Friday, May 08, 2015

Form Fitting: Using Story Structure to Your Advantage

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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

Structure is also a valuable tool for any writer. It helps us write, keeps our stories tight, and provides a framework for us to express ourselves. However…

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

It's not an outline per se, and it doesn't require you to know everything about your story before you write it. Structure can be as simple as the beginning, the middle, and the ending. This is 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 novels.

Writing a novel can be hard. It’s a lot of pieces that all have to line up perfectly to work. Get something out of alignment and the entire story can fall apart. Structure can help keep that story in alignment because it gives you a proven format for solid storytelling and provides a framework to work with.

I can't tell you how many rambling, bloated novels I wrote before I started following 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 targets to aim for.

Use structure to set the boundaries of your novel.

I like using a turning point structure to create a template for my novel. It gives me a rough guide for where traditional plot points will fall, and knowing these turning points helps me block out the entire plot. 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. The finished novel won’t be exactly that word count, but it’s a guide to work within. It shows me how much of the novel is beginning, middle, and ending.

How many chapters do I expect to have in that sized novel? This helps me identify where my major plot turning points will fall. My chapters tend to be around 2500 words, 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.

What events will fall in what sections? Now I can set some plot targets on my basic twenty-four-chapter structure. I’ll have about 15,000 words and six chapters to setup 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. When I hit that 15K mark (remember, these are just loose guidelines so it might vary by a few thousands words), I know something big needs to happen to send my story into the middle, which is where all the problem solving occurs (and that sets up another 30K words to play with). The structure of the traditional middle will guide me to the ending (and the last set of 15K words).

What are my major turning points? Before I start planning the novel, I like to know four key points: the opening scene, the inciting event, the midpoint reversal, and the ending. In simple terms, these turning points tell me how the story opens, what pulls my protagonist into the story, what shakes the story up and changes things, and how it’s resolved. Those four moments are enough for me to plan the rest of the novel, because they give me specific things to plot (or write) toward.

I’m an outliner, so I go chapter by chapter and connect those points until I have a fully fleshed out plot. But another writer might take only those four 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. Use what you need to fit your writing process, when you need it.

Here’s a quick outline for those who might want to try a little structure:
  • What's your opening scene?
  • What's the inciting event?
  • What is the first major event that goes wrong or changes the path of your protagonist?
  • What major surprise can happen in the middle?
  • What is the moment when it all looks hopeless?
  • How does it end?
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.

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

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.