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!

Why Obsessing About the Opening Can Kill Your Story

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I have the attention span of a small, sugar-crazed squirrel–at least when it comes to books. While I’ll try anything, my TBR pile is huge and my time is small.

When I worked at a bookstore and business was slow, I’d pause in organizing the shelves and pull random books out to flip open to their first pages. My only test was to see if it would keep my attention enough to get past page one.

Of course, if I got to page five or ten, then I’d have two other problems: a need to buy the book and a scolding from my boss. Then it was back to dusting!

This taught me one important thing: the opening pages are vital to catching audience attention. After all, that first scene, those first few paragraphs, are what agents, editors, and publishers ask for queries. They’re what potential customers seen when they open your book for the sneak peek on Kindle. It would stand to reason that, above all, those opening scenes are critical.

Then, I ran into a problem, one that got me kicked out of consideration at appointments, and made me throw out draft after draft. And it’s a problem I’ve seen since seen in the work of clients.

Tweet: Beware of crafting a great opening scene for a story that fundamentally doesn’t work. – Janeen Ippolito

Last week’s blog post mentioned the framing block for all stories:

Problem & Solution

One reason I came up with this formula was due to drafting out story after story with all kinds of shiny world-building, unique characters, and clever dialogue, with scenes that worked–and with a plot that was fundamentally flawed because it had no focus and no meaningful purpose for existence.

I didn’t realize this was my issue until about 3-4 years ago, when a writing colleague whom I hadn’t spoken with a while read pages of my latest baby/short story and gave me a mercifully cutting comment – “what’s the point of this? Where is it going?”

Tweet: Never let good writing craft and fancy tricks distract you from the fundamentals of story. – Janeen Ippolito

Now, when I look at the work of potential submissions or of clients, I’m duly impressed by a shiny opening scene with all the bells and whistles and hooks. But the first question I ask them for is spoilers about the ending to make sure it lines up.

Don’t worry about your opening scene at first. Get your story in line, and then edit your opening scene to invite readers into that story world.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when organizing your story and opening scene: 

  • What’s the story problem? Do you meaningfully hint at the story problem in the opening scene/chapter, or does your story problem inexplicably change later on? (Thanks to plot bunnies!)
  • How is your problem solved? Is the solution to your story’s problem at all hinted at in the opening scene/chapter? If not, try to do that. It can be really satisfying for readers.
  • Is the protagonist you’re introducing in that opening scene the person who solves the problem? If not, they aren’t your protagonist. They’re just a fill-in who is getting a lot of page time.

It is important to make those opening pages shine. But it’s equally important to make sure you have a solid story so that when you get a request for the full manuscript (or a customer clicks to buy your whole book), they realize that those pages were only a taste of the true awesome your work has to offer.

Edgar the Plot Bunny searching for awesome plots!

 

What about you, Plothoppers? Any further advice for opening scenes? Any opening scene snippets from WIPs that you want to share? Feel free to comment! 🙂 OR tweet online at #plothop or #edgartheplotbunny!

Major Editing Giveaway!

My friend Bethany A. Jennings over at SimmeringMind.com is launching her editing career, and as part of that, is throwing one massive editing giveaway! I’m honored to be part of this. I’m giving away a print copy of my world-building textbook AND workbook:

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Plus, I’m giving away two hours of coaching and two ten-page comprehensive content edits! Check out my Coaching/Editing page for more details on how I help writers unlock their potential and refine their work so that it’s irresistible!

Go to the SimmeringMind.com to enter to win these and other awesome prizes, including posters, a coffee mug, blurb help, and more!

One Easy Trick to Frame Any Plot

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Brainstorming is one of the coolest parts of writing. It’s the dreaming of all kinds of possibilities, whether or not you are writing speculative fiction. It looks at the world around you and says “what if?”

At the same time, brainstorming can be a wonderfully deep and limitless bottomless pit. Edgar the Plot Bunny bears witness to my own overly-ambitious brainstorming. Every single time I write a story or plan a story, I tend to imagine all possibilities–and one story multiplies into two–or ten!

