J.A. Stinger

Words Can Inspire The World

Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure

Part 7 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

I talk a lot about how important story structure is. But let’s be honest. Story structure is a complicated beast. Few stories ace every single beat to perfection every single time. I’ve read (and watched) incredible stories that were incredible in spite of the fact they were working off a sometimes wobbly narrative structure.

Although you should always be working toward the best story structure possible, if the challenges and constraints of your particular story are keeping it from glistening perfection, that probably isn’t going to make or break the deal for readers.

Unless… you’re committing what is, in my book, the single worst story structure mistake you can make: leaving your protagonist entirely out of the structure.

Why Iron Man 3 Has the Worst Story Structure of Any Marvel Movie

Not all of the Marvel movies are paragons of story structure (Captain America: The First Avenger, in particular, skipped its entire Second Pinch Point). But most of them are examples of how the occasional structural gaffe can be overlooked in favor of a story’s other favorable qualities.

Iron Man 3 is the exception.

Now, there are things I do like about this story.

  • I appreciate Tony’s PTSD and the fact that his actions—both for good and ill—in previous movies are having decided consequences.
  • The Mandarin rocked. Until, you know… he didn’t.
  • More Happy! (Though, I think, under the circumstances, I would have opted for more Jon Favreau instead.)
  • Little boy Harley Keener was a delightfully different (and capable) foil for Tony.

But none of them can make up for the story’s fundamental story structure problems.

Iron Man 3 makes that non-negotiable mistake I was talking about. It offers up a structure that has almost nothing to do with its protagonist—Iron Man inventor Tony Stark—which means its conflict isn’t driven by the protagonist.

Don’t Know What Your Story Is About? Look at Your Story Structure

In certain complex storylines, it can be difficult, at first glance, to know exactly what a story is about—what its throughline is. But the answer is always found in the story’s structure. Whatever plotline or character is most active in the plot’s turning points, that is what the story is about.

A great (non-Marvel) example of this is Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. This is a sprawling story that, on the surface, seems to be about many things (Howard’s Hollywood career, Howard’s relationship with Katherine Hepburn, Howard’s OCD). But the plot points back up the emphasis of the title by showing us this is really a story about Howard’s love of aviation.

Same goes for my all-time favorite movie John Sturges’s The Great Escape, which artfully gives prominence to Steve McQueen’s decidedly subplot character by making sure that subplot shows up at every single major structural beat.

Now consider Iron Man 3‘s story structure:

Inciting Event: Aldrich Killian (the antagonist) petitions Tony’s girlfriend and CEO Pepper to fund his brain-hacking project Extremis.

Where’s Tony? Oh, yeah, hiding out in his basement being an obsessive insomniac.

First Plot Point: Tony’s bodyguard Happy follows a suspicious character, somebody blows up, Happy ends up in a coma.

Where’s Tony? Gift-wrapping Gigantor the Stuffed Rabbit for Pepper’s Christmas present. He finally impacts the main conflict when he calls out the Mandarin and gets his house blown up, but it’s a long time coming.

First Pinch Point: Pepper learns Aldrich is working for the Mandarin.

Where’s Tony? Crashlanded in Tennessee, trying to get his suit to work again. He does have a nice pinch, in which he battles the guy involved in Happy’s injury. But his storyline is totally untouched by the plot’s most important revelation up to this point.

Midpoint: The Mandarin publicly challenges the President on national TV. Meanwhile Pepper is captured.

Where’s Tony? Oh, he’s off gleaning a few clues that will eventually lead him to Aldrich’s base. But that’s about it. He doesn’t know about the Mandarin’s challenge or Pepper’s capture, which means these huge events have no power to drive the plot.

Second Pinch Point: Tony crashes the Mandarin’s base, is captured, and learns about Pepper’s capture.

Where’s Tony? Finally, he’s in the main game!

Third Plot Point: The President is captured and delivered to Aldrich.

Where’s Tony? Thankfully, he’s at least off doing related things, like rescuing all the people in the President’s plane. But the Third Plot Point should have been a moment that hit him as hard possible on a personal level. He’s not directly responsible for or involved in the President’s capture, so it lacks the bite it might have had. Plus, it decidedly pales in comparison to Tony’s personal loss of Pepper earlier.

Climax: After bringing in all his suits to fight Aldrich’s exploding minions, Tony finds Pepper—who has been injected with Extremis and turned into an exploding person. He does battle with Aldrich to save her.

Where’s Tony? Right where he should be.

Climactic Moment: Pepper miraculously survives a 200-foot fall and emerges just in time to save Tony and kill Aldrich.

Where’s Tony? Well, he’s not ending the conflict, that’s for sure. His line to Pepper pretty much sums it up: “I got nothing.”

5 Reasons Your Protagonist Must Drive Your Conflict

Now you tell me: what’s Iron Man 3 about? Just by looking at the bare bones of the story structure, you sure wouldn’t know it was supposed to be about Tony Stark. And the story suffers as a result.

Consider five important reasons your story needs your protagonist front and center within its structure.

1. Cohesion Within the Conflict

A structure that’s all over the place indicates a story that’s all over the place. Story structure should never be a random collection of events that “fit” the requirements of the various structural moments. Every structural moment must be part of a cohesive whole that creates a clear image of the entire story.

If your protagonist isn’t at the center of that image, then you have to question whether or not he’s really the protagonist.

2. Forward Momentum

Your story follows your protagonist. If he’s not moving forward—if he’s not driving the story forward by creating a string of causes and effects related to the story goals he’s pursuing—then the story readers are participating in isn’t going to be moving either. It’s possible there’s lots of movement happening in the background, where other characters are driving the plot. But that’s not the show readers are privy to, or, even if they are, it’s not the show you’ve told them they should care about most.

3. Proper Foreshadowing

Strong foreshadowing is inherent within good structure: the beginning sets up the end. When one character controls one plot point, only to have another control the next one, the results seem chaotic because they are. The story isn’t correctly setting itself up.

Even worse, when you start out with an Inciting Event (the question that prompts your entire story) that isn’t bookended by a correlative Climactic Moment (the answer to the Inciting Event’s question), then you have a plot that simply doesn’t work.

4. Interesting Scenes

The most interesting scenes result at the crossroads where your protagonist meets the conflict. If he’s not meeting the conflict, then you’re leaving a ton of great scenes on the table. Chances are good your protagonist is just meandering around the neighborhood doing busy work to fill up his time—and your book. Chances are also good your readers are bored.

5. Thematic Resonance

Structure, character, and theme are integrally related. Mess up one and you’ve messed up all three. When the structure is out of whack because the most important character isn’t present, you can be sure your theme has gone a little wonky on you as well.

Your story’s central conflict presents the external metaphor for your protagonist’s inner journey. But if he’s absent for some or most of that external journey, his inner development can’t help but be stunted.

Every story must have a protagonist. Even if that character shares the stage with other prominent characters—or even co-protagonists—he must be present at the structural turning points. Otherwise, the story either isn’t about him or is missing a vital playing piece.

If you’re writing a particularly complex story, you may choose to create a single throughline to act as your story’s spine—as do The Aviator and The Great Escape. Or you may choose to give all characters equal prominence by making sure they all have an important role or independent beat at the turning points—as does Brent Weeks’s Blinding Knife.

But whatever you do, don’t let your protagonist suffer in the background of your story structure. Bring him fully on stage, and at least give all his suffering a spotlight!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how Thor: The Dark World robbed itself of thematic depth by choosing the the wrong sequel scenes.