Structure is key for those who plot and for those who like to fly by the seat of their pants
Why do you need to understand story structure? What even is story structure? Well, do you want to create a satisfying story that your readers love and that turns them into fans?
‘A whole [story] is what has a beginning and middle and end.’Aristotle
Structure is the pattern that gives your story a shape. It stops your narrative being a linear sequence of ‘this happened then this then this…’ and turns it into an experience that has pacing, suspense, and keeps your readers turning the page. Structure underlies every writing, from a college essay to a literary novel. Even when it’s harder to define the structure, it will still be there, holding the text together.
‘When I began to learn about the craft, I saw that plotting had elements I could learn. And I found out about structure: when plot elements were put in a certain order, a stronger story resulted.’James Scott Bell (Plot and Structure)
Readers respond to structure and pattern; it goes right back to infancy when childhood brains form schemas, or frameworks of understanding, about the world around them. The most basic pattern in a story is ‘once upon a time there was a [person] who wanted [a thing] but couldn’t because [obstacle]. They [did a thing] and lived happily ever after.’ You can entertain children for hours with variations on this – trust me – because they recognise the structure, and they know something exciting is coming.
So that’s why structure’s important for readers. How does it help me as a writer?
Structure gives you a guide to follow when writing. If you’re a Plotter you use story structure to plan out your book from the start. If you’re a Pantser (hello, fellow-traveller), look up common story arcs and structures and see if they give you a prompt for your next move.
‘I’m a Pantser not a plotter. I prefer to see how the creative whim takes me.’ Ok, don’t outline. But when your first draft is done, you need to know if it works.
Or was all that labour for nothing?
How do you see if it works? You examine the structure.
Editing with a defined and clear structure in mind ensures your story stays on track; stays tight, focused, and well-paced.
And don’t forget about your characters. Structure guides character development, allowing for compelling growth and transformation throughout the story. Have you forgotten about the sub-plot involving the protagonist’s best friend? Have you left it dangling? Or, by returning to the map that structure gives you, can you weave that sub-plot into your main story, enriching the entire book?
“The structure of a story acts like a pump to increase the involvement of the audience. Good structure works by alternately lowering and raising the hero’s fortunes and, with them, the audience’s emotions.”Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey)
My work isn’t any particular genre. What now?
If you’re an experimental writer, that’s fine…but you need to know the rules before you can know how to break them effectively! Experimentation is a key part of the joy of creativity. But you might find that you get even more from it when you understand what you’re doing and what effect it has.
“You better believe [James Joyce and Samuel Beckett] knew the form before they broke it. Just as Beethoven knew symphonic form before he smashed it with his Ninth Symphony.”Shawn Coyne (The Story Grid)
Remember, understanding story structure isn’t just writing by numbers. A robust structure is like making sure your bridge has a solid framework – you don’t even notice it when you’re driving across, but you’ll certainly miss it if it’s not there.
Advice is worth nothing if you don’t put it into practice. Try these:
- Research 3 common story structures, eg Hero’s Journey, 3-Act, Snowflake
- If you’ve got a first draft:
- Choose a structure that you think you can work with
- Go through your draft and try to identify key moments
- Note any areas that seem weaker or don’t seem to fit, or elements of your structure that are missing – for example, are you missing a resolution? Is there a clear threshold to Act 2?
- If you’ve just got an idea and want to give outlining a go:
- Choose a structure you think you can work with
- Use this to outline ideas (hint: the Snowflake structure is great here, as you gently build it up piece by piece until without noticing – bam! you’ve got a full outline)
- Get writing!
- Return to the ‘First Draft’ pathway above.Remember, even as a Pantser, understanding story structure empowers you to create satisfying characters and narratives. Keep writing!
Here’s another interesting take on story structure, by screenwriter Dan Harmon (creator of sitcom Community)
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