Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Form Fitting: Using Story Structure to Your Advantage

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you're ignoring story structure, you could be making a huge mistake.

Every novel has structure, whether you outline it or pants it. Stories have followed a basic "beginning-middle-ending" structure since people started telling them. It’s familiar and comfortable for readers, and helps them lose themselves in the tale.

Story structure is a valuable tool that helps us write, keeps our stories tight, and provides a framework for us to express ourselves. It's how people tell stories, and we see it everywhere—including jokes. 

I've heard writers dismiss structure as being "too confining" or "a template that stifles creativity," but I disagree. It's not going to force your story into a predictable template unless you use a structure with very specific turning points that don't allow for variety, or be too literal in how you use the turning points of any given structure. A "dark moment" just means "the protagonist's lowest emotional point in the story," and that can be anything. 

Structure doesn't mean fitting your story into predetermined little boxes.

That's when you get into trouble, because you force your story to fit a template, not use a structure to shape your story. Don't force your plot to fit a specific plot moment or action just because a template says you have to.

Structure isn't the same as an outline, and it doesn't require you to know everything about your story before you write your first draft. It's storytelling at its most basic—it starts with the introduction of a problem, character overcomes obstacles to resolve that problem, character resolves the problem. That’s structure. 

Which is why structure is especially helpful for those just starting their first novel.

Writing a novel can be hard, even when the writing is going well. It’s weaving together a lot of pieces that all have to line up perfectly to work. If you get something out of alignment, the entire story can fall apart. Structure helps keep that story in alignment because it gives you a proven framework to work with.

I can't tell you how many rambling, bloated novels I wrote before I started using a solid structure. It helped me fine tune my plots and direct my creativity instead of letting it flow in all directions. My stories got better because I had plot turning points to aim for.

(Here's more with 6 Ways to Structure (and Plot) Your Novel)  

Use structure to set the boundaries of your novel.

Structure is like a sketch for a painting. You block out the general shape and where things go and then fill it in afterward. Some artists do detailed sketches that are works of art themselves, whiles others use broad strokes that suggest what the final piece will be. 

And both options are legitimate ways to write. 

Everyone has their own process, but here are some questions I ask before every novel:

What word count am I aiming for? 

I base this on whatever the average word count is for that genre. For my young adult novels, I aim for 60,000 words. An adult novel might be between 80,000-100,000, or even as high as 120,000 words if there's a lot of world building to do. 

Why this matters: Knowing the target word count lets you know how much of the novel is beginning, middle, and ending, which is important to help you find the right pace for the story, and know where your major turning points need to fall. It can also help you from writing too long, or too short.

(Here's more with How to Use Your Word Count to Your Advantage)

How many chapters do I expect to have in that sized novel? 

My chapters tend to be around 2500 words (give or take 500 words in either direction), so I’ll have about twenty-four chapters in a 60,000-word novel. So right there I know my beginning is roughly six chapters, my middle is twelve chapters (with the midpoint hitting at chapter twelve), and my ending is the final six chapters. This can and does change as I write the first draft, but it's a place to start.

I've learned after multiple books that my endings usually need a few extra chapters, so my standard template is twenty-six chapters these days for a 60,000-word novel.  

Why this matters: These word counts and chapters tell you the basic scope of your novel and how many chapters you need to fill. This helps when outlining (if you do), and lets you know where the major turning points typically fall. Just adjust this for whatever size chapters you usually write. 

Option: You don't even have to use chapters at this stage. Several years ago, I started writing my first drafts without them. Now, I write all the scenes for each act and then group them into chapters after the first draft is done. In this case, the word count per act became my guide.     

(Here's more with The Freedom of Writing Without Chapters) 

What events will fall in what sections? 

A 60,000-word novel means I’ll have around 15,000 words and six chapters to set up my opening, establish my characters and their world, present the problems facing them, show the character arcs and how these characters need to grow, and toss in a few problems for them to solve. That's all act one.

When I hit this 15,000-word mark (remember, these are just loose guidelines so it might vary by a few thousand words), I know something big needs to happen to send my story into the middle, which is where all the problem solving occurs. 

