Linear Structure

Mech Heart HiRes copy 2
Linear structure is the chronological, cause-and-effect ordering of the events of your story.

Aristotle agreed with the Red King (or would have if they’d known each other). He said that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end:

• The beginning is the point before which nothing important to the story has happened.
• The end is the point after which nothing important to the story will happen.
• And the middle is the way the characters get from the first important event in the beginning to the last important event at the end.

King Aristotle

The second most important scene in your story is the beginning.
A linear plot moves from stability to stability.  Before the story starts, the protagonist lives in a stable world; it may not be a great world, but it’s one that she understands and can navigate.  Then an event happens that throws her out of that stable world into conflict and starts the story.  That beginning scene is the reader’s invitation to the party, the promise the writer makes her, the first clause in the reader contract.  The first scene should set the tone, establish the mood and the setting, introduce the protagonist and the conflict and start the protagonist on her journey to the goal, and above all, hook the reader with both pleasure (this is good to read) and anxiety (what’s going to happen next?). Without a good beginning, the reader or viewer will walk away from the story.

The most important scene in your story is the end because that’s where your reader achieves catharsis and satisfaction. The entire linear story has been written to get to this final battle with the antagonist which resolves the conflict and leaves the protagonist in a new stability. It may not be a great stability–the protagonist may lose or die–but the conflict will be over and a new normal will be established. The reader stays with the story because she wants to get to this final battle with the antagonist where all her questions are answered and a kind of justice is achieved.

Big Finish

The beginning is important because if the start of the story is lousy, the reader won’t keep reading.  The ending is more important because If a writer doesn’t deliver at the story climax, the reader will be frustrated and disappointed, and that’s what she’ll remember most about the story.  It’s actually better that a reader NOT read a book than read an unsatisfying book.

Linear structure is the most straight-forward way of telling a goal-oriented story. It’s also the most common structure, so most readers and viewers follow it easily. For those reasons, linear structure is probably the best choice for your narrative unless your story demands a difference approach.

TroubleshootingIf your beta readers are complaining that your story has a slow start, and you insist that they stick with it because they need to know that stuff and it gets really good later, you’re thinking like a writer instead of a reader.  Cut the first three chapters and start the story where the stability ends and the exciting stuff begins (that would be your protagonist in conflict and action).

For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents.

3 thoughts on “Linear Structure

  1. Peggy Larkin says:

    “Start with chapter three”–excellent advice! I had a five-page manuscript consult at a conference and was very stressed out trying to get a complete scene into the five pages…so I cut the first six or so pages of chapter one…and imagine my feelings when my consultant congratulated me on starting at exactly the right place! “Most of the other stories I’ve looked at this weekend start too early,” she said.

    So, as usual… Jenny is right!


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