Back when I started to write fiction, one of the things I struggled with was plotting my stories. I wasn’t alone there either. How to structure a novel is the single biggest challenge that I see most beginner and novice writers complain about, and with good reason.
The plot structure of a novel, more than anything else, will determine the success or failure of that novel. You can have a cast of great characters, interesting settings and all the rest, but without a logical narrative structure to hang those elements on, your story will go nowhere, leaving anyone who reads it unsatisfied, if they even finish the whole book and don’t put it down after a few chapters.
I’m not saying story elements like characters, setting and theme aren’t important. Obviously these fundamentals have as much of a bearing on the story as anything else, but they still aren’t as important as the structure of the story itself.
For a novel to work it must have a certain structure, otherwise all you have are a bunch of disparate elements that barely hang together. Without the glue to hold it all together that structure provides, you will have a story that just rambles, going nowhere in particular.
Trying to write a novel without structure to keep you right (and keep the reader right) can be a lost cause. If you even manage to get the story of the ground, it won’t be too long before you run into difficulties that can’t be resolved without scrapping the whole thing and starting again.
That’s no way to tackle a novel. It’s also probably why a lot of people give up on writing fiction, because they never finish anything. If they do manage to finish, the story is so all over the place that the book isn’t fit for publication.
Story Structure Will Save Your Novel (Or At Least Make It Better)
You can save yourself a lot of hassle if you take the time to wrap your head around the concept of story structure before you begin to write. Just by predetermining certain plot points in your story before you write anything, you will give yourself a solid structure on which you can hang your story.
For a story to be satisfying (and this applies especially to genre fiction) certain things have to happen in it in order for it make sense and leave the reader feeling satisfied.
If you look at any successful novel or screenplay, you will notice that all of them, without exception, are structured in a certain way.
This is no accident. Successful writers are well aware of this story structure and they hang all of their stories on it.
As a panster (someone who writes without any real planning, who literally makes the story up as they go) I was resistant to any form of outlining or pre-structuring. I thought writing a novel was about making things up as you go with no form of planning.
I was wrong. Many failed attempts at writing a novel soon told me that. Writing would stall and the story would be abandoned because it didn’t seem to be working, or because I had no idea of where to go next with it.
It took me a long time to figure out that this was because I didn’t have a proper narrative structure in place. Worse than that, I wasn’t able to find a way of developing this structure.
After reading numerous books on writing and plotting, it soon became clear that different writers had their own way of tackling structure. I just couldn’t get my head around any of their approaches.
Then one day I came across a short report on story structure by urban fantasy writer, Joseph Nassie. The report was called Fantastic Fiction Decoded and in it, Nassie gave his take on plotting and structure. For the first time, I found an approach that actually made sense to me and I used it with good success to write my last novel.
Before I go into the details of plot structure, you should know that the only way you will truly understand the purpose and mechanics of story structure is by applying it to your own work. You can read all about story structure, you can understand it on an intellectual level, but to really own it, you must take that knowledge and use it to structure your own stories.
You learn by doing, not by knowing.
With that understood, lets take a look at story structure in more detail.
Basic Story Structure
Joseph Nassie in his previously mentioned report gave a basic outline of what story structure is and how to apply it to your own stories. His approach can be summed up by a simple diagram, which you can see below.
I’m sure Joseph won’t mind me saying that this is a simplified version of the story structure to be found in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering. At the time of reading Nassie’s report, I hadn’t read the Brooks book. Once I read Story Engineering however, I realized what the above idea was based on. We’ll talk about the more detailed story structure concept in a moment.
For now, let’s work with the simplified version. It might actually be a good idea for you to wrap your head around the simplified version first, since there isn’t as much to think about.
In the above story structure you can see that it is split up into four distinct phases, starting with the set-up phase. This is where you should introduce your main characters and set up your story.
This phase will constitute about one quarter of your book. The main goal is to set the story question and create empathy for your main characters. This first phase is ended by a game changing moment that sends the story into the next phase.
