Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Story Structure & The Great Alone


By Debby Giusti


A writer writes, right?

She also reads.

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah, was my local book club’s selection last month. The story hooked me from the get-go and wouldn't let up until I had plowed through 545 pages of what The Washington Post deemed “An epic story.”

Other reviews included terms such as “riveting,” “highly cinematic” and “packed with rapturous descriptions.” New York Times bestselling author Kate Moton called it a “novel of love, sacrifice and survival…”

Haunting is how I would describe the story, sad at times, chilling at others. There were moments when I wanted to close the book and shut out the people who had wormed their way into my heart, especially the young teen protagonist.

This isn’t a review, and I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who plans to read it. Instead, I wanted to share my appreciation for the hard work and attention to detail that went into crafting this story. Kristin Hannah is an amazingly talented writer, and her New York Times bestseller deserves the many accolades it has received since its publication by St. Martin’s Griffin in 2018. I also wanted to take a closer look at how Hannah drew me into her Alaskan saga.


Those who study the craft of writing are aware of the various elements that weave together to create a story. Hannah uses them masterfully. Her descriptive prose transported me back to 1974 when the story opens in Lenora—Leni—Albright’s POV. The thirteen-year-old is the only child of Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam Vet and former POW suffering from PTSD and his chain-smoking flower-child wife, Cora, who loves the memory of the husband she married but fears the explosive man who returned home after the war. When Ernt loses a job yet again, he moves his family north to Alaska where they lay claim to a dilapidated cabin and thirty acres of wilderness he inherited from an Army buddy killed in action.

Contemporary stories start in the protagonist’s ordinary world. An inciting incident follows with what Christopher Vogler, in The Hero’s Journey, identifies as a call to adventure. That call propels the lead characters into action. Within the first twenty-five pages, the Allbrights, having traveled from Seattle in their rickety Volkswagen bus, arrive at the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Kaneq, Alaska.

What they find is not the pristine homestead they had imagined, but a dirty hovel in the wild. The last of the family’s money has been spent on their trek north. Without the resources to return to the lower 48, they have no recourse but to remain in Alaska. James Scott Bell, in Writing From the Middle, would call this the first pillar in the story’s structure from which there is no turning back.


Film director and producer Alfred Hitchcock used ticking time bombs to increase his audiences’ apprehension. Employing that same technique, Hannah continually reminds the reader of the passing summer and the preparations that must be made if the family is to survive throughout the winter.

Friends and mentors as well as enemies are introduced. Hannah creates engaging secondary characters in the eclectic community of Kaneq, many of whom reach out to the newcomers. The setting plays an important role as a hostile antagonist in the dark of winter and a fickle flirt that brings a short-lived reprieve of sunshine in the few weeks of summer.

Early on, the lead characters’ goals, motivation and conflicts are introduced. Screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge says the external goal must be concrete and not an abstract desire, such as wanting to be loved. Taking the necessary steps to stay alive through the winter is an ongoing goal for the Allbright family. Leni's desire to study photography and capture the world around her with her camera becomes one of her goals.


Each of the main characters has an internal conflict—a wound from the past or a flaw that prevents them from living authentic lives. Often they wear a mask to hide their wounds, or flaws, from others and sometimes even from themselves.

Complications continue to mount for the family and our young protagonist. The reader hardly has time to catch a breath before another problem surfaces. The danger is unrelenting and comes from a number of sources. The father with his volatile mood swings puts even the reader on edge. The harsh environment is always a concern, and the family’s fragile situation is compounded by their isolation and the ever-changing weather.

Any writer who worries about piling too much on his character’s shoulders needs to read The Great Alone. Hannah never stops adding hardships and upping the family’s struggle. With each new dilemma, I was pulled deeper into the story.

Two-thirds of the way into the book, Hannah introduces a huge turning point—what James Scott Bell would call the second pillar—that changes the direction of the story. The characters are caught in this new unexpected twist from which there is no escape. The pace intensifies with a mix of bad choices that ratchets up the tension.


So as not to reveal too much, I’ll merely add that there is a romance and a heartbreaking black moment that made me believe the love interests would never come together again. As expected, Hannah provided an exciting climax and a poignant resolution. At the end of the story, the protagonist has changed and grown. She’s overcome the past and has survived.

I am always excited to read a book that pulls me totally into the story. Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone did exactly that.

Here's a quick review of the writing structure found in the stories we love to read—and write—including The Great Alone.

            _Starts in the protagonist’s ordinary world.
            _Inciting Incident
            _Lead characters’ GMC, including internal conflict
            _Call to adventure
            _Hero accepts the call and passes through the first pillar
            _Introduction of friends, mentors and enemies
            _Escalating tension
            _The second pillar of no return
            _Black Moment
            _Climax
            _Resolution

What stories have you read recently that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go.  As a writer, do you analyze the books you read? Is it easy to identify the various structural elements in someone else’s story? What additional structure points do you include in your own stories or find in the stories you read?

