Wednesday, April 18, 2018

6 Ways to Structure (and Plot) Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing is a creative process with a lot of variables, but basic story structure is consistent and reliable. Hit these points at roughly these times and you will finish a complete story arc and novel.

Note I said “complete” and not “good.” We all know there’s so much more to writing than putting the right pieces in the right places, but solid story structure is the first step to creating a solid story. Plenty of well-written novels with good ideas have stumbled and failed because they had flawed structure, and that hurt the overall story.

Think about a movie you’ve seen that should have been great, but wasn’t, because:
  • It felt unevenly paced
  • It didn’t take advantage of the cool things it setup
  • It felt like it was missing important moments
  • It was predictable
Odds are, had the writers focused more on building a solid story structure and used that to tell the best story they could, the movie would have lived up to its potential.

Story Structure Doesn’t Mean Predicable

One common reason for not using story structure is the fear that it will make the novel feel predictable. It’s a reasonable concern if you don’t know the benefits of structure, because if you follow any structure exactly and take everything literally, it can make a story feel stale and familiar. But when used correctly, story structure provides a writer guides and reminders about the strongest parts of storytelling and how to best use them.

For example, the standard structure moment “Leaving the ordinary world” doesn’t mean your protagonist has to suddenly discover magic or that the plot has to change settings or locations—it’s a conceptual way of saying “the life of the protagonist changes and that change triggers the plot.” And this change can be anything you need it to be for your story. “The ordinary turns extraordinary” is how all stories begin.

(Here’s more on Using Story Structure to Your Advantage)

Structure helps define the plot, because you’ll know what happens when and how your story will unfold. Details change, but proven structure turning points give you something to write toward and a foundation to build you plot on.

There’s More Than One Structure—Sorta

At the most basic, storytelling has one structure—the beginning, the middle, and the ending. Everything past that are just different ways to break that down to appeal to different types of writers and stories. All you have to do, is find the structure that works for your process and preference. Since the most popular ones have tons of information and guides out there, this is pretty easy to do.

The Most Popular Story Structures

These are the structures that I have found to be the most popular and helpful when plotting and developing a novel. Bear in mind that any of these can be used for any type of story, but I've noted the benefits and weaker aspects to help you decide which sounds best for your novel:

1. The Basic Three-Step Plan

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. It covers what’s typically needed for the beginning, middle, and ending on a story, but doesn’t have defined moments or specific spots in the story for those moments to occur.

Good for: Writers who want a little structure, but don’t want to plan too much before writing their story (like pantsers). It reminds them of the critical elements of the beginning, middle, and ending, but leaves everything else up to the writer n how those elements are used.

Not as good for: Writers who want to know more about how their story breaks down and want proven, reliable turning points to guide them. This structure focuses more on what conceptually happens in the three parts of a story, but leaves it up to the writer to decide how to use those moments and where to put them.

(Here’s more on The Basic Three-Step Plan)

2. The Three-Act Structure

The basic beginning, middle, end format we're most familiar with in storytelling. Setup, rising action and stakes, resolution. Most stories you’ve read have followed this format. It has specific moments in pre-determined spots of the novel, but also allows for enough freedom to use those turning points as the writer sees fit.

Good for: Writers who want to plot their story in a familiar way, using the turning points to guide the story from critical moment to moment. It’s also good for writers who like to know all or most of their turning points before they start writing. Although it works with any type of story, it’s especially good for plot-focused stories (such as thrillers or mysteries).

Not as good for: Writers who want more freedom to let the story develop organically, or those who prefer not to know key moments before they write.

(Here’s more on The Three-Act Structure)

3. The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell's 17-step myth structure that outlines the journey a mythic figure (hero) undergoes on an adventure. It covers classic turning points and elements of the journey that are the basis for most modern storytelling formats.

Good for: Writers who want specific turning points and situations to guide them. This structure is more about the journey of a character than a plot, so while it also works with any story, it’s particularly well-suited to character-focused novels and tales of personal growth (such as fantasy, or non-genre novels).

Not as good for: Writers who prefer not to plan out important moments, or those who don’t have strong character arcs or internal conflicts (such as thrillers or procedurals).

