The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

What’s the single most overlooked, misunderstood—and yet most important—part of storytelling? If you cheated and looked at the title, you already know the answer is structure. Most uninitiated writers have two different reactions to the idea of story structure. Either they think it’s great, but too mystical and lofty to be understood by common mortals, or they think it’s formulaic hooey that will sap the art right out of their books.

I started out somewhere in the “huh?” camp that didn’t even realize there was such a thing as structure. From there, I progressed to reading complicated outlines that left me shaking my head. If that was structure then my story was practically written for me before I even came up with a decent idea. Thanks, but no thanks.

What I didn’t know—what most writers don’t know—is that even as I subjected the idea of story structure to ignorance and ridicule, I was actually structuring my stories without even realizing it. In the years since, I’ve been introduced to many theories of structure, all of which bear out the inevitable components found in all good stories, whether their authors deliberately structured them or were just lucky enough to wing it on their own good instincts.

Image by Calliope Diavolo

Some experts’ approach to structure is mesmerizingly complex. John Truby’s must-read The Anatomy of Story presents twenty-two elements of story structure. Syd Field’s canonical Screenplay (which is just as valuable for novelists as for screenwriters) breaks story down to the simpler three-act structure. All of these approaches incorporate the same tenets of structure, but some of them break them down into smaller chunks. I prefer a happy medium of the two: ten steps that are found in every story and, when arranged correctly, give both author and reader the biggest bang for their buck.

As you’ve probably already figured out, all this just goes to say that today I’d like to introduce a new series. Over the next few months, we’ll be exploring the mysteries, the fallacies, and the opportunities of structure.

But first let’s consider a few of the reasons every author should care about structure—and why none of us should fear it.

Structure is required in all of art.

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryDancing, painting, singing, you name it—all art forms require structure. Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations, as well as how to put its many parts into the proper order to achieve maximum effect.

Structure does not limit creativity.

Authors often fear structure will limit their ability to be creative. If they have to follow a certain road in their story and observe certain pit stops, won’t the story be written for them? But this isn’t the case. Structure presents only a shape—the curve of the story arc that we all recognize as vital to a novel’s success. The only difference is that structure allows us to be concrete and confident in our creation of that arc, ensuring the shape always turns out perfectly.

Structure is not formulaic.

Another fear is that if every story has the same structure, won’t every story ultimately be the same? But this isn’t any more true than is the idea that because every ballet incorporates the same movements, every ballet must be the same. Structure is only the box that holds the gift. What that gift may be is as wildly varied as the wrapping paper it hides behind.

Structure offers a checklist of must-have elements.

Don’t we read how-to books (and blogs like this one) because we’re wanting to discover and remember all the elements that make up a successful story? Structure is nothing more than a list of those elements, all tied up in one tidy package. How handy is that?

Structure solidifies mastery of the craft.

Learning to consciously understand the techniques you’re probably already using on an instinctive level can only broaden your understanding and tighten your mastery of the craft. When I first discovered the intricacies of structure, I was amazed to realize I was already incorporating most of the elements into my stories. Learning about them then allowed me to strengthen my raw instinct into purposeful knowledge.

So are you ready to open up a whole new world of storytelling? Structure is exciting, comforting, and liberating all at the same time. Whether you’re discovering the ins and outs of story structure for the first time or just brushing up, I hope you’ll join us for the next ten weeks as we delve into the most salient and crucial moments in the structure of the story.

Structuring Your Novel Visual Chart

Stay tuned: Next week, we talk about the Hook.

Tell me your opinion: How do you feel about the idea of story structure?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to this series. For the last novel I drafted, I started with a line that curved like the arc I was after, then began hanging events along the line. It helped me see how many events I needed to get to the climax and how quickly I had to wind up story threads and loose ends. It’s a system I think I might try again.

