Let's talk about story structure. Plotting is probably my weakest point, as I don't read for plot. I read for character, voice, and story (which is not the same as plot, IMHO). That's why I feel my plots are the weakest link. What, then, do I check my story arc against to see whether the plot is strong enough?
From Aristotle to Northrop Frye to Joseph Campbell, writers through the ages have been aware of a basic mythic structure that drives stories.
Yes, I believe that not EVERY story must follow the Hero's/Heroine's Journey. Some literary novels and much of chick lit (bless its defunct heart) follow their own paths or a different pattern. However, for your first few novels in today's market, I believe you cannot go wrong following the Hero(ine)'s Journey. It is convenient to use the terminology and outline set up by Joseph Campbell, who did a PBS series and a few books about the Hero(ine)'s Journey.
Ordinary World: This is the character's everyday life.
Call to Adventure: Someone or something challenges the hero out of his everyday life. Say, the heroine is offered a promotion, but it means she has to travel back to the small community she fled at the age of seventeen.
Refusal of the Call: The hero thinks of all the reasons he shouldn't take on this adventure/problem. Why is this the worst possible choice for him?
Meeting the Mentor: Someone says or does something that makes the character realize he/she should take the call/adventure.
Crossing the First Threshold: This is when the character takes the first step toward change. The heroine accepts the promotion.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies: These make up most of the middle of your book.
The worst thing for a book is a "sagging middle." So this section should not be flabby or bore the reader. A few pages of skimming leads to the book hitting the wall!
Here is where we discover that the original goal is not the real one. Or that we need to accomplish subgoals before worrying about the real goal. Or we have to get past a dragon, befriend various "helpers" or at least eliminate them as hindrances, and answer a riddle. Stuff like that, but tailored to your heroine's private inner and outer journeys. (Your heroine has an inner journey that is going to be internalized by the readers, even if you are only presenting the outer journey in text. The inner journey may take place completely in subtext.)
Our Hero(ine) tries different strategies to reach the (possibly changing) goal and fails time and time again. (Three is typically the magic number.) She makes friends (allies) along the way as well as enemies (villains). She has to pass tests. When one attempt at his goal fails, he has to find another way around the problem.
Let's return to the example heroine I originally postulated. Let's say her story goal is to gain acceptance in the small town she comes from. She tries to join the local [Junior League, PTA, Blue Hair Reading Club], but they freeze her out. She buys a house in a nice area of town and the neighbors refuse to talk to her. She keeps trying things until it seems as though she'll never win.
Approach the Inmost Cave: The hero is starting to realize that he must change in order to accomplish his goal. He can't achieve his goal superficially.
Reward: The hero is rewarded somehow for his efforts. You can't have your character suffer, suffer, SUFFER, and keep it believable that she is still trying. There must be small rewards or affirmations that "this is the right path" now and then. And there must be a reward here at the climax/falling action or else we will feel cheated. She went through all this for a Dairy Queen dipped cone? I don't THINK so. We may see the reward she expected, a better one, or an entirely different one, depending on her character arc and how her expectations/goals have changed.
The Road Back: The hero must return with the "elixir" or the answer to his dilemma.
Resurrection: The character has changed, sometimes profoundly. He has returned from the abyss or has avoided falling in, and is now reborn as a new person with new purpose and accomplishments. You MUST SHOW how the character has changed rather than just telling readers what he/she will be like from now on. (This is different from some older stories that just said "he never did that again" or whatever.)
Return with the Elixir: Yay! We have slain the dragon and accomplished our goal, whether it was the original goal or a new, corrected goal that we formulated to replace it. We may also have side effects and unexpected good rewards. This is the resolution in which we tie up every loose end possible and answer every story question we've raised. We are back at our "home" spot or the newly created one, and we are ready to bask in the glory--for a while, anyway.
This is all pretty vague and high-level. Let's see if we can't have a few details.
1) You must give your hero a real problem. This problem can't be minor. It has to be life-threatening or life-changing. It must be something that forces your hero to change the way he sees the world and the way he responds to the world.
2) The hero must deny that there is a problem or run from the problem until--
3) --he is forced to face the problem and make a decision to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. *This is around the end of the third chapter in most books.* Here's where the body has to drop in a mystery, or where the evil mage has to cast a spell on someone important in a fantasy. This is where your character really enters into the adventure and there is no turning back.
4) Your character, by human nature, will first try the easiest solution. Of course that CAN'T work or your story would be over. He must then try the next hardest solution. This should happen, on average, at least twice before success.
5) Every time your character tries a solution, you must throw a setback in front of him. One step forward and two back.
6) About three-quarters of the way through your book, there must be a black moment. This is when things seem as though they could not possibly get any worse. How will your character ever overcome and meet his story goal?
7) The character must change as a result of this challenge. He must decide to change and overcome this obstacle.
Let's say you are writing suspense. The hero has been hired to protect a child but the child is kidnapped in the first chapter, so the story goal becomes to get the child back.
As the hero works at getting the child back, one setback after another occurs. The money he is taking for the ransom is sucked out of the helicopter window; the kidnappers don't show up at the agreed-upon spot; he is in a bad accident and doesn't make it to the pickup place; he thinks he has located the abductor's hideaway but discovers it was a ruse.
The black moment might be that he thinks the child is dead. Things couldn't get much worse than that, could they? Now let's say throughout this book you've set up the idea that the hero is terrified of heights. The only way he can be sure that the child is dead is to climb to the top of a high tower. He has to change and overcome that fear in order to rescue the child (this is a simplistic internal conflict, but it should help you get the idea).
This also has to do with making your hero(ine) face his/her innermost demon. This is the thing the hero(ine) is most afraid of and must overcome in order to do what is required. You have (of course) set up this fear of spiders/snakes in advance. Think of Indiana Jones.
8) Once the character has changed, wrap things up quickly. Tie up loose ends and leave things happily-ever-after.
Can you have an unhappy ending? Sure. I just don't like them, and most genre fiction editors don't allow them. They believe readers despise them, and that they belong in literary fiction. Even horror novels generally tie things up such that the good guy wins.
All right, how do we structure this heroine's journey?
In the classic plot (and this works for MOST genres), there are three acts, between which there are four main "shifts."
By shift I mean major changes in the paradigm or in the way the characters understand what is happening. BIG scenes. MAJOR events.
1. Hero and/or Heroine is/are introduced and there is some sort of conflict. (See my earlier post about "action is not conflict.")
2. The character(s) attempt(s) to solve problem one, but only slip(s) deeper into trouble.
3. Black Moment: Just when it seems as though things can't possibly get any worse...they do. All seems lost. Will this couple/person ever work their problems out?
4.Change and resolution. The character changes somehow and through that change decides on an action that resolves the conflict.
Be sure that your character CHOOSES the action to resolve the conflict. Don't use a deus ex machina, the gods from the sky, to rescue them, whether that be the police or an ocean wave that carries away the bad guys. Let it be your character's act that wins the game.