Making Story Structure Your Own

Over the past decade, the term “story structure” has largely come to refer to plot points and beat sheets. When writers start talking about structure, many of us assume they’re talking about the specific and even archetypal shape of story—the rise and fall of plot, the causal balance of action and reaction, the transformational journey of the character.

Certainly, this is how I think of story structure. Indeed, as regular readers know, much of what I discuss on this site is focused on examining, breaking down, and positing the working parts and patterns found within stories. By this definition, story structure (and its related studies such as character arc) can be wildly exciting since it seems to reveal hidden codes and secrets from out of the body of human storytelling. As writers, this exploration gives us the opportunity to translate our gut understandings of what makes a “good story” into specific and relatable theories. It allows us to look beneath the trappings of stories to the deeper stories underneath, and, more practically, it allows writers to problem-solve our own stories more logically and rationally.

What I talk about on this site and in my books is just my interpretation of story structure. It’s based both on my own experience as a reader and writer, and also on the resonance I’ve felt in response to the insights of many writers and teachers who have come before and who walk beside me. But, again, their insights are also just their interpretations of story structure.

“Structure,” in fact, need not (and didn’t always) explicitly apply to meta discussions of plot mechanics and timing. I was reminded of this in reading Natalie Goldberg’s quirky and wonderful diary of the writing life, Wild Mind (published in 1990). At one point, she offers sound advice on “structure”:

If you want to write a novel, read lots of novels. See what structure the writers have set up for themselves. Look at the length of chapters, who tells the story, what the writers zoom in on, what they leave out. But then you have to tell your own story. What works for you? The structure Mark Twain used to write in is not necessarily the one for you. You are alive now. You can be affirmed and learn from some of Twain’s moves, but you are a different person with your own story to tell.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

When I hear her use the word “structure,” my brain naturally fills in my own personal definition of the word. To me, “structure” means three acts, eight major plot points, and the possible variations of about five different primary character arcs. But however useful that application of the word, it is in itself tremendously limited.

Of course structure is more than just plot beats and timing. By its dictionary definition, structure is a “system of parts” on which something is “built or erected.” So even beyond the varied approaches to structure itself, of course structure may also refer to what I tend to consider the more aesthetic, but equally important, decisions that Goldberg references regarding pacing, POV, and framing, among others.

I don’t bring this up to confuse the issue. Whenever I talk about “structure,” it’s always probably going to be about plot shape and timing. But Goldberg’s musings were first and foremost a reminder to me of how personal my interpretation of story structure is—and, by extension, how personal every writer’s interpretation is.

What It Means to Make Story Structure Your Own

Goldberg prefaced the previous quote by musing:

We should use a structure but make it our own. In other words, each time we write something, we reinvent that structure to fit ourselves and what we want to say. This is not arrogance. We honor structure, but we don’t become frozen by an old one. [An interior designer] couldn’t take down all the walls. The roof would have fallen in on him. But if he was working on a house with a baby room, and the new owners didn’t have a baby, he could reshape that room into another space.

Now, I will note that Goldberg wrote this while she was still working through her first novel. Later on, she acknowledges the primary problem with the book’s first draft was that it was “plotless.” So I daresay she had not yet explored the more technical understandings of story structure, which writers of thirty years later now eat for breakfast. And perhaps this was why she used “structure” as a looser term. She does not seem to be talking about “reinventing that structure” in the sense of coming up with a system that completely replaces the Three-Act structure or its equivalents.

But I think her point is still worth pondering.

It’s true that story structure is one of the cornerstones of story theory. And when approached logically, story structure can seem pretty scientific, objective, and inarguable. But even though the essence of story theory is based on the search for universal (or at least prevalent) patterns within storytelling, every writer’s interpretation and application of these patterns will be subjective, personal, and unique.

This is true when it comes to the type of structure writers identify with, how they interpret it, and even how they define the word “structure” itself.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Certainly, it is true of my own approach to structure. What I teach here on this site and in books such as Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs is ultimately just my approach. It is the understanding of structure “made my own … to fit [myself] and what [I] want to say.” It is what I have gathered from the story structures of others, pieces that have resonated with me and that have fit within my own personal cosmology of story theory.

When I was younger and stupider, I may have thought, “this is the way to do it.” But now I just think, “this is the way I do it.”

So the real question here is: what’s the way you do it?

5 Questions to Help You in Making Story Structure Your Own

Your story structure might look a lot like mine, or John Truby’s, or Michael Vogler’s. Or not.

Regardless, it is yours. Or should be.

