What is story structure? Do I need it? How can I get me some?

Image of a woman sitting on the ground grimacing up at the camera. Caption: Plotting your novel - it's really fucking hard.

In this first section we’re gonna be looking at story structure, what that means and how you can use it – or not use it. By the end of the chapter, you should have at least a rudimentary understanding of story structure, start to explore who’s in your story and what their roles are, and begin to turn that knowledge into a very short outline.

Before we begin though, we need to sound the previous requirement klaxon! You might think the So You Want To Write A Novel blogs were just there to tease you into paying actual money to do the rest of the course but YOU ARE WRONG (and also right). You need to go read them now if you haven’t already done so, ’cause you’re gonna need a vague idea of what your story is about and a little bit of waffle about your protagonist before we start.

So go do it now and then come back. We’ll be waiting.

Done it? Goooood.

You should now have these three very important things to start off your Plotstorming journey:

  1. A story idea hastily jotted down, waiting to be polished right up.
  2. A start and end point, written in a panic because you think they’re probably not right and you’re a bit scared of getting it wrong.
  3. A paragraph or so containing everything you know about your main character, and what they want most in the world.

RIGHT. Let’s get cracking…

So, structure. It’s important to note that people spend YEARS studying narratology and constructing their stories. We’re not gonna do that but what we ARE going to do here is break away from the solitary terror of the blank page and provide you with a guide to help you gain a practical understanding of how to construct a plot.

Image of three points: beginning, middle and end, connected by scribbling lines. Caption: So I've got a pretty clear idea of my story.

At the end of the course, if you do all the exercises and come chat to us on the student forums, you’ll have a solid outline of the story you want to write. But when you actually come to write it you’ll find it changes. This is completely normal and correct. You may find that what we outline here as Chapter 5 ends up being one paragraph in Chapter 3, or that a scene you outline further on in the course ends up being two vital chapters at the midpoint.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Everything here is mutable. This is just one step in a constantly growing and changing process. Think of your work in progress as some kind of living, breathing amorphous blob that you’re trying to scoop into the small end of a funnel. Don’t ask why we’re trying to do that. We just are. So. Onward…

If you’ve ever asked the Internet ‘how to write a story’, you’ll know that, in a somewhat meta turn of events, there are a million different theories explaining how all stories ostensibly follow the same structure.

There is validity in every one of these, and also places to pick holes. But whichever theory you subscribe to there are a few key things you will need in your story. That doesn’t mean we’re doing cookie cutter story-by-numbers here. It just means we’re mindful of what ‘Story’ means and what people are interested in reading.

Here’s a brief run down of the most popular story structure theories:

1. The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell’s structure is the original of the genre (in the Western world, at least). Also called Monomyth (one myth), it outlines a broad, yet fundamental narrative structure. It’s made up of 17 points but not all stories need to contain each point explicitly (see, even the father of story structure says these things aren’t set in stone). And each of these 17 points are further split into three larger sections: Departure (leaving the ordinary world for adventure); Initiation (adventuring!); Return (things are fixed and resolved).

2. Save the Cat

Like most of the story structure doodats you read about, this one comes from screenwriting (‘Save the cat!‘ is a phrase coined by Blake Snyder to describe the moment the audience starts rooting for the protagonist). The theory is that your story needs to hit certain beats at certain points to keep your audience engaged. If you look closely enough, each beat is similar to the points of Hero’s Journey, and again, it is split into three larger sections, which are, roughly speaking: set up and debate; action and adventure; resolution and return. There are a whole load of great stories as explained by the ‘beat sheet’ method (Emma Donoghue’s Room beat sheet is particularly worth reading.)

3. Three Act Structure

Another method to come directly from screenwriting (and, before that, ye olde ancient Greek drama) but now widely considered the standard for storytelling. Your first third is the set up, the middle is the action, the third is the resolution and pay off. So, you know, beginning, middle, end.

Image depicting the points of the three act structure on a graph: Beginning, inciting incident, second thoughts, climax of act one, obstacles, midpoint (a big twist), obstacle, disaster, crisis, climax of act two, climax of act three, obstacles, denouement (wrap-up), end.

4. The Seven Basic Plots

This book by Christopher Booker is one of the most incredible, comprehensive works out there. Booker worked on his theory for an astonishing 34 years, and it shows. But even Booker’s seven plots are boiled down to the meta-plot, which includes the anticipation stage (the call to adventure), the dream stage (the adventure), the frustration stage (things get worse), the nightmare stage (things get even worse), and the resolution (things are fixed).

Quote from Christopher Booker's 'The Seven Basic Plots', white text on orange background. "Storytelling serves a far deeper and more significant purpose in our lives than we have realised: indeed one whose importance can scarcely be exaggerated."