And not all of them actually make usable plots.

Naturally, as storytellers, our ability to brainstorm and dream is truly a gift. I have a couple of stories on the back-burner that might never see the light of day, yet I enjoy knowing they exist in a corner of my head.

At the same time, brainstorming should also be useful. After all, you want to tell stories and share them with the world! So here’s a simple formula to transform a brainstorm into a story that you might write in the future:

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This philosophy follows the simple concept of completion. It’s the same reason public speakers and teachers will often use questions. There’s something in the human brain that automatically answers to complete the thought. We like answers. We like completion.

Tweet: Readers like being invited into a conversation and a journey.

In a story everything is going well, until there is a Problem. Don’t think of Problem as a bad thing. It’s a Change. Something different from the reader’s normal life that they have to deal with. It can just as easily be winning the lottery as the death of a loved one. The key to the Problem is that it has to profoundly bother the protagonist, enough to set off a journey. Like sticking a grain of sand in an oyster, this Problem will force the protagonist to move ahead, to react, to do things.

Of course, they want a solution. It’s right there in the word resolution. Now, this solution doesn’t have to fix all of the problems. In fact, it can make some of them worse, especially if you’re writing a trilogy or a series. It can make the protagonist better, or it can make them far more terrible. But something has changed. Whether good or bad, there is a solution to the problem.

What this formula does is give your gem of an idea a very basic framework to play with. It can get intimidating to try and pin your beautiful butterfly of a story idea to the hard board of Plotting and Rational Thought. So don’t. Figure out a possible problem & solution and then go back to having fun with world-building and character creation.

That’s all there is to it.

Later on, you can add Freytag’s pyramid, follow the 3-Act StructureTake Off Your Pants, or check out 5 Secrets of Story Structure to figure out all of the nuts and bolts of your story. But for now, as long as you have a problem and a solution, you’re good to go.

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Edgar wants to know your problem and solution! #edgartheplotbunny

Whether you choose to use the brainstormed idea now, or stick it in an idea box or folder for a later date, is up to you. Maybe you’ll pull it out in the future and go in an entirely different direction. But you’ll always have that problem & solution frame that gives you a foundation for a great story.

What’s your latest problem and solution, Plothoppers? What’s a great plot you have stored away–or what’s the basic problem and solution for your current WIP? Please share in the comments!

Also, feel free to follow plot and writing help on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at #writeinsideout, #inspirethewrite, and #plothop!

FOCUS Your Writing in 2017

My word of the year: FOCUS.

Focusing is a funny thing for me. As someone who has sensory processing issues and who was once diagnosed with A.D.D., I’ve found that I actually focus better when I’m working on more than one project. The high pressure and constant stimulation of different activities keep me from losing interest.

At the end of last year, I decided to turn my multi-focused brain in my favor by splitting off into two brands: janeenippolito.com (fiction and book reviews) and writeinsideout.com (nonfiction writing help).

writeinsideout.com is now exclusively a place of writing and world-building help (and sometimes guest features) from someone who was extensively educated in ALL THE WRITING RULES and through years of experience as a writer and a teacher, knows which ones to break (which is most of them if you do it at the right time and in the right place).

As a part of that, my first series is

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In other news, apparently voters are a fan of both bunnies AND camels, because “put a bunny or camel in every blog post” came in second place on my reader poll. I am a woman of my word, and so here folks, is your first Bunny of the New Year! 😀

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Meet Edgar the Plot Bunny! This wise lagomorph was rescued from a friend’s basement and he is eager to see the world and share all of the exciting plots he’s come up with over his years of solitude! Follow the exploits of Edgar at #EdgarthePlotBunny and #plothop for plot prompts, thoughts, ideas, and random!

What about you? Do you have a word for the year? What’s your current writing project? Please share in the comments!