The middle gives me another 30,000 words to play with in act two, with all the fun scenes of the plot as my protagonist tries and fails to solve their problem, faces opportunities to learn their lessons for their character arc, get surprised in the midpoint, then slide toward the dark and all is lost moments as the middle wraps up. 

The last set of 15,000 words covers act three, where my protagonist starts pulling it all together, makes a plan to solve the core conflict of the novel, takes those last steps of the character arc, and beats the bad guy (however that works in your novel). 

Even if I'm not sure how the plot will work yet, I usually have ideas of how the story will generally unfold, and I can make notes about what each act will cover. If I'm at the outline stage, I can work out what scenes need to go where. And by the time I'm drafting, I can judge my pacing and how the story is unfolding by seeing how much of the story (or act in my case) has been written versus what still needs to be done.

Why this matters: Blocking out the size and scope of the novel gives you a general sense of what needs to happen when. For example, if you know you'll have nine chapters for act one, then you know your protagonist will have a big problem and a decision to make by the end of Chapter Nine. So if you're nowhere near that point in Chapter Seven, that suggests something about the story is off. Either your beginning is too long or the turning point isn't what you thought it was. 

Knowing there's a potential problem early gives you time to fix it. You might decide to trim back a few scenes early on, you might realize you need/have a different act one plot point, or you might decide to keep writing and see how the story unfolds, and adjust the structure later. 

(Here's more with Can You Structure if You’re a Pantser?)  

What are my major turning points? 

Before I start planning the novel, I like to know six key points: the opening scene, the inciting event, the act one problem, the midpoint reversal, the act two disaster, and the ending. These turning points tell me how the story opens, what pulls my protagonist into the story, the first major problem they face, what shakes the story up and changes things, where the dark moment falls, and how the conflict is resolved. This is enough for me to plan the rest of the novel, because they give me specific events to plot (and write) toward. 

Here's my starting template:
  • What's the opening scene?
  • What's the inciting event?
  • What problem makes the protagonist choose to act to resolve the core conflict?
  • What major surprise can happen in the middle?
  • What's the moment when it all looks hopeless?
  • How does it end?
Once I figure these moments out, I go scene by scene and connect those points until I have a fully fleshed out plot. But that's my process. Use what you need to write a first draft, whatever that process is. 

For example, if you plan your character arcs and pants your plot, then your major points might be how the protagonist grows or changes. Another writer might take those six points and start writing. Some writers might not look at structure at all until the first draft is done, and then rework the novel as needed so the right scenes fall at the right points. 

Why this mattersThe major turning points of a plot are the bare bones of a novel and create the foundation for the story and plot. If this six-point arc works, then odds are good the novel will work, too. If this is a struggle to figure out or the turning points are too vague, that could indicate the story isn't developed enough yet to write.

A good structure is like a series of well-placed traffic signs. They don't define the destination; they just help you find your way there.

It's all too easy to write off into the weeds and wind up with bloated stories that don't make sense. Structure helps keep you focused on the story you want to tell. 

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pantser or plotter, take five minutes and break down your WIP by word count and number of chapters. Then, match up the six turning points and see where they fall. Is your structure working or is it off? Is it flowing like you want it (even if that means it's not adhering to the structure)? If you find any issues, brainstorms ways to adjust it to your liking.   

How much structure do you use? Do you prefer a clearly defined structure or more of a loose plan? 

*Originally published January 2010. Last updated June 2023.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I agree. I tend to ramble and sometimes feel the character themselves are pushing me somewhere I really don't want to go. If it gets out of hand, the outline helps me bring things back into perspective. Thanks,

  2. Great post, Janice.
    I found in my own early work that I had written something very very long and wanted to make it shorter so it would be more accessible, but after I went through and cut "every word I could," there was only so small I could make it go. There is only so much you can cut when you're working only on the surface level. On the other hand, when I backed off the work and took a look at it structurally, I realized that I could shorten it by a significant amount and improve the story and pacing at the same time. I learned this through short-story writing rather than through the structural tools you describe, but it was a very valuable lesson for me. Thanks for sharing this with everybody.

  3. Janice, I've really enjoyed your posts on plot and structure this week. I love plot and structure because they affect so much else.

