Structuring Your Story

Today I came across the blog Storyfix, and author Larry Brook’s 10-part Story Structure Series. In it, Brooks lays out his take on the 4-act structure, and presents it in a straightforward and easily useable way for writers of screenplays and novels to make use of when planning their work. Here’s a sample:

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s abetter way.

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful.

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate.

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

It took me about 90 minutes to read the entire series of articles (which are like a condensed 10-chapter textbook on story structure), and I found that even for someone as familiar with story structure as myself it was still an interesting read. Brooks presents his ideas in a clear approachable fashion, and the way he frames and explains his way of structuring a story is insightful.

One thing I got from the article is the realization that I’m what Brooks calls a “Blueprinter”, which is another take on the whole Plotter/Panster dichotomy. A Blueprinter outlines the key elements of the story structure, but not the details, and then just writes the parts in between those key points. So far, that seems to be the best way to write for me, since I like an element of improvisation, but at the same time I need to know where I’m going so I can direct my writing towards that goal. I’m still trying different styles of planning stories, but this resonated as it’s already something I’m doing.

The one critique of this series I have is that I found the articles tent to get less specific and more vague as they go along. The initial articles are pretty solid, but the later ones (like the one on Pinch Points) get extremely unclear as to what exactly he wants the reader to do with this idea. (Short version- Pinch Points are where the audience (but not necessarily the hero) gets to see what the antagonists are really up to and how screwed the protagonist really is, so that we can build tension.)  He also pretty much ignores the whole issue of climax and how the Second Plot Point is a lead-in to that climax. I can forgive some of this because how a story ends can really vary a lot depending on who writes it, and it’s hard to set down hard and fast guidelines, but I have seen other writing instructors (like Blake Snyder) do it better.

Speaking of Snyder, Brooks has his own version of the Beat Sheet to go along with his story structure, which you might find useful to take a look at after you’ve read the articles. (Since it’s a condensed version of that advice.)

In any case, this series is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re someone who has trouble with structure or are trying to figure out the best way for you to plan your work. The way he presents the parts of a story as working together is pretty solid, and I will be taking some of what he says to heart when thinking about and planning my own stories. Overall, I found this series to be an elaboration on Lester Dent’s Formula in many ways, and I think that’s a good thing, since he takes what Dent offers and reframes it in a way that works for stories as a whole, not just pulp adventure works.


Plotting Thread

As I discussed in Prepping Your Novel, there are a vast number of different ways you can go about plotting a story. Currently in the Writer’s Cafe on Kboards (the un-official Kindle discussion forum) there’s a discussion going where different writers are sharing their approaches to plotting their novels. And you know what? Almost every one of them is using a different method, and one that works for them.

These run from:

Writer Nicolas Andrew’s very traditional approach:

My outlines are rarely finished, usually because I get tired of summarizing and just start writing. I usually know what the end is going to be, anyway. It’s the middle that gives me trouble. I’ve always used the method of outlining I was taught in middle school, which looks like:

A. Setting
  1. Time
  2. Place

B. Characters
  1. Main Character
  2. Main Character

C. Plot

And so on. For plot, the subheadings used to be a mere list of events. Later on, to cut down on subheadings I would divide it into the five points of dramatic structure (exposition/introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution/denouement). But since I’m not likely to forget these points or their functions after twenty years, these days I simply divide the story into Act I, II, and III. 

I don’t decide what event goes into what chapter at this point. That comes out of the actual writing. I use my instincts on where a chapter break should occur, whether it’s on a cliffhanger, or important information being revealed, or a decision being made. Most times it’s a subconscious thing for me.

To writer Lady Runa’s Half and Half Approach:

I guess you could call me half-plotter, half-pantser. When I begin writing a book I plot the hell out of it but it’s never enough. This is how I do it:

1. Idea: the initial setup and a few main characters. Then I follow Larry Brooks’ structure system (the MC’s journey):

2. I take a sheet of paper and divide it into four parts: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr. This is my hero’s arc.

