Not everyone is a fan of story structure. Some find it constricting, and others fear following a particular structure will make their novels feel formulaic. I’ve read several articles recently, complaining about how some structures are making stories predictable (especially in movies), because we all know when certain things will happen.
The problem isn’t story stricture. The problem is when writers adhere too strongly to the turning points and force a story to fit no matter what. When they let the structure guidelines dictate the plot, and this steals the life and soul of the tale.
For those who eschew heavy structures, I offer a simple three-point process that provides a basic framework to keep your story organized, without making it feel predictable or driving you crazy trying to hit specific plot points. (For those who do want more structure, here are links to the other structures discussed: The Three Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, and Michael Hague's Six Stage Plot Structure.)
Point One: Discovery of a Problem or Need
No matter what story you’re trying to tell, it starts with a character (or characters) discovering there’s a problem, or discovering they need something (sometimes both). This is the point of the book—to solve this problem or get this need. It might happen with a single first-person protagonist, it might be a prologue of an event that caused a problem to happen, it could be a murder, a shift in tectonic plates—anything at all. It’s the moment when something happens that brings the entire story problem or need into being. If this one event did not happen, if this one need was not realized or needed, there would be no story.
This happens in the beginning. You decide where and how it fits in with the rest of the scenes. You decide what else needs to go in that beginning and what readers need to know and see to setup this story the way you want it.
(Here’s more on the inciting event)
Once you’ve established the problem or need to your satisfaction, move on to…
Point Two: Multiple Attempts (and Failures) to Resolve That Problem or Achieve That Need
This is the bulk of the story, where your characters work to resolve this problem or obtain this need, and they’ll fail quite often. The level of attempts and failures will vary by the type of story it is, as thrillers will have different styles and expectations than romances.
Subplots and various storylines will likely weave through this section. You’ll show character growth (if applicable), establish and solve mysteries, throw characters large and small into conflict, build tensions, cause suffering, create laughter, and pluck emotional strings. In short, you’ll write the dang story with all its wonderful facets.
(Here’s more on middles in general)
How much you put into this step is up to you. How it unfolds is up to you. What emotional wringers you want to put the characters through (if any) is up to you. The only thing to adhere to, is that the whole point of step two is to get the story to strep three. At some point, all this trying and working and failing will pay off and the story will come to an end.
Which leads us to the…
Point Three: Resolution of That Problem or Fulfillment of That Need in a Meaningful Way
Stories need endings. At some point, the the problem gets solved and the need is realized. That doesn’t mean it has to be a happy ending, as the problem’s resolution might not benefit the protagonist, or the need might not be fulfilled (though these things usually are).
Happy or sad, the ending should be meaningful. As in, it should mean something and satisfy the reader. There should be a point to the problem and the effort it took to resolve that problem, and a reward for the reader who just spent X hours to read this story. Maybe the resolution is clear, maybe it’s vague and ambiguous, maybe it sets up the next step in a larger story. But it ends in some way.
What constitutes a satisfying ending is up to you (and the reader I suppose, but that’s beyond our control). What you want to say with this ending is your call. It’s your decision what emotions and thoughts you leave readers with when they finish.
(Here’s more on what makes a good ending)
Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Three points that frame a tale and offer something to a reader. What we put into that frame can (and does) vary wildly, and we’re not beholden to any one structure or format. Even if we love a particular structure, we have the freedom to vary it and adjust it to suit whatever story we’re telling at the time.
Tell your stories the way they need to be told. Let structure guide you and help you, but don’t feel you have to do anything if it doesn’t feel right for what you’re writing.
How do you feel about structure? Do you have a preference? Do you vary it or do you prefer a tighter guide to keep you focused?
Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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