Expansion Pack: Story Engineering

Hi, Gang. Craig with you again today with another one of my Expansion Packs. I stole the idea from some video games who offer additional levels, or new scenarios for download. In this case, I’m throwing back to my series on Three Act Structure.

I have two lessons for you today, and the first one is pretty simple. Make friends in this business, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those who know more about something than yourself. The second lesson is for my guest to present.

Sue Coletta is a dear friend, and the author of some incredible Crime Thrillers. She’s even branched out into true crime and it’s well worth checking her wares out. She commented on one of my series posts, and it piqued my interest.

Sue commented about how she uses Story Engineering and Milestones to craft her tales. There is a lot of similarity to Three Act Structure, and the target items I use in my storyboards. Sue is my guest today, so let’s all make her feel welcome, and maybe we can all learn something.

Thank you, Craig. It’s an honor to join you at Story Empire. ☺

Think of Milestones (aka story beats) as a human skeleton. The skull, spine, sternum (breastbone), scapula, ribs, and pelvis are vital for life. Without these large bones in place, we’d become a mushy blob of skin, muscle, and meat. Also important is the humerus (upper arm), radius and ulna (forearm), femur (thigh), patella (knee), tibia and fibula (shin). Though we could survive without arms and/or legs, we’d have to adjust to a new way of life. Same is true for the metatarsals and phalanges of our hands and feet.

A complete skeleton has the strongest foundation. Don’t we want the same for our novels?

Drilling down into the Three Act Structure, the dramatic arc is split into four quartiles, as Craig expertly demonstrated in his recent series of posts. Milestones appear on the microlevel of those quartiles, called Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. Each Part takes up about 25% of the novel. For clarity, I’ve colored Acts in red, Parts in blue, Milestones in black. Ready to get high on craft? Cool. Let’s do this…


Part I: The Set Up: The first quartile (25%) of the story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that follows. We need to accomplish a handful of things (as you’ll see in the Milestones), but they all fall under the umbrella of that singular mission. If we choose to show the antagonist, we only want to include jigsaw pieces of the puzzle.

Most importantly, Part 1 needs to establish stakesfor what happens to the hero after Part 1. Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care. The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake—what they need and want in their life and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict—the more we care when it all changes. 

In Part 1 the hero is like an orphan, unsure of what will happen in their life. And like orphans, we feel for them. We empathize. We care.

Opening Scene: Often the Opening Scene doubles as the Hook, but not always. If you choose to include a prologue, for example, the Opening Scene must also hook the reader.

Hook: In an 85K word novel, the Hook should arrive between p. 1-15. This scene should introduce the hero, hook the reader, and entice them enough to keep reading. You need to ensure the reader either relates to, or empathizes with, the main character. Contrary to what some believe a reader does not have to like a main character. There have been plenty of unlikable heroes that have hooked us for an entire novel. Why? Because we empathized with their situation. Likeable or unlikeable, the reader must have a reason to root for them. That’s key.

Inciting Incident *Optional*: Not every story has to have an Inciting Incident in the way I use the term. Some call the Inciting Incident the First Plot Point. I refer to it as a separate Milestone, a foreshadowing of the First Plot Point but without affecting the protagonist. And that’s the main difference. It can even be an entirely different event, one that relates to the main plot, but it’s a false start. A tease. If we choose to include a separate Inciting Incident, this Milestone should land between p. 10-60 in the same 85K word novel. But an Inciting Incident does not mean we can skip the First Plot Point.

First Plot Point: Here’s where the true quest begins. The First Plot Point should land at 20-25% into the story, or between p. 60-75 in the 85K word novel. The First Plot Point is the single most important scene of all the Milestones because it kicks off the action and propels the hero on a quest, which is your story. Even if it’s been foreshadowed or hinted at, the First Plot Point shows the reader how it affects or changes the protagonist.

ACT 2 (In this format it’s clear to see why Craig split Act 2 into two posts.)

Part II: The Response: This quartile shows the protagonist’s reaction to the new goal/stakes/obstacles revealed by the First Plot Point. They don’t need to be heroic yet. Instead, they retreat, regroup, and/or have doomed attempts at a resolution.

First Pinch Point: The First Pinch Point arrives at about 37.5% into the story (roughly the 3/8th mark or p. 114 in the 85K word novel). This Milestone reveals a peek at the antagonist force, preventing the hero from reaching their goal. If you showed the antagonist earlier, this is a reminder, not filtered through narrative or the protagonist’s description but directly visible to the reader.

For a more in-depth look at Pinch Points, see my post on Writers Helping Writers.

Midpoint Shift: The Midpoint Shift lands smack dab in the middle of the story at 50% or on p. 152 in the 85K word novel. This is a transformative scene, a catalyst for new decisions and actions. With new information, awareness, or contextual understanding, the protagonist changes from wanderer to warrior, attacking the problem head on, which lays the foundation for Part III.

Part III: The Attack: Midpoint information, awareness, or contextual understanding causes the protagonist to change course—to shift—in how to approach the obstacles. The hero is now empowered, not merely reacting as they did in Part II. They have a plan on how to proceed.

Second Pinch Point: Unlike the First Pinch Point, we must devote an entire scene to this Milestone. The Second Pinch should land around the 5/8th mark or 62.5% into the story (around p.190 in the 85K word novel). This time, the antagonist is more frightening than ever because, like the hero, he’s upped his game. Or, if the antagonist force is Mother Nature, the Second Pinch Point shows the eye of the hurricane or lava erupting from a dormant volcano.

