Learn Story Structure in 90 Seconds3

21 Must-Haves for Your Story Structure (in 90 Seconds)

21 must-haves for your story structureA writer’s life is busy. Sometimes we need shortcuts. And while there really aren’t any shortcuts, sometimes there are, at least, cheat sheets. Today, I’m going to give you a Mouse-ter Class in story structure—in all of 90 seconds.

Ready? Strap in and take a look at the video below to see the foundational art of the three-act structure acted out to perfection!

This charming little story features almost all of the important tenets of a story arc:

Story Structure Must-Haves for Your First Act

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

1. Begin with the main character (MC). Readers should immediately know whom this story is about.

2. Show the MC’s Normal World. This is the life he has chosen to live, the life in which he’s reasonably comfortable and has no good reason to abandon.

3. Show the MC in a characteristic moment. Of course, a mouse wants cheese. What could be more characteristic than that?

4. Start with movement. From the first moment we see the mouse, he’s in action. No sitting around staring at the scenery for this critter.

5. Include only necessary information. No extra characters, backstory, or props clutter the scene. Readers only need to see what they need to know at the moment.

6. Give readers a reason to care about the MC. Seriously, who’s not going to love a mouse who winks at us?

7. Start with the MC wanting something. From the very beginning the mouse has a desire and a goal: the cheese.

8. End with the the First Plot Point. The mouse’s status quo is changed forever with the sickening crunch of the mousetrap.

Story Structure Must-Haves for Your Second Act

9. Trap your MC in a spiral of events outside of his control. The line of dominoes should now be in motion. The mouse is stuck in the mousetrap, and anything he does from that point is affected as a result.

10. Force your MC’s original goal out of his reach. The cheese is still there. The mouse can still see it and probably still wants it on some level, but he can’t reach it.

11. Give your MC new goals. The cheese is no longer the mouse’s main goal. He still wants it, in the long run, but for now his primary desire is just to escape the mousetrap.

12. At the Midpoint, cause the MC to make a decision that shifts him from reacting to the antagonist into full-blown attack mode. He’s tired of just sitting there and taking it. Now he’s got a plan and he’s ready to fight back.

Story Structure Must-Haves for Your Third Act

13. Bring your MC to a new understanding of himself (particularly the Lie He Believes) and how he needs to become someone better to defeat his antagonist. The most powerful stories are those in which the MC can’t obtain physical victory without also obtaining a mental and moral victory within himself.

14. Stretch your MC’s resolve (physically, mentally, and morally) to the breaking point. Battles should never be easily won. Keep readers in doubt of the hero’s ability to triumph.

15. Revive the MC at the last moment. At the most dramatic moment possible, just as readers think the MC is about to cave under the pressure, he bounces back.

16. Transform the MC into a hero. He not only survives, he digs down deep inside, finds a spark of extraordinariness, and rises to the challenge.

17. Force your MC to respond in a unique way. Admit it: “Eye of the Tiger” wasn’t exactly what you were expecting.

18. Allow your MC not only to survive, but to triumph. You may have expected the mouse to escape with his life, but when he started bench-pressing his defiance, that’s when he rose to become heroic.

19. Show your MC defeating his opponent. The mousetrap—and, by extension, those who set it—have been vanquished!

20. Let the MC reach his goals. The mouse reaches both his secondary and primary goals: he escapes and he gets the cheese.

21. End with a memorable line. It’s the ending readers will remember, so make it unforgettable!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What stage of your story structure on you working on right now? Tell me in the comments!

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 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. Fantastic! I laughed out loud and then went to work on a picture book manuscript that has “arc problems” that I’ve been stuck on for some time.

    Thanks!
    ~Erin

  2. Glad you got a kick out of it! I think Mr. Mouse is inspiring in his own right, apart from his lessons in story arc.

  3. The unique blend of music definitely made me smile: Karen Carpenter, then the one I don’t know, then ‘Eye of the Tiger’? That definitely can be an arc in and of its own!

    But, yes, the video does a very good job at illustrating a good story arc. Now, I must get back to tweaking my own MC’s arc… The little video gave me a bit more insight into how to fix it some more before sending the manuscript off to my crit partners!

