Part of the How They Do It Series
JH: I'm a huge proponent of story structure, whether you're a plotter or a pantser. It's an incredibly useful tool to help writers write their novels. To share her tips on checking your story structure, Swati Teerdhala visits the lecture hall today. Please give her a warm welcome.
Swati Teerdhala is the author of the upcoming novel, THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT, the first in a trilogy. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Finance and History, she tumbled into the marketing side of the technology industry. She’s passionate about many things, including how to make a proper cup of chai, the right ratio of curd-to-crust in a lemon tart, and diverse representation in the stories we tell. She currently lives in New York City and can be found wandering the streets with a pen or camera in hand.
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Take it away Swati...
For a lot of writers structure is a bad word. Structure will take their inspired, artful writing and turn it into something formulaic and trite. But the thing is, story structure has been around for centuries in many different forms, from Aristotle’s Poetics to the modern classic, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. It’s the foundation of storytelling and like any good recipe, allows for innovation and elevation. So, don’t worry! Leaning into story structure instead of running away from it will only make your novel that much stronger.
Now, I’m not talking about being an outliner vs. a pantser. I think pantsers and outliners alike benefit from knowledge of story structure. Pantsers will take structure and incorporate it more intuitively into their novel while plotters might take that knowledge to create a detailed outline for their novel. Both ways work! But a strong structure is the key to crafting a story that resonates with your readers.
So here are a few tips for plotters and pantsers who want to gut check their story structure.
1. Does your character have a clear goal (external) and motivation (internal)?
If no, take a minute and think through your character. What is missing in their life? Why is the story starting now and not later?
If you’re missing the motivation, here are some questions to consider. Why does your MC want this goal? What will it provide them that they don’t already have? Is it for a loved one, for their community, for themselves? Diving deeper into this will help you see why your character is so set on achieving their goal.
2. Does your beginning introduce a challenge or conflict for the MC in regard to their goal? (Inciting Incident)
If no, what event would shake your MC out of their life and propel them to pursue their goal, or introduce a new goal that they can’t ignore?
3. Are you introducing new conflicts for your character? (Plot Points)
If no, think about what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character in regard to their goal at each stage of the story. And don’t just consider physical obstacles like a dragon or someone who parks in two parking spots (my idea of a villain). Think about emotional and personal obstacles. Your MC wants to win the competition and has to practice their amazing baton twirling skills but their friend just broke up with their significant other and wants to have a movie night. That’s a conflict right there.
If there are not enough conflicts because you want your characters to be happy forever, consider this. How often do things go exactly the way you want in your own life? Probably not as often as you’d like. While not everything has to go horribly wrong all the time, it’s important for your MC to take action and face obstacles in pursuit of their goal.
4. Is your character choosing action over reaction? (Midpoint)
If no, think about your character’s actions so far. Have they been taking initiative, leading the charge to achieve their goal? Or have they been reacting to the conflicts thrown at the by the antagonist/the world? The midpoint is an important moment in story structure that bridges who the character is at the beginning of the story and who they could be at the end. They’ll only get there if they start to take action themselves and pursue their goal with everything they have. What moves your character to take action finally?
5. Is it clear how the character must change to achieve their goal? (Climax)
If no, think about the biggest change you’ve made in your life. Perhaps you stopped eating sugar (teach me your ways) or started an exercise habit. What old habits or beliefs did you have to leave behind to change? What does your MC have to leave behind to achieve their goal? This is where you can tie together the goal and the motivation to create a truly resonate climactic moment.
6. Is your ending tying up your main conflict? (Resolution)
If no, think about what questions you’re leaving hanging. Tie up any threads that are important to the MC’s goals. If they started out wanting to win the competition, did they win it? How do they feel? What have they learned in this pursuit of their goal? Give us a moment to rest and breathe a sigh of relief (or scream in disbelief) at the outcome of this long journey they’ve been on.
Hopefully these questions will help you do a quick check in on your story as you continue on through your drafts. Whenever I’m stuck, I revisit these questions to help me see what I might be missing or how I can further my character’s story -- and finish that novel!
About The Tiger at Midnight
Esha lost everything in the royal coup—and as the legendary rebel known as the Viper, she’s made the guilty pay. Now she’s been tasked with her most important mission to date: taking down the ruthless General Hotha.
Kunal has been a soldier since childhood. His uncle, the general, has ensured that Kunal never strays from the path—even as a part of Kunal longs to join the outside world, which has only been growing more volatile.
When Esha and Kunal’s paths cross one fated night, an impossible chain of events unfolds. Both the Viper and the soldier think they’re calling the shots, but they’re not the only players moving the pieces.
As the bonds that hold their land in order break down and the sins of the past meet the promise of a new future, both the soldier and the rebel must decide where their loyalties lie: with the lives they’ve killed to hold on to or with the love that’s made them dream of something more.
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