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Many new writers resist the idea of story structure, but when they finally learn about it, they realise it actually solves most of their problems with plotting their stories. I was one of those writers once.
While many people have an innate sense of structure simply because they’ve been exposed to it their entire lives and because it just feels intuitive to us humans, it’s always a good idea to hone your skills even further. Especially if you’re planning to write great books and not just okay ones.
There are a lot of books about story structure, including Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Structuring Your Novel and Anatomy of Story. They’re not all saying the exact same things because writing fiction is not an exact science, and reading multiple books about structure can help you create your own system that feels natural to you.
In this post, I’m going to share my current method of making sense of story structure. I hope it will be helpful in demystifying this aspect of storytelling.
Your character’s backstory is a part of structuring your story
Before your story begins, your protagonist already has a past.
First of all, they need to have a GHOST, also known as a shadow or a shard of glass. The ghost is something that has happened in the character’s past that still has a negative effect on them, and the unpleasant event can be anything from witnessing a murder to feeling left out at school. Sometimes it’s not a specific event but something like unpleasant social conditions. The important thing is that it still follows them, casting a shadow, which is what a good backstory should do.
Your character should also have an ONGOING PROBLEM that is essentially ruining (or about to ruin) their life. Usually, the character doesn’t even realise they have a problem, and most likely it’s related to how they’re dealing with their ghost. Many of us are bad at dealing with our problems, at least the most painful ones, and our characters shouldn’t be any different. People who completely have their sh*t together are pretty boring to read about.
As well as a past, your character should also have WEAKNESSES/FLAWS and also STRENGTHS. Those things affect the plot because plot isn’t just something that happens to the character. Your plot happens through your character. Don’t choose these things at random – they need to be relevant to your character and to your story because they’re going to have consequences.
Now we’re ready to get to the beginning of the story. You will notice I have divided the structure into four different sections, and they should be roughly the same length in your finished book. When in doubt, aim for balance rather than counting pages.
Structure in the beginning of the story
Before the first plot event happens, your character will be toiling away in their NORMAL WORLD. Your readers should be able to see your character in their natural habitat and already get a glimpse of how they interact with others, what makes them unique and what some of their strengths and weaknesses are. The first couple of scenes are extremely important for making us believe your story.
And speaking of weaknesses, you need to have EVIDENCE OF ONGOING PROBLEM. You don’t need to spell it out, but you do need to show your readers how your character is in dire need of change. You want your readers to go “wow, I sure hope the character does something about that”. Watch the first episode of pretty much any TV series to get tips for how to introduce these existing problems early on.
The first real plot event of your story is when THE BIG PROBLEM ARRIVES. Your story needs to have a problem, whether it’s “how to get out of Hunger Games alive” or “do I like Mr Darcy or not?” In a way, the problem can be positive, too. Maybe your character gets a new job in London or maybe they fall in love – I certainly wouldn’t say no to either of those things – but the event needs to bring about such a massive change that your character is struggling to get back on their feet.
Your problem can’t have us saying “so what?” and it can’t be so easily solved that we’re wondering why you bothered writing an entire book about it. If it’s something easily solved, there needs to be a reason why your specific protagonist can’t solve it as easily as everyone else, and this could be where their flaws come to play.
To deal with the big problem, your character will develop a WANT, also known as a goal. They think it’s the right way to deal with the problem at hand and they foolishly assume getting it will finally make them happy. However, the character doesn’t yet realise what they NEED. Mind you, your reader doesn’t have to be told yet what the need is, although they might be able to figure it out. At this point, it’s for you to know what your character needs because it will guide the structure of the story and tell you where you need to go.
The need is tied to the theme of your story, and in fact, it’s pretty much what the story is about. When your protagonist gets what they need, the story is essentially over.
Because the big problem brings about such a big change, your CHARACTER HESITATES at first. There will be a debate of sorts going on in their mind before they can decide if and how they will tackle this new issue. After hesitating, your CHARACTER DECIDES TO GO ALL IN and starts to do something about their problem.
There needs to be a clear reason why your protagonist can’t just walk away from the problem. If there isn’t one, you need to make changes to your character or to the problem. Although tackling the Big Problem is scary, your character is also subconsciously using it as an excuse to run away from something.