However much we harp on form and style in writing, there is only one metric that matters and that is whatever works. Story theory is nothing more than the examination of what works in an attempt to explain and perhaps replicate it. No one writing teacher or writer has the corner on those explanations or replications. We’re all learning from each other in an endless spiral of growth.

The only right way for you to write a story is your way. Naturally, that way is a process of finding what we resonate with and throwing away what we do not—and perhaps most crucially, learning to listen to ourselves enough to know the true difference. Whatever results is your contribution to the larger revealed study of story theory and structure.

So here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you in making story structure your own.

1. What Do You Think Works?

If the only rule of writing that actually matters is “whatever works,” then what do you think works? What do you feel, deep in your bones, is the essence of story? What is the foundation of a successful plot? What makes characters and their journeys interesting? Which bits of writing advice and structural theories resonate with you? What is the secret sauce that makes your favorite stories work for you?

2. What Patterns Keep Popping Out to You in Other People’s Stories?

When we talk about “writing rules,” we’re pretty much always talking about emergent patterns. If somebody suddenly realizes that every great story ever uses the word “be-bop-a-Lula” (that’s a word, right?), then that would be the recognition of a pattern. Next thing you know we’re all telling our spellcheckers to allow “be-bop-a-Lula” and writing excited posts to share the news with our fellow scribes. So what do you see? What patterns can you see emerging from successful story to successful story?

3. What Patterns Keep Popping Out in Your Stories?

How about we get even more personal and just take the fast train straight to your own unconscious. If you’ve written (or imagined) more than one story, what patterns can you see there? What are the scenes, characters, or moments that give your heart a little zing? What are the pieces that are making this story work? Right here you’ll find your most personal understanding of structure.

4. What Do You Think Doesn’t Work?

Sometimes even more telling than identifying what works is identifying what doesn’t—both in your own stories and in those of other people. It can help to start with a basic theory about what you think does work, then examine any jarring notes to see if they’re jarring because they’ve strayed from your posited pattern of perfection. Ultimately, the whole purpose of story theory as a writing tool is to help us identify what doesn’t work and eliminate it from the process.

5. Why? Why? Why?

Every time you ask one of the previous questions, ask this one as least three times. Why does something work? Why does something not work? Why does it seem like certain patterns are emerging? Why might you (or others) be imagining a pattern where it really doesn’t exist? Underneath the why is where you’ll find not just your own take on story structure, but the deeper understanding that will allow you to build upon it (and perhaps share it with the rest of us).


At another point in Wild Mind, Goldberg shared that one of the reasons she wanted to move on from poetry to try writing her first novel was that novel-writing was more of a practice and a process. She said:

Poetry is about the divine; a novel is about work and learning to behave.

I take this to mean that the experience of writing poetry is about capturing that one flash of inspiration, while writing long-form fiction is about patiently building a structure upon which to stand. The “learning to behave” bit might implicitly refer to recognizing the necessity of a structure. But certainly it also means learning to take responsibility for our own understanding of story. At the end of the day, no one can tell us the right way to write except ourselves.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you structured your latest story? Tell me in the comments!

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


Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thanks for sharing, as always, Katie.

    I have two thoughts and I’m likely to ramble on about them (as I often do in f2f conversations).

    Thought 1: All trees look different from one another but all trees can be identified by their characteristic shape, even without leaves on. Oaks, elms, sycamores, and maples are all easily distinguishable from a distance because of the shape and arrangement of their branches. However, on inspection, no two oak trees, even of the same species, look the same, nor do elms or sycamores or maples. Genre serves the same purpose. A mystery has a certain structure that is distinct from historical romance. They may borrow from one another, but the basic shape needs to stay intact. This is so we can say, “It’s a mystery except for…” to describe it. Story structure is an essential element so readers can know what they’re reading. I’ve read books that I couldn’t figure out what they were, probably because the author didn’t know what they wanted to accomplish, and I’ve found the experience unsatisfying. I’m sure you’ve seen the same.

    Thought 2: I’m convinced that the human mind is hard-coded to think in terms of story. I’ve been a professional educator all my adult life and I can say that no one remembers facts, figures, numbers and statistics nearly so well as they do stories. Here’s a fun experiment. Tell someone a list of 10 random numbers or colors or words and have them repeat them back to you. Then tell them a short story, joke or anecdote and have them repeat it back to you. Which is easier and more accurate? The story is far more complex and intricate, but will be much easier to recall. I could get into theology at this point and say we are created this way or stay clinical and say our brains process information this way, but bottom line is that stories are hard-coded into our psyche. We perceive the world as a story. We make sense of the world in terms of story. So story structure is essential to who we are. And the better we can tap into that, the better we will be at telling stories.