    After reading your post yesterday, I wrote out a scene outline for my novel, and listed the word count for each chapter. Many times during the process I stopped and asked myself, "Haven't I already done this many times before? I already HAVE a list of scenes and chapters, and I already know my act 1, 2, and 3 elements."

    But what I hadn't done is look at them recently. I had a list of chapters and I listed out their conflicts, but what I didn't have was perspective. I wrote those out early on in the drafting. Now that I'm on a close to complete draft, or late-stage draft, I looked at them again and was able to pick out problems I hadn't seen before.

    So, one of the things I take from your discussion of plotting and outlining is that you should use them as a tool both early and late in the drafting...or whenever works.

  4. "...or whatever works." Truer words never spoken. I'm thrilled folks are taking helpful tidbits away, whatever they are. You never know what might work. I still try new things all the time, even though I have a pretty good method now that I like.

  5. Janice! I found my way to your blog from your agent's blog (also great). I am fascinated by all your info about outlining, plot, and structure. Thanks for going so indepth! This is so interesting. I'm gonna have to go out and buy your book now so I can see how you put it into action in your own book :)

    I look forward to following your blog in the weeks to come. Thanks!

  6. Welcome to the blog! And thanks!

  7. *waves* I know, I know--on your end it isn't so great, but I sometimes wish I had your problem of writing too much and having to cut. I tend to not write enough, which leaves me squinting at the story and trying to find what needs to get tossed in.

    And then there are the times when everything's present that needs be, but it's done so quickly that readers will ask me questions about something that's answered in the previous line.

    Not that I'm immune to character rambling. I like to challenge myself, which may be why my story structures tend to resemble a cable knit scarf. I aim to structure seasons, themes, word counts...

    Yes, I'm that fastidious. Only with my own writing, though. It's actually fun. I wing it until I'm stuck, then figure out where I need to get to, then figure out how I need to get there.

  8. Thanks for keeping all of these old posts available. I look at storytelling rather as building an imaginary house, ones your readers will reside in for a while and, hopefully, enjoy while they are there. The writer is both the architect and builder and plotters (or outliners - pick your term) separate those two functions. Personally I think having a blueprint for the building or an outline for the story makes for a better final product. There are those who are master builders who are able to make a great home without a blueprint just as there are writers who can weave a great tale with a tight, coherent plot and no loose ends without an outline. I just think it's harder to do so and you risk ending up with something less than what it can and should be unless you do a lot or remodeling after you are "done."

  9. Most welcome. I'm always looking for new ways to make the archives more accessible since there's lots of good stuff here. I use the house analogy too :) I need that structure to fit my story on.

  10. Great post! And I completely agree that structure makes a novel better ... but I'm not sure that I could have used structure the way I do now, when I first started out. I, too, wrote some rambling novels, but I was learning other things: voice, craft, character development. Then came structure, when I was ready to learn it.

  11. Susan, that's true of everything in writing :) I think different types of writers are going to focus on structure at different points in their learning process. The plotters might pick it up faster and use it to help them with other aspects (like me) while the pantsers might find characters first and learn from there.

  12. Such a timely post for me! I've written my beginning, ending, and a few scenes in between, but I'm having trouble seeing how I get from one scene to the next. I've never thought about mapping it out by chapters, since I never really thought about how many chapters my final product would likely be! I work from a looser outline, but I need to fill in some gaps. Knowing that you usually work with 24 chapters is immensely helpful. I just created a new excel document outlining individual chapters based on a 24 chapter structure, and have already solved some placement issues I was struggling with and can easily see where I need to add chapters to keep the story moving at the right pace. Thank you!

    1. Grats! I'm happy it worked out so well for you. :)

  13. Janice,

    I like planning so I like structure. I like planning so much, I usually figure out the major turning points AND the minor turning points.

    But I also like writing summaries, beginning with a single-sentence summary and expanding that through a paragraph, a page, and several pages, until I get to the point at which I can write a chapter outline.

    Those summaries all hang on the framework of the structure, though, so the two parts of the process are interdependent.

    Thanks for the good post and another look at story structure.

    Best wishes,


    1. Sounds like a great process, and not that different from what I do as well. It's like building the novel from the foundation up.