  4. Katie, this post is brilliant! Love the video and the way you used it to make your point. Good job!

  5. @Liberty: I have to admit I sometimes lament that, as writers, we don’t have the power of a good soundtrack at our disposal!

    @Lorna: Thanks! It was a fun post to put together.

  6. In a book, I either have problems with the beginning or the middle. For some reason, I always have a kick-ass ending in mind before I’m halfway through the story.
    Great post!

  7. Endings have a way of evolving on me. I *always* start out with an ending in mind, but by the time I get there, it’s never quite how I thought it would be. But that’s usually okay!

  8. I love it! And you also helped my 14 y/o understand the story arc in a way he will remember for the rest of his life. Thanks for giving us a teachable moment.

  9. Better thank our cheese commercial friends for doing such an awesome job with their advertising!

  10. Thank you so much for this post. It’s better than entire books I have read on story structure. I’m bookmarking this, printing it and taping it to my computer!

  11. A good book on story arc will give you lots more depth, but sometimes short and sweet is better for grasping the basics.

  12. Brilliant! I loved the twist at the end. Completely surprising.

  13. Let’s not forget that scenes have arcs, too. I can think of one scene in particular that I wrote for “Crossed Swords” where a main character is in a duel with a 3,000 year old dead man and his internal monologue is reminding him of all the reasons why he’s going to get extremely killed… until finally he snaps, loses his temper, stops DUELING, and goes back to what he was all along: a brawler.

    After he punches the lich in the face and screams, “Come on, Chuckles, let’s have some happy time!” suddenly dead guy stops playing and realizes that for the first time in three millennia he’s in a real fight, and that this HUMAN in front of him is not going to back down and is not going to quit.

    Then the Keebler elves show up and everything goes to hell. (Well, did you REALLY expect me to give away the ending?)

    Not EVERY scene should have some form of this arc trifecta in it, but anything climactic should.

  14. @Shelli: Yeah, it caught me too!

    @Christopher: Sounds like a fun scene!

  15. Keebler elves make everything fun. They bring cookies.

    Katie, I have a question for you. How do you set your blogs so they don’t post yet? When I used livejournal I just marked them private, and then on the day they were to be released I marked them public. I can’t see a way to do that but I’d like to operate a few days in advance rather than keep everything on my computer and cut/paste.

    Sorry to ask this here, this isn’t really the forum for it, but you gots the info…

  16. I’m not familiar with how LiveJournal works, but Blogger allows me to save my post as a draft, then change the post date. When I hit publish, it queues it be posted later.

  17. Katie, you’re beautiful. You’re talented. You’re smart, and you’re wonderful!

    Tell me you know how to cook a decent Pop Tart and I’ll love you forever!

    That was EXACTLY the information I was looking for to set up automatic posting. Blogger is even easier than Livejournal, I just couldn’t find the link.

    Thanks heaps!

  18. Eh, I’m still working on the Pop Tart problem myself. Glad to have helped you solve your dilemma!

  19. It’s frustrating for me, though, Katie. So far, you’ve helped me with my writing, helped me with my blog… I mean, is there anything heavy I can pick up for you to at least START to return the favors? You need your car washed? Lawn mowed? Cat mowed? Lawn washed?

  20. Mowing my cat would be a good trick. :p

  21. What an amazing video! Didn’t stop to think what it could teach about story arc though. Good post! I didn’t catch the wink the first time, had to go back and find it – so cute 🙂

  22. Katie,you added the icing to my day!
    I have an award for you on my blog. You deserve it for this post alone.

  23. @Jenn: Yes, indeed, having a cute hero is never a bad thing. 😉

    @Glynis: Thank you! Now you’ve iced my day as well!

  24. I love the way you used this commercial to show us what a story arc is! A great example.

    Plus, my dog, it turns out, LOVES The Doors and sang along with Jim Morrison throughout the middle.

    Thanks for your post!