Dark Night of the Soul: A slower paced, all-hope-is-lost moment before the Second Plot Point, also known as the second plot point lull. At its heart, the Dark Night of the Soul is the main character grappling with a death of some kind—a mentor, profession, a relationship, his reputation, her sense of who she is, etc. Here’s where the hero is at their lowest point, believing they’ve failed.

As a clichéd example, the Dark Night of the Soul shows the cop with his gun in his mouth, ready to commit suicide. But then something happens to change his mind, and that something sets up our next Milestone.

Second Plot Point: The Second Plot Point arrives at 75% of the way into the story, or around p. 228 in the 85K word novel. This Milestone launches the final push toward the story’s conclusion. It’s the last place to add new information, characters, or clues. Everything the hero needs to know, to work with or to work alongside, must be in play by the end of the Second Plot Point. Otherwise, deus ex machina. But the protagonist—and reader—may not fully understand yet.


Part IV: The Resolution: The protagonist summons the courage and growth to come up with a solution, overcome inner obstacles, and conquer the antagonist. They’re empowered, determined. Heroic.

Climax: The hero conquers the antagonist or dies a martyr. Most will say the hero should never die at the end, but it is an option. And here’s when it’ll happen. In most novels the hero survives. It’s important to note the protagonist should be the one to thwart the antagonist, or at least lead the charge if it’s a group effort. They cannot be an innocent bystander.

Denouement: Denouement means unknotting in French, and that’s exactly what this Milestone accomplishes.After enduring the quest, stronger for the effort, the protagonist unravels the complexities of the plot, and begins their new life.

Quick note to ease the minds of pantsers. I would never ask you to change your writing process or suggest planning trumps pantsing. There’s no right or wrong way to write a first draft. Whatever works best for you is the right way…for you. But once you have that first draft, read through from beginning to end and take note of the Acts, Parts, and Milestones. Your story sensibilities might be spot on and nothing needs to change. Great! But if your story feels “off” and you can’t figure out why, it’s most often because the Milestones aren’t in the correct order, or they arrive too late, or not at all. Add, subtract, or shuffle your scenes. Rebuild the skeleton of your story bone by bone. ☺


Wasn’t that amazing! I often find that different instructors will present the same material, but I only connect with one of them. This is why I invited Sue over today. It would be fairly simple to make a chart from her teachings, adding word goals and pinch points along the way. I find it similar to the mile markers I add to storyboards. I often free write between those points.

I’m going to include some links for Sue as a way of saying thanks. Let her know you appreciated her visit by checking out her stories and various sites.

Website Facebook Twitter Amazon Goodreads Tirgearr Publishing Globe Pequot (Rowman & Littlefield)

87 thoughts on “Expansion Pack: Story Engineering

  1. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – #Twofer – #ThisWeekOnStoryEmpire and #SmorgasbordWeeklyRoundUp | The Write Stuff

  2. I’m so darn unstructured when it comes to writing, and have never figured out how to organize thoughts and ideas, pinch points, storyboards or the like. Posts like this are truly enlightening, Craig and Sue, and I really appreciate the way this one is laid out. There’s a clarity here that I think will be very helpful to me, and could certainly prove useful when I go back to the WIP I recently shelved. The story needs help, and I’ll definitely be consulting this post when I get up the nerve to tackle it again. Thanks so much Craig, for this Expansion Pack series and Sue, for this detailed explanation of Story Engineering. Great post, you two! 😀

    Liked by 3 people

  3. What a great post full of great information! Nice to see Sue here as a guest with Craig. A good way to break down that skeleton of the story. It does hold it all together if put together right 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. That was amazing, Craig. Thanks, Sue. And great timing as I’m on my second draft and deep into rewrites. I was able to go back and forth between this post and my WIP. I’m not far off, thank goodness, but will definitely run through the exercise again, more carefully to see what needs further tweaking. Great post!.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I use a structure really similar to this, but I’ve never distinguished between milestones and pinch points, etc. I found this really interesting because timing in a story makes a big difference on each element’s impact. With Sue’s method, major turning points would fall in the right order and at the right time, no rushing things. I really enjoyed this.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. It’s really neat to see the story structure broken down into its elements. Although I’ve been writing for what feels like forever, I’ve only recently been diving deeper into important topics like this. So I’m grateful for every learning opportunity. Thank you Craig for bringing Sue over. I agree with others that this post is filled with invaluable information.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What a fun first guest of 2022 for SE! Thank you, Craig, for inviting Sue over. This information is invaluable. I love what Sue said about the first draft and even if we are pantsers, should be able to spot each of these distinct points in our manuscript. If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Great stuff. Thank you, Sue!! What a pleasure to have you here!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. It was great to see Sue here today. I think the way this is laid out becomes a template. Like others, I have bookmarked this post to reference it as I complete the next manuscript. Thanks, Sue, and thanks, Craig, for having Sue with you today.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Wonderful post, Craig and Sue! I marvel at your writing structure and the accompanying advice. I’m going to print this post so it can help guide my WIP. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Pingback: Expansion Pack: Story Engineering | Legends of Windemere

  11. I love the term “expansion packs,” haha! 😉 Anyway, thank you for all this, Craig and Sue! This is super helpful information. I mean, I’ve read up some articles and stuff about story structure, but knowing more and other authors’ take of it is something I find valuable, especially when it comes to how things are broken down or the little details. Appreciate your sharing of your expertise 💕

    Liked by 5 people

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