    See? I told you I could ramble on this for a long time.

    • I agree, story is hard-coded into how the human mind works on some level.

    • “I’ve read books that I couldn’t figure out what they were, probably because the author didn’t know what they wanted to accomplish, and I’ve found the experience unsatisfying. I’m sure you’ve seen the same.”

      I TOTALLY digress from the topic here, but it’s always present on my mind: How do these stories that “don’t work” get past the gatekeepers of publishing? I commonly read about books that don’t work, leave the reader confused, or lack a structure that is relatable to the reader, etc. Yet, getting your own book accepted by editors or agents is difficult unless you have something exceptional that they believe readers will want — structurally sound and interesting. Yet, we’ve read books that miss the mark. I don’t understand how they even make it to book shelves.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        @JBS: To some extent, I think it’s subjective. Obviously the agent and editor resonated with te story and believed in it. If there’s one thing I know it’s that not every story will resonate with every reader. But, by the same token, even the most offbeat stories usually have at least one person who finds something of value in them.

      • Its down to the individuals interest on subject , my wife often raves about a book that leaves me stone cold and bored after first 100 pages.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I read the tree analogy recently in regard to something else (life experiences, maybe) and immediately loved it as a perfect argument for the universality of story shape. What I’m pondering in this post is not so much the idea that story structure itself is subjective, but rather that our individual interpretations of it inevitably are.

    • Theresa Williams says

      There was a book written about story being hardwired into our brain. It called “The Science of Storytelling” by Will Storr. He also talks about how humans are hardwired to not just remember story better but relate it back to ourselves in order to learn from it.

  2. I to may be a rambler, mainly because I want (or maybe need) to vent about structure. I find myself in the stupid position of rebelling against structure. Stupid: because I know good structure works and that a lot the books I like or even love has structure. However, a part of me believes that relying on the hook i.e. someone getting hit on the head in the first chapter or even the first paragraph is lazy writing.

    Recently, I started reading The Great Gatsby and have noticed that it doesn’t start with a hook, (at least I don’t see one), but in spite of this I’m attracted to the story and want to read more. Why is that?

    Is there any validity to my feeling or am I just a stupid and stubborn idiot that wants to be a very good author?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In my own interpretation of story structure, I include the Hook as the first structural beat. But there are many different ways to interpret the idea of “hooking” readers in the beginning of a story.

      There are action hooks, such as what you’re referencing, and in medias res hooks that begin “in the middle” of an ongoing scene. But, really, all a “hook” truly needs to be is something that pulls the readers into the story and makes them curious enough to read on.

      Sometimes, as in Gatsby, the hook can be a subtle allusion to either what is past for the character or what is yet to come in the story. The initial hook can even be, as it is in countless beloved classics, nothing more than the beauty of the prose (although it’s super-easy to get self-indulgent on this one).

      Structurally speaking, the Hook is simply the first domino in the story’s line of events. It sets off all that is yet to happen.

      You might find these articles helpful:

  3. Grace Dvorachek says

    Making structure my own is something I think I’ve been doing unconsciously all along, but I’ve only just recently realized that it’s actually a thing writers should do. Previously, when I would find myself differing from what “the experts” do, I’d marvel when that alternate path sometimes worked. But now I know that I was just discovering my own structure.

    I think the part of structure I tend to emphasize is really melding the theme and the plot together. I almost always start with the Lie, the Truth, etc. before moving on to actually structure the story. And when I do structure, I look at each plot point in both a plot sense and a character arc sense.

    What I mean by that is I create a plot point that will impact the character in a way that moves the plot where I want it to go. However, I also make it so that this plot event impacts the character internally, moving their inner journey along at the same pace. This method of intertwining the plot and character arc has really helped me to better grasp the task of writing a theme that doesn’t sound “preachy” and doesn’t seem out of place. Instead of just being stuck in wherever it fits, the theme is a thread that’s woven in throughout the entire story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Making structure my own is something I think I’ve been doing unconsciously all along.”

      We all do this, I think, even when we don’t realize it.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Your theory of story structure has resonated most strongly with me. I use it when forming a story. Then I compare what I’ve come up with to other structure theories: Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” structure, the Writer’s Journey, and James Scott Bell’s “Superstructure.” Where my story differs from those structures, I look to see if it can be improved by using ideas from the other structures.

