Structuring a Story

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Within the world of writers, there are two camps on opposites ends of a spectrum: Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters take the time up front to meticulously plan out the various events and plot points that will propel their protagonist to the end of their story. In short, they outline. Pantsers write without a plan and allow the characters to progress through the story along with them. They live by the phrase, what would happen next? Most writers live somewhere in-between the two camps, relying more on one side or the other. All writers, regardless of how much they outline, have a good sense of where their story is heading due to their intimate knowledge of story structure, or story arcs. The goal of this blog post is to give you a brief overview of story structure and to give you some resources that are a great jumping off point when thinking about how to write your novel or screenplay or short story or what have you.

The most basic form is the Three Part Story Structure, also called the Three Act Structure. The acts are setup, confrontation, and resolution. It’s hard to talk about the three-act structure without talking about the Five Part Story Structure, also known as Dramatic Structure. It begins with the exposition, where the audience learns the setting, characters and of the conflict that is blocking the protagonist from whatever it is they want. Next, is the rising action. This is where the protagonist goes through various trials and tribulations, overcoming each, but not without setbacks, to get what they want. The story then has the climax. This is where the big ordeal happens, the protagonist generally gets whatever it is they have been wanting. The fourth part is where all the plot twists and surprises lie. It’s the falling action. Most times, the protagonist learns that what they received in the climax, wasn’t what they actually wanted. Finally, we have the resolution. This is where they either get what they needed all along. Or they don’t! Thus making it a sad drama. K.M. Weiland has a helpful guide called Creating Character Arcs that helps to break down the dramatic structure into its most important elements from a character-driven perspective. Here is a great blog post from Reedsy that helps explain Dramatic Structure. Also, check out this worksheet that will help you think about the key elements that go into each step of a Five-Part Dramatic Structure!

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Pixar also has an elegant and fun plotting method and a set of 22 rules they follow when writing. Essentially, they like to fill in a Madlib! It goes:

Once upon a time, there was a…


One day…

Because of that…

Because of that…

Until finally…

Pixar also has a great course they put out called Pixar in a Box. Even better yet, it’s FREE! It’s an amazing, quick, fun course you should one thousand percent look into no matter what level of writer you are! Also, Dean Movshovits has a great book that examines Pixar’s storytelling techniques through various case studies of their movies and short films. It’s titled Pixar Storytelling and is also worth a read, especially if you cried at the end of Up as I did.

One of the most comprehensive views on story structure was put forth by Joseph Campbell. His concept is called The Hero’s Journey or the Monomyth. He claims that almost every story throughout history goes through the same 17 stages. He also claims that there are only a handful of character archetypes that most characters fall into. People who prefer the plotting side of writing lean on his Monomyth structure heavily. Christopher Vogler condensed Campbell’s 17 stages into 11 stages and his book The Writers Journey. Vogler’s book is an invaluable resource that should be on every writer's bookshelf. Someone who condensed this concept even further was Dan Harmon, creator of the television shows Community and Rick and Morty. He condensed the Monomyth into 8 stages and added symmetry into the equation. He calls his method the Story Circle and explains it very clearly in his blog.

In the end, one can simplify or complicate story structure as much as they want, but a few things remain constant. For one, the arc of the story generally follows the arc of the protagonist. Secondly, there is always an inciting incident that forces the character to want something, be it winning a prize or getting the girl, etc… Behind that want, there is always something that the protagonist needs. Then, the entire story is usually all about the interplay between these wants and needs. One book that highlights this the best is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. She distinguishes between plot and story and wonderfully explains what she and many others call the third rail of a narrative. This third rail, she explains, is the emotional backing that drives a story toward its resolution. If you are just starting out as a writer, I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. Her ideas on developing a story are extremely helpful to both plotters or pantsers.

To recap, authors can either outline their story before writing or they can write without a plan. In either case, they all follow a similar path, be it a 3, 5, 8, 11, or 17 stage structure. There is a main character who has a want or a need. They then go through conflicts to get what they want until they find what they need.

Thanks for reading,

Dayton O’Donnell

P.S. Before you go, I’d also love to mention a great book called Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland which is a collection of author interviews that illustrate their various methods of plotting or pantsing! Very useful if you are curious where you may fall on the outlining spectrum. Below are links to the books that were mentioned in this post!