Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Foundation Poured, Start Framing the Structure

You’d think a series on novel planning would have started with story structure. This one didn't. We are just getting to it now in my fifth installment. Because my approach was to begin by getting you to think about, well, thinking.

If you're like me, you begin with a nugget of an idea that you spin into your three “disasters.” I then work this into a hook — a paragraph summarizing the story.

That's the essence of structure right there. But structure is more than just three disasters. Articles online and craft books in libraries and bookstores detail the varies ways to structure your novel. It’s not the best use of this space for me to simply rewrite what others have already written — and written so well — but I do want to kick off this concept of story structure by sharing the ones I gravitate toward. And I say “ones” because I find myself using multiple methods, often combining them to create my own version that’s a mishmash of ideas.

I take each one of these different structures and work through it. This is repetitive work. For a reason. Each time I take a sheet of paper and start filling in the elements for that particular style of structuring, I find myself confirming the plot points that work and discarding the ones that don’t. I recommend using at least two different methods for structuring your story for this reason.

I’m partial to the Three-Act Structure, Story Engineering, and the Save the Cat approaches. (And incidentally, I work through them in that order.) While of course these are just guidelines and you can certainly "break the rules," it's useful to know what rules you are breaking (and you should also have a reason why) before you start smashing them to bits!

Three-Act Structure

You are likely familiar with this method: Act I, the setup, houses your inciting incident and ends in your first disaster at 20%-25%. Here you present your character’s “call to action,” the dilemma your character is presented with that threatens to change his world. Usually a character refuses (but doesn't have to), and the first plot point is your character crossing into this new world that results from his call to action decision. Act 2 is the middle of your book, where the bulk of the story happens. There should be ups and downs (tests and trials; victories and failures), but there needs to be a second disaster at the midpoint. This plot point at 50% clarifies the character’s call to action. Act II concludes at 75% with the low point/all-is-lost moment. This will lead to the character’s want/goal deepening even further, leading him to recommit. You’ll have a climax at 85%-90%, then the denouement or wrap up.

My spin on this is to be sure to plot both your outside story and your inside story in this three-act structure. You should be able to write down your inside plot points and changes in the same way you do the external ones. As your story develops, you will also plot your subplots using this structure.

Story Engineering

Another method I like is from Story Engineering, which breaks the structure down into four parts. While this has been criticized for being overly formulaic, isn’t the very idea of structure formulaic? What I like about this is the way it adds to the three-act structure. In addition to the plot points at 25%, 50%, and 75%, this method adds a couple of “pinch points” at 37% and 62% (ish). These aren’t your main disasters but are mini-disasters that push your plot along; they are intended to be reminders of your antagonistic force. This is a great way to ensure you have action happening in that troublesome middle act. 

I also love the concept of the “epiphany”: your character comes face-to-face with her core flaw and figures out how to use her core strength to overcome it. This scoots in right before your climax/final push/final battle. This structure also adds the idea of “triumph,” which is essentially the moment where your character’s journey is complete after the climax. How has your character grown (or not)? This blending of inside and outside story makes for a great plotting structure.

Save the Cat

While a screenwriting approach, the elements in Save the Cat work well for a novel and often spur me to think about my plot in new ways — always a good thing.

This approaches breaks the story down into 15 “beats,” each with a specific goal for your overall story. You can read more about it in Blake Snyder’s book, but here are the 15 elements:

1. Opening image: first impression, sets the mood and tone
2. Theme stated: often stated outright
3. Set-up: introduction to the world and characters
4. Catalyst: otherwise known as the inciting incident
5. Debate: character deciding whether or not to accept the call to action, which leads into “Act II”
6. Break into two: leave the old world and proceed into a world that is an upside down version of it
7. B story: subplot, like romance; a breather from main plot 
8. Fun and games: “promise of the premise”; stakes won’t be raised until midpoint so we are concerned with “having fun”
9. Midpoint: either false victory or false defeat (and “all is lost” is opposite of this)
10. Bad guys close in: we’re not done yet….
11. All is lost: lowest point, opposite of midpoint
12. Dark night of the soul: darkness before the dawn; how does your character feel?
13. Break into three: A and B story meet and intertwine and hero has prevailed, found the solution, and now just has to apply it
14. Finale: lessons learned are applied, and we wrap it up
15. Final image: opposite of the opening image; proof that change has occurred

One of my favorite things about the Save the Cat method is the idea of opposites, particularly how your opening image and your final image should play off one another. If you don’t know how your story ends, you can't know how it starts. This is the best example of that I’ve seen.

All of these methods give you the building blocks for your novel. These are all big-picture ideas and plot points. In next month’s installment, I’ll address how to break these down into manageable, bite-size scenes that we can use to create a beat sheet: the scene-by-scene outline that takes sweat and tears to create but makes my writing a breeze (okay, well, that's an overstatement, but much easier!) when it’s done.
Do you use any of these story structure methods? Which is your favorite?

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, Spring 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.


  1. This looks GREAT! I'm going to study it and share with my creative writing students. Thank you !

  2. Thanks Helen! Please share away! I hope they enjoy it.

  3. Wow these are great suggestions! :) Sharing! :D

  4. Lori, I love how you enlighten the readers of YATopia. I never knew of the Save The Cat structure of writing, and shall certainly be trying it out! Thank you so much!