    Occasionally, I have something that doesn’t hew to any structure theory. Then I have a debate with myself on whether to stick with my own way or not. I like that process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always felt that the writer’s greatest tool was his or her gut instinct. This has guided me in solidifying my own amalgamation of structural tools. If it feels right, I trust that. If it doesn’t, I try to understand why.

      • Alex Wilson says

        I agree about gut instinct being one of, if not the most important tools in a writers’ toolbox. I see this most obviously in the plot itself. I may come up with a plot idea that works with what I have before and after, but my gut is telling me that it’s not correct for MY story.

        I also agree that all writers must find their own hybrid way of looking at structure-and other aspects of writing, business and craft-that works for them, and it’s exceptionally unlikely that you’ll match one expert exactly. I learn one aspect from you, another aspect from a different author, and the result is my own unique writing process.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          “It’s exceptionally unlikely that you’ll match one expert exactly. I learn one aspect from you, another aspect from a different author, and the result is my own unique writing process.”

          Totally. And when you share your unique writing process, that’s when the circle completes and others get to learn from you as well.

          • This is sound, but it still leaves my post unanswered. Maybe there is no answer. I asked how “poor writing” or “bad stories” (as some writing teachers label them) get past the gatekeepers of publishing. I’m not referring to personal taste or reader preference. In books on writing, the authors/teachers will use examples from published novels to demonstrate some good writing but also some “poor writing.” If 99% of writing books and writing teachers agree about some basic principles of good, sound writing and teach us how to do this, I don’t understand how these so-called bad books that are used as examples make it to market by traditional publishing. Even Stephen King said to read the “bad writing.” What are the odds of poorly written novels getting past all the gatekeepers before the stores’ shelves? Does this make sense? The chances of getting published are slim, tricky, difficult, whatever. Only the best make it to Barnes and Noble. So…… back to my original question here. Don’t publishers, agents, and editors reject “bad writing?”

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Again, I think the answer is that “good” and “bad” writing, however solid the general consensus may be, is still inevitably subjective.

            It’s also a sliding scale because reading as a skill set is not a level playing field. More experienced readers may have more specific and sophisticated tastes–same as I would imagine a chef’s tastes would reflect his or her long experience and education with food. Most readers, however, prefer stories that are more accessible–same as many of us are perfectly happy eating grocery store mac and cheese. The more experienced readers may dislike the comparative lack of sophistication in these “comfort food” stories, but because these stories are able to appeal to a vast audience, they are also extremely marketable–and therefore publishable.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed your way of approaching story structure. I’m an INFP, so perhaps that’s why my ideas tend to be messy and dreamlike. It’s difficult for me to recognize story structure (in my own works or in others’) because I’m more excited by the dialogue and character growth. I’m not a logical thinker, and your way gives me a skeleton on which to drape my story.

    I’ve had only one novel that I wrote using my own structure in the past that worked story structure-wise, but it was heavily influenced by the classic Hero’s Journey. The structure of the one I’m writing now follows your structure pretty closely. I know I’ll deviate from my outline at points and have to reconfigure things, but at least I’m starting with good bones.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If my (or anyone else’s) approach to structure resonates with you and particularly when it becomes instinctive to you at whatever point, I’d say that’s when it has become *your* structure. That’s really what I’m talking about in this post. We’re all seeking the writing ideas and techniques that resonate with us individually, and then we’re sort of “digesting” them until they become an integrated and conscious approach that no long originates outside of us but from the inside out.

  6. Your podcast/website always feeds that writer-craft-matter in my brain. Keep the new ones coming.

  7. What I’ve noticed from my own observations is that there is a general kind of story structure (let’s just call it the 3-act structure) which generally works at least okay. It’s the safe choice, and some storytellers raise it from ‘okay’ to ‘amazing.’ Going further away from that structure is risky. Sometimes, the risk pays off–there have been times when a story which breaks some commonly-accepted tenet of the 3-act-structure wowed me, and they wowed me BECAUSE they did something different–but in those cases, I notice that reviews tend to be divisive, and the very thing which shook me is what made other members of the audience dissatisfied. So that’s how I look at it. When I want to play it safe, I follow story structures close to what the ‘experts’ I respect recommend. When I’m inspired to break it, or if I have a particular reason why it may be worth making an exception, I take the risk–and prepare for the possibility that it may alienate part of the audience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think you’ve highlighted a important point in the story structure discussion, and that is that when we do choose to consciously break the “rules,” we do it best when we understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

      • This. Everyone recalls Picasso painting noses on the side of faces (“breaking the rules”), but few realize this was nearly 15 years into his career. Indeed, his first famous “period”, the Blue Period, was a series of paintings done in a traditional manner before he broke the rules.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yep. And the noses on the sides of faces still isn’t something that works for everyone, which is a good reminder that just because somebody brilliant did something isn’t a good reason for us to mimic it–unless it resonates with us.

