Sunday, March 1

Day One: Analyze the Story Structure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Stage One: Plot and Structure Issues

Welcome to Day One of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This first stage is all about getting the story and plot worked out, and identifying any holes or problems to guide us in our revisions and let us know where we need to focus our time. We’ll be analyzing plot and narrative structure, and making sure the novel is working as a whole.

Today, let’s make sure the story foundation is strong and supports the individual scenes that make up the plot.

At this stage, we’re just making notes, we’re not doing the actual revisions yet, because we might discover places we want to rewrite. Any writing we do now could change later. The goal is to get all the details worked out beforehand, so when we start the revisions, the writing will go much easier and we won’t hit a snag and have to backtrack.

1. Create a Structure Outline Template Using Your Preferred Outline

Maybe you prefer the Three Act Structure, Hague’s Six Part Plotting Structure, The Hero’s Journey, or even Snyder’s Save the Cat format. Whatever structure you prefer, create an outline template that lists all the major turning points of the plot. The outliners out there probably have this already, but the pantsers likely don’t.

What makes a plot structure so valuable as a tool is that it provides solid, proven turning points that can help you decide what events need to happen when to get the most out of your own plot. It also helps you find holes in your plot and places where the stakes might need to be raised. For example, if you notice the protagonist never fails, that's a red flag that you might not have enough at stake or enough conflict driving the plot, or you might not have a solid character arc that allows your protagonist to grow. The outline is a general guide—the scenes and problems encountered are all up to you.

No matter what structure you use, it’ll encompass the storytelling basics: The beginning, the middle, and the ending. If you're good on structure, go ahead and skip down to step two.

The Beginning

The Beginning is roughly the first 25% of the novel (give or take about 10%). If focuses on the protagonist living in her world and being introduced to the problems she needs to solve. Often, something about her life is making her unhappy, but she’s not yet ready, or able, to do anything about it. She might not even be aware of the problem, but feels unsatisfied in some way. She's presented with an opportunity to change something about her life, and she either accepts the challenge or tries to avoid it and gets dragged into it anyway. By the end of the beginning, she's on the plot path that leads to the climax of the novel.

Everything in the beginning familiarizes readers with the world and characters and leads into the problem the novel is going to spend the next 75% trying to resolve. It’s showing the protagonist's life, dreams, issues, etc, as well as the setting, and letting readers see the problems and flaws she'll need to overcome to get what she ultimately wants. In essence, it's where you say "See how screwed up this person's life is? This is what she has to fix before she can win."

Revision Red Flag:
If your “beginning” doesn’t end until the middle of the novel, that’s a good indicator that there’s too much unrelated information in the front of the novel. Maybe there’s excess backstory, or scenes that don’t move the plot, or even too many of the same kinds of scenes that aren’t serving the story. Conversely, if your “beginning” ends right away, that could indicate there’s not enough setup and the story is starting too fast.

(Here are more articles on writing strong beginnings)

The Middle

Middles make up roughly 50% of the novel (give or take about 10%). The protagonist leaves what’s familiar to her and undergoes a series of challenges that will allow her to get what she wants and grow as a person. She struggles and fails repeatedly, learning the valuable lessons she’ll need in the climax to defeat the antagonist.

Good middles show this struggle and growth, and braid together the plot and subplots, smacking the conflicts against each other. Each clue, discovery, and action brings the protagonist closer to the event that sends her hurtling toward the climax and resolution of the novel. She’ll often start off with some level of confidence, sure of her plans, but as things spiral out of control she’ll become more and more uncertain and filled with self-doubt until she’s forced to consider giving up entirely.

Revision Red Flag:
Middles are where many novels get bogged down, so if you notice a lack of things happening here, that could indicate there’s not enough plot unfolding. It’s also common to see a lot of the same basic scenes over and over, as the protagonist bashes her head against obstacles that do little more than just delay the plot. A good place to start looking to fix a boggy middle, is to check how your internal conflict and character arc is affecting your external plot arc. If these two aren’t causing trouble for each other, that’s a likely trouble spot.

