Monday, February 16, 2015

Story Structure and Story Telling

Writers talk about laying out clues, spacing revelations about character or events, or pacing surprises. All these discussions are different ways of talking about structure, the underlying skeleton of a story or novel. Arguments over when or how something should be done are really disagreements in vocabulary. Almost no one disputes the basic organization of fiction because this is the form that is instinctively satisfying for the audience.

Teachers of writing have described the format in different ways, and I, like many other writers, enjoy
reading about these and picking up small details that will help me in my own work. But almost all work through the basic three-act structure, with an inciting action, two plot points, and a climax. I have seen discussions based on a nine-act structure, but this is not significantly different from a three-act structure.

I have never slavishly followed one of these outlines because I rely almost entirely on instinct. Most readers know the feeling of reading along and wondering what's going to happen next. They know something is going to happen because they can sense it, perhaps in the foreshadowing or in the rising tension or in hints coming from certain characters. The same feeling arises while writing. I often find myself following a character along in a scene and realizing something terrible has to happen in about two pages. And something does because it's my job as a writer to make it happen.

The purpose of exploring and learning from discussions of structure is in part to reinforce the writer's instinct that certain things should happen to meet the expectations of the reader, and to guide the writer on the path of the story set in motion. Any one of us can wander off track, following an especially interesting character determined to have his or her own story. If we have a basic story line and its structure in mind we are less likely to end up with an unwieldy story and undisciplined characters.

In addition to the graphics for story structures, some writers prefer to use a worksheet. A useful one allows the writer to keep track of the basic story progress, and to remind the writer where she is in the plot. If you know a certain key moment is approaching, you write to that point, bringing a tighter focus on the action of the story.

All of these materials or aids are only that. They are developed to help the writer tell a story, not to replace the work of identifying what is most compelling in the telling of the story.

The shape of the story is inherent in the characters and what they face and learn along the way. Bringing out their own stories and inner challenges will drive the discoveries and life-change events, and keep the reader turning pages to discover what happens next. 


  1. I find this extremely interesting. I'd never try to write fiction, but it's fun to think of how fiction writers do it.

  2. Thanks, Diana. Teaching writers how to do it is a big industry now, but writing the story is where the fun is.

  3. I try to work out a rough outline of my story before I begin to write. However, the characters often take over the plot, mutiny, and change it to suit them.

  4. I try to work out a rough outline of my story before I begin to write. However, the characters often take over the plot, mutiny, and change it to suit them.

  5. Funny how they do that. I like to think I know where I'm going, but in the end I know I'm following. Thanks for commenting.

  6. I like reading how others work, but outlining doesn't seem to work for me. I have an idea of what should occur, but I trust my characters will take me there. I seldom know who the killer is until about three fourths of the way through.

  7. I think it's interesting how many writers leave the identity of the murderer open for so much of the book. I also find myself keeping my options open because it gives me more flexibility and is more likely to lead to surprises for me, which mean surprises for the reader. Thanks for commenting.