  8. Excellent post. And so timely for me, I can’t even express how helpful this is.

    I’m sharing my answers to those 5 questions.
    I think a story works (particularly Plot) when the action matches the aesthetic of the story, desire and flaw of the main character, and the stakes.

    In Pride and Prejudice:

    Elizabeth Bennett’s desire is a future based in deep love rather than comfort. Her flaw is pride. The aesthetic of the story is wrapped in rolling country fields, austere mansions, lavender gardens, and petticoats 6 inches deep in mud. The stakes are relational. No one is going to die if the romance does not succeed.

    The action then benefits from being understated. Cool temperament and uncivil conversation makes more sense than handing her a gun and having her kill monsters. You won’t see her on a motorcycle. It doesn’t match anything else.

    Matrix Resurrections(which is totally a romance, if you disagree, fight me. Lol) has a very different feel. The world is dark, electric, burnt up, digital, asphalt and glass. There is almost no plant life (a strawberry patch comes to mind). The main character (Neo) desires a future based in deep love rather than comfort just like Lizzy. His flaw is hesitation or self-doubt based in his confusion over fate versus choice. The stakes are, effectively, life and death for more people than just himself (if the romance fails).

    It would make zero sense to base the action explicitly around conversations in pretty gardens or having people be rude to each other. Because the stakes are life and death, the story calls for visceral pain and the threat of violence to many people.

    When characters face multiple questions in one direction.

    -Thinks she’s better than her mom and younger sisters for seeing through her dad’s sense of humor.
    -Thinks highly of herself based on the neighbors’ attention at the Meriton Assembly.
    -Insulted by Darcy’s refusal, she becomes even more prideful.

    In every opportunity she is given the choice between humility vs. pride. Instead of say, deceit vs. honesty.

    Honestly the same as 1&2.

    I get lost in the weeds in my early drafts because I see ALL of my characters’ flaws. I challenge the character in multiple directions, which makes the resolution confusing. Am I happy that the character is not confident instead of insecure? Or am I annoyed that the lying never got resolved? Etc.

    My story becomes simpler when the characters have a clear desire, and a clear flaw. Then I place them in a pretty world and hang a guillotine over them and see what happens.

    Most of this has to do with the reader.

    If the reader is confused, lied to, or disrespected, the story fails.

    A story fillied with the following things is a failed story: shock value instead of a proper twist; talking down to the reader; telling them instead of trusting them to get what you showed; insufficient description or exposition; wasting their time with too much exposition; and many other things.

    Clarify, tell the truth, and respect your reader.

    I think the reason why all of this works is because it takes disparate elements and stitches them into something whole. Each decision supports the others (Much like sewing a garment, the thread in the hemline doesn’t clash with the fabric of the collar). It presents as one topic. It makes the wearer (we all live *inside* our clothes and our stories) feel, think, and prepare their hearts and minds in one direction.

    If you wear thick jeans and a leather jacket, you think and feel ready to work in your yard or ride your motorcycle. If you wear flip flops, you don’t plan to run.

    If you pick up a Dystopia, you plan to think, escape, and worry. If you pick up a Horror you plan not to sleep (maybe that’s just me 😆).

    This is a broad answer that contains genre, rhetorical circumstance, culture, representation, and probably some other things I can’t consciously think of.

    This is all just saying the same thing that a zillion other people have already said, but these terms work for me.

    Everyone has different learning styles. I’m fairly visual, but I am tactile as well. My understanding of story usually comes from my other hobbies. I’ve learned more about story from tomatoes than from several of my English professors. And I’ve definitely learned more from a sewing machine than the best textbooks I’ve ever read.

    We get what we get from where we will. Which is why reading is so cool in the first place. Exposure to cool stuff creates opportunity for getting more out of the world (Also the reason I keep coming back to your blog 😉).

    Okay this response is way too freaking long. Sorry. 🤣

    Not sorry?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is fantastic, Amy. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderfully thoughtful approach. Lots of good stuff here.

    • theandyclark says

      Thank you for this detailed response. I found it informative, and it made me think, which is always requires excessive force.

