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3.5 STRUCTURE

Story structure

It’s a very common thing to have really polished opening and then the rest is not as finely tuned. I am guilty as hell at this. When I was pre-agented, I got so many full requests because I worked so hard on those chapters, then when I sent the full, I got the same number of rejections because I failed to continue with the same precision, the same tension, the same quality throughout.

So, how did I try to rectify this? Well, I did some courses, a whole ton of reading on craft generally, but also story structure specifically. (I’ll list some good resources at the end of this post). I made sure I knew how story structure worked by applying what I’d learned to films, tv series (and the best tv series really are masters of story structure!) and books. It made a significant difference and improvement to my whole finished manuscript. 

So, what are the main things to look out for to ensure your story has a good structure?

Well, there’s so many variations on this, from what I’ve read, and not every story exactly follows any of these:

Three Acts

Six Acts

Freytag’s Model

Heroes Journey

16 point-planner

and loads more! 

But it all basically boils down to having ‘main events’ in your story. Here are the ones to always look out for.

• Exposition: Characters, setting and all the world-building details that allows your reader to ‘get into’ the book. They need to know who they are following, where they are and what they want.

• Call-To-Action: Often people say this is only for SFF novels, but it’s in everything – it might be the first time you meet the love interest in a romance novel, or when the detective is given the case in a thriller. It’s the moment the MC’s life changes forever. They have to make a choice to continue or give up. (Spoiler alert – in any good novel, they always continue!)

• Rising Action: This is the series of conflicts and obstacles which get in the way of the MC on their ‘journey’ to getting what they want/need.

• Crises: The parts where the conflict tension is very high. Some structures will have lots of mini-crises and others will have a gradually increasing scale of crises. 

• Climax: This is the moment where everything comes to a head. Sometime called to the lowest moment, where the biggest conflict and/or obstacle is preventing our MC from getting what they want, and they must overcome their biggest flaw in order to achieve this. 

• Falling Action: Where all the story threads are sown together and may be resolved. Sometimes, this is where twists will come.

• Journey Home: Again, usually for SFF, but I’d argue this can be found in most stories. The exit from where the climax occurred. 

• Resolution: Where the largest and most prominent story threads are all resolved. The HEA or the detective closes the file. 

Jane Friedmann does a nice post on this.

Here are a couple more story structure shapes.

So, find the structure which best suits your story, but get a structure. It makes life so much easier for you, and for the reader. Readers come to expect a bit of formula but with a twist. 

More of the same, but different. Easy enough, right?

Useful writing resources

Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke

The Ultimate Hero’s Journey: 195 Essential Plot Stages Found in the Best Novels and Movies by Neal Soloponte

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

 Writers HQ course which taught me so much about plotting a novel.

Hope this has been of some help. If nothing else, I love looking at story structure arcs and graphs…ah, so pretty…

Suggested writing task

Make a table similar to this one below (you can change the headings to suit, depending on which structure model you’re choosing).

Then fill in the main events that your MC will face. Keep the key concept of escalating conflict in mind when you do so. You don’t want them to face their greatest obstacle before the climax.

Stage of JourneyEvent
Exposition. Characters, setting and all the world-building details that allows your reader to ‘get into’ the book. They need to know who they are following, where they are and what they want. 
Call-To-Action. Often people say this is only for SFF novels, but it’s in everything – it might be the first time you meet the love interest in a romance novel, or when the detective is given the case in a thriller. It’s the moment the MC’s life changes forever. They have to make a choice to continue or give up. (Spoiler alert – in any good novel, they always continue!) 
Rising Action. This is the series of conflicts and obstacles which get in the way of the MC on their ‘journey’ to getting what they want/need. 
Crises. The parts where the conflict tension is very high. Some structures will have lots of mini-crises and others will have a gradually increasing scale of crises. 
Climax. This is the moment where everything comes to a head. Sometime called to the lowest moment, where the biggest conflict and/or obstacle is preventing our MC from getting what they want, and they must overcome their biggest flaw in order to achieve this. 
Falling Action. Where all the story threads are sown together and may be resolved. Sometimes, this is where twists will come. 
Journey Home. Again, usually for SFF, but I’d argue this can be found in most stories. The exit from where the climax occurred.  
Resolution. Where the largest and most prominent story threads are all resolved. The HEA or the detective closes the file.  

Feel free to post your finished tables in the #writingtasks channel. It is very interesting to read each other’s, not necessarily to give critique, but to see a wide range of approaches and strategies.