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We talk a lot about story structure here at Protagonist Crafts, but how can you make it simple for all those writers that find it overwhelming? Although I find my method of structuring your story pretty straightforward, I thought I should write another post with only the most important story structure questions.
Whether you’ve got to know your story structure from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Structuring Your Novel or Anatomy of Story, (just to name a few of the very useful books about story structure) these plot questions will help you get a clearer idea of your story’s structure.
What is story structure anyway?
In case you’re not familiar with story structure, here is a quick explanation: Story structure is the underlying structure in almost all stories we enjoy reading and watching. It’s not a set of rules that is coming from above, it is inherent in the anatomy of our stories.
A lot of writers hearing about story structure the first time think it’s the same thing as a formula, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Structure does not make stories predictable, it makes them work. When you start analysing all the books and movies you like, you’ll likely notice they all have the same basic structure underneath all the plot events.
There’s a protagonist that has to face a big problem, they struggle with doing things the right way, they have multiple ups and downs, and after almost losing everything they finally figure out what they need to do. That is structure. What a relief, isn’t it?
So now that you know what story structure is and isn’t, here are the questions.
What kind of a self-revelation does your character need in the end?
I know I just jumped right to the end, but knowing where you’re going will greatly help with figuring out everything else. It’s like telling your GPS navigator where you want to go.
In essence, all stories are about transformation. Something needs to change, but this change can’t happen without your protagonist’s self-revelation. Maybe they need to realise that a real king does not rule with displays of power, or maybe they need to understand that the guy they’ve been chasing will not bring them true happiness.
After the self-revelation, your character will be different. If they become brave, they need to be cowardly in the beginning, and if they learn to be kind to animals, they’re probably someone who’s quite the opposite when the story begins. When you’ve got the end result in mind, you know how different the character needs to be in the beginning, and then you can start mapping out the events that will make this change happen.
This character change is so important that I made overcoming your protagonist’s flaws and problems a whole method inside my course Writing Your First Novel. You do not want to skip this part of hashing out your story.
What kind of a ghost does your character have?
And now we’re jumping back to what happens before your story. A ghost, a shadow or a shard of glass is something unpleasant that has happened in your character’s past that still affects them. Haunts them, you could say.
The ghost is a part of the backstory, and as we know, a backstory works the best when it casts a shadow rather than when it’s dumped on the reader right in the beginning. The ghost will have an effect on how your character deals with their problems, so it’s important to know it when you start writing your story.
Your protagonist and all their problems, including the ghost, need to be tailor-made for your story and vice versa. It all needs to work together so take the time to figure it all out.
What kind of an ongoing problem is essentially ruining your character’s life?
Your protagonist might not realise it, but something is essentially ruining their life. Often it has something to do with how (badly) they’re dealing with their ghost.
Maybe your character has always been trusted with everyone’s problems, and now they struggle with asking for help for themselves. Or perhaps they’re used to not being liked by new people, so they let any new friends treat them like dirt if they’ve shown any interest in them to start with.
There’s literally no limit to what kind of ghosts and ongoing problems your characters can have, so start brainstorming and choose the one that makes the most sense within your story. Remember, it does have to be something that makes your readers go “yikes, they’d better deal with that”.
More questions about your protagonist
If you’d like even more questions about your protagonist, I’ve created The Protagonist Workbook to help you ask the right questions about the hero of your story. There’s nothing there about the colour of their eyes and everything about how they will be moving the plot forwards.
What is the big problem of your story?
Your story needs a big problem, or a main conflict. This is what your protagonist is trying to solve, and it’s behind the first plot event that really puts your story in motion.
In Legally Blonde, the big problem is Elle’s boyfriend dumping her because she’s supposedly not suitable to be a lawyer’s girlfriend. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the main conflict comes from people getting petrified by a mysterious attacker within the walls of Hogwarts.
The problem should be big enough that it can’t be solved with a single action, unless there’s an obvious reason to why your protagonist can’t do that single action. Obviously your Medieval character can’t just call their mum on the phone, and if your protagonist has zero dollars to their name, they can’t just buy a plane ticket to fly across the globe.
Whatever your problem is, you can’t have your readers saying “so what?” because if that’s the case, they’re not going to be interested in reading your story. You might have to change your protagonist, change your problem or perhaps change your genre.
How will your character try to solve the big problem the wrong way?
Your protagonist needs to get things wrong, a lot, before they can get things right. That’s because your character is going after what they want. (I have written more extensively about your character’s wants and needs before.) Also, their flaws are still affecting the way they see the world.
Elle from Legally Blonde wants to prove to other people how smart she is and she thinks she has to stop being so cute and pink. Harry thinks he needs to find evidence that Draco Malfoy (or someone else he dislikes) is the heir of Slytherin. In both cases, the truth is something a little different.
It’s likely that your character’s ghost has something to do with how and why they’re trying to solve things the wrong way, and the ongoing problem can be tied into this as well. I know, not every story has (or needs to have) the same depth. But if you want to write a story that just works, all these elements need to work together. It’s like a fun puzzle, and it doesn’t even have a 1000 pieces.
What does your character actually need to do?
Your character will spend most of the story trying to solve everything the wrong way, or chasing after what they want and how they want to do things. However, there’s a secret need that will actually solve their problem.
By now you’ve probably figured out that your protagonist has to have a lot of issues. They have flaws, ghosts and other pests. Instead of chasing after something they want, your protagonist will eventually have to face their icky flaws and realise what it is they need. And in order to do that, they have to learn a lesson.
Your protagonist can have what they want earlier in the story and realise it didn’t solve anything after all. But when they get what they need, the story is over. That’s what the story was about.
What lesson does your character need to learn in order to go through the transformation?
And now we’re here again. To be able to change, your character needs the self-revelation, and to be able to get the revelation, they need to learn a lesson. See how it all works together? It’s like magic!
Let’s say your protagonist thinks she needs to win a beauty pageant in order to find true love. Preposterous, right? But that’s what she wants. However, she needs to learn to become her own best friend instead of chasing other people’s approval. How will she realise that? Maybe she does badly in the pageant but then learns that her friends and family are there for her anyway. Or maybe she finds out that a beauty queen she admires is terribly lonely in her personal life. Either of those things could make her realise she already is lovable just the way she is.
You might think having a lesson in your story is somehow preachy, but every story has a lesson of some kind. Even every episode of Friends has a lesson. It doesn’t have to be anything profound if that doesnt suit your story, but it does have to be there, even if it’s something like “don’t reply to emails when you’re hangry”.
More story structure questions
These are just some of the story structure elements that you can figure out with asking the right questions. For more questions and clarity about your story, I’ve made this nifty little workbook helps you get your story sorted out, and best of all, it’s completely free.
Get the story structure video workshop
If you’d like to learn more about structuring your story, I’ve made this story structure video workshop that walks you through the whole thing and doesn’t let you get lost. It’s a part of my full novel writing course and it’s 45 minutes full of value.
Alternatively, you could get my Novel Template that’s so easy to follow you don’t even realise you’re using story structure.