  9. In November, I wrote my seventh novel, and I realized that all of my books so far are telling the same story: “person learns to see the world differently”. What they learn (and unlearn), how they learn, where they learn it, etc. are not always the same, but it always seems to boil down to that same core.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve realized that most of my stories are all asking similar questions as well, even if they seem entirely different on the surface.

  10. Edward Denecke says

    Like many first-time novel writers, I started out completely ignorant about story structure. Thankfully I discovered your resources (and bought nearly all of them, including your Outlining Your Novel workbook and software) soon enough to save myself from wasting time and energy producing a meandering mess. Over the years I’ve added the pertinent advice of many of the established story structure giants (like Truby, Snyder, Bell, Hauge, Swain, etc.) and the excellent insights of the current luminaries (like Phillips, Lakin, Kieffer, Mowery, Hardy, Downing, Dotson, etc.). I love to overlap these different (and sometimes fascinatingly similar) story structure approaches and see where they converge and diverge. Somewhere in that process I have discovered what “rings my bells”. But, honestly, without your initial (and continual) guidance and detailed road map I think I would have remained directionless and hopelessly confused. Thanks for this illuminating post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Somewhere in that process I have discovered what ‘rings my bells.'”

      That’s what it’s all about, IMO. I don’t resonate with everything in every structural guide I’ve ever read. But the things that do resonate stick and they all come together to create my own personalized view of how to approach story.

  11. Diane Young says

    Hi Katie,
    I’ve been reading your email offerings for several years, even though I’m a nonfiction writer– newspaper and magazine feature articles. So, my idea of structure is obviously different from fiction structure. However, a few years ago I started going to a small writers’ group. Four-six of us showed up every two weeks at a tiny library near where I live. Our fearless leader was a
    sharp retired high school English teacher.
    At the first gathering, I realized the others were all making a stab at fiction and I felt myself back-paddling. Gulp. I remembered only one story I ever wrote back in the sixth grade and that was it. But I decided to take a shot at the 250-word count. Two weeks later when we read our stories, I was astonished that I got favorable responses! But I liked the challenge of a whole story shoe-horned down into 250 words and now I’m trying some flash fiction, what I call “quick and dirty”. I like the idea of telling a whole story crunched into 250-500 words.
    I don’t see a novel in my future, but thanks for teaching me how to structure a story with an
    arc–even if it’s only one page!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! I haven’t done proper flash fiction in years, but it’s definitely a fun challenge. Almost poetic.

  12. I am a first time writer working hard to complete my first novel. I appreciate these articles and posts on the subject of structure which has helped me point my story line in more interesting directions. This subject of structure “theory” reminds me of a way of thinking that I have tried to adopted over the course of my life. The question: “Is the creation of a work skill or art? The short answer might be both, however, I know that anything I choose to create (or write) will require an understanding of basic skills put into deliberate practice and only after years of use will emerge my own style – as my skill level moves more to the right towards the artistic side, or at least far enough to be entertaining.

    For example, I learned to play guitar as a child and took no lessons. I resorted to copying my favorite guitarists work by ear and did this for years (skill work). Eventually, I was able to connect these skills together and form my own melodies and original music (the art). To me writing is no different. The difference is how much time I/we as writers dedicate to the skill training in order for our “natural” abilities to take over and move us to the right. Some will move much more to the right (the classics) while others may just become real good at telling the story (Steven King). Either way, this is the goal – to create a story written to keep the attention of the reader long enough to entertain.

    I like the skeleton imagery mention by Siannoch. Using structure as a skill overlay keeps me on track. I can tell you that I wrote 60K + words before emailing KM for help. She suggested Structure theory. Before this, my story was frayed and I found it frustrating to continue writing. I knew it was bad and heading to worse, but her ideas put me on a much easier track for my manuscript’s story to unfold. Now, I believe it is a skill worthy of relying on and will put constant attention towards structure theory in my writing because it works to steer my ideas and places them so that the reader might enjoy a pace and heartbeat that is proven to work – entertain. Does that mean I will follow this recipe forever? My idea suggests that someday maybe it becomes effortless and natural as my skill moves to the right and becomes my own.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like the “skeleton” analogy as well. All humans have similar skeletons, and yet we still find endless variety and diversity in how we look and act in the world.

  13. Lightbulb moment. Recently I saw a YouTube video celebrating a particular bass guitarist who wrote hit songs back in the 70s/80s. The YouTube vlogger noted when the bassist wrote songs he started with the bassline and worked from there. He made the bass the forefront to the music of the songs he wrote.