3. Then I brainstorm the story (it may take a few days or weeks) trying to come up with as many relevant and memorable scenes as I can. Normally they fall within the first two parts. I make sure that every part has its own arc and climax. I also plot out the midpoint (Big Fireworks, Great Revelations) and the third plot point (The Bad Guys Win!)

4. I come up with all the characters using Dwight Swain’s character sheet (it’s AWESOME). As he suggests, I make sure that my cast is as varied and contrasting as possible. I come up with all their arcs making sure they’re relevant to the story. I never bother with petty stuff like “what school they went to and what music they like”. This is what I love about Dwight Swain’s sheet: it only includes what’s really relevant.

5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about novel writing it’s you can’t overdo on drama. You can, but it’s extremely difficult. So I try to make sure every scene is dramatic and memorable. Using Holly Lisle’s term, I try to make every scene a “candybar scene” – something I itch to write. No fluff.

6.  Now I plan the living daylights out of the first two parts: scene by scene. I plan every scene very closely, spelling out the setting, the characters involved, the conflict and the chars’ secret agendas. I also plan as many scenes of Part Three as I can – and a few of Part Four.

7. I plant my backside firmly in a chair and write Parts One and Two based on my scene sheets. Normally, as I do so, all sorts of little alterations start to pile up. New better ideas force me to change certain things, which is why I never plan rigidly after the Midpoint. Normally, by the time I reach Midpoint, I have a whole lot of new better ideas and characters that force me to change a lot of the story.

8. So after Midpoint, I sit down and plot out the rest of the book. I’ll change certain things and add more dramatic and memorable scenes based on those alterations. One rule I never break comes from Larry Brook: I never introduce a new major character after Part Three.

So I guess, I’m a half-pantser because as I write the first two parts from my spreadsheet, I end up with new ideas that ultimately improve the book. I’ve got a few traditionally published novels now and work on the next one so it seems to be working – for me at least. I do recommend this “flexible planner” style to those who feel they can’t just sit down and write a book (I can’t!) but who disagree with the “rigidity” of planning.


To writer AnnChristy’s unique “Ellipticaller” Approach:

To an observer, I’m a pantser. Total and complete Pantser.

But that’s not quite true.

Instead, I’m an ellipticaller (Is that a word? If not, it should be.)

I get an idea and then I elliptical a great deal, building the story as I do, rearranging it, tearing bits out and putting bits in, building characters and all of that. I logged 22 hours on the elliptical creating the story for Strikers over a short period of time. 

Then it took me the time to write it. But I don’t use notecards or whatever. I build it entirely in my head. Small details like exactly what everyone looks like and their preferences (handedness, a nervous tick, whatever) I do put in a separate scrivener page.

Whole process: 3 months for about 400 pages. 

If I try to use a more written outline method, I would never get done because I’ll constantly reference it and confuse myself. The only way it works for me is to absolutely memorize it and know it like you know your favorite TV show.


So, if you’re on a quest to find what kind of plotter you are, give the thread a look! There’s lots of great perspectives there and you might just find something that works for you!


Word Counts for Fiction

A common problem for writers is trying to decide how long to make their stories.

Now, the proper answer is of course- as long as it needs to be.

However, there are still some standards (albeit ones which are slowly changing thanks to eBooks) that most publishers go by when determining how long a book should be. As more than two-thirds of the publishing market is still dead-tree print books, even eBook authors might want to keep them in mind.

The basic rules are:

  • Novel: 80,000-110,000 words
  • Young Adult Novel: 50,000-80,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
  • Novelette: 8000-20,000 words
  • Short Story: 500-8000 words

But there’s a lot of variation by genre, which is where this by-genre list of word counts on comes in. For example, Romance novels can go as low as 40,000 words, but it depends on the type of book. In any case, if you’re planning to write a novel and want to know exactly how many words you have to play with, it might be worth checking that site out.