  2. So agree that the structure of the story is important to a good story and plot. I’m looking forward to your series.

  3. Thank you, I hope to put this information to good use.

  4. Writing a story without structure in mind is like driving a car without dashboard instruments. Yes, it will drive, but you’ll probably end up with several speeding tickets, a blown head gasket, and, ultimately, engine failure.

  5. Looking forward to the new series! Structure is a great thing to get a handle on and a blog series about it sounds fantastic.

  6. I’m looking forward to the series! Love your blog. It’s been incredibly helpful for an aspiring novelist like me.

    Cheers,
    Anna Soliveres

  7. @Olivia: Sounds like an interesting system. I always like visual representations.

    @Natalie: Structure is so far from being restrictive and stifling. It’s really quite exciting and liberating!

    @CC: You’re welcome. I hope you find the rest of the series useful as well.

    @Rashad: Great analogy. Driving blind offers a few thrills of its own, but it’s ultimately much less effective than having a map and proper tools.

    @

  8. @Ava: I’m looking forward to it too. Should be fun!

    @Anna: Thanks for commenting. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog.

  9. I feel story structure is important. Just as a new building must have a structure or it will collapse, it is the same with a story. Great post. Looking forward to the series.

  10. I also like the analogy of building a house being like structuring a story. We start with the framework and work our way out to the curtains and carpets.

  11. “Learning to consciously understand the techniques you’re probably already using on an instinctive level can only broaden your understanding and tighten your mastery of the craft.” I completely agree and if there’s one thing I’m keen on doing it’s becoming a master of the craft. Looking forward to the next installment – thanks K.

  12. Here’s to all of us getting to graduate from Padawan to Master!

  13. Thank you for addressing this! I’m a pantser so it takes me a while to make sure I have a decent structure.

  14. Outlining does make plotting easier, simply because you can see the overall arc at a glance and make adjustments much more easily. But structure is just as important and possible when you’re pantsing.

  15. I had to stop and tell you how delightfully inspiring your blog is . I am a beginner blogger and I’ve been looking for some blogging tips. I’ve discovered there is a lot to learn here :). Kisses…

  16. I’m looking forward to this series also. At the moment I use Christopher Vogler’s 12 step structure in his book “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers”. I find his last four or five steps a bit weak but the first five or six are an excellent way to start a story and I thoroughly recommend them to any fiction writer of any genre. I’ve also read Robert McKee’s “Story” a couple of times which is also excellent but you need to read it more than once and summarise it to get anything out of it.
    So you have a lot to live up to but I’m sure you’ll deliver because I’ve always enjoyed your blog. 🙂

  17. @unikorna: So glad you stopped by! I’m glad you’ve found the blog useful.

    @Christopher: Structure is structure no matter how look at, but every author has a slightly different way of visualizing it and putting it into practice. I highly recommend both the books I mentioned in the post, as well as Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering, but I hope my version will offer some informative tidbits as well.

  18. KMW… timely indeed, this article on STRUCTURE. Our writers’ group here in Mazatlan, Mexico, struggles to come to terms with it every Wednesday morning. After 20 years as a full-time writer, I have felt obliged to add my two-bits worth, as well, in the form of an eBook called “STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR”. I’d be very happy if you’d look it over. It should be ready to download next week sometime. The UCLA Screenwriting Chairman, Dr. Richard Walter, has read it and calls it “profound in its insights”. So, you can imagine how good that made me feel! (Btw…I’m on your blog via Write to Done’s “best of” list.) Cheers.

  19. Oh…I forgot to mention that this eBook of mine is a FREE download.

  20. Thanks for stopping by! Feel free to send me a link to the book when it comes out.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Okay, I’ll try this comment again, but without the stupid typos. . .

    I tend to ignore sturcture while I’m writing for the same reason I ignore the reasons my bike doesn’t tip over while I’m riding. I expect the structure to be a natural part of the storytelling. Later, during the rewrite process I might have to fix any leftover chaos.

