5 Reasons Story Structure Is Important (Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1 of 12)

What’s the single most overlooked, misunderstood—and yet important—part of storytelling? If you read the post title, you already know the answer is story structure.

Twelve years ago, I shared the series “Secrets of Story Structure” on this site. That series became the basis of one of my best-known writing-craft books, Structuring Your Novel. That original series and the book that followed were founded upon my journey as a writer, particularly my burning need to understand how story worked. What is story anyway? And which principles and patterns could show me how to write stories that hung together, created seamless arcs, and, most importantly, resonated with readers?

Like most young authors, I was eventually told the answer to all these questions was “structure.” When I began exploring what that meant, I had no idea how monumental a journey I had just embarked on. I expected story structure to teach me how to write great stories. What I didn’t foresee was that it would also change my entire perspective of life itself.

Structuring Your Novel, 2nd Edition (Amazon affiliate link)

My basic question, “What is story, anyway?” had a much bigger answer than I anticipated. This is because, of course, story is life itself. Story is a reflection of the cyclical patterns and psychological arcs we experience throughout our lives. When we examine the structural patterns that create resonant stories, what we find are the landmarks of life itself.

When we structure a story, we are trying to create a faithful facsimile of real life. This is what grounds a story’s verisimilitude, whether it is hyper-realistic modern fiction or the most fantastical and archetypal of fairy tales. The foundation of solid story structure allows audiences to suspend disbelief and identify with the story world, even if that world is filled with bizarre and unfamiliar details.

Writers often discuss story structure as if it were something we arbitrarily impose upon a story when really just the opposite is true. What we call “story structure” is the shape of life itself. As writers, it is our job to uncover this shape from within our story ideas and to polish it until it touches a point of universal resonance within every member of our audience, no matter how different they may be from us or from each other. Although the simplicity of certain plot beats, by themselves, are not enough to achieve this crystalline resonance, they are the first step.

Writers initially come to story structure for many reasons. Sometimes it is with the explicit purpose of creating that crystalline resonance. More often, it is because we’re trying to write something entertaining, realize we have no idea how to do it, and want guidance. Whatever the case, story structure offers writers a roadmap to writing solid plots. It lays the groundwork for compelling character arcs and themes, taps into the resonance of the collective consciousness, and even deepens our understanding of life.

Although the foundational principles I shared in the original version of this series remain the same, I have learned so much about both stories and life in the past twelve years. I felt it was time to revisit the incredible importance of this information, to polish its rough spots, to add new information, and to correct a few areas where I have refined my perspectives.

Next Level Plot Structure (Amazon affiliate link)

I was inspired to revisit this series and, for those who prefer the book experience, to create a revised and expanded second edition of Structuring Your Novel (the book teaches scene structure too). I have also just released a “sequel” Next Level Plot Structure, which goes even deeper into principles of story theory, chiastic structure, and the deeper meaning and purpose of important structural beats. I hope you will enjoy joining me over the next few months as we update this important series and take a deep look into the secrets of story structure. My wish is that you will be able to use this fundamental knowledge to write easier, better, and deeper stories!

What Is Story 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 somewhere in between—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 it seemed my story would practically be written for me before I even came up with a decent idea. Thanks, but no thanks.

What I didn’t know is that even as I subjected the idea of story structure to my ignorance and ridicule, I was already structuring my stories without even realizing it. In the following years, I was introduced to many theories of structure representing the inevitable components found in good stories whether their authors deliberately structured them or were just lucky enough to wing it on their own good instincts.
The macro level of story structure that I present in this series is a happy medium of the two: ten plot beats that, when arranged correctly, give both authors and readers the biggest bang for their buck.

Foundational story structure creates nothing more than the arc of a story. It does not tell the writer what events must happen at certain beats, only what those beats need to represent to create a functional arc. Although specific beat sheets can sometimes be helpful (especially when dealing with genre formulae), this over-specification can distract from the beautiful simplicity of what story structure really is.

And what is it?

1. Story structure creates a foundation for the plot that mirrors the arc of psychological transformation. It ensures the story contains all the pieces required to make sense while eliminating the temptation to create redundancy.

