Why Structure ISN’T the First Thing You Should Think About When Planning Your Story

All this talk about story structure… it’s easy to get the wrong idea.  Because in the sequence of revelations and midnight ah-hahs and pure flashes of genius that come with the territory of writing a novel or screenplay, structure doesn’t come first.

It doesn’t even come second. 

But eventually it must come.  Or the campaign you call your story will never fly.  Or if it does get off the ground – at least in your view – it’ll sink faster than a Dick Cheney Presidential run.

So what does come first?

Structure is the skeleton upon which you hang the meat of your story.  Which means, you need to create the muscle and skin and organs of your story, not to mention its personality and emotional landscape – the meat of it all – first and foremost.  Or at least have a strong notion of what those things will be.

Without all that, structure is just a bag of useless bones. 

And with all that, but without solid structure holding it in place, what you have then is a mess.

Didn’t know there even are such structural principles for storytelling?  Thought you could just make up whatever structure you want in the service of your story?

Here’s the truth: you can’t find a published book or movie without structure.  And not just any structure, or something the author concocted. 

You can’t just make it up as you go.  You need to apply the known principles of dramatic fiction or your story will collapse like a building without beams.

A successful writer uses principles of structure to help formulate the elements of a story.

For example, proper structure depends upon an inciting incident that transitions the story from set-up mode into hero-response mode. 

Which means, simply by understanding this concept the writer knows that the inciting incident – also known as the First Plot Point – is at the top of the list of the things that must be created before the story will work.   That it is the most important moment in the whole story.

And then, once formulated, the writer who understands structure knows precisely where to put it within the sequence of the story.

Structure, then, serves two purposes.  It is a tool that guides us toward the creation of the elements of our story, allowing no omissions or short-shrift.  Then, once the story’s elements are known, structure becomes the roadmap for laying out those elements in proper sequence.

So what does the writer need to know before structure becomes relevant as a roadmap?   

Well, genre, for starters.  Then, at some point, you need to decide on first or third person narrative.  You need a killer concept upon which to build.  You need a compelling hero to carry the dramatic ball – the key word being compelling, which means you need to have thought this through beforehand.  You need to give that hero something to do, to accomplish, to save, to fix, to discover or to redeem.  You need to give them a few internal demons that will make the journey difficult.  And mostly, you need external obstacles that oppose those goals.

All before you worry about structure.

Structure won’t give you those things.  But it just might lead to them by virtue of knowing you have a blank space to fill in.

And then, it provides a purpose for them and a place to put them once conceptualized.  It tells the writer that until that happens, milestone by milestone, part by part, the story isn’t yet complete.

If you don’t understand story structure, you may not ever realize that your story is half-baked or too thin.  Which means, when the rejection slip arrives, you won’t have a clue why.

Let’s circle back and put structure in proper perspective. 

Story structure is one of six core competencies you need to bring to the storytelling party.  The others are: concept, character, theme, scene construction, and writing voice.

Three of those – four when you include structure – are elements of your story: concept, character and theme.  At the end of the day, when your story stands alone as solid and saleable, all of them will be in place.

The other two – scene construction and writing voice – are issues of execution.

The four elements are the game plan.  The two executional skills represent the ability to bring that plan to fruition.  A great plan in the hands of an unskilled writer won’t fly.   Neither will a shabby plan in the hands of a great writer.

A skeleton – story structure – can’t walk around, chat up neighbors, have coffee, solve crimes, fall in love.  A skeleton has no purpose, no life of its own.  Only until you put some flesh on those storytelling bones will you have created something that deserves an audience.

And like a human skeleton, you shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature. 

Structure is a tool, nothing more.  An essential one. 

New definition of insanity for writers: trying to bring a skeleton to life before you know what the monster you are creating – the flesh of the story – will be like once incarnated.

The power of structure works equally well for story planners and pantsers alike.  Because successful pantsers write their drafts either in search of or in context to it, rather than making it up as they go along.  The only thing they make up as they along, at least the successful ones — is the flesh that will hang on those structural bones.

Once these elements – concept, character and theme — fall into sequential place, one of two things usually happens to the pantser: they go back to the drafting board and start over, writing the next draft in context to the elements that are now in play… or they try to retrofit them into a manuscript that had no idea (no context, no foreshadowing, and no structure) these particular creative body parts would ever make an appearance. 

The latter, of course, is a disaster. 

For story planners, we are stuck with another type of madness…

… the limbo of knowing too little about our stories to actually write it well.  So we resort to notebooks full of random thoughts, index cards, sticky notes on office walls, flowcharts and long walks with a patient friend to discover the best concept, character and theme that we might eventually come to wrap our head around it all.

And then, once we do know, we drag our skeleton – story structure – out of the closet to dress it up with the shiny new suit of dramatic flesh we see in our mind’s eye.  It may not work perfectly, but at least there will be something there that can be saved. 

Because all the essential parts are there, and roughly in the right place.

Here’s the magic of that process, for pantsers and plotters alike: that skeleton is roughly the same every time: two legs, a backbone, shoulders, two dangling arms, a neck and a skull.  And yet, despite that simplicity, human beings wander the earth with unfathomable individuality, both in a physical and an emotional (personality) sense.

