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  • S.M. Ryan

Talking Story Structure

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Plotter or pantser, story structure is essential to storytelling.



I know today's #Preptober2020 prompt is technically sharing the loglines of our current works in progress but I figured that with everyone prepping for next month, I'd bring something a little different today.


When preparing a new story idea, whether you are a plotter or a pantser, it involves an understanding of the elements and the structure of storytelling.


Knowing which story structure is right for the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it, is key to knowing what to do with all the elements of your story.


Story structure and the story elements are where some writers get turned around.


All story structure requires the story elements but having all the story elements doesn't mean you have a good structure going on.


It's important to remember that story structure is a framework for how you're thinking about and approaching your story, and where you're sticking these elements so it flows in the way you want it to.


Often I think as writers we will abandon a story idea because it doesn't feel like it's going our way or like we can't figure out how to get from one point to the next and believe it's because we have the wrong scenes or answers to the wrong questions.


Sometimes that may very well be the problem.


Other times, I think the more important and first question to ask ourselves is if we've chosen the best structure to tell the story and being okay with changing the structure so that you can deliver it the way you really want.


When I have an idea for a story, even if it's a nugget of an idea, I run it through a quick series of questions that relate directly to the basic elements the story requires.


a. An Opener: Where is this character right now? Why are they here? What's interesting enough about this to make me care? Because if I don't care, ain't no one else about to care either.


b. Inciting Incident: What can happen to completely alter my character's life? (I'm always looking for an overly dramatic answer but you can keep it simple.) What does my character want now (because of this dramatic event) that they didn't want before? Who -- or what -- is responsible for all the drama?


c. A Series of Unfortunate Events: How can I make this character's life as hard as possible? This is the part where I let my imagination run the wildest and bullet list a bunch of things that can go wrong and make things worse or harder on my character to reach their goal.

(Again, feel free to be much less dramatic than I am.)


d. The Climax: How low am I about to drag this character before they feel like tapping out of life and regretting wanting anything at all?

e. The End: Can this character get what they want? Should I give it to them? Did they work hard enough? What has changed about them to make them worthy of a win?


Ultimately, I'm asking myself these questions because I need to know the three major factors of my story:

  1. The Conflict

  2. The Climax

  3. The End Result/Resolution

Depending on how much I can come away with during a quick -- and timed -- brainstorming session will determine if its an idea I will hold on to or if it should get its own plot in my Graveyard for later.

In the event the idea is worth sticking with, I brainstorm it again but asking myself questions that surround the conflict, climax, and the end result I want while considering what this story is meant to make my audience feel.


Picking a story structure is a way of picking which fork in the road to take the reader down.

A few structures you can consider for your story are:


The 3 Act Structure:

This one is most commonly used for all kinds of storytelling, not just novel writing, and has a simple flow which is what makes it the number one go-to storytelling structure.

Act I sets up the character(s), the setting, and generally lets the reader know what trajectory the story is going to take. by the end of it, the reader will know what's important to the characters.

Act II is where all the problems come in and shit gets bad and then worse and almost better but the audience won't really know which way it'll go yet. They just know the character is fucked and it's not looking too hot.

Act III has your readers on the edge, worried, anxious, and watching your character come into themselves just enough to pull off whatever it is it takes to make it to the end result.



The Seven-Point Structure:

This is one that has gained popularity alongside the popular book that explains it best Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. A seven-point story structure can seem like a lot but what it really does it break down your story elements and tell you where to put them with a little more precision than other story structures

It consists of:

  1. The Hook - Bring them in with something shiny and exciting and let them know whats going on and why it matters

  2. First Plot Point - What stirred the pot?

  3. First Pinch - What or who is making things worse?

  4. Midpoint - Whats the character about to do in response to what just happened?

  5. Second Pinch - What is about to make that goal even harder?

  6. Second Plot Point - What do we have left to get to the end? How is the character going to use it?

  7. Resolution - Give them the climax, the character arc point, and closure


The Classic Structure:

I don't know that this is actually considered a classic structure but I refer to it as such because it's easy to remember. It's one of the first story structures I learned because it was taught in almost every English class I've taken once we got to the creative writing portion of the curriculum.

It's a structure I like because its four parts that feel straight to the point. At least, to me, it feels straight to the point.

  1. Start with the problem -- Why fuss about where things are right now and just dive into the middle of your character having already stepped in some shit? What choice or bad thing can happen to the character that causes a ripple effect through everything else to come?

  2. Make it worse -- for every step forward your character needs to be knocked back twice as far, and it should make the next step harder to reach.

  3. No hope left -- and it should feel exactly like that. Everyone should feel like your character isn't about to make it and question how there's any story left to tell at this point.

  4. Against all odds -- Does the character make it? How have they changed since it all started?


I don't always pick the same story structure for every story and I think that's okay because not all stories are meant to be told in the same way, regardless of the fact that they are all relaying the same elements that make up a story in the first place.

Often times I start with one approach and realize I want it to follow a different rhythm. That's fine. There are editing rounds for a reason.


Now let's talk about it, what story structure you like to use? Are you someone who switches it up? What aspects of story structure do you struggle with or have the most fun with? Let me know in the comments below.

Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links which allow me to make a small percentage of money for purchases done through these links at no additional cost to you.

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