Are you “Terrified” of Story Structure?

Or maybe just pissed off at it.

I’d like to share an exchange I recently had with a Storyfix reader.  I think it speaks for a silent constituency out there, those to fall into either of the categories defined above.

But don’t be scared.  Don’t be angry.  Structure loves you.  Structure wants to liberate you from frustration, it promises to set you free.  It might just get you published.  When you marry it to your muse and embrace it with your inner literary genius, miracles ensue. 

Because you see, structure is inevitable.  You can’t escape it.  It’s not even a story until structure gets in the game.  Even when you think you’ve eluded it, perhaps conquered it through the sheer force of your lyric writing voice, after you’re beaten your story into submission with a deliberate obliviousness to it… when the story finally works, structure will be there.  Uninvited, silently liberating your frustrated self.

It will be why it works.  

Because story structure is synomymous with effective storytelling.  Structure is the vehicle for all things artistic about a story: dramatic tension, pace, empathy for the hero, a vicarious experience, and emotional Epiphany, a window into truth.  They are all born on the wings of structure.

Dear Storfixer:

I just read your latest blog installment and the comments left by those that “get it”. I am left wondering what the hell is wrong with me? I purchased your book, Story Structure – Demystified when it came out and everytime I read it I just become overwhelmed and I don’t understand why. I actually have physical symptoms of the shoulders creeping up to my neck until cramping starts, a sheer sign of that nasty “s” word, stress, and it is curtains from there.
I have what I think is a decent story but I can’t figure out how to make it structured the way you’ve written. I have tried bite sized pieces and still I sit with a blinking cursor and blankity, blank curse words stomping around in my head because I’m stuck at go. Obviously your book works, there are too many successful testimonials to attest to this fact.  Soooooo…that means it’s gotta be me. I’m so irked with whatever is keeping me from getting the meat of the lesson. I’m not an idiot so that makes this even harder to swallow. Can you help?

Sincerely, Scared in Sarasota.

Dear Scared:

I feel your pain.  This is challenging stuff.  so be patient with yourself, nobody totally gets it at first.  Here are some thoughts that might bring you closer to getting it.

Structure defins and manages the dramatic arc of your story.   Something you absolutely need.  You don’t have to make it up, it’s already there, as a theory, as a sequence, waiting to make your story better.  You don’t even have to fully understand it — though you’ll want to when you see what it does for you — you just have to apply it.

Structure gives sequence and placement to the PRIMARY CONFLICT and HERO’S QUEST in a story.  It’s a time management tool, making sure that your exposition of these things isn’t too fast, too slow or otherwise off topic.  These are things that, ultimately, at some point in your search for story, you absolutely need to know about.  When you do, it is structure that defines pacing through specific milestones, which are points at which the story changes in a certain contextual direction, for a certain reason.  That reason being… it works better this way.

It’s physics.  And like other kinds of physics, these principles are there to be harnessed for good.   

Here’s what might be going on for you. 

If you are focusing elsewhere in your storytelling (setting, character, theme, true facts), then this can lead to weak or nearly absent dramatic tension (plot), favoring episodic vignettes instead.  Episodic scenes are a virus in a story, they’ll kill it if they take it over.  A story without linear, accellerating tension driving forward motion and exposition is a story that won’t be as good as it could be.  A story that won’t make the cut. 

Instead, try to isolate what your story is about, OTHER THAN character and theme and a cool setting.  Make it about something unfolding, emerging, and finally revolving.  Avoid episodic storytelling by sequencing scenes and story points as parts of a whole that LEAD somewhere, rather than simply EXPLORING something (like a character, a place, a time, or an issue).

Start here at the very root of it all: a story is about a hero who is given a problem, a need, sent on a quest, with a goal at the end of it.  There are stakes at hand.  There is opposition to the hero’s intentions.  We care about this hero, about this outcome, because we can relate to the stakes.  This is what makes a story work.  An effective story asks a dramatic question that demands an answer, rather than painting a freeze frame of an isolated… something.

Writers who don’t see this, or agree with this… they struggle.  Their stories become a focus on a thing, a time, a place.  They are about something… when it would be better served to be about something happening.  The solving of the hero’s dilemna or problem.  The reaching of the hero’s goal.  Not merely a tour of the times.

When Dickens said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he was setting a stage upon which to introduce a cast of characters with needs and goals, not telling you what the story was about. 

Try this focus on dramatic tension.  Strip your story down to its essence in terms of CONFLICT and OUTCOME, and then see how much more powerful your themes — the “things” you care about and want to explore in your story — become.  The part of structure that intimidates is just the vernacular and the rhetoric of it, when in fact structure is the essentials physics of storytelling, the very things you seek in the first place. 

And it is a language, a template, that can be learned.