God doesn’t worry about the structure, that’s a given.  It is what it is.  Yet God creates with great latitude the form and function of the individuals that are draped over that skeleton.

So it is with writers as we play God with our stories

Story structure is there for you, waiting in the closet of your imagination.  If you can’t grasp that skeleton in a generic sense, then chances are you won’t create a story that will work.

Once you know what your story is about, why it will fascinate, what it will explore, who it will introduce us to, and why the reader will invest themselves and come to care about it all, structure becomes the necessary and solid means by which you will bring it to successful life.

So many stories to tell, so little time.  And yet, only one basic skeletal model upon which to hang it all.

For an in-depth understanding of narrative structure, check out Story Structure – Demystified, a new ebook that takes the mystery out of knowing what to write, where to put it, and why it won’t be remotely formulaic.

To order, click HERE.  To learn more, click HERE.


Filed under Six Core Competencies

5 Responses to Why Structure ISN’T the First Thing You Should Think About When Planning Your Story

  1. Rob

    So if I’m understanding this right: We should come up with our concept, characters, and theme (and maybe even some ideas for scenes) before we look at aranging our story on the 4-Part paradigm?

    But, at the same time, it helps to know about structure first so we’ll know the kinds of characters, themes, and scenes that work with it?

    Or am I’m totally missing the point?

    BTW: Just got S2D (Story Structure Demystified) and I’m loving it. Especially the Dan Brown examples. I’m a big-time example person who needs to see concepts in action in order to understand them.

    I’m using the book to help me structure my current novel before I write it. I thought I understood structure just fine, but the kinds of rejections I was getting from agents for my last book are along the lines of “The concept is great, the writing is solid, but…” I’m thinking that “but” has a lot to do with broken story structure.

    Finally, a question: When it comes to the prewriting (which, as an ex-panster, I’m totally on board with now) what sort of work do you recomend for characters? Long biographies? Charts?

    I’ve tried some of these methods, and they often feel tedious and not exactly helpful when it comes to plotting/writing the story. Often, the demands of the story change what I need from the characters, and there goes 20 pages of character biographies out the window. What are your thoughts?


  2. @Rob — nicely stated questions here, Rob, and all valid. And no, you’re not missing the point — in fact, you’re totally getting it.

    That point is: yes, structure serves you in TWO ways. First, as a targeted checklist of the elements you need in a good story, which means it’s a tool to be referenced before you have anthing more than a hint of an idea… and then, when you have most of the elements identified, structure becomes your guide to sequencing them effectively.

    You ask this: “We should come up with our concept, characters, and theme (and maybe even some ideas for scenes) before we look at aranging our story on the 4-Part paradigm?”

    Well, if you don’t have those things in your head, you don’t yet have anything to arrange over the 4 parts. The very things you cite here must exist in some form… otherwise, what is there to arrange? Nothing yet. That said… see my ending paragraph below.

    I’m glad to hear the book is helping. Structure is powerful, liberating stuff.

    In terms of pre-draft character planning, I usually do that in context to some awareness of what the story will be about in terms of plot. Then I explore the type of character that would make that journey interesting. Doesn’t always work this way, I’ve written books where the character came first, in which case I then developed a story to give that character an agenda and an adventure to live through.

    Both of those are valid, but they are different. In either case, I develop their real-time agenda in life, their world view, then I develop a backstory to understand what made them into this person we will meet. Also, I pay attention to the inner demons that will hinder their progress toward their story goal. From there, the character evolves for me as the other elements grow and evolve during the pre-writing development phase. How you do it — write it out, make notes, keep it in your head — is less important that IF you do it. Whatever works for you.

    It’s always a back and forth process, never completely precise in nature, much more like pantsing than I’d readily admit (only, I’m not writing a draft yet, I’m creating/pantsing a story plan — big difference).

    Hope this helps. Stay in the struggle, embrace the challenge of it, be patient with it, but keep the questions that are nagging you front and center. The answers will come.

  3. Martijn


    I wanted to ask you something about storystructure. To be honest, I haven’t read your e-books. They’re quite difficult to come by here in the Netherlands, especially without a creditcard, but that’s not the point. I’ve eagerly read every post you’ve entered on this website and from them I’ve learned a lot. Or so I think 😉

    What I understand storystructure to be, is that what gets Luke to the final confrontation with the Emperor. It is the whole of decisions he needs to make, the council and influences of others that enable him to make those decisions, the adversaries that try and stop him. Certain things need doing, certain feelings need to be felt so certain events take place. Right? (Damn, this is hard to put into words in another language)

    It has to do with the Joseph Campbell business? I’m using Star Wars as an example now, but using, lets say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy would yield the same results?


  4. Kara

    I just wanted to comment and say how helpful your book “Story Engineering” has been. I’ve had a story idea growing in my mind for ten years, and while aspects of it have changed over that time, the core concept hasn’t. That said, I have struggled to develop a concrete plot, because I’ve felt as though I have no grasp of story structure or how to develop my idea.

    While I’m still in the outlining stage, I wanted to let you know that, for the first time in ten years, I feel like I have direction, guidance and a sense of purpose in crafting my story. Your book has helped by offering some light-bulb moments, and general clarity and inspiration.

    Thank you very much for your fantastic book (and your wonderful blog). I’m so happy to have found your book, and look forward to employing your coaching services one day when my manuscript is complete!

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