2. Story structure creates pacing.  Standard plot beats divide the story into eight (ideally) equal parts. Although structural timing will be stressed throughout this series, what is most important to understand is that it exists to create pacing, which in turn exists to control the audience’s experience of the story—to keep them engaged and invested in every moment.

From the book Structuring Your Novel: Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition (Amazon affiliate link). Graphic by Joanna Marie Art.

Over the next eleven weeks, we will be exploring, beat by beat, the most important moments in story structure:

The First Act (1%-25%)

1. The Hook (1%)

2. The Inciting Event (12%)

3. The First Plot Plot Point (25%)

First Act Timeline

The Second Act (25%-75%)

4. The First Pinch Point (37%)

5. The Midpoint – Second Plot Point (50%)

6. The Second Pinch Point (62%)

Second Act Timeline

The Third Act (75%-100%)

7. The Third Plot Point (75%)

8. The Climax (88%)

9. The Climactic Moment (99%)

10. The Resolution (100%)

Third Act Timeline

5 Reasons Story Structure Is Important

Over the next few months, we will explore the mysteries, fallacies, and opportunities of story structure. For now, let’s consider a few reasons every author should care about structure and why none of us should fear it.

1. Structure Is Required in all of Art

Dancing, painting, singing, you name it—all art forms require structure. Storytelling is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations and how to arrange its many parts in the proper order to achieve maximum effect.

2. Structure Does Not Limit Creativity

Authors sometimes fear story structure will inhibit their creativity. If your book follows a specific road and observes certain pit stops, won’t the story be written for you? This is not the case. Structure presents only a shape—the curve of the story arc. It allows us to be concrete and confident in creating that arc, ensuring its effectiveness.

3. Structure Is Not Formulaic

Another fear is that if every story has the same structure, won’t every story ultimately be the same? This isn’t any truer 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 varies as wildly as the wrapping paper that hides it.

4. Structure Offers a Checklist of Must-Have Elements

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

5. Structure Solidifies Mastery of the Craft

Learning to consciously understand the techniques you’re probably already instinctively using will 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 in my stories. Learning about these elements allows you to strengthen your raw creative instinct into purposeful knowledge.

***

Ready to open up a whole new world of storytelling? Structure is exciting, comforting, and liberating all at once. Whether you’re discovering the ins and outs of story structure for the first time or just brushing up, I hope you’ll enjoy our journey into the most salient and crucial moments in the creation of a story.

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

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do feel about the idea of story structure? 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, Amazon Music, or Spotify).

___

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.

Comments

  1. I think you are correct. In my mind I compare story structure with my phone’s map app. It takes being uncertain about how to get where you want to go and draws out the route to follow.

  2. This came to my inbox exactly when I needed it! I’ve been trying to get back into writing seriously after a few years of stagnation and I’ve felt incredibly lost. I will be staying tuned! Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! I’ve been through those years of stagnation. They’re hard–but full of lessons! I hope you find the inspiration you’re looking for.

  3. Clifford Morris says

    Always great content; excellent information.
    A whimsical poem for all who burn the midnight oil–
    Oh, the intriguing world of foot lockers and chests,
    Where unpublished writers sequester their best,
    One day, a grand novel ascends through the mire,
    Or becomes needed kindling for a cold winter fire.

  4. Yes a thousand times yes. I was an early purchaser and ecstatic owner of “Next Level Plot Structure” and it blew me away. And had me scrambling to rethink the way I viewed the structure underlying my completed-and-in-5th-revision novel. Previously, I’d been struggling to overlay your structure on the EXTERNAL events and they just weren’t lining up. When you said the Inciting Incident and the Climactic Moment were the mirror-twins of each other something broke loose in my brain and I went back and laid the structure over the epic/archetypal INNER, transformational journey of my protagonist and his beloved … and suddenly it all fit. Perfectly. Beautifully. The resonance brought me to tears and I suddenly saw that what I’d though was the Climactic Moment was not the real Climactic Moment. The tweaks needed to bring everything into alignment were smallish in terms of words on the page but enormous in terms of pulling all the threads of the story together in exactly the right and perfect way – and finding the perfect wrap-up line. That’s my testimonial! Thanks for the adventure!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “The resonance brought me to tears”

      That’s the best feeling. That’s why I do this–as both a writer and a teacher.