Once you do, you’ll see it everywhere. in every bestseller, in every good film.  You’ll wonder why you never saw it before, and you’ll be certain, once you connect its presence to the effectiveness of these stories, you won’t ever take it for granted again.

Hope this helps. 


Hope it helps you, too.


Filed under getting published

18 Responses to Are you “Terrified” of Story Structure?

  1. Great explanation, as usual! 🙂

    “Sequence scenes and story points as parts of a whole that LEAD somewhere, rather than simply EXPLORING something.”

    All good stories are about trouble that’s irreversibly disrupting the protagonist’s life, they are about things coming undone and the rising urgency to put the world (the protagonist’s wold) back together. However awesome the setting is (I write sci-fi, so I fight this temptation every day) or however deep and fascinating the waters of a character’s heart, if there’s nothing happening and doing so gradually in every scene, it’s not a story. It’s an essay.

    Thank you very much, Larry! 🙂

  2. Laureli

    “Make it about something unfolding, emerging, and finally revolving.”
    Larry- do you mean “reSolving”?

    I like how you use all caps to isolate your meaning Larry, just reading around that simplifies what you’re saying, which I take as basically:
    “Structure gives sequence and placement to the PRIMARY CONFLICT and HERO’S QUEST…isolate what your story is about, OTHER THAN character and theme and a cool setting…. By sequencing scenes.. [the] story points as parts of a whole that LEAD somewhere…its essence in terms of CONFLICT and OUTCOME, and then see how much more powerful your themes …become.”

    I have to say that I love your Story Engineering book, but since I’m a visual learner what really helped me most in the past year+ has been that simple element of the “tent” graphics you shared!
    Thanks Larry!

  3. Hey, Scared, keep at it. Once it ‘clicks’ it will be like flood lights guiding you. One way I found to simplify the ‘getting it’ was to go through Larry’s deconstructions – then do the same to other movies.

    Any movie. And because movies are very tightly structured, you can time the plot points (and pinch points, etc.) to the minute. I was watching an old (1948 ) film noir movie called “He Walks by Night” and – to the minute – the plot points, pinch points and midpoint (context shifting and everything) was there. It’s really obvious in genre movies, especially cop movies or action/adventure. Tear three or four of them apart and you’ll be surprised where the structure starts raising its head.

  4. Dear Scared:

    I humbly suggest that you study some of Larry’s deconstructions. Use those as your pattern, and break your story down into its scenes. Make notes on what purpose each scene serves. Determine whether it presents any conflict (or resolution), or adds to the development of the character or plot, or moves the story forward in the direction you want to go. If a scene does none of these, it should be deleted. If it contains a sliver of information important to the story, incorporate that information into another scene that meets the criteria.

    Take what you have left and determine where each one fits in relation to beginning, middle, or end. Then examine each of those groups and figure which scene presents the First Plot Point, which the Midpoint, and which the Second Plot Point. If none of your scenes fits these categories, write ones that do. Work your other scenes around them and write “bridge” scenes to connect them smoothly. Stay aware of pacing as you choose which pieces to fit together.

    If you get all these in proper order, the Resolution and Denouement should fall into place.

    Revisit one of Larry’s deconstructions and compare yours to his.

    This will take a lot of work, but when you build your story upon a strong structure, you have a better chance of producing a publishable manuscript.

    Hope this helps!

  5. Hey, Scared, don’t give up. It took me some time and now all I see is structure and soooo many other storytelling ingredients when I watch a movie or read a book. I often can’t believe I didin’t see these things before. It may be that you’re a visual learner, like I am. Look at charts, graphs, or the tent structure Larry shared with us some time ago. Whatever you do, just keep moving forward. You’ll get there. Mindy

  6. Olga Oliver

    Larry, several months ago when I closed your book “Story Engineering” I erased my big white board and set up Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 , placed FPP, PP1, Midpoint, PP2 and SPP and structured my first draft accordingly. This diagram yelled at me in certain places and I could see what needed to be done. But guess what this diagram also has done, I think. I’m arguing with it a wee bit, but it’s showing me that I’m chasing the wrong story. Then with your today’s post, I’m convinced my antagonist is not the right character. The correct antagonist suddenly enlightened me or was it info in your post? Now, I need your new book “The Search For Story.” Light a fire under Writers Digest, I can’t wait for that publication date. Gad! This writing world is itchy. Many, many thanks, Larry.

  7. Great post, Larry. I love the line, “They are about something… when it would be better served to be about something happening.” I think that most of the stories that go awry fit into that statement. And I love the deconstructions in your book!

  8. spinx


    I feel you!

    But damn (Larry!), it´s just so hard to stay away from characters and their little problems, and even theme and stage. I can´t help but get lost in it! ARGG!!