5. The Snowflake Method

Everyone knows the Snowflake Method because their SEO is so damn good that any search for ‘how to write a novel’ springs this bad boy on you. The Snowflake Method is more a way of writing, than a structure per se, and it’s really very simple – write a bit, then a bit more, then a bit more. But each of the ‘bit mores’ also follows a structure, what the author calls: “three disasters plus an ending”. Is that three or four acts? Not sure, but it’s all sounding very familiar.

Image of four shapes, getting progressively more complicated: a triangle, a 6-pointed star, a simple snowflake, a complex snowflake.

Read more about the Snowflake Method here.

And finally, a bonus from the inimitable Chuck Wendig

6. The Terrible Minds Method: 

Blue text on a yellow background: A story should look more like: 1. Hey look a problem. 2. I'm just gonna go ahead and fix that problem and... 3. Oh God I made it worse. 4. Oh fuck somebody else is making it worse too. 5. Wait I think I got this. 6a. Shit shit shit. 6b. Fuck fuck fuck. 7. It's not just worse now but different. 8. Everything is complicated. 9. All is lost. 10. Wait, is that a light at the end of a tunnel? 11. It is but it's a velociraptor with a flashlight in its mouth. 12. Wait an idea. 13. I have beaten the velociraptor and now i have a flashlight and my problems are solved in part but not too neatly because tidy, pat endings make story Jesus angry, so angry that story Jesus gives everyone mouth herpes. By Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds.

You can see it doesn’t *really* matter which theory you follow, because they all have the same key points. And unless you’re going on to study narratology to tweed-and-elbow-patches level, or unless you’re a strangely obsessed structural crazy person, you don’t really need to know every single exacting detail of every individual theory. A rudimentary knowledge of the basics, coupled with the usual writers’ requirement of reading broadly and deeply will do.

So we’ve distilled all this stuff into some key takeaways for you:

  • Your story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end (duh)
  • In the beginning, your hero is catapulted into an adventure. In the middle, they have an adventure. And in the end, everything is fixed. (Here, let me show you how to suck eggs.)
  • The middle tends to be split into two parts. The first half is general adventuring and skills gathering. Then some crucial midpoint happens where everything changes again. Then the second half is like an extended version of one of those days where you find yourself screaming WHAT THE HELL ELSE CAN GO WRONG HERE FFS?
  • Your character, typically, has to be at odds with the world around her. Let’s all say it together now: your story needs CONFLICT.
  • A story is an arc. That means it starts at point A, swoops up to point B, flips on its head at point C, and curves quickly back down to Earth at point D.
  • All stories are stories of CHANGE. If nothing is changing, no one is reading.

A quick note on literary fiction here: for those of us writing lovely wafty narratives which are more concerned with form and character than plot (me, me, I do this!), all of this may seem a bit, well, vulgar. This really is a problem of semantics. When we use words like conflict, disaster, raising the stakes, adventure and so on, we are immediately put in mind of Indiana Jones running away from the boulder, or Luke Skywalker jumping to hyperspace with a couple of twittering robots at his side. But conflict, disaster and adventure don’t have to be the running-jumping-hiding kind…

Conflict is simply the mismatch between where your character wants to be and where they are now.

In literary fiction, that could mean that your protagonist is desperate to be an award-winning author, but can’t get her arse off the sofa to start writing. Or that your protagonist really wants to learn how to be happy on her own, but finds herself embroiled in an emotional affair with the vicar (isn’t that every Joanna Trollope book every written?).

Disaster is simply things going wrong; a derailment of the critical path.

Maybe your protag finally slogs out a first draft but then loses it and doesn’t have a back up. Or she goes to the vicar’s house ostensibly for a cup of tea but really to bathe in the joy of his company only to find that Mrs Collins from the cake shop is there talking interminably about the potholes in the footbridge, and she can’t get a moment alone with Reverend Sexypants…

Adventure is simply… yeah okay this one is a complete misnomer when it comes to litfic. Let’s take it to mean ‘an unusual experience’.

Writer Protagonist meets her writer hero who inspires her to action and, cue movie-montage, finishes her book by staying up all night and sticking Post-Its to the wall. Adventure! Joanna Trollope protag realises that she’s misread all the signs because R. Sexypants comes out as gay and marries the man of his dreams. She’s heartbroken, but then realises what we’ve known all along – she just needs to cool it with falling in love all the time and spend QT with herself. Totes Emosh Adventure!

*Insert sleek segue back to discussing structure here*

At Writers’ HQ we’ve kind of smooshed everything together and come up with our own magical 16 point plot planner. The key thing that we’ll help you do, however, is to find your own way through the story planning process, rather than chuck some essential plot points at you and run,  so you can do it again and again. We’re here to hold your hand. Awwww.

There’s still a bit of work to do before we get to the Magical 16 Point Plot Planner Of Your Dreams though, so go have a cup of tea, let this info sink into your brain, and come back to the next unit when you’re feeling ready to go again.

In the next section, we’ll hear some authors talking about ways they approach plotting. These are short clips, so very handy for slipping into five minute slots of time here and there. Ready? Click away…

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