Story Structure: A tool, not a formula

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I have always had a strange relationship with story structure. I’m a slightly chaotic individual, with a messy house and my head in the clouds. I’m an ENFJ who loves to think that she’s as logical and reasonable as her science degree would suggest, but who most of the time is driven by her gut and feelings. I am not the kind of person who you would expect to find plotting out a novel and obsessing over structure.

And yet, story structure plays an integral part of every stage of my writing process.

It hasn’t always. I started life as a pantser (just write a see what happens), and there will always be times where I sit down to write a scene where I have no idea what will happen. But based on my current process, it is fair to say I now sit more on the plotter side.

Often, writers start off thinking of story structure as a cookie cutter you force your ideas and characters through that takes something away from them. With this kind of impression– of course story structure and plotting wasn’t going to appeal to me!

The thing that changed for me, was that I stopped thinking of story structure like a formula and began to think of it as a tool to be used.

-Something I could use when I was thinking through what I wanted my story to be.

-Something I could use to diagnose problems when they arose in editing.

-Something I could use to take the things that were already in my story and make them even stronger.

Thinking of structure as a tool rather than a restriction, made it come alive for me.

There are plenty of blog posts that talk about story structure. This Reedsy article is a fabulous place to start if you want to get a sense of the most common structures used in Western storytelling. But the purpose of this post is not to tell you which story structure to use, but rather to show the various ways you can take a story structure that suits you and use it for the benefit of your story.

Use it to Outline your story completely before you start.

This is the classic use of a structure that we are most used to seeing. A writer takes a story structure, decides what is going to happen in their story based on the specific ‘beats’ found in their structure of choice, and plans out their story before they begin. And it’s a classic because it works well for many writers! And because there are so many story structures out there, from the most general of three acts to ones that suggest a specific purpose for every scene, you can choose one which suits your own personality, genre and story concept.

There are definite benefits to this method! You can often see if a story is working at the outlining stage, which can help you work out if it is worth persevering with. Or if there are structural problems within your idea, you can work that out and fix them before you even write the first sentence. Lots of my most prolific writing friends are highly structured- right down to page numbers they want to be at when they hit certain beats.

It won’t suit everyone (and probably doesn’t suit me to be honest!), and that’s okay too. But it might be worth having a go at seeing if using a highly structured outline might be something that suits and enhances your story telling process.

Use it to give a structure to your ideas.

This is more of the method that I use. I will brainstorm, write some scenes, think about characters and endings, but before I sit down to properly dive into my first draft, I get a fairly broad structure and have a go at fitting my ideas into it. I actually use this synopsis writing sheet from Susan Dennard’s to do this. Because her synopsis writing plan is based on a general story structure, it is an easy way to map out my story, as well as giving me a head-start on the dreaded synopsis, before the book is even done!

The plus of this method is that it gives you a skeleton onto which to put the flesh of your story. It doesn’t have all the details worked out, and leaves plenty of room for writing on the fly, but it gives you a direction to go when you are lost, and a map where you are headed to follow. Moving to this method has meant that while my first drafts are often quite different from future drafts in terms of details/prose, I usually have a decent structure from the very beginning. It also means that when I get lost, I usually have something I can go back to, to get on track. Which leads to my third way to use a structure.

Use it to find direction when you are lost/blocked

We all have moments when we are lost in the middle of a draft. It might be writing but not feeling it. It might be not knowing which option the character should take. It might be that you just don’t know what should happen next. At this point, taking a step back, and using a story structure to brainstorm what might happen next can be a really useful thing to get past that block.

I find structures that emphasis character growth particularly helpful for this. Knowing where a character might be in their emotional journey, and where you need to get them, can help you determine what actions they might take or what conflict will challenge them at any particular part of the story.

Use it to check your structure at the editing stage

As previously stated, I tend to use a broad structure to plot before I start my novel. But I find story structures the most useful when I apply them after I finish that first draft. This method is known as reverse outlining. It’s where you go back through what you have written in your first draft and see if you can retrofit it into a simple story structure. If you can’t, then that might be because something is missing or because you’ve let the story wander.

The reality is most pantsed stories still have a structure. Because they are readers themselves and most western stories have fairly predictable general beats—even pantsers have some sort of structure that they used subconsciously. But by using a reverse outline, they can see where they might have lost their way, or see things they could add which will enhance what they are already doing.

I use the Save the Cat method at this point. It usually helps me figure out when and how to integrate my subplots (which are often quite bare and simple in my first drafts). I usually combine this with some extra work on character arcs, to come out with a decent outline of what I want my novel to be. Then I can start again for my second draft, using the things I’ve already got, along with anything else that my story might need.

Editor Jeni Chappelle has a blog post on reverse outlining that I recommend checking out.

Use it to clarify your pacing

I once sat in a session run by a big-name editor from an Australian publishing company on the topic of structure. She discussed various helpful story structures. But the thing that stuck with me was a very simple suggestion she had. Open up your manuscript and find the middle page. Is that the midpoint of your story? Or is it before it, or after it? If the midpoint beat occurs much later, then your story is too slow to start. If your midpoint is much earlier, then your ending drags. Such a simple thing to check, with so much information to be gained!

But it doesn’t just work with the midpoint. By taking a basic story structure (which here might be genre or age range specific) and comparing the beats with your own novel, you can answer questions like: Is my story starting in the wrong place? Does my resolution drag? Do I have a saggy middle? Things you probably won’t realise yourself, and that your beta-readers will sense but maybe can’t articulate. But by checking how your story fits the structure, you can see what structural changes you need to make in the next draft.

Use it to work out what are the important beats to emphasise

So…you’ve written your story. You’ve used a reverse outline to see how it could be stronger. You’ve made sure your pacing is sound. But there is one other way that I’ve found structure to be a helpful tool for the writing process. That’s using them to know what to emphasise within your story.

The best stories we read have a sense of rising and falling tension and emotion. An all high tension story is exhausting. A story with no tension tends to bore us. One with good tension keeps us both engaged, but also gives us hints of when we need to be paying careful attention.  If you know the important beats your story is hitting, you can be really deliberate with building tension, and emphasising the key moments of the story.

I find this particularly crucial with the midpoint. The midpoint is usually the beat in a story where the character undergoes a change. They might become completely committed to their quest. They might learn they can fail. They might realise that something is holding them back. It’s the hinge of the story- where everything changes. But it’s not always high action, and so can sometimes pass by with little fanfare.

By thinking through what the beats of your story are, you can be aware of key moments like the midpoint, and give them the time and the emphasis they need. Knowing what a scene is supposed to be doing, can help you to make it the best it can be.

Tools not formulas

So, there are some of the ways you can use story structure to enhance your manuscript, whatever your plotting style.

What about you? What role, if any, does structure play in your story production? Are there any ways of using structure that you are keen to try? Please let me know in the comments.

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