Perfectly Plotted? or, Does Story Structure Matter?

I’ve seen quite a few posts that mention story structure, otherwise known as narrative structure. Many books have been written about it.

One version of story structure looks like this:

Three_act_structure_visual
Image from Wikipedia. Author: Jft701. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

But does this actually help a writer who is creating a story or novel?

Here’s what I think:

These ideas about structure result from analysis and comparison of completed works, often by academics. They are the kind of thing one learns while studying literature. But (for me, anyway) the state of mind needed to bring a piece of writing into existence is totally different from that which analyzes a completed work.

A familiarity with story structures and plot trajectories is of limited use to a writer pounding out a first draft, unless that writer is a full-blown plotter, who builds a story in parts. Pantsers and others who look at first drafts like lumps of mental clay to be shaped with the tools of the imagination don’t need to worry about that stuff–until later.

“Later” is the rewrite stage, when the first draft is finished and the complete material of the story is laid out before the writer. At that point, I (otherwise known as “the writer”) can consider whether the story’s structure corresponds to the diagram above, or to any of the defined plot types, such as “rags to riches” or “the hero’s journey.”

When the first draft is finished, the writer can step back from it and analyze it, identifying places where changes need to be made, possibly making the plot conform to one of the named trajectories. But only if that makes sense to its creator, the writer.

Am I saying writers should ignore story structure? No, but I’m not sure a writer needs to worry about it at the first draft stage. But then, I write from the inside; perhaps writers who devise their creations from the outside find it helpful to consciously design them with structure in mind.

Of course, I could be wrong about this. So, fellow writers, how many of you write your first drafts with story structure in mind? Do you ever adhere to any of the defined story structures or plot types?

Featured image from Pexels

85 comments

  1. I do write with story structure in mind or else I get stuck. But that’s just me. I’ve been following an interview series on Paula Readman’s blog, daily author interviews. Gosh, there are 100s by now. Anyway, almost everyone explores a story first starting with characters that are in their heads. A couple of authors interviewed have to write an outline or synopsis-outline for a trad publisher. A few more authors use outlines just to get started then usually the characters rebel.:-) But the majority: no structure, just start writing.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I guess almost all of us have some sort of plot idea in mind when we start, however hazy. Some of us (pantsers or “plantsers”) see detailed outlines as inspiration-killing. I think some attention has to be given at some point to story structure, to make sure there’s balance, logic, and forward motion. But there’s more than one way to get there. Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Priscilla!

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  2. It depends upon what I am writing. Sometimes a character takes over a plot and I don’t know where the character wants to go. In poetry, it depends upon the type of poem–some just seem to write themselves. In nonfiction, do I have a point I am trying to make? Is there such a thing as a pantser/plotter or plontser maybe?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve seen the term “plantser” for writers who work with a sketchy outline as opposed to a detailed one. I can see where different types of writing need different approaches. And some poetry is free-form, but there are quite strict forms too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m reading a thriller right now that has a big twist at exactly the 50% point. (Kindle is helpful for things like this.) I have to believe the author designed the story this way. And it absolutely works, although I think that this sort of precision matters more in thrillers than other genres.

    Personally, I think a writer can play with story structure a lot, as long as they keep the reader interested. The real pitfall, which is more common than one would think, is when *nothing whatsoever is happening.* Or maybe even more accurately, there isn’t even a conflict for the reader to be in suspense about. There are some books where nothing much is going on for large periods, and then there’s a rushed and contrived conflict at the end. But as long as the reader is engaged with the characters and their problems and is eager to see what happens, I think there’s a lot of flexibility with how a story is structured.

    This also makes me think of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “monomyth” – that nearly all famous stories across different times and cultures follow the same basic pattern. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey As I understand it, Campbell’s theory implied that this would happen organically in the telling of any adventure tale, because it reflects basic concepts rooted in human psychology. Which I’ve always interpreted liberally, to mean, “don’t worry; it’ll work itself out.” πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think of story structure in any formal sense while I’m writing, editing, or at any point in the process. I just write what’s in my head and let the story goes where it goes as I progress through the idea. If I were to try to something like the flow chart included in this post, I feel like it would be too much like work. It’s a mathematical approach to writing that, I b elieve, stifles creativity to some extent. That said, writing in some genres likely requires attention to story structure. Mysteries, for example, have a tendency to follow this kind of formulaic approach to storytelling.

      I’m with you on Joseph Campbell. “Don’t worry, it’ll work itself out,” is pretty much what I do as I write. At least when I’m writing.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Good points, Berthold. Some genres (thriller, mystery, and romance, for example) demand a tighter adherence to structure than others.
      And yes, engaging characters are key. I can get through all kinds of mushy middle with minimal action if I like spending time with a character.
      I think Campbell was right about stories (or rather Story) emerging organically. Our ancestors telling stories around the campfire certainly didn’t sit down and write outlines first! On the other hand, some of them were no doubt better storytellers than others. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In a word, never. To quote the late, great E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” With my debut novel, I had a serious problem with story structure once the draft ballooned to 200,000 words. I used the W story structure to ensure a good narrative arc without getting bogged down in the detailed expectations of rigid frameworks. (I cut 100,000 words from the first completed draft.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great quote from Forster, Liz. We do need to pay attention to structure, but some of us do it after writing a bunch of stuff and others after.
      Anonymole (in a later comment) compares it to building a house, and makes the point that some crucial elements need to be there at the outset. Fortunately, pieces of writing are more malleable than lumber and concrete!

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you, Audrey. I’ve been teaching writing a long time, and I just cringe every time I see those blog posts with the [insert a random number] rules of writing fantabulous fiction. The rules are conventions, and it’s up to the writer to take into account all of the variables involved with a particular work of fiction and decide which conventions will suit the work and which ones won’t.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Bloggers have to come up with “content” all the time, which is where some of this advice comes from. I wish it were more nuanced though; some of it seems to reduce writing to the equivalent of paint-by-numbers.