Let’s discuss story and the books we love. Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing for my April release, Dangerous Amish Inheritance.

Happy writing! Happy reading!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti


Dangerous Amish Inheritance

By Debby Giusti

“Move off the mountain. No one wants you here.”

Can this Amish widow survive her dangerous stalker?
Someone wants Ruthie Eicher off Amish Mountain…enough to terrorize the widow and her boys. Now Ruthie must rely on her former sweetheart, Noah Schlabach—the secret father of her eldest son—as they figure out why. But Noah has turned his back on love and the Amish way of life. Can he shield Ruthie…without breaking her heart again?

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33 comments:

  1. Debby, our book club read this book, and I agree about everything you said! A haunting, memorable book I couldn't put down. You're so right about the turning points and the excellent story structure. Oh, and about the great job she did on the characters. Thank you for studying the story and pointing all this out! I'll be able to look at the book with fresh eyes now.

    Another book that our book club read that I can't get out of my head is Where the Crawdads Sing. If you haven't already, y'all need to read that one too!

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    1. I love being in a book club! So many great selections and often stories I wouldn't read on my own. We read Crawdads. That story haunted me, as well. Evidently, I struggle when children are threatened. Good to know you felt the same about The Great Alone. It was memorable, as you mentioned.

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  2. Debby, what a wonderful glimpse into an excellent story. I haven't read it, my reading time is quite limited right now (and that's all right!) but I can see the excellent strength in this premise, being trapped with no way out... and how we deal with that kind of adversity.

    Thank you for this glimpse into story structure and set-up. It's always a class-in-a-blog when you post!

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    1. I went through a period where I wasn't reading much. Only a few pages late at night before going to sleep. Now I'm back to reading more and am enjoying what I read, but there's never enough time in the day. :)

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    2. Being in a book club has really increased my reading. I have accountability. haha

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  3. Coffee is here! Along with tea, crumpets (does anyone know what a crumpet is???)and let's do beignets this morning, with Lent coming up soon! I need some beignets! Here is my favorite beignet recipe.... although maybe we should be eating caribou jerky? Because I bet that's good, too!
    Paula Deen's Beignets

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    1. Reaching for a beignet. Thanks, Ruthy. I'm sipping strong coffee and imagining I'm at Cafe Du Monde!

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  4. Hey, I love your heroine's name. :) Just sayin'....

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    1. The heroine in The Great Alone? Lenora...Leni! I kept thinking of Lenora Worth. Such a pretty name that I don't often hear.

      Or are you talking about MY heroine Ruthie Eicher? I love the name Ruth. So strong. So Biblical. One of my dearest friends is a Ruth. :)

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  5. Wow. This is interesting. Never looked at quite this way. Thanks for sharing

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    1. Hi Lori, the structure in The Great Alone was so spot on. Hannah includes every element that a good story should have, and she does it all so masterfully. After I finished reading, I could see the structure as if laid out on a whiteboard. I had planned to blog about some other topic, but The Great Alone kept weeding its way into my thoughts so I HAD to write about the story's structure.

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  6. I have not read any of Kristin Hannah's books, but I hear good things from people who have. I'm TERRIBLE at analyzing stories, which is possibly why it's so hard for me to plot my own. One of the best things about the book club I used to be part of was a friend who is the AP English teacher at the local high school. She was able to pick apart symbols and plots and get to the deeper meanings--but not so much they ceased to be enjoyable :) I'm going to have to read this book, I think. Thanks for the great post, Debby!

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    1. Hi Glynis, your teacher friend sounds like a wonderful book cluber! I didn't go into the symbols in The Great Alone. I'm sure your friend could dig deep and find lots of messages woven into the story. Before publication, I couldn't see stories as a whole. That's come with writing, and I believe it helps to have that vision when we're plotting our own stories, as you mentioned. An overview of the story allows us to recognize holes or areas that need to trimmed away. That's what I do in my "whiteboard" stage when I write the basic structure of the story I plan to tackle. By looking at the whole, I can see the holes. Does that make sense?

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    2. Yes it does make sense. I think as I write these things will get clearer. Or at least I'm hoping they do! Thanks!

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  7. OMG!
    How wonderful to be back at the Café Du Monde…even if only vicariously! We spent our honeymoon in the French Quarter and went to the Café every morning…which sometimes was at 3 am. Have not had beignets since then!!!