(Here are more articles on writing strong middles)

The Ending

The ending is the last 25% of the novel (give or take about 10%). The protagonist faces the antagonist. She’ll use all the things she’s learned over the course of the novel to outwit and defeat that antagonist. They battle it out, and she’ll win (usually), then the plot wraps up and readers see the new reality the protagonist lives in, and the new person she’s become after undergoing these experiences.

The final battle with the antagonist doesn’t have to be an actual battle, just two conflicted sides trying to win. The protagonist and her allies challenge the antagonist. There is often a journey involved, either metaphorical or literal, as a final test.

Revision Red Flag: The ending is often a mirror of the beginning, so they should be roughly the same size. If your ending is too short, that could indicate the climax isn’t fleshed out enough and needs to be dramatized more—description, internalization, dialog, etc. If the ending is too long, that could indicate the climax is dragging, or there are unnecessary scenes after the climax occurs. It could also be that there’s too much description or infodumping as loose ends are tied up and explained.

(Here are more articles on writing strong endings)

Don’t Have a Structure Style?

If you don’t have a preferred structure style, I suggest using the classic Three Act Structure to start. It’s a basic structure that allows for plenty of flexibility while still providing a solid framework on which to hang your plot. The Three Act Structure uses the following major turning points:
  • Act One
    • Inciting Event: When the protagonist is first pulled onto the plot path
    • Act One Problem: When the protagonist first realizes there is a problem
  • Act Two
    • Act Two Choice: When the protagonist decides to act
    • Act Two Disaster: When the worst happens and the protagonist wants to give up
  • Act Three
    • Act Three Plan: When the protagonist decides to risk it all to fix the problem
    • Climax: When the protagonist faces the antagonist and resolves the problem
    • Wrap Up: Where the protagonist goes from here

(Here's a much more detailed look at the Three Act Structure)

2. Fill in the Blanks of Your Structure Outline

Using your editorial map and your structure template, fill in what happens at each of the major turning points of your novel. These moments are typically external moments, with the protagonist acting in some way to move the plot forward. Aim for at least a sentence or two that summarizes what happens.

Revision Red Flag: If you have a lot of “realizations” or “learns something” moments, that could indicate a reactive protagonist who’s not driving the plot.

3. Analyze Your Plot’s Major Turning Points

Each turning point should move the story and plot forward, building to form a cohesive novel. It's not just a series of dramatized moments from someone's life, but characters making choices and acting in ways that affect them and others. Look at your outline and ask:
  • Does the opening scene present an intriguing problem or mystery to draw readers in?
  • Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 for longer books) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel?
  • Is there a moment around the 25% mark where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem?
  • Do the stakes escalate at this time?
  • Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed or approached?
  • Are the stakes raised again around this time?
  • Is there a dark moment or set back around the 75% mark that raises the stakes again?
  • Is there a clear "win" for the protagonist at the climax? Something that must be done in order to succeed?
  • Does the ending resolve itself in a way that satisfies the story question posed in the beginning of the novel?

When Do You Raise the Stakes?

As this outline shows, you don’t need to raise the stakes every chapter, but typically you’ll be upping the stakes at least during major plot turning points. Those moments where your protagonist is faced with a decision that will send the story in a specific direction. Moments such as:

The Inciting Event: The first time the stakes are likely introduced. Something goes wrong and it matters enough to the protagonist to fix it so the consequences don’t affect her.

End of Act One: This is the moment when the protagonist realizes the problem isn’t so little and her first attempt to fix it failed or had unexpected consequences.

Mid-Point Reversal: At the 50% mark, the unexpected happens. This is the moment when things go sideways, problems get worse, and how the characters (and readers) see the problem changes. Often, this is the first indication that the problem is more than just the protagonist, and glimpses of the bigger picture are seen. Or, if the stakes have always been big picture, then this moment might be when issues become personal for the protagonist.

End of Act Two: This is the dark moment, the realization that it’s all probably hopeless and the protagonist will never win. The full scope of the problem and what it means hits her. Often, a sacrifice is required at this time. Frequently the protagonist will see her role in the bigger picture, and that can either scare her to death or deepen her resolve, which propels her into the final act and the build up to the climax.

End of Act Three: This is the climax, and the risks here are the highest and most personal of the novel. It’s all or nothing, do or die. Failure is not an option.