    Malcolm

  23. More than few successful authors approach structure in that way. However, as an inveterate outliner, I tend to find it much simpler in the long run if I’m able to ensure a proper structure before I actually start writing. Fixing problems in an outline usually creates much less work than having to fix them in the body of the book.

  24. Great post! I think the authors that “wing it” and seem to magically create the right formula without realizing it, probably absorbed the mechanics of writing by being an avid reader. http://www.helpmeselfpublish.com

  25. I’m sorry, but I can’t stand Story Engineering–felt it was treating all pantsers as losers who will never get anyway.

  26. @Andrea: Totally agree. Learning through the osmosis of ravenous reading is one of the best ways to ingrain good storytelling habits in our subconscious.

    @Galadriel: Brooks has a sardonic style that offends some people, but his information is still spot on.

  27. I believe strongly in outlininga story (I “whiteboarded” mine) and re-outlining as things progress and new ideas come into the m.s. Readers expect a certain structure and unless the writer is exceptionally talented if she doesn’t stick to the traditional – she’s gonna have a problem… I don’t want any problems, so I’m sticking to this: First act (?) Second act (!) Third act (.) Lisa Pedersen @Urbanmilkmaid

  28. I look forward to the series.

  29. @Lisa: Love the punctuation illustration for the three acts. Brilliant!

    @Traci: Me too! It should be a lot of fun and stir up some good discussions.

  30. All these aspects of writing are starting to look like one huge mountain for me to climb. But I’m sure, should I reach the summit, it’ll be well worth the long slog – and I hope the view will be amazing!

    Thanks again for being kind enough to answer my silly questions 🙂

  31. Just think of the aspects of writing as building blocks. Once you’ve put one on top of the other, you’ve reached the mountaintop without even realizing it!

  32. My blog is now sporting the ‘Wordplay’ badge with pride 🙂

    Just realising that I fall into the pantser grouping. I know you’ve said there is no right or wrong way in approaching your writing, but ‘pantser’?! Couldn’t they have come up with a better sounding tag? Man, just taking my first steps in the writing game and already I’m pants.

  33. Hah! I suppose you could call yourself a non-outliner, but that does put the emphasis on the negative.

  34. I’m actually dealing with structure in my story right now and I’m hating. Structure seems so easy in theory, but actually doing it in practice seems a whole lot harder. I’m looking forward to reading more on structure which will hopefully make it easier to deal with.

  35. Story structure makes me happy.

  36. I’m so excited for this! Structure is something I really struggle with. As I’ve plotted more consistently, I’ve realized how important structure is, and also that it’s something I struggle with. I can’t wait to see what you do with this.

  37. I think not wanting structure would be like painting or photography not wanting composition. Structure sounds easy when it’s called three acts, but it’s so easy to wander off that structure and start indulging our own ideas. I’d prefer to read a well-structured story over a more creative literary story any day (of course there’s no reason it can’t be both). Fantastic post.

    Wagging Tales

  38. I am still in the ‘huh?’ camp so will look forward to more enlightening posts about the mystery of structure.

  39. @sjp: so long as you are still questioning you are still learning – call it evolution, if you like. You are not alone, in fact I’d go as far as saying we are most likely in the majority 🙂

  40. I didn’t think much about it when I started my novel. When finished with the draft, and after reading Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering and following his storyfix.com blog, along with other learning about structure, I’m a true believer in structure.

    I’m looking forward to starting my second novel, knowing I’ll go in with most of the characters fleshed out, a firm outline, solid structure and a logical plot sequence that doesn’t bite me at the end (like novel 1 did when I had no good finish to it).

    Good post, always timely, K. M.

  41. @Matthew: If you can break structure down to its salient parts, it’s actually very easy. I hope you’ll find the series helpful.

    @Ben: Ah, a man after my own heart!

    @Lauren: For me, the most exciting part about structure is that once you’ve learned it, you can see it everywhere you look – novels, movies, even non-fiction books – and once you start recognizing it, it becomes very easy to incorporate it into your own work.