    BTW: the best pizza I ever had, and I've had many, was at a NYC pizza place right in the center of the French Quarter! Never again so good! Can you imagine the chutzpah of some New York guy opening a resturant in the French Quarter! (Oddly enough many of the locals speak with a Brooklyn accent which they have developed on their own. Very strange.)

    Thanks Ruth: it was very easy to print Paula Dean's French Quarter recipe for beignets at that link you provided. Paula also has the best cornbread recipe. Not that rock hard 1/2" high stuff they call cornbread here in Oklahoma!

    P.S. I just ordered some genuine Café Du Monde Chicory coffee online at Walmart.

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  8. Hi Vince,
    Were your 3 AM stops at Cafe Du Monde at the end of a night of frivolity or did you get up that early? Interested people want to know. :)

    I hope your chicory coffee order arrives by Fat Tuesday. Lent starts in a week. New Orleans is in full Mardi Gras mode. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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    1. Hi Debby:

      You know, now that I think of it, we went to bed early and woke up hungry at 2 am and just as naturally as could be we walked over to the Café Du Monde. Why not? That's why they stay open all the time. If I remember correctly, we always passed the streetcar named "Desire" on the way over there.

      BTW: no way would we give up coffee for Lent! I think even Catholics would call doing that 'masochisme' in the French Quarter!

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    2. I'm laughing! I didn't mean to give up coffee! I thought you could enjoy it on Fat Tuesday to get into the Mardi Gras swing before the festivities stop at midnight. :)

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  9. Debby, love this! There are books that take you away from page one. I want to dissect them and see how they did it.

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    1. Hi Sally!
      It's always a joy to find a good book! Have you read Kristin Hannah? I plan to read her NIGHTINGALE next. Set in WWII. It's supposed to be equally as good as THE GREAT ALONE.

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    2. No, I have not read her books. Will be checking them out!

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  10. Hi Debby:

    The last book I read that followed the points you listed here was Tina Radcliffe's "Christmas With The Cowboy". Of course, this is always the case with Tina's books because she watches the six hour long, "The Hero's Two Journeys", by Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler before she starts to write a new novel.

    In Tina's novels every step is there just as it should be. Tina also holds the reader's attention by not only increasing the tension but also by making the characters so worthy and sympathetic that you start rooting for them as you are reading. They are deserving people and you want them to find happiness as soon as possible.

    For example, the hero in "Christmas With the Cowboy" is a wounded military hero while the heroine is a young war-widow with adorable little twins. She is running a ranch/camp for abused and troubled children. He is not sure what to do with the rest of his life now that he can't be on active duty. Trying to put the book down is like leaving a loved one at the height of being infatuated! ("Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow.")

    I do have a pet peeve with authors who believe that they should always be increasing the tension to keep the reader's attention. This is like blaring a siren outside someone's house and making it louder each hour in order to keep the homeowner's attention. It's enough to drive one nuts!

    What I'm talking about here is the ever increasing of tension without advancing the storyline. Too many 'comic book' hero movies do this. The hero faces one fight after another until the last and greatest fight of all with the story never advancing very much from the first 11 battles. Ridiculous!

    Please: each increase in tension must advance the storyline!

    Vince

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    1. Good point, Vince. Kristin Hannah does it right. Every problem is there for good reason.

      Tina is a delightful writer!

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  11. Trying to wrap my head around story structure is sometimes a challenge when I'm trying to apply it to my WIP, but I can easily see now, whether it be in films or well written novels, how it all comes together to make a satisfying experience for the viewer/reader. Unfortunately, it has also given me the ability to predict what's going to happen in some (not all) movies/books I pick up. I'm pleasantly satisfied when I can't figure it out.
    Thanks for sharing Debby!

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    1. I call that reading like an editor. I'm on the lookout for all the clues and jumping ahead as I try to figure out the plot. The same goes for movies. Can't we all see where most of the Hallmark movies are headed soon after the hero and heroine are introduced? But I still enjoy the stories I read and Hallmark movies.

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  12. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insight. Have a blessed day.

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  13. At times I stop and analyze a story as I'm reading it. If it grips me from the beginning and doesn't let me go until the end, well, no analyzing takes place. :)

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    1. I didn't analyze The Great Alone until I finished the story. Then I wanted to discover how she had hooked me so completely. :)

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  14. I remember what a light bulb moment it was for me when I first "saw" story structure and understood the elements that make up a good story.

    When I'm plotting, I try to keep those in mind, building the story with all the elements necessary...and then pray that I can translate those things into a good story through my choice of words.

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  15. There's always something more to learn and to add to our stories, right, Erica? I've enjoyed James Scott Bell's two pillar concept. Only read his how-to recently, but I am using that structure now. It ups the tension, IMHO, and was very obvious in The Great Alone!

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  16. Thank you for sharing Debby Have a Blessed Week!

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