How Structure Will Save Your Story

Recently I’ve been teaching story structure again, and reminding myself about all the ways structure works in a story. There is a lot of talk about plotting – how to plot, how to outline, how to talk to your plot, how to pattern it like this or that. But I think if you don’t “get” structure, you won’t achieve strong plots.

What’s the difference? To me, structure is the underpinning. Like when you build a house, you start with a concrete slab or foundations, and you build a frame and roof trusses. Then whatever kind of house you want – timber, brick, cladding, with tiles or iron or shingles – goes on top. If you’ve ever stopped and looked at a house being built, that frame is like a skeleton, and often you can’t tell what the final house might be. You can see, though, what will hold it up. Builders have rules, too. How far apart the uprights and beams have to be, how many trusses to use, etc. You get the picture.

Story structure is the same. Once your story is written, whether it’s a novel or a film (or even a picture book), you can’t see the structure. And nor should you. But it needs to be there, holding up your plot and characters so they don’t fall into holes. Especially that big hole right in the middle. Once you understand structure and how to apply it, I think your confidence in plotting will rise and you will write much better novels.

Is it a formula? A recipe? A set of rules that will restrict you? No. It’s like a lot of other things in writing. Once you understand how it works, how to use it effectively, it will become a natural tool that fits in among all the others. It’ll be useful no matter how you write. If you like to plan and plot, you’ll use it up front. If you like to write and write, and then see what you have, you can use it later in revision.

I’ll explain a couple of different structures you can use, how to spring off from them into other kinds of stories, and where to find out more about how it all works. Stay tuned.

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