Why Your Writing Matters (Even If You’re Not Famous)

Once, there was a teenage girl who wrote for hours a day, yet knew she would never be a writer. Writing was for dreamers who couldn’t pay off their student loans and sat around all day in fantasy worlds. No, this girl had her head on straight and was going into a solid science or medical field. Even though she failed at math and spent her classes pondering plot holes and new content writing. She could come down to earth, put language arts aside, and make the sensible choice.

Considering that I’ve now been writing, coaching, teaching, and editing English for over a decade, we can see how well that turned out. 😉

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Keep running the race!

Writing is a hard field. Never let anyone tell you any differently. But while it has unique challenges, it isn’t any harder or easier than many other career choices. It takes guts and passion and drive. It takes focused creativity when you’re ready to quit and the ability to see new possibilities and opportunities–or even to create them. It isn’t for the faint of heart, although sometimes the hours part-time writers have to keep can make you literally faint.

A quote from a favorite childhood book:

“She was not as stupid as some I have had, and better company, but still perhaps her going was for the best. She was not what I needed.”

“Because I failed,” whispered Alyce in the shadows.

“Because she gave up,” continued the midwife. “I need an apprentice who can do what I tell her, take what I give her, who can try and risk and fail and try again and not give up…”

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice

Writing is art, but succeeding in it is also requires business smarts and critical analysis. It requires personal reflection and outward engagement. It challenges introverts to get out of their shells and extroverts to focus on the sound of their own heartbeats as they labor away at keyboards. It can be a part-time hobby or a full-time obsession, and sometimes neither of those will offer a whit of monetary reward or personal affirmation. At times, you may need to take a break and take a breath or twenty. Recharged your batteries. Sleep.

And yet, you go back. Because you get to create marvelous things out of nothing. Whether you’re writing a business statement or a short story or a blog post, it literally doesn’t exist until you get your brain in gear, say a final prayer, take a deep breath, and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. As an editor, you can walk hand in hand with a creator, delving deeply into their worlds and then getting the satisfaction of seeing those worlds touch hearts and minds as they are released into the outside world.

As a reader, I thank you for all of your effort in every endeavor.

Writing is one of the greatest gifts you can give others, and the ability to write has been one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.

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Here is my toast to you, readers and writers! With extra protein!

Thank you, bloggers and followers and readers, for allowing me into your lives with what writing advice and snarky thoughts as I have. I’m humbled to get to serve you in this way, and I’m excited for what the future holds!

Keep writing (and reading) inside out, enjoying every step of the journey!

And while you’re at it, I’m keenly interested in how I can serve you better. I’ve expanded to two websites: Janeen Ippolito (Monsters, Misfits, and Mushy Stuff) for fiction and book reviews and Write Inside Out for writing and world-building help with unique insights. I’m working on shifting over content as necessary–so if you’re worried about book reviews disappearing, never fear! They’re just relocating. 🙂

As I expand Write Inside Out to be an even more epic writing haven, I have a ton of cool ideas, including series on world-building to increase readership marketability, using taboo topics in world-building (sex, drugs, death, and yes, taxes), and a series on world-building by the subgenre. Please vote in the poll below and let me know what you want to know more about! You’re welcome to vote for more than one thing.

6 Fundamental Questions to Refine First Draft World-Building

You’ve now finished your first draft–or you’re getting pretty close to it! Or maybe you’re right in the middle, deep in the trenches, excited that you finished NaNoWriMo or hit your personal deadlines, but with no idea that after fifty thousand words the novel would just. Keep. GOING. WHEN WILL IT EVER BE DONE?

In any case, it’s a great time to relax, sit back, and do a world-building integration check-up. This can be a welcome break from the daily word count grind and a fun way to celebrate your awesome creativity. All the while, you’ll figure out how to use elements like setting, superpowers, and space ships to make your story stand out from the crowd.

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Question 1 ~ What World-Building Elements are You Excited About?

