Understanding Story Structure: How to Plan-- or Pants-- a Better Novel

Feb 26, 2013

That's right, I'm at it again-- extolling the virtues of story structure. But let's get clear on one thing: by STORY STRUCTURE I don't necessarily mean PRE-PLOTTING YOUR BOOK.

That's what I used to think about dreaded "plotting." How can I possibly be a plotter instead of a pantser? I wondered. I don't know what to plan until I've written it. I read about things like the snowflake method and still felt lost. It wasn't until I read Larry Brooks' Story Engineering that I finally got it. Planning meant hitting specific points in story structure-- and I just didn't quite understand what those points were.

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Now, before I dive in, let me clarify one thing: structure does not mean every story will be the same, boring, formulaic story. It simply means your story follows a certain pattern of reader expectations. Which means you can create a much more satisfying story for your readers. The human brain is used to seeking and following patterns, and some patterns-- like 3 act story structure-- are embedded in us from years of movie-watching and book-reading. Even the very basic stuff of life, DNA, is only made up of FOUR things (guanine, cytosine, thymine, and adenine) in a specific double-helix structure, but look how many species of plants and animal abound on Earth.

The most common form of story structure in Western culture is the 3 act structure. I did a detailed post about that here, but let's simplify for this post. At its most basic, story structure is this: 1) the character meets opposition/antagonist and makes a goal to defeat it, 2) the character fails to achieve the goal, 3) the character succeeds and beats the antagonist.

To break it down a little further, author Dan Wells uses what he calls 7 point story structure, which touches all the basic points of the 3 act system. Basically, your book should hit these 7 points for optimum reader satisfaction.


Hook: What draws the reader in; it sets your character in a position opposite of where they'll be at the end.
Plot Turn 1: The call to adventure-- the story really beings and there's no turning back for the character. (about 1/3 of the way through the book)
Pinch 1: The stakes heat up; more danger/pressure is introduced.
Midpoint: The character discovers something new that allows them to move from reaction to action against the antagonist. (The middle of the book, obviously.)
Pinch 2: The stakes heat up again; often, something big is lost. (Often called the "all is lost" moment.)
Plot Turn 2: The character learns the final information to destroy the antagonist, often at great personal cost. (about 2/3 of the way through the book)
Resolution: The character saves the day.

Does this mean you have to plan out each of these points-- and all the scenes between-- before writing your book? Nope. Once you understand structure, you will start to do it instinctively as you write. And the more you learn, the more you find you can expand from that. For example, Dan Wells once mentioned how he tried to use the structure of a musical fugue to write one of his books (it didn't end up working for that story, but it could for another).

Here's the gist: structure makes for a more satisfying story. Don't be afraid of it, and don't be afraid it makes for a formulaic story. Listen to your favorite song-- it has a structure too. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Of course, that often varies, and some do away with it altogether. But the structure doesn't destroy the song or take away its beauty and individuality.

So, my friends, here's a challenge. Go watch your favorite TV show or movie. Try to pinpoint each of the seven points above. The more you see it in the stories around you, the better you'll understand it, and the better your stories will get. And tell me-- what are your thoughts about story structure? Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you use a type of structure, even unconsciously? Any questions about story structure?

26 comments:

Michelle Merrill said...

Great post! I LOVE Story Engineering. It totally turned me into a semi-plotting pantser. Now, every time I think of a new premise, I won't even consider it until I have those plot points all figured out. But, I have to say, it's much easier figuring those things out on an adventurous, plot driven story than in a contemporary.

Good luck with your new book idea and have fun!

Linda Jackson said...

Great post, Shallee. Thanks. :)

ElizaO said...

think I probably am a little too much of a panster. I really like the ideas here. I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open next time I sit down to watch a movie!

Jessie Humphries said...

I've studied Dan Wells' 7 point story structure before. I don't know why it didn't quite sink in for me the way that SAVE THE CAT's 15 point story structure has. But it just goes to show that there are a ton of resources out there and perhaps its the process of looking that helps one understand story structure better. I don't know. Hey, I wanted to tell you about a new WIP I'm working on that I think you might dig--it has a Doctor Who thing going on...

Shallee said...