Of course, these aren’t the only places to raise the stakes. Look for moments where:
  • Choices must be made, and there are consequences to each choice.
  • Beliefs are questioned, and the protagonist must act in a way that goes against those beliefs.
  • The internal conflict is at odds with the external goal. Success in one means failure in the other.
  • Choices or acts are questioned, and the protagonist is second-guessing what she’s done and what it means.

(Here’s more on creating choices that matter)

Problems Found?

If you discover you’re missing a turning point, or it isn’t moving the plot forward as well as you’d like, spend today’s revision time fixing the problem. You can either focus on the summary of what you want to change later, or do the actual writing, or just make notes on where you want to revise.

After this step, we should have a solid plot framework, and all the major plot pieces are in the right places. It’s time to focus on the character arcs next and how they’ll work with the plot.

Tomorrow: Analyze the Character Arcs

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Has anyone said what a great idea this is? I'm sure they have! Thanks for putting in the effort to do this, I hope it makes me brave enough to consider joining the 250 crit... * bites nails*

    1. Most welcome! Be brave :) Just tell me you're nervous when you send it in and I'll be extra careful. I understand how scary it can be to get feedback.

    2. Forgive me for asking if I should know from reading, but what is the 250 crit? It sounds like something I could really use.

    3. She means the Real Life Diagnostic column. Every Saturday, I critique a 250-word sample submitted by a reader. They ask a question about something they're doing, such as, "am I showing or telling? "Does this opening work?" "How do I mix the description with the action better?"

      Here's the link for more info:

      However, I just closed it to submissions until May, as I'm a little swamped right now. But you're welcome to submit something when I re-open it.

  2. I have my work cut out for me. Thanks for the assignment. This is much needed, and what I was working on, but you always help clear up my questions and make this seem less daunting.

    1. That is the plan :) Writing it all down always helps me clarify what I'm doing. There was so much I "knew" about my story, and doing this on Sunday really focused in on how I could tighten it up. Hope your day was equally successful.

  3. Here we go. *Rolls up sleeves* :)

  4. Wow, what an awesome, meaty post. I'm with Adrian...rolling up my sleeves! I work with Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell before writing the first draft, so I definitely work through the tent poles, as he calls them, but I'm definitely reviewing what I've got so far. Thanks!

    1. I plot this all out myself, but I was able to really tighten and focus my plot yesterday when I did this again. Felt good to see it all connect how I'd hoped it would. :)

  5. Day 1 victory: the plot points are actually in the right places and all of them are there! I thought they were in decent shape, but it is a definite win to see it on paper! The editorial map is going to be a huge help in this process!

    1. Yay, grats! edit maps are awesome. So much easier that scanning through pages to find a scene.

  6. I'm still working on day 1, but I have gained so much from it by using the identify what happens in every scene or chapter section I have noticed for the first time things working out better. Probably I could see this, but didn't know how to fix it. By using the identify what happens in every chapter, I feel its working out.thanks for this, and will be here every day for the month.

    1. No worries, work through at your own pace :) Glad it's helping you pinpoint those plot moments. Just forcing ourselves to write them down makes a huge difference. I spotted a few places myself that need a tweak here and there on my day two session. :)

  7. Awesome stuff! I'm starting late, but I hope to be caught up by the end of the day. I'm a pantser, so i have my work cut out for me.

    1. No worries, late is fine :) It's a guide to help, and you can work through it at your own pace.

  8. I'm very excited about this revision month. I am joining late as well, but, thanks to your wonderful archives, Janice, I'm already familiar with the story structure templates. The revision red flags you include here are very helpful. Thank you!

  9. This is brilliant! I'm not at the editing stage at the moment with my WIP, but I know one of my coaching clients could really benefit from this, so I'll send it her way. :D

  10. I followed your link to Snyders Save the Cat and really found that helpful. I have the book but haven't got around to studying it yet. I used your explanation like a questionnaire to set up my plot points. It worked better for me than other charts and diagrams. Everyone understands things differently and for me this one works. Thanks.

    1. A lot of writers really enjoy that structure and it works well for them. The book is quite good, and you'll gain a lot of insights into the individual beats after you read it.