  25. That’s hilarious! Your dog has good taste.

  26. Such a great post! Gotta love a mouse that perseveres ;o) Great insight about the story arc too, thank you!

  27. A lovable hero always helps!

  28. Fantastic! I loved it! I didn’t see him blink when I watched it, so I had to go watch it again (he’s sooo cute). Great post!

  29. I don’t think I caught it the first time either… but I’ve only watched in a million times now. 😉

  30. Oh my gosh! My debut novel is about an underground colony of super intelligent rats! I saw the still shot of the mouse and felt horrible, but you said cute, so I watched it! Too funny! I love it, but it was so sad to the mouse stuck in the trap!

    As for writing, I try and hit my readers with a bang quickly. It doesn’t have to be shocking, it can be a subtle bang, but I feel your best bet is to grab readers attention ASAP! Once I have that “moment”, the rest of the story works itself out!

    Great post!

    xoxo — Hilary

  31. If you can snag readers right off the bat you’re way ahead of the game. That’s one of the toughest parts in all of writing.

  32. Oh my word! How did I miss this?

    You know my tension mounted cuz I just knew that sweet little mouse was going to get snapped. And I was kinda mad at you when he (she?) was gasping for breath. And then excited when he began doing pushups.

    Awesome! I’m gonna use this and teach the concept to Gracee this summer.

  33. Isn’t it a great video? I’ve watched it a dozen times, and I still can’t get enough of it. I sent it to someone, who thought I was being completely morbid… until the triumphant ending!

  34. OMG!!!! I am in love with that mouse! That was AMAZING!

    And I looooove your analisis! It will lead me to put a question 🙂

    In my WIP do you think I´m doing wrong by starting right off with the inciting event when it is at the same time the key event? A princess will run away from home and it starts with the very reason that will lead her to it!

    Hugs,

    M.

  35. No, and as a matter of fact, I’m glad you brought that up. As I mentioned in a recent post in the Structure series, I’ve changed my stance on the placement of inciting events. Your inciting event can take place anywhere within the first quarter of the book (or even before the book begins, in some instances). The key event can also take place anywhere within the first quarter (but not before the inciting event). Sometimes the inciting and key events are the same thing, so your opening is just fine. I’ll edit this post to reflect this.

  36. Thanks so much for the reply! I´m relieved I´m not doing wrong and I´m honored I was helpful ^^

    My main worry is that then I won´t start with a typical moment or neither would I show her happy world as it is mentioned here (though is to assume she had a perfectly happy life before).

    I am following that series (about structure) and I have to say it IS fabulous!

  37. As you’ve probably already figured out from the Structure series (so glad you’re enjoying it!), the important thing to keep in mind is making certain you have a major turning point planned for the first major plot at the 25% mark.

  38. I really am! 😀 IT is ab fab!

    *sighs* I´m really struggling there but I hope I will get a 25% major plot point eventually. I know I will have to go back over the story once it is done anyway…!

  39. Edits are inevitable – even with the most thorough planning!

  40. Oh, yes! We do need the whole to see what is really necessary and what is not.

  41. First, since I had lost my headphones, I just started reading the text. But after that, I turned all my house upside down searching for it. Now, in the end, I am doomed to just watching it with the best sound my lappy can give me 🙁
    Which is no more than tiny shrrr,shrrrr with my noisy fan open. I guess I will have to turn it off too

  42. Tom Youngjohn says

    Well I’m glad he got the cheese.

  43. Really enjoyed the shortcut structure, but make an exception with point #3 a mouse doesn’t want cheese, it wants to eat… and, counting on that survival instinct the trap is set with food that is meant to entice the mouse to eat…

    Ps 124 “the snare is broken, and we have escaped…

  44. My self-published novel is medieval fantasy. It’s not great, but it’s my first; and I’ll grow I’m sure. I’m working on another medieval fantasy which is also stream-of-consciousness. I think that might be my problem. I’m finally working on a novel that’s not med. fantasy, but I couldn’t resist setting it a couple hundred years from now. I’m still in the rough draft stage, writing the movie that plays in my head. It’s like prophecy except it makes sense – mostly. I’m gathering some advice on where to go from here, and I’m sure this will help. Thanks.

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