    And it occurred to me that I could easily guess if Brian May wrote a Queen song if it had a rockin’ guitar solo. “Brighton Rock” is all about the guitar solo; I imagine Freddie Mercury could do a costume change during that solo if he wanted to since there’s so little singing to do in that song. That wouldn’t work with Florence of Florence and the Machine, because she writes her songs to feature the singing. The music is a nice accompaniment, but her songs are all about the vocals.

    So Grace’s comment about starting with the theme rings my bell. Themes frequently take a while to emerge for me, whereas I can never start a story until I know what’s under the surface of events that occur in it. I have to know the characters’ motives, I have to know their “why,” and I have to be satisfied with their “why,” so I begin with character motives intertwined with plot events. I structure stories around investigations and revelations, because unraveling the tangled knots of the unknown resonates with me.

    Where structure is concerned, this post encourages me to think about my equivalent “bassline / solo” in storytelling. Whether it’s theme, or plot, or character, there’s some narrative element that sings to every writer, and I now see structure as a way of showcasing that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, another great analogy! Very insightful. And, yes, I think most of us tend to favor one of the “big three”–plot, character, or theme–as our starting place. For me, I always start with characters and find plot emerging from their interactions. Theme almost always emerges last for me.

  14. Colleen F Janik says

    My college English professor would have a fit if she saw the way I approach novel writing. There’s a beginning, some foreshadowing, a suspenseful middle (I hope) and a dramatic, surprising ending. My goal is to write novels that provoke a few “ahas!” and “wows!” from the reader. That’s my goal. If I can do that I’m happy. I confess I’m a little disorganized and I blame it all on being left-handed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Kind of like what Roger said, above, about the conjunction of skill and art, I believe both Order and Chaos are necessary when creating. The trick is learning to balance both. Some of us need a little more Order to even out the recipe. Others, like me, need to focus on bringing in more Chaos from time to time.

  15. Mine is based a lot off of yours, but I fiddled with it a bit. I turned the plot points into the beats of eight different pieces of the story, roughly equal in length, to help me reach milestones as I write.

  16. Great article. I know you enjoy Marvel movies, so I was curious about your take on the Eternals movie. It actually seemed to me that the structure sort of got in the way of the story. (I still thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was despite the structure, not because of it.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t seen it yet. Planning to watch it tomorrow, as a matter of fact. I enjoy Marvel, but their structures *do* sometimes get away with them. So I won’t be surprised if that’s the case here too.

  17. Lincoln Clark says

    I like to think in terms of “craft” as being a combination of “skill” and “art”. So many crafts can be seen according to this pattern. Writing fiction can be seen as using the mechanics of story structure (the skill, as you have so ably described and taught) to present the elements of a story (the art of selecting characters, experiences and settings). Music can be seen as using the mechanics of learning how to make an instrument produce pleasant sound in recognizable patterns (the skill) and choosing the instruments and combining the patterns to evoke pleasing or fitting emotional responses.

    The same idea applies to sculpting stone, carving wood, painting, even computer programming. The skill produces the ability to use a grammar and vocabulary and the art is the ability to use those tools to express something engaging in the context of the craft.

    Rick’s comment about the shape of the trees corresponding to genre in writing fits in this same rubric. Music has styles (classical, chamber, jazz, theater, film score). Painting has different media and schools of style (cubism, impressionism, etc.). Seeing any creative effort as a craft built of skill and art helps me to see how to grow. Do I need to be able to use language more effectively? Build my vocabulary. Work on my punctuation, usage, grammar and spelling. Do I struggle to come up with stories to tell? Explore the stories of others. Practice daydreaming. Learn how to use (or even create) writing prompts. Join an improv group :-).

    We each will struggle with different aspects of the journey, but we are never without the ability and opportunity to grow.

  18. This is getting a bit repetitious, but thank you for another thoughtful article. I may need to have your five questions tattooed somewhere. I think sometimes I’ve tried to hard to build my story around structure, and that can make it a bit mechanical. For my next novel, my plan is to do come up with the beginning, the end and a few events I think would be cool, then look at structure to see what ideas it has to give me. The past couple of novels I’ve basically started at the beginning and filled out the plot using the structure. This is all a sign of my inexperience as a novelist, and because of it, I feel like I’ve wound up making the plot a servant to the structure rather than the other way around.

    I find myself wondering how the structure would change if you were intentionally writing a really long novel. I think it’s common to run multiple story lines, but another approach would be to add more major events, so maybe a few more plot points to expand the story out?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I find myself wondering how the structure would change if you were intentionally writing a really long novel. I think it’s common to run multiple story lines, but another approach would be to add more major events, so maybe a few more plot points to expand the story out?”