Jessie, I think you're so right. I think we all find something that really sticks out to us that helps!

And a Doctor Who thing?? I am very intrigued by this WIP...

Jenilyn Collings said...

Hmm. I've been working on a revision where I plotted out the changes that needed to be made beforehand. Despite that, something hasn't been working right. After reading this, I think it might be the structure. I'm going to have to go back and look at that. Thanks for the great post!

David P. King said...

I think this engineering series! And the best thing about it, there's so many different ways to go about it, like any architect designing a building. You look at some and wonder how they are structurally sound, and yet they work, and sometimes look cool. :)

Romance Book Haven said...

As a writer myself, my sense tells me that most authors fall between the two stools when it comes to plotting and pantsing.

Maria

Monica B.W. said...

SOOO FUNNY! Just yesterday I was talkking with my CP about structure! Useful post & links, thanks--I'll give them to her too! <3

Daisy Carter said...

This is great! I have a hard time NOT finding plot points in movies and books anymore. My editor's hat is always on! :)

I try not to plot too much before I draft, but I do like to have some sort of structure in mind - like your 7 points. Not a lot of detail, but nice markers to see where I'm going!

nutschell said...

great post, Shallee! I do this in my own stories and I find that it actually frees me up more when I'm writing my first draft!
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Tanya Reimer said...

Yup great post!!! I work on structure in my my second draft cause that first one... it's usually just scenes that pour out and will later need a home or to be deleted. But point is, it needs to come into play. You are so right. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of scenes I like.

Stacy Henrie said...

I'm mostly a pantser, though I have a rough outline of where the story's going. The nice thing with romance is you never have to figure out the end - cause the couple always end up together! :)

I've also used the beat sheet from Save the Cat, which helps give my story structure but allows for flexibility too.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I loved the characterization stuff in the book, but the story structure didn't work for me. At least it didn't work after I plotted my book with Save the Cat. It was like fitting a hexagon peg into a square hole. But as Michael Hague said at a workshop last year, you pick the story structure that works best for your story. This was after someone asked how his structure compared to STC. :)

The Golden Eagle said...

I need to work on my structure. Great post--this will really come in handy.

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. I'm a pantser, and I've tried plotting in so many ways. Yet I do agree stories need structure.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I can't plot a story too much because it ruins the magic for me, but I think you are spot on with fulfilling expectations. I just read a book where the pieces didn't quite match up, it seemed out of order and nonsensical, and I didn't come away happy with the story.

L said...

I haven't used a formal structure but I can see how it would be helpful, especially if the "oomph" is missing. Thanks for sharing.

akossiwaketoglo.com said...

I'm accepring your challenge. Now I just have to pick a movie. I'm really curious how this will turn out for me... mmm
Thanks for this very informative and useful post. :)

~Akoss

Cherie Reich said...

Great post and what a great reminder of the basics of plot structure. :)

Danielle Raye Zeissig said...

I'm definitely a plotter. Larry Brooks is my favorite expert on the subject. I find if I don't plan well, I get off track, or I sit and stare at the blank page because I don't know what to write next. I like having a road map to get me from start to finish. It doesn't mean I can't be surprised by what I find while sightseeing along the way:)

Tara Tyler said...

this is perfect! i am starting a new book and i want to make sure i hit all the big points!

J.L. Campbell said...

Shallee,
I prefer knowing where I'm going before I start the journey. I have major challenges with time, so it helps if I don't have to stop half way into the story wondering where to go next. Pantsing used to work well for me. Not so good these days. Have a great weekend.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

This is great, Shallee. I think structure does come naturally, to a degree, but it always helps me to keep these points in mind when I'm going through my synopsis (after I've pantsed my way through the first drafts) to see where/how I could up the tension and introduce more try-fails. Thanks for the reminder!!

Medeia Sharif said...

I'm a planner and this is helpful. I have something similar saved in regards to story structure, but I'm saving this also. Thanks for sharing.

Kami McArthur said...

"It simply means your story follows a certain pattern of reader expectations." Well said. :) I'm definitely a plotter, but I don't mind straying a bit from what I've planned.

But whether you're a plotter or a panster, story structure is important to know.

 
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