You decide to write a novel or short story. Usually, it starts with an idea, something that inspires you to write. For me, it’s the wondrous lives and experiences of the amazing kids and families I worked with. As you begin, what story structure will you choose? Or does it matter?
So I have an idea—what if I write about how our eyes play tricks on us?
Where do I start? How do I say it?
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”Somerset Maugham
So, we are not alone in our confusion.
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”Willa Cather
Storytelling has been going on for as long as humans found ways to communicate, be it with gestures, pictures, or words.
Stories reflect our need to make sense of the world.
We’ve been telling cautionary tells (“don’t eat the berries with the black dots on them”) and prescriptive tales (“turn left at the rock for the best water.” )
Story theory is about finding patterns in life via telling and experiencing stories. Luckily, over time, some curious folks took to analyzing stories. From this emerged story structure concepts.
Structures for the big picture story:
- Aristotle’s “Beginning, Middle, and End”
- Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth or Hero’s Journey”
- Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”
- Shawn Coyne’s “Story Grid”
- Murdock’s “The Heroine’s Journey”
- Hudson’s “The Virgin’s Promise”
- John Truby’s “22-steps”
- Dan Wells’s “7-point plot structure”
- Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method”
- Dan Harmon’s “Story Circle”
Non-fiction has its structures. I am particularly fond of this version of the scientific method (“we noticed something, so we came up with a theory—we tested it this way and found XYZ—this is what we think it means.”)
More and more, you will see businesses referring to using “storytelling techniques” in marketing and customer retention.
A mix tape of story structure terminology
One story’s Inciting incidents is another’s Call To Adventure.
There are plot points, turning points, midpoint shifts, all is lost moments.
There are 3 Acts, 4 Acts, 5 Acts, 7 steps, 8 Sequences, 15 beats, 15 or 20 essential scenes, and 22 steps.
With all this variety, it’s important for you to understand that you bring to your story all the stories that have come before it, and you contribute to all that will come after. The moments are yours to express. You simply have many options on how to do so.
It will pay dividends to study some of these methods. Studying all of them is probably not necessary.
It pays dividends to study masterworks—successful and compelling stories in the genre of your story. How many is enough? At least two or three.
Don’t fall into analysis paralysis. Figuring things out is essential. You need some idea of where your story is going, but to start, you don’t need to know everything.
Study, read, and analyze just enough to get started. Enough to fuel your confidence. Enough to know the genre, its conventions, and maybe how and when the important story points played out. THEN WRITE.
Story methodologies are road maps to get you going down a road, journeying with your characters. They are meant to give you confidence and further your imagination. They are not meant to hold you in one place, afraid to do the wrong thing. You can use as much or as little as you need.
There are commonalities to the stories we tell. But yours is uniquely yours.
Here’s an example of how a story idea might evolve and use story structure. My initial idea was about how our eyes play tricks on us. As my imagination flows, a situation comes to mind: a pet owner makes the wrong assumption about what her dog has been up to. As I dig deeper, I decide I want to write a story about a woman and her dog being targeted by a killer.
I start out asking questions: Why? How did that happen? Who else is involved? Where did it happen? What are her options? What will she do now? And, then…and, then….and then…until The End.
Here’s my beginning story outline:
- A woman discovers her dog roamed out of the backyard and is now lost.
- She’s worried and scared.
- She searches on her own and fails.
- She enlists help using neighbors.
- Someone suggests using the dog’s GPS tracker.
- The dog is found with blood on its paws.
- She fears he’s been hurt but is heartened that he seems well and soon dismisses the blood as relevant.
- She then hears on the news a body was found near where the dog was found.
- She double-checks the GPS tracker and sees that the dog was at the scene of the crime.
- Then, while walking the dog the next day, she realizes she’s being followed. [cue ominous music]
It’s a silly idea, I know, but it just came to me while watching my pups sleep, so let’s just go with it.
This is the set-up for the story. Where I take it from here requires me to make more decisions. Decisions are crucial for writers and protagonists. Notice how one event leads to stakes, consequences, decisions, and new actions.
This idea snippet can be a starting point as you develop and organize a story.
What kind of story is this? Readers of what story types will find this interesting? Where would this tale sit on a bookstore’s shelf?
- A Crime Story? Is it about justice for the victim or society?
- Action story? Is it about the woman surviving and saving a victim, her pet?
- A Thriller? Is the woman pursued by the killer??
- A Horror story? Is the killer a monster or a supernatural force?
Now, consider the story’s tone. What emotions do you want the reader to experience?
- Amusement (think cozy detective, bumbling detective, reluctant detective, retired detective, cat detective)
- Dark and moody (think thrillers with their relentless pace and huge power dynamic or noir crime stories with an edgy protagonist willing to enter a dark territory.
- Terror (think horror with its large psycho-emotional divide, distorted sense of reality, and gruesome details)
Consider the ending and what it means. How might this story end? The woman wins, the dog saves the day, the villain is redeemed, the villain wins…or the protagonist wins but loses.
Is this a prescriptive tale showing how to be or do something, or a cautionary tale showing the dire consequences of foolhardy, selfish actions?
A multitude of characters types
What characters do you need to fulfill the personalities and actions that underscore the story’s point?
There are mythic character archetypes repeatedly told in fables from every culture on the planet. In modern times Karpman’s Drama Triangle (Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor) became Victim, Hero, and Villain.
David Emerald’s Empowerment Triangle morphed the Drama Triangle into Creator, Coach, and Challenger.
Making story structure work for you
Informed by story type, tone, ending, and the story’s point, the story structure or methodology you use is yours to choose. Try out the one you are most familiar with and see what works. Or try something new. Some options:
- 3 Act (detective): woman learns there’s a killer out there—she investigates and experiences peril—id’s and outsmarts the killer and turns them to the police
- Save the Cat beat sheet using the dude with a problem or monster in the house genre
- The Story Grid Foolscap with content genres of action, crime, thriller, or horror story
- The Hero or Heroine’s Journey with a life-defining call to adventure
- The Story Circle for simplicity (You, Need, Go, Search, Find, Take, Return, Change)
Figure out the story in broad strokes, and then it’s your choice to either start writing, figuring things out as you go, or digging down and figuring out more and more details before you write.
If you are participating in Nanowrimo, Camp Nanowrimo, or any other timed writing challenges, story structures provide useful scaffolding on which to hang your story for quick drafting. See this page for extra Nanowrimo tools and resources.
Yes. I believe story structure matters, but it must serve the story, its genre, tone, and theme. Gaining a perspective on the possibilities can help you create a story that works, whether it meets expectations or gleefully subverts them.
There are many books and posts on story structures. To get you started, here are links to discussions about several story structure methodologies:
- Save the Cat: Getting Started Tools (click on the “+” for details)
- The Story Grid: drafting with the Foolscap and understanding the 12 content genres
- The Story Circle: a Reedsy article
- John Truby’s Anatomy of Story: notes at Kiingo
- The Heroine’s Journey: from Maureen Murdock, from Gail Carriger, from the heroine’s journey project
- The Hero’s Journey: hero’s journey and search the internet for many more
- The Virgin’s Promise: a DIYMFA article
- The 7-point story structure: from K.M. Weiland, a Reedsy article, Lancy McCall article, and for the original, search YouTube for “Dan Wells 7 point plot structure”
- The Snowflake Method: from Randy Ingermanson
- Plotting the Pixar Way: 22 rules for storytelling, the 4th rule (story spine), and kindlepreneur on the story spine. Great methods for discovery writers.