A Quick-Start Guide to Story Structure Methods

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I have a confession: I used to write stories without any structure. At all. Granted, I was a teenager writing for play-by-post RPGs, so the structure was mostly a free-form (and sometimes free-for-all) game of “what crazy thing can happen next?” This made for fun times and fantastic characters, but not for lasting stories. Since that time over a decade ago, I’ve sought to rectify this shortage of plotting knowledge, and in doing so, the student has become a wiser master-student who wants to pass along all of the information she’s learned!

Problem & Solution

This is the absolute basic minimum you need to craft a story or any kind of narrative thread for stage or screen. When I’m just looking to “pants” a new idea, I frame out the problem and solution so I have something to shoot for. The problem and solution may shift or change, but they still work.

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Freytag’s Pyramid

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Remember this charmer? You might have learned it in grade school–I know I teach it every year! It’s a great little method for analyzing stories at their most basic level, although it lacks the nuances of the midpoint and other things that many other structure methods employ. Still, you can’t beat Freytag’s pyramid to confirm you at least have the basics of a plot going on. I find it especially helpful for nailing down short pieces, like short stories and flash fiction, just to make sure I’m not missing any essentials. It’s also one of the first things I’ll send over to clients to have them fill out. If you can’t pass the basics of the Freytag, then you need to go back to square one.

Three Act Structure

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Welcome to Freytag’s complicated big sister. Actually, the Three-Act Structure is considered a standard for screenwriting that has hopped over into fiction writing and become quite popular. It’s very helpful for making sure your plot moves along briskly, and it is great for avoiding a sagging middle. How could your middle sag with all those disasters and obstacles? The big trick is to make sure to weave solid character arcs into all of that plotting. K. M. Weiland’s and James Scott Bell’s books below both make use of the Three Act Structure.

Bullet Point Method

This isn’t anything fancy. You just sit down and figure out your own plot in quick bullet points that go scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or plot point by plot point. While I’ll structure whole stories using a combination of the Three Act Structure and some of the methods below, when it comes down to actually writing I make a checklist of chapters or scenes to hit and go through them methodically, tweaking as necessary. When it comes to novellas and short stories, I sometimes even bypass writing out the structure in favor of a basic summary paragraph. I wouldn’t recommend this method if you’re just starting out and new to structure, but once you have a few drafts under your belt, it can be a nice way to switch up the routine.

Character Arc Method

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This method charts an entire story around the protagonist’s character arc. For some writers, this is the way to go. Allowing the growth of the main character, and perhaps a supporting character or two, is certainly a way to make sure your story has emotional resonance and potency. That being said, it is always important to make the growth external through the plot. The best way to make this method win is to combine it with some kind of plot structure, just to make sure your action/events and character growth tightly intertwine.

K.M. Weiland’s Methods

These two books come highly acclaimed and promoted. While I haven’t read either of them, I have read through her free eBook 5 Secrets of Story Structure and found it very helpful. She also has a great series on her blog Helping Writers Become Authors, that offers a streamlined process of How to Outline Your Novel for NaNoWriMo. Basically, she’s got great stuff, so check it out!

Write Your Novel From the Middle

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This was one of my newest writing craft reads, and it was well worth it for the golden chapters in the middle on writing towards the midpoint of your novel. I already found myself doing this after a few drafts taught me I needed to put SOMETHING awesome in the middle to keep myself interested, but James Scott Bell’s book turned my rough muddling into a refined technique. Also has some useful tips at the end for beginning writers.

Snowflake Method

Randy Ingermanson’s methodical, step-by-step method really strips the mystique of novel writing down to a defined process. While it has a few too many steps for my easily-distracted brain, it’s great for pushing yourself to get moving on any story. Plus, he also sells software!

Take Off Your Pants

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I haven’t tried this outlining book personally, but I know of other authors who swear in changed their lives–so maybe it could change yours! It’s on my To Be Read pile of craft books, since I’m always up for new ideas!

In this instructional ebook, author Libbie Hawker explains the benefits and technique of planning a story before you begin to write. She’ll show you how to develop a foolproof character arc and plot, how to pace any book for a can’t-put-down reading experience, and how to ensure that your stories are complete and satisfying without wasting time or words.

Hawker’s outlining technique works no matter what genre you write, and no matter the age of your audience. If you want to improve your writing speed, increase your backlist, and ensure a quality book before you even write the first word, this is the how-to book for you.

Take off your pants! It’s time to start outlining.

The Story Template

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I had the pleasure of attending one of Amy Deardon’s sessions at my very first writer’s conference, and I have to say, this book did a great job of introducing me to plot break-downs and story structure. Definitely a solid addition to your writing repertoire.

World-Building Method

A method I’m developing specifically for speculative fiction that capitalizes on the story’s world-building to create irresistible, fantastical treats. Every aspect of world-building is woven into the plot so that your story becomes something more than just another piece of escapism. It becomes a compelling voyage into another realm that your readers can’t wait to dive into! Also useful for authors writing stories that strongly rely on setting, such as historical/period books. This is a work-in-progress, but if you hang around Write Inside Out and sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get exclusives!

What you, plothoppers? What’s your favorite story structure method? Please share in the comments!

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