The game changers are points in the story that completely change things for your protagonist, points at which there can be no turning back from.
The purpose of the first game changing moment is to propel the main character full force into the story, to force them to make a decision that will change everything and make the rest of the story possible.
The next phase is the reactive phase. No real heroics in this phase, just reacting to the antagonistic forces of the story, trying and failing to beat those forces. This phase also ends with a game changing moment that should turn your protagonist from reactive wanderer to proactive warrior.
This is the next phase in the story, the proactive phase, and the part of the story where your protagonist takes control and goes to war against the antagonistic forces standing against her, whatever they may be. This phase will again end with a game changing moment, something that arms the protagonist with some sort of new information that will allow her to press forward for the final confrontation with the antagonistic force.
This is the resolution phase, the phase that builds to the story climax. At this point no new information can enter the story. Nothing can miraculously come along to save the protagonist (deux ex machina). They must be heroic and deal with everything by themselves.
Their actions alone must bring the story to an end.
That’s a basic explanation of story structure. Each of those phases should contain about ten to twelve scenes. If you are just starting out with writing fiction this would be a good place to start as far as story structuring goes. Take the time to wrap your head around it and understand the logical progression of it all.
Advanced Story Structuring
I say advanced story structuring, but it isn’t really. What follows can and should be classed as fundamental story structuring because that’s what it is. I only say advanced because it isn’t as simplified as the outline I described above.
We are going to talk about Larry Brooks’ original story structure outline, on which the above outline from Nassie was based. This version is a more fleshed out one, as you can see from the diagram below (click image to enlarge):
Here we have the same four phase structure, but in each of those four phases there are structured plot points, things that must happen if the story is to progress in the proper way. This holds true no matter what kind of story you are writing.
I’m not going to explain everything in that diagram as it should be fairly self-explanatory. What you need to do now is get yourself a copy of Story Engineering so you can read Larry Brooks’ detailed explanation of each of those points. Believe me, it’s the best book you will ever read on plotting and story structure and it will be money well spent.
I won’t lie to you. It will take you some time to wrap your head around the kind of story structuring we have been talking about here. Once the information sinks in however, you will find yourself armed with a whole new set of tools that you can use to craft a good story, one that makes sense on all levels.
Of course, story structure alone will not make a good novel.
We’ve already said that other elements must be present in a story to make it good, certainly to make it publishable. However, if you apply the story structuring techniques we’ve been discussing here, you will give yourself a considerable advantage over those who give little or no thought as to how their stories should be structured. That much I can guarantee you.
In case you are wondering (as I did when I started working with story structure), structuring your story before you begin writing will not take away from any panster sensibilities you may have. There is still a great deal of room left for creativity and making things up as you go.
What story structuring does is give you a definite direction to go in. It is still up to you to create a good story though, along with engaging characters and all the rest.
At least this way you can see if your story has legs before you begin to write. You don’t want to be half way through a novel only to find out it isn’t working. Then you’ll have to start again from scratch.
To create a good novel without any thought to story structure (the panster way) requires multiple drafts. It may take you two or three drafts just to work out how the story should be.
Drafts take time and if you are a self-publisher, time is money.
Working out at least a basic structure before you begin writing (on paper or in your head) will save you time in the long run, not to mention help you avoid the agony of a stalled story.
Just remember that to get the most from this kind of story structuring you must apply it to your own work. Take whatever time you need to understand the principles of good story structure (using the sources provided in this article), then start applying those principles to your own story, referring back to the original source material as and when you need too.
If you are interested in hearing Larry Brooks himself talking about story structure amongst other things, watch the video below of an interview he did with the lovely Joanna Penn.
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Before I go, if you are interested, here a couple of links for you. One is a link to a Scrivener template that’s based on Larry Brooks’ Story Structure, plus another link to the Excel spreadsheet the above diagram is based on. Both are free. Enjoy.