      So wonderful to hear the new book was a gamechanger for you!

  5. To bolster your point about structure and art, I’m going to flashback to high school, where my world history teacher (slash theater actress) had us learn about Leonardo da Vinci. He used the Golden Ratio, aka “phi” which is 1.618, to compose his paintings. The way Jesus and the disciples are arranged in “The Last Supper”? Look to the Golden Ratio. The spacing of the people and objects are in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence. Are you typesetting a book? You can make a beautiful text layout with the Golden Ratio (which the early typesetters of the Renaissance age actually did).

    In photography / photo editing you use the “rule of thirds” to crop or compose a picture. You can also see this rule used in the design of book covers. In fact, beauty is found in that which is proportional. Literally, you can calculate a beautiful face vs. a plain face vs. an ugly face based entirely on whether the face is mathematically symmetrical. The more symmetrical, the more beautiful. The less symmetrical, the less beautiful.

    Structure = beauty. This is the law of the universe, and you see it enforced wherever you see something beautiful. Including with storytelling. So, no writer should fear that structure will diminish their story. Quite the opposite.

  6. I’m just beginning to learn – and truly grasp – what it means to be a writer. I’ve been a hobbyist for many years, but now I want to become serious about my writing and to really see how far I can go – and grow – as a writer. I’ve begun to realise that I’ve underestimated the craft, and I need to broaden my view of myself and the art of writing. This article tackles something I am eager to learn about, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series. I’m excited to learn more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s always more to learn. Every time, I think I’ve scaled the mountain, I step over the peak and realize there’s a whole new vista! To me, that’s very exciting. It doesn’t meant that what we write when we know less is of correspondingly less value. It just means there will always be new things to explore.

  7. Where do I start? I was fortunate enough to have been given your website link by a fellow student on a Future Learn course. That was around 6 or 7 years ago. Your information on character arcs was a revelation to me being a novice writer. I still consider myself a novice learning the craft.
    I have had, as you note, some reservations about story structure cramping my style, but as I look back over the structure of my first serious novel – it is all there, even though I tend to pants it.
    I cannot thank you enough for the information you provide so freely and I shall be buying your book on structuring a story. After all one cannot even create a sentence without some knowledge of the structure of language or add up/multiply without first knowing the numbers and the laws of arithmetic!

    • PS I’m having a huge problem the Kindle version of any of your books is impossible here in France!

      • PPS Neither can I buy Next Level plot structure! Aagh!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site! Makes my day to hear it’s been useful. I’m sorry you’re having trouble purchasing off the Amazon France site. Can you tell me exactly what you’re experiencing? There’s an outside chance, I might be able to troubleshoot for you. You can also purchase directly off my site if you’re interested: https://kmweilandstore.com/

          • Thank you for replying. There are certain things we cannot get here in France. I have two Amazon accounts, but I do not have a VPN and therefore they know where I am. I keep getting the message that this item is not available here in France on my French version of Amazon ie Amazonfr, neither will the English version allow me to purchas saying that I should be on the French site. Believe me I have round and round in circles. It’s probably the only downside of living in France.
            I will try your site 🙂

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Huh. When I visit Amazon.fr, it looks like they’re both available for sale. How weird.

  8. Hi! I was just wondering whether your original posts from this series will still be available, or whether each of these new posts will replace the old. I’d love to be able to refer back to the original series. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      These will replace the old. At this point, all but the first one are still available, so if you want to copy/paste the old posts (or just refer back to the first edition of the Structuring Your Novel book), you can. I will be replacing the links to the old posts, week by week, as the new ones are published.

      • Just to say it’s not until you order the ebook that it tells you its unavailable, yes the paper back is on sale but I haven’t got to the ordering point of that and anyway I bought the ebooks from you 🙂

Leave a Reply

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