Your protagonist in a new world
Between the beginning and the midpoint of the story, your character is getting the hang of their NEW WORLD. There’s usually a new, additional setting that is different from the character’s normal world, and the character may have left their normal world setting altogether. In some cases, the world has stayed the same but your character’s perception of it has changed forever. Whichever it is, there will be new characters and new challenges.
Right now your character is only REACTING TO THE PROBLEM. They’re not taking a proactive role yet, they’re just trying to survive and get back on their feet, and more importantly, they will be LEARNING NEW THINGS. We don’t know it yet, but somehow these things will be important when dealing with the big problem. If you’ve got a plot twist in your story, here’s a good place to plant the seeds of it.
More than likely you have several characters in your story, but now’s the time to bring out the CHARACTER WHO REPRESENTS NEW WORLD. Typically, this character also plays a part in how your protagonist learns their lesson. Learning it is still far away, though, because right now your character is TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM THE WRONG WAY. That is, they’re still focusing on their want because they don’t know yet what they need.
In general, things will be going UPWARDS OR DOWNWARDS until there is a DRAMATIC EVENT AT MIDPOINT. An upwards path will typically lead to a false victory and a downwards path will lead to an apparent defeat. You can definitely mix things up, but the dramatic midpoint event should still be a logical outcome of what’s been happening, and it needs to be important.
Sometimes your character gets what they want in the middle of the story, just to realise it didn’t solve anything at all. (This is also how the want differs from the need. The story doesn’t have to end when your protagonist gets what they want.) Sometimes the dramatic event is getting some kind of new information that changes everything, rather than a big event where big stuff happens.
Getting proactive after the midpoint
From here, your character will be taking an active role instead of just reacting, although they still don’t know the right way to solve their problem. In any case, there will be a DECISION CAUSED BY MIDPOINT that will start yet another new course of action because of a CHANGE OF TACTICS.
The second half of your story should feel very different to the first half, but you can still mirror what has happened earlier on. With all the new information they’ve learned, even familiar places can feel very different.
This is always a very tense part of the story, and the character’s TROUBLES KEEP GETTING BIGGER. Things will keep going wrong, their mistakes are catching up to them and whatever victories they may have had turn out to be hollow. You could say that ALL SEEMS TO BE LOST for your poor little character. They feel like they’ve tried everything and it still hasn’t worked.
Your characters make a lot of decisions along the way (in every scene, in fact) and many of them will turn out to be the wrong ones. Those wrong decisions coupled with your protagonist’s flaws need to contribute to the troubles they’re facing in this part of the story. It can’t just be outer stuff that has nothing to do with your characters personally.
Think about times when your characters have disregarded something, been smug about something or did something carelessly. Can these events lead to worse things happening to them?
Structuring your story at the end of your novel
Now the end is getting near, and your protagonist needs to make a DECISION TO GO BIG OR GO HOME. There’s no turning back and your protagonist needs to choose one big action to solve everything for once and for all. They now see things differently and they’re even ready to sacrifice something – or someone. Before, they weren’t ready for everything that this decision requires, but now they are.
When your character finally realises what it is they really need, they LEARN THE LESSON. They are now SOLVING THINGS THE RIGHT WAY, and in the process, they become a CHANGED CHARACTER. These three things are sides of the same process, so they’re naturally overlapping in your story and it can be difficult to put them in chronological order. Just make sure they’re all there because you can’t have one of them without the others.
Let me put this differently: Character change is essential for solving the problem and drawing the story to its end. You can also use this information to work backwards from the end and figure out what kind of events would turn the flawed character into the changed character.
Because of the transformation that your character experiences, the BIG PROBLEM IS SOLVED. Your character has gone through what they needed to go through and the story is ready to come to its end, but not until we see a SNAPSHOT OF LIFE AFTER THE EVENTS.
Learn even more about story structure
If you’d like a deeper dive into story structure, my video workshop tells you all about it. It’s a part of my full novel-writing course but I think it’s so valuable that I wanted to offer it to everyone and not just my students.