    @Charmaine: I agree – structure and creativity are wholly compatible. I would go so far as to say that, when used in tandem, they only strengthen one another.

    @sjp: Honestly, the “huh” camp is the one that’s the most fun to be in. Discovering structure is so exciting, I almost wish I could do it all over again!

    @Chitrader: Nothing is more frustrating that reaching the end of a book and realizing the ending isn’t going to work. Yet another reason I love outlining and structure!

  42. A question for you Katie: when does structure stop being structure and turns into formula?

    So many good (published) writers/authors quite clearly stick to a formula, beit ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl’, it makes me wonder if pantser really is the best way to write? Surely then the writing should come across as fresh, and in some ways, less predictable than structured/formulaic writing?

    But I suppose, once a writer finds that ‘thing’ that makes them a success, then why the hell would they blast on and ignore it?
    Am I being a total noob in my way of thinking?

  43. PS – when does a person actually earn the right to legitimately call themselves a ‘writer’?

  44. Thanks for explaining there’s so much more to story telling than just writing the first thing that comes into your mind. Although I find that is a good place to start – you just have to keep working on your ideas!

  45. @Mark: Structure never becomes formula. As we’ll see when get deeper into the series, structure is only the framework – the arc – that’s present in all good stories. It’s what makes the whole thing hang together and work *as* a story. Formula is the result of rehashing the same plot elements over and over. As for the title “writer,” the only thing you have to do to earn it is write. If you write, you’re a writer. Doesn’t matter if you’re published or unpublished, read or unread, talented or untalented. If you write, you’re a writer – and it’s important to claim the title and enjoy it.

    @LK: I love that writing is a never-ending journey of learning. Makes life interesting!

  46. Thanks KM! Your blog is awesome! I am in process of writing a novel–I am a first timer for fiction. Last year I wrote a non-fiction sales/career book for new Real Estate Agents. I self published on Amazon and my target audience is slowly buying the book. I always wanted to write a novel so I took the plunge last month. 18,500 words completed–target is 60,000. Your blog is very helpful and inspirational. I read all of James Scott Bell’s books on writing as well–extremely helpful.

    Thank so much for your help–Mario

  47. Late to the party, but I just wanted to chime in to say that like many others who have posted, I’m really looking forward to this series. I’m a firm believer in structure. Without some structure, you’re looking at something akin to hanging up the wet laundry without a clothesline–all those lovely ideas sprawled in a muddy heap.

  48. @Mario: James Scott Bell has put out some fabulous stuff on writing. I used to devour his writing column in Writer’s Digest. He always has worthwhile insights.

    @Kern: ‘Nother good analogy! After all, who wants to read muddy laundry?

  49. Kim, I look forward to future posts on story structure. I have been reading Larry Brook’s “Story Engineering” and following his blog, so I am sold on the importance on structure. Like you said “structure is not formulaic.” We need a basic construct to put all forms of expression into so that they can be identified, understood and appreciated.

  50. KM, Pleae excuse my typo in previous response. KM, not Kim.

  51. No problem! You’d be surprised how often I’m accidentally called “Kim.” Story Engineering is a fabulous book – one of my few must-readers on the writing craft. Hang with us. It should be a fun series!

  52. I keep saying I want to write this next novel “differently” and part of that is to try to think about “structure.” With the other books, I’ve “just written’ them – you know, the panster thang. 😀 — I do a lot of my “structure thinking” in rewrites/edits, I suppose. My brain isn’t the best with organizing things or “structuring” things, so this will be a challenge – if I can even pull it off. A friend told me, “Your novels work as they are, why change?” But I do wonder what would happen if I tried something new – never hurts to try! Okay, it might hurt . . . a little! 😀

  53. I’m a big advocate of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But I’m also a fan of experimenting and pushing ourselves to try new things. Never hurts to learn, that’s for sure!