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  5. If I had to actively follow that strait jacket you posted above, I would have never written anything. I like to have a plot structure in mind when I start and I like to know how it’s all going end, but otherwise I just let it evolve. I was an English lit major and have an MA in the subject, but I don’t ever remember being taught plot structure, even when writing an analytic essay. I never took a course in creative writing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re a perfect example of how different writers can achieve great results different ways, Lorinda. Writing fiction is an art. Rules for arts are often articulated by people studying the arts rather than by the artists, and while artists must abide by them to some extent, it’s not always by starting with an external plan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the comment! And by the way, thanks for the great review of Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder on Smashwords. That was the first thing I wrote after buying my first computer in 2000. Can you believe it was the offspring of a dream? Not a nightmare as you might think, but a really positive, beautiful, serene dream. I consider that fact very weird.

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  6. Ultimately, writing a story is a construction project. In the end, you need to end up with a solid structure. Stories without such cogent construction are failures.

    How one creates a sturdy story is up for debate. However, building a house and then realizing you didn’t include plumbing or a kitchen is going to be a nightmare to fix.

    I adhere (with as little experience that I have) to C.S.Lakin’s Four Pillars approach. You need a quality, robust concept onto which you can build the story line. You need a protagonist with needs and wants (which often contradict each other). And you need adversity (environment, human, self) to give the writing energy. (Lakin talks about theme but I believe that comes from the writing itself and needn’t be considered up front.)

    Without at least some of that hashed out in your mind, you’ll end up with a multi-level house with no stairs or elevator.

    Maybe experienced writers subconsciously write this way. But, as a programmer by trade, without a loose plan, I’d end up writing a house without a roof.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree there has to be some sort of plan, but it doesn’t have to be as detailed as a house plan at the outset, although some writers find that putting a lot of work into prep (outlines, character bios, etc.) helps them write faster with less revision needed after the first draft. Others see all that preliminary stuff as inspiration-killing grunt work. And some might say that a house where you use a knotted rope to get from one floor to the other is just fine. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Excellent post. I really appreciate the observation that those structure diagrams are done After the fact, by academics. I always thought they were intimidating. I also like the term writing from the inside and pantser. πŸ™‚ I am definitely in that category. I start with the idea and see where it leads me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. An interesting topic and discussion. I’ve been giving it some thought as well.

    I’ve read books for 60 years without ever considering their structure. Like Becky said, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten the feel for a story from reading. I have the plot more or less in my head before I start to write. The details can and do change. The only thing I will write down is a time line. I wrote my too long stories with a episodic structure — little story arches within an overarching one which made writing them more manageable and still use that approach.

    All that said, I have been watching Alexa Donne’s Youtube videos on writing where she talks about structure, twists, pinch points, and reversals and I have been giving those ideas some thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stories certainly have structure, however writers contrive to construct it. Timelines are another thing. Days of the week and similar details ought to make sense; you can’t have three Saturday nights in a week, for example. Whether one worries about that stuff before or after writing the first draft seems to be an individual thing.

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  9. Structure is everything in writing. I mostly write non-fiction, but it applies there too – in the exact same way: the reader has to be drawn in by a dynamic structure in the writing. The challenge with non-fiction is finding that dynamic amidst the immutable data and sequence of events. To me it’s akin to a photographer: the scene is provided, but the photographer has to find a way of adding artistry by appropriate lighting and framing. Whereas novellists are more akin to artists who can adjust their picture to get the composition right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s almost an opposite approach for long-form nonfiction–you absolutely need a detailed outline before you start. Then the enticing prose effects can be consciously incorporated while building the work according to that plan.
      The photographic analogy is good, except maybe the novelist assembles a picture from separate elements?

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  10. I don’t, neither at first draft nor later, even if my novels turn to be, in general, a sort of hero’s journey or rags to riches (but even this is a sort of hero’s journey, anyway). What I always pay attention to is foreshadowing and consequences. I can’t understand story structure as in applying or identifying it, even if I learnt the theory. For me, this is theory that other people might apply for their novels, but I can’t, even if I am a planner.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I don’t think I would know structure unless someone grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and marched me up to a very large blackboard with a detailed analysis of how it is arrived at, citing examples in literature.
    Certainly my approach is not one I would recommend to anyone, however since my books are influenced by military history in which it can be seen that ‘Structure’ falls apart on the first day and it becomes all about who learns from the mistakes and makes the best improvisations I think I might be able to get away with it.
    And mine are Epic Fantasy which gives you so much leeway.
    (The Defence rests its case)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I believe that writers have an innate sense of structure, developed over time by reading. Readers feel it too, even though they don’t think about it. It’s so natural that we don’t notice it (although we do notice when something is wrong with the structure). After all, novels, short stories, dramas, fairy tales, screenplays…almost all fiction ever written follows the simple 3-act structure. I think that some writers need to plan and structure before they start writing, while others don’t because they can rely on that inner sense. Both approaches are fine.
    I’m a ‘gardener’, not an ‘architect’ (my favourite metaphors for pantsers and plotters by George R. R. Martin) so I don’t plan my novels beyond the basic storyline that is in my head, but rather “plant” the seed and watch it grow. Having said that, I do check my final draft against the basic 3-act structure and trim off everything that sticks out.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I like this gardening metaphor too. I create shallow terraces with drystone walls, and because I love curves, and because contours are usually curved, I follow the lay of the land, so to speak, fitting each stone in individually where it ‘wants’ to go. For me that’s very visual/spatial, quