debate is joined.

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