  54. The greatest website for story structure is http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

  55. Looks like an interesting site! Thanks for the link.

  56. I am a new writer and anxious to learn about structure. So far, I’ve written basically what I think. I take very little notes and don’t really write an outline until I arrive at the climax. I may be instinctively using structure basics but I am sure that there is a lot more that I could incorporate that would improve my story-telling abilities.

  57. Most of us start out in that instinctive place (some of us end there too). But the best way to grow and solidify our strengths is to learn *why* our instincts guide us in certain ways.

  58. K.M., thanks for the kind word about my stuff (and thanks to you, too, Mario). I totally agree, of course, that structure does not stifle, but rather releases creativity. I call structure “translation software for your imagination.” It allows a writer to take that emotional roller coaster he or she FEELS and put it into a form that readers can best relate to. It also allows for “playing around” in the right places, so you’re not just tramping off on a series of lost trails.

  59. Thanks so much for the comment, James! I feel like a rock star just stopped by. 😉 Love the “translation software” explanation. Structure (like outlining) is all about channeling the raw power of our creativity.

  60. This comment has been removed by the author.

  61. I can’t even consider myself a beginner writer. Right now I’m a student, period. And I decided to start studying (on my own) when this great idea for a book came to my mind and has been haunting me for months. I have to write it. And for some time I was feeling helpless for not knowing where to start.

    After I started reading your book (Outlining Your Novel; I’m loving it) I realized structure was all I needed so I could know how to start and finish the project.

    You see, I’m not new to book writing. I’ve written 10 books, but all of them IT technical books (well, ok, three of them are new age stuff). And whenever I start a book project the first thing I do is prepare the table of contents. So the idea of a previously thought structure sounded pretty much obvious to me.

    Yes, right now I’m just reading, studying and writing down ideas for the book. The more I read about writing the more ideas come to my mind and the more enthusiastic I get. I cannot imagine even starting a project like this withough a carefully prepared outline.

    Thank you for your great book and all the help you’ve been giving to those who, like me, are loooking for quality info on the subject.

    Ah, yes. And thank you also for the invaluable info about the yWrite software.

    Now, do not worry, I intend to write the book in my own language, not English. 🙂 Who knows I get some money, enough to pay for a good translator? 🙂

    Greetings from Brazil.

    Marcos

  62. Your English is very good. I wouldn’t have guessed you weren’t a native speaker. So glad you’re enjoying the book and the series. I’m a firm believer in letting a story “brew” – sometimes for years – so taking the time to amass knowledge while that story is percolating can only be a good thing. Kudos to you!

  63. K.M… Unsure if my message got through to you via another page on your website. I was inviting you to download my free eBook, STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR. We were e-commenting about it a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the download link:
    http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress/story-structure-to-die-for-pj-reece/
    I’d love to hear what you think. Cheers.

  64. I believe I did visit your site earlier, before the book was available for download. I apologize if I didn’t respond. At any rate, thanks much for the link! I’ve downloaded the Kindle copy and will be pleased to take a look.

  65. I actually use a structure, but I don’t use the heroes journey. I just find comment elements in my story, and then try to subvert or avert them later. Now I do start trying to twist the heroes journey, or usually the villains quest.:3

  66. The hero’s journey is useful for some stories, but as a whole I find it too constricting. I prefer the freedom of a simple three-act structure.

  67. Nan la Plume says:

    Thank you so much for this series! I’m actually listening to your podcasts right now (and thank you so much for recording your blog posts – it’s so convenient to me!), after reading Outlining your novel, which then led me to getting a free copy of Dreamlander from StoryCartel (thank you again for that!). Thanks to you and your wonderful tools, I’ve now decided to start writing – my first short story competition’s deadline is the 31st of August and all of a sudden, I got lots of ideas! However, I had no idea how to structure my story between the first sentence and the last impression I wanted. You’re helping me filling these gaps! I can’t wait for your new book on structure since I really admire the teacher in you. Keep up the good work!

