I’m going to try something different today. I’m a big proponent of plot structure. In fact, anyone who reads or watches a movie is also a proponent. Most just don’t realize it. If you want more info on structure, I recommend KM Weiland’s blog and book on the subject.
As a bit of instruction for me and you, though, I’m going to examine a popular YA title–The Fault in Our Stars by John Green–and see what makes the book so wildly successful. Does Mr. Green follow standard structure protocol? Let’s find out.
Opening: It’s a pretty good grabber. We find out immediately that our heroine is a seventeen year old girl. She’s depressed. And she has cancer. All this information is spelled out before you turn the first page. We also get a feel for her somewhat morbid sense of humor. We like her. We want to keep reading! We don’t find out her name–Hazel–for nearly four pages. Well it is first person. So that’s understandable. Most of us don’t go around thinking or speaking our own names. If you do, you might be a bit narcissistic. Let’s work on that.
Inciting Incident (within the first 10% of the book): A bit tricky. I could call it at the moment Hazel meets Augustus (Gus) Waters on page 13 (where, by the way, we get excellent foreshadowing when Hazel narrates about her infatuation with her favorite book and its author, Peter Van Houten). However, Hazel was still just Hazel at that point. She just happened to be checking out the ultra-hot Augustus sitting in their cancer support group. So I’ll call the inciting incident at page 21, when Hazel takes the momentous step of getting into Augustus’ car with him (which she soon regrets, it turns out a boy with a prosthetic right leg isn’t the most pleasant of drivers). Since the book is 310 pages long, Green is well within the 10% range in the inciting incident placement.
First Plot Point (20-25% point in the book or pg. 64-80): Green holds back a little long here. But we don’t mind because the characters are so riveting! On page 90, Augustus announces to Hazel that he’s arranged for her to travel with him to Amsterdam to visit Peter Van Houten. Since Augustus already made the arrangements, she can’t really say no. So she’s passed through the point of no return (though, as we’ll find out, it can still be taken away from her).
Mid-point (in the middle, where else?): Two things happen at the mid-point of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. First, on page 153, Augustus confesses his love for Hazel. In just a few short paragraphs, we see Hazel grappling with this. It’s wonderful and terrible at the same time. How can she allow this boy to love a girl who has little time remaining on this Earth? But shouldn’t she experience such joy in the time she has? Green doesn’t say it in so many words. He masterfully allows us to see it in just a few. Page 154 in the hardback, as a matter of fact, contains only two sentences that spell out Hazel’s turning point. Then, at the beginning of the next chapter, they land in Amsterdam. Symbolic of Hazel’s crossing over to a new phase in her life. It’s part two of Act II for the writer, but a huge step for Hazel.
Second Plot Point (75% or around page 233): Here’s where Green seems to break from conventional structure the most. Or maybe not. Right on page 233, Gus makes an interesting statement as he and Hazel watch kids playing on a giant skeleton outside a museum: “Last time, I imagined myself as the kid. This time, the skeleton.” Gus has moved from life to death, though physically he’s still alive. Now Gus doesn’t physically die until page 262. But here’s what I love: his death is just another story beat, necessary to advance the plot. In fact, chapter 21, on page 261, begins with “Augustus Waters died eight days after his prefuneral, etc. etc.” No dramatic exit here. Our narrator, Hazel, reports it as if reading an obituary. And it’s perfect. Because Gus actually died way back on page 233, precisely at the 75% mark. Now, for those who think great writing just happens, I promise you no one is this mathematically lucky. Plot point three happened right on the 75% mark. Not 74%. Not 76%. Green planned this. Ingeniously. But because he’s a veteran writer, he knows that this major milestone doesn’t need to jump out and grab the reader around the throat to be effective. It can be subtle. The reader senses a shift. The grab-life-by-the-balls Gus Waters announces that he’s spiritually dead. That’s dead enough. Fantastic job here!
Conclusion: A lot happens here. In the last ten pages of the book, we find Hazel a changed girl. She still has cancer. And she still will not likely live much longer. But now she is a) hanging out with friends and doing something as mundanely teenagerish as playing video games and b) she has told Van Houten that she no longer cares what happens to the characters in his book. As you recall, at the beginning, she was absorbed by Van Houten and likely his biggest fan. Now she’s lived a real-live romance and tragedy. And survived. Her change is obvious and beautiful. Few writers could leave the reader feeling happy for a cancer-ravaged girl who’s boyfriend just died and will die soon herself. But Green does it. She’s lived her “infinity.” Some infinities are just shorter than others, according to Mr. Green. And aren’t we glad for it?
So it would seem that the highly talented John Green has stuck with the standard story structure, having only slightly missed the first plot point. The remaining points were near surgical in their placement. I did this exercise for my benefit, as a writer. To be a writer one must study the masters. Sure, we can read for fun, too. But, like a pro football player, sometimes we have to sit in a dark room and watch the game film. See how the other guys do it. Try it for yourself. Flip through a favorite novel and see how well the author stuck with accepted story structure. You may be surprised to find out that she had a plan all along.
Until next time…