When you start writing speculative fiction, you go into the story with these crazy fun ideas. This is where you tackle all the coolest “what-ifs” in your story and get thrilled about them all over again. Maybe it’s a tribe of shape shifting armadillos! Or maybe you have the best take on cytoplasmic alien invaders. Whatever it is, recognize those world-building elements that make you care about your story, because those will be the ones that fuel your passion all through the months of rewrites and editing and…more rewrites and editing. In the end, your goal is to actually get this thing published, so make sure you hang on to cool things that will keep you motivated all the way up until your author interviews!

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Question 2 ~ What World-Building Elements Got Lost In the Shuffle?

So, you thought the vampire slugs were a fun throwaway, but they just ended up, well, thrown away. Or you really wanted to do something with those five extra moons surrounding the planet, but they’re still orbiting and you have no idea why they even need to be there or why you spent an entire chapter on them. This happens. No worries! Maybe you have a plot hole later on that they could fill and all you have to do is connect the dots. Maybe you need to drop back to your pool of sciency advisors (or Google + Something More Trustworthy Than Google) and figure out if those moons have a place. Worse comes to worse, you now have extra ideas to toss in your idea box and bring out in a later story. Because I really want to know about those vampire slugs. *Googles* Wow, someone actually used vampire slugs! We live in a wondrous world, folks.

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Question 3 ~ What World-Building Elements are Crucial to Your Narrative?

Before you start tossing things on the cutting room floor, considering what elements are necessary to your narrative. Sometimes when we get into revision mode, we can forget how everything works together. Take away that opening surprise attack with ghosts because you decided you wanted werewolves instead can drastically change how that entire scene works. While your switch-out might not be as dramatic as werewolves and ghosts, any kind of world-building shift can have trickle down effects that alter the foundations of your story–and your audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Figure out soon what world-building elements need to stay if at all possible.

Question 4 ~ What World-Building Elements Are Crucial to Your Characterization?

This ties into the narrative question. You need to identify key world-building pieces that are fundamental to characterization. While I’m all about making characters who have depth and layers separate from abilities, part of what makes speculative fiction fun is that the unique speculative parts of the characters are necessary to who they are. I may or may not have snipped ‘unnecessary’ superpowers from a character at one point — and then realized that those abilities were the only thing giving her the security to actually act and be a protagonist. Without them, she suddenly lacked a ton of motivation. Whoops! First off, I needed to fill out her characterization more, and second, I gave her back the powers in a way that enhanced the story line.

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Question 5 ~ What World-Building Elements Make WOW Moments?

You know those moments. The ones that make you go “HAH, that was GREAT” or rub your hands together gleefully or grin at the computer. The ones that send tingles up your spine. Keep those scenes. You need them. Yes, revising and editing is all about cutting the fluff, but you’re writing speculative fiction and your readers like. Cool. Stuff. It’s one of the main things we bring up in word-of-mouth recommendations. So while you might not need all twenty epic battle scenes or awesome wizard duels, go through and geek out over your most exciting, scariest, and/or most thrilling moments and make sure they don’t go anywhere. Unless you plan on replacing them with even better scenes.

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Question 6 ~ What World-Building Elements Need More Muchness?

This one will take another set of eyes, so wait until you’re chill with sending things out to your inner circle of beta readers. You’ve got to steel yourself and ask the dreaded question: what isn’t enough? What isn’t cool enough, clever enough, integrated enough, or explained enough? The upside is you get much-needed feedback and the joy of having other people appreciate your stuff. The downside is your ego takes a bruising as your readers go through your creative mind and heart and ask all kinds of silly questions, like: “how do the lightning blasts come out of trees underwater?” or “Wouldn’t those five moons affect the planet’s gravitational pull and climates?” or “I don’t know why you need eight kinds of dragon species. Are they going to be used at all?” All that common sense can be a cold shower on the creativity, which is why you might need to take a break from your story for a bit before critiques. Also, remember that sometimes critiques aren’t saying to get rid of the element – they’re just a challenge from your beta reader or editor to make it work better and prove its awesomeness. Although occasionally, you might just need to toss something back into the idea box.

What about you? Any other world-building checks you do? Share one of your world-building WOW moments!