  68. So glad you’re enjoying the series! I am convinced structure is the answer to most of the writing life’s quandaries and head-banging moments. The answer to how to create a solid story every single time (or close to it) are right there in front of us. We just have to grab them!

  69. Present in the class 😉
    I also want to learn this mystic thing called story structure, maybe some of my mess will clear up, and maybe I can finally find my novel in all that jargon, called my notes :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Structure can be scary at first, but it’s fascinating and surprisingly simple once you have a foundation under your feet.

      • Yeah! As I am gaining more insights, I am learning way more interesting things to add up in my story. I don’t care if it is called formulaic writing, it is fun so I am gonna do it 😉
        Especially, after lots of research (mostly from your blog) I have now a middle which I am really excited about. Until that midpoint, my story is really awesome. But I am a bit confused about how to proceed. Thank God I am an outliner. Otherwise, after writing a whole half novel, being stuck now would really knocked me off my feet.
        But, right now, this obstacle is only making me more excited. I have given myself a brief time to read some books and novels on related topic, and after a week, I will come back and decide how to proceed 😀

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Structure doesn’t have to be formulaic at all. It’s just a solid foundation for telling our best stories.

          • Yeah! Actually, sometimes when writing gets dreary, I wish there was a secret sure fire formula to make the story a success. But… we all know better 🙁

  70. I am a bit surprised that authors of all artists should have any form of problem with structure.

    Language, and written language in particular, is all about structure. Letters (or sounds) in a certain structure build words, and words in a certain structure build sentences. Without that structure you wouldn’t have language.

    We all know sentences in a certain structure create scenes. Why shouldn’t scenes in a certain structure create story?

    In fact, perhaps not paying attention to structure would be just as bad as trying to send in your manuscript with the words in alphabetical order? 😀

  71. Another art form that relies totally on structure is music.

    There are, in western music, 12 notes in a handfull of octaves. That’s what all music is made of, and yet, is it formulaic, repetitive, bad? Eh, sure there are bad music, IN MY OPINION, but there are enough good music that I would never consider notes and octaves to be the bane of musical expression…

    In fact, when it comes to music, it can only be done if you play the notes cleanly, otherwise you wont appreciate it particularly. Draw your nails over a blackboard while you’re at it!

    And sure, I once programmed a MIDI-sequencer with notes–as opposed to recording myself playing the music. It sounded like stone dead, soulless robot music… any structural “theory” can become unbearable in the hands of an amateur… but that’s just because it’s in the hands of an amateur…

  72. I feel like I visit this particular page almost every week. I love the breakdown graphic for structure you have on here, always studying it.

  73. I am so glad that I found this series of posts. I attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for a degree in creative writing and finished at a small college named Houghton College and no matter what type of classes I took they didn’t have the depth that you’re teaching here and I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing on your website. I’m wondering if the graphic you have on structuring your story might be available as a poster it might be very helpful to have that handy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Debra! Glad you’re enjoying the site. The graphic is actually by Matt Gemmell. You’ll see his web and Twitter contact info at the bottom of the graphic. Feel free to contact him about printing it out, if you’d like.

  74. I’ve always felt that story structure wasn’t something that you really needed to know about to become an author. I felt someone could write a story and not have to know anything about it. But after reading this article and seeing that chart, I realized that not knowing about this was one of the problems that was holding me back. I could write a story, but it always felt like it was all over the place. Now I know that I need to learn about story structure in order to help write a good story and finally begin my writing career.

Trackbacks

  1. […] haven’t already. I love structuring and planning out my novels using K.M. Weiland’s The Secrets of Story Structure articles–they give me a framework without being restrictive, perfect for keeping me going […]

  2. […] The Secrets of Story Structure I detoured here when I realized I was unfamiliar with some of the terms in the character arc series. You’ll get a solid foundation in the basics of story structure. […]

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