      This was a question I asked myself early on when I was deeply immersed in studying structure. I was prepared to discover that longer works would have more major turning points, and I was surprised to find that, if they’re following this Three-Act structure, they do not. They just have more space in between (sometimes way too much space.

      That said, each various plotline may need its own plot point to move it forward. This is not my favored approach, but sometimes it’s necessary if you have several sets of characters who will not meet until later in the story.

      • No need for a reply to this, but I wanted to thank you for this column again. It’s well timed for me in terms of the novel you’ve heard way too much of my wrestling with for a while. The problem with the end of my last draft is that I had a novel that started funny, but with some “heavy” elements and settled into being a serious, somewhat moody work. So, I sat back and though and asked myself which type of story I wanted to write. I like making people laugh, so I went with funny and started another pass, consciously focusing on surfacing the ironic parts of my characters, in particularly giving the MC an internal dialog that was mocking and humorous and paired ironically against her dialog. a little way in, I feel like this still isn’t working and I probably need to revise with a much heavier hand and changing the world building itself to support a humorous story. I’m also pondering restarting and going with the more serious approach.

        Lots of words, but thanks again for sharing with me tools to help me work through this.

  19. theotherworldsnet says

    Good timing (as usual)! I’ve been asking myself this question lately. Am I actually capable of more than one kind of story structure? Am I hurting myself by trying to write a story with a different structure than what is my habitual norm? Am I putting too much emphases on structure and taking out the spontaneity and joy? Am I stuck in my current story project because I’m trying to force a structure on it? Ok. So that was more than one question, but I think you see what I mean. There is an overarching question that’s been haunting me. Maybe because I feel stuck. Maybe because I’ve learned enough to feel like there’s a right and wrong way – or at least a better and best way. I’m just not sure. Thanks for helping me think about this in some new ways.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To me, the only answer that matters is the one where you find resonance. Beyond all the doubt and the logic, if something *feels* right, that’s usually the sign it’s worth exploring.

      • theotherworldsnet says

        Thanks for that reply. I like that it comes back to the *feeling*. So often that’s how I start with a story and that’s what I want to follow as I go. Though my feelings about structure may be askew at times, I can certainly see how one approach feels alongside the feeling of the story.

  20. I knew this subject would get a lot of responses. I think many of us intuitively understand story structure and design in our heads. We are even precise at outlining. However, I personally can’t get real excited about the science of writing a novel. I picked up a book on The Snowflake Method and I couldn’t put it down fast enough. I’m sure many writers find a great deal of value in this and other books that lay out the science of novel structure.

    For me, I want to have a story structure that moves the plot along with pace and interesting conflict with a big climax at the end. I also hope to have nuggets of poetic prose within that story. I realize that structure and prose are not mutually exclusive.

    It’s funny that Natalie Goldberg said “Poetry is about the divine; a novel is about work and learning to behave.” When I picked up The Snowflake Method, I couldn’t help think of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society where the student reads the fictional Pritchard Scale. Robin Williams promptly has the class rip out the pages from their books.

    While I clearly spend much time organizing my story structure in my head and in my outline, I aspire to have some divine moments in my novel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Beyond the fact that the emergent patterns of story theory are interesting, the only reason any writer pursues story structure is simply to help us figure out how to solve certain writing difficulties we are facing. To the degree we are *not* facing difficulties, then there’s little need to force it.

  21. This post came directly on the heels of my epiphany that I need to dip my toe into unknown waters and find what works for me, because for a loooooong time, I was trying to follow your Character Arc structure. I was trying to pinpoint my protagonist’s Lie. Then I realized that her Entire mindset must change because her old mindset housed too many lies, lol 😂.

  22. Felicia R Johnson says

    I knew nothing about all this story structure business when I finished the first draft of my novel during NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago. Then when I read about all the plot points, beats, what is needed in scenes, etc., I just threw up my hands and gave up. It just all seemed too complicated.

    Then there was all the information about differemt character arcs! My head was spinning.

    I think I will take the time to go through all the information more slowly and absorb it. It will take some doing, but I have to revise my draft anyway, so what the hey. It seems like such a major project, but I think of the title of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, “Bird by Bird.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think “absorption” is key. I’ve never done well trying to shoehorn other people’s “rules” about structure into my work. But once I’ve internalized it and understood it from the inside out, so to speak, then I’m able to apply it in a much more organic way.


  1. […] Making Story Structure Your Own […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.