(Here’s more on The Hero’s Journey)

4. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet

A screenwriting format for crafting great screenplays using 15 beats (or turning points). It's been adopted by novelists everywhere because the same basic rules apply to novels. It uses the same three-act format, but it’s been adapted to a more movie-like style and pacing. Due to it’s nature, this is the most “predictable” of the structures.

Good for: Writers who have a more visual or movie-like approach to storytelling (such as, those who see their stories unfold like a movie in their heads). It’s also a good structure for those who want to make their novel easily adaptable to the big screen one day.

Not as good for: Writers who want more freedom to chose when turning points occurs and what those points cover.

(Here’s more on Blake Synder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet)

5. Michael Hague’s Six Stage Plot Structure

A variation of the Three-Act Structure that focuses on six critical elements of a plot. This one is also connected to his internal character arc structure. That's the real strength of this structure when used in tandem with his character arc format—using the inner journey to plot the outer journey (such as romances or love stories).

Good for: Writers who want a minimal amount of outlining. It's elegant in its simplicity and provides a lot of room to grow your plot organically. This is an excellent structure for more character-based stories.

Not as good for: Writers who want plot-focused stories, or those who want more specific turning points spelled out before they start the story.

(Here’s more on Michael Hague’s Six Stage Plot Structure)

6. Joyce Sweeney's Four Act Plot Clock

For those who prefer a more circular style, the plot clock is a circle, divided into four quarters with various points on the quadrant. At the end of Act I is a Binding Point, when the character commits to the new world of the story. At the end of Act 2 is a low point which leads to a character change. At the end of Act 3 is a turning point in the story, which surprises the main character, raises the stakes and drives momentum toward the climax.

Good for: Writers who are lost in their story and need a clear map.

Not so good for: Writers who want their stories to run counter to typical expectations. 

(Here's more on Joyce Sweeney's Four Act Plot Clock)

All of these structures can help you write a great story—it’s more a matter of choosing the one you like best for your particular story or process. There’s nothing wrong with changing structure by genre, or sticking to one your entire writing career. Whatever works for you.

Story Structure and Pantsers

While structure works well for outliners, pantsers can also benefit from using it. Many pantsers have great success structuring their novels after the first draft. They wait until the story is down and then revise to tighten the story, plot, and pacing.

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

Story structure doesn’t stymie creativity, it gives it a foundation on which to flourish. Use it well, and your story will benefit from its support.

What’s your favorite story structure? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Ooh, I was familiar with the 3 act structure and the Cat Beat sheet, but seeing them all laid out is very helpful.

  2. This is such an important post. Especially right now when I'm in the middle of adapting a novel to a screenplay (with my hair on fire, of course). The post is a helpful reminder of what's critical in story structure and development. Thank you.

  3. I find Michael Hague's story structure method extremely helpful during the "thinking" phase of writing. And if you ever have the chance to attend one of his workshops, do so. They're informative and entertaining.

    Another structure method I find particularly helpful is Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. As the title implies it's geared toward romance writers and is particularly helpful for plotting the romance arc of the story - all the little steps that tear the hero and heroine's worlds apart before they earn their HEA. Great stuff.

    1. I've been to a few of them. He's fantastic.

      I like how you use a structure for the thinking phase and the writing phase (if I'm reading that right). That's an interesting approach!

      I'm unfamiliar with that structure since I don't write romance, but I'll look it up. Thanks!

  4. Wonderful advice you have here! Is it possible (or even wise) to amalgamate portions of story structure?

    I am especially drawn to two approaches: Number 4 due to its visual focus, because yes, I do see my ideas as I would if I were watching them on screen; and number 2 mainly for its familiar aspects.

    Quick question: the term “pantser”. Is that one who writes novels from the “seat of their pants”? If so, I would certainly include that as part of any amalgamated story structure, for that would best describe my personal style in my nacent career. Please forgive my ignorance if not!

    1. Sure. I mix and match all the time. My outline template has pieces of all of these, mixed with things I like and fit my process. Take what works for you and leave what doesn't.

      Yes, that's a pantser and where the term comes from. :)