There’s resistance swirling around out there about story structure, so writers avoid it like the plague. This is too bad as structure can be the difference between the story you love and the story your audience loves.
In today’s blog post I’m going to share my take on why you need structure in your story, what structure really is, and the three pillars of story structure.
Storytelling is an organic process. For that reason, each story evolves in different ways and at different paces depending on the nature of the story and the story teller.
This means you’re facing both an easy and a difficult situation. Easy because you’re free to tell the story you want to tell in the way that works best for you. My concept of Natural Writing Forces explains how every single writer can use their own strengths, habits, personality quirks, values, and weaknesses to create a personalized system that supports them in their writing journeys.
The difficulties, however, come into play when we realize there are certain expectations and guidelines writers must heed if they want to write a book that other people will enjoy. These expectations and guidelines generally depend on the kind of book you’re telling (genre, style, voice, nature of conflict), who your ideal reader is (audience), your level of experience, if you want to be published traditionally or go indie, and your purpose for writing the book.
THE KEY BEHIND A SUCCESSFUL WRITER
We all have our own visions of what success means. When I talk about success I am never referring to sales or reviews or awards. I’m talking about our own personal finish lines:
- Did I write the book I wanted to write?
- Am I proud of my book?
- Did I learn more about the storycrafting process?
- Did I improve my writing skills?
- Have I grown as a writer?
- Have I helped others along the way?
- Do I feel fulfilled by my goals?
Your vision of success is going to be your personal finish line. Only you know what that is, how many personal finish lines you want to cross, and what it all means to you.
THE JOURNEY FROM WRITER TO SUCCESSFUL WRITER
OK, so most of us want to write stories that we can share with other people. This is where waters tend to get a little muddy. I want to state upfront: To be a writer does not mean you have to share your work. To be a writer does not mean you have to be published. To be a writer does not mean you have to follow “rules.”
However, if you do reach a point in your journey when you are considering an audience, then you need to make some concessions. They aren’t easy because in some ways you might have to sacrifice some beliefs or habits that are preventing you from writing a book for others. One specific process comes to mind, which always serves as entertaining conversation at writers’ cocktail parties: pantsing versus plotting. There is no right or wrong way here, but you do have to be grimly honest with yourself to ensure you’re choosing the process that works for you.
Beyond that, the general approach to writing a story always starts with some glimmer of an idea. Not quite concept, but the idea tugs on our creative centers enough where we are inspired to take it further.
THE FOUNDATION OF STORY
When we start with a story idea, we can shape it with questions to help it morph into an experience for the characters and the readers. We can ditch the bad ideas, even if our characters guide us that way. We can add intriguing moments to heighten tension and deepen mystery, even if these moments weren’t part of our original vision. You want to draw forth the true nature and behavior of your characters so that they are acting in accordance with their wants, needs, and weaknesses.
Book structure is, at its most basic definition, the foundation upon which a story settles. A solid structure means that your story will not flounder, sag, drag, or take off onto unexplained routes. Most people know structure as Beginning, Middle, and End. Each section performs specific duties and functions, which when followed, can help writers manage what would otherwise be an unwieldy mess.
STRUCTURE OF STORY
Three-act structure in literature mirrors life because humans’ journeys unfold in a similar manner—with a beginning, middle, and end. On its own, three-act structure is nothing more than a framework, a place for mapping out your ideas. “Story” emerges when we weave plot, character development, and theme through the framework to reveal positive, flat, or negative arcs and to create meaning in the events so that your readers care about what happens (and they keep turning pages).
THREE PILLARS OF STRUCTURE
PLOT: plot is a series of events related in a cause-and-effect way. There will be major events and minor events throughout your story. They need to spin from each other. Events need to cause events which need to cause events.
The major events, the ones that get you on the edge of your seat, or keeping you up past your bedtime, are usually turning points—the kind of event that turns the story in another direction, an event where something changes. Turning points are like the thumbtacks that hold the fabric of your story on the corkboard of structure. If you know your turning points, the big events where things change, then you can start mapping out the foundation of your story.
CHARACTER: depending on your story, you may have one or multiple main characters, small or large cast. Regardless, every story follows the journey of at least ONE main character. This character is your protagonist or hero/ine, and he/she needs to capture your readers’ hearts in some way.
As you begin to discover your protagonist, you need to be sure to flesh out a few specific foundational categories:
- flaw(s): internal that manifest into external problems
- desire /story goal
- moral dilemma
Sure, the color of their hair and how they take their coffee are good things to know as well, but they aren’t critical to this initial development. Your first order of business is to start thinking about your protagonist in terms of conflict.
THEME: this is meant to be understated in your book but resonant at the same time—it is the meaning behind your protagonist’s journey. Theme encapsulates, usually in just a few words, the ultimate internal goal your protagonist must conquer or embrace.
Ideally, your protagonist needs to learn some kind of life lesson, and it is revealed subtly through theme, which is woven through your story. Think of theme as the blood of your story—it’s running freely, you don’t see it, but you know it’s there.
Your protagonist is on a journey where he will change internally in some way—that is what your theme will reveal.
Examples of Theme:
- the need to belong
- humans are evil
- loyalty vs. betrayal
- social inequality
- power corrupts
- taking responsibility
These three pillars are essential to supporting a story that engages, entertains, or informs readers. Without a solid structure, your characters won’t have enough reason to be the agents of their own stories. They’ll be unaffected by events because those events won’t carry any kind of meaning for them.
A weak structure means your characters can get away without having to make tough choices that propel them to grow and change. This means if they don’t achieve their story goal or their heart’s desire it won’t really make a difference. They’ll have gone through three hundred pages of situations that leave them unchanged, which means your reader will have gone through three hundred pages leaving her underwhelmed. Assuming your reader lasts that long.
Do you struggle with story structure or find it relatively easy?