    But it´s okay….I´m still trying things every direction. Hey, at least I know where I´m wrong.



    Are you sure that did not mix up hook vs incicitng incident and PP1? I did that, in the beginning. I mistook the sole IDEA for my plot, when it was not.

    Say, for example—->>Back to the FUTURE.

    The idea: what if a teenage boy gets send back in time and meets his parents?(HOOK!!!)

    Plot: how to get your mother from falling in love with you, and thus prevent your very own existing.(the STAKES are what set this up!!!!)

    Make sure you have your stakes! They are the driving motor of the PLOT. They start the plot. Get yourself some STAKES.


    The problem is, that I always start out with the characters…and sadly…most of the time, the characters get me, before the plot does…

  9. suzanne

    Just wondering if these same structure tips apply to shorter works, or to stories that aren’t hero stories. I’m also wondering if some stories have this structure at all. Do writers ever stray…or use anything different? I’m thinking now of the story “Breathing Lessons,” by Anne Tyler — I guess in the end, you just have to have something that keeps the reader turning the pages, and that does mean you must have rising action, so it must just “look” or “feel” different depending on the author?

  10. Michael

    Hey Scared,
    It’s cool, everybody approaches this stuff from where they are. An exercise (borrowed from another website, his technique is genius and I don’t think he’ll mind) — take a piece of paper (I like paper and pen because it involves tactile awareness), and write, in one sentence, what the conflict of your story is. Can be anything, like “A young boy discovers he’s a wizard and struggles to fit into his new world” or whatever (15-20 words, tops). Then, write a sentence describing what your main character wants, three sentences describing three disasters that happen to him/her, with each worse than the last. Finally, write a sentence about how your character solves his/her problem/conflict. In your hand is your plot, your opening, first plot point,mid-point arc, second plot point, and climax. Viola. Add scenes and send money to the snowflake guy (not me, it’s his idea). It’s not rocket science, but it takes practice and not making it harder than it needs to be. Expect to throw a dozen or so ideas away, ’cause they’ll suck out loud. For encouragement of a different sort, go to you tube and search Stephen J. Cannell and listen to what he says about writing. You can do this if you believe you can and want to badly enough.

  11. Mike

    I would say Larry’s story structure applies to about 95% of all stories. The other 5% move in another direction for specific reasons.

    Perhaps if Larry wrote in a more biblical style it would have more affect.
    “Those who deem the first plot point the most important will enjoy riches, while those who deny Larry’s teachings will only know toil and suffering.”
    Story Engineering 3:14

  12. Scared

    Thank you to everyone for your supportive comments and tips. I am not giving up, I can’t.
    Larry, what a special place you hold in my heart. When you feel lost and overwhelmed and someone steps up to help you, there just aren’t enough words to express my thanks.
    I am on it guys!
    Thank You!!

  13. Scared in Sarasota – I struggle too, but in a different way. Structure makes a lot of sense to me. When I started working on my story I looked around for software or a book that would help me approach the writing of the story in an organized way. I knew it would take sooo much longer to write if I didn’t have this.
    I couldn’t find anything that really helped, but I started writing anyway. But I knew right away that I was trying to swim across an ocean without navigation and would go in big circles for a long time before I found land.
    I’m happy to say that since I got Master Brooks book a few months ago, I now have all the scenes outlined for the whole story. But the chapters on Character do not speak to me the same way as the structure chapters do, so don’t feel bad. Something that helps me is studying the chapter then turning it around in my mind so that I can think of it in another way, so that I can bring my own analogies in that make more sense to me. When you can teach it to someone else – then you know you’ve got it.
    Remember, everyone learns things in different ways too. Some people have to hear it, some people have to write it down, draw it out, or move around the room before they can absorb it. Thats my two cents.

  14. Orenthal

    Are you kidding me? Just take a John Grisham book and re-write it in your own words. Instant bestseller.

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  16. Beckie

    Totally off subject but where is the link to your Beat sheet?
    I’ve looked, scrolled, skimmed and can’t find it for the life of me!
    Please help 🙂
    Wanting to get the basics of my second novel mapped out and would love the help 🙂

  17. @Beckie – hi… here’s the link. I need to do some betting linking here so the Search function (in the right column, near the bottom) takes you there. When you see the title here, that’s part of the problem, I’ll address it. Enjoy:

  18. @ Spinx – my characters argue with me all the time! “You can’t make me do that!” Wanna bet? Their plot is all messed up and I’ve had to try to revamp things. Larry fixed that for me — he’s really a pain in the arse! It’s all his fault.

    Some of us strive so much for believability that we end up overlooking the most obvious, stupid, improbable, that-doesn’t-work ideas…

    I hate it when someone makes sense and makes me feel like an idiot. Grrrr! Yeah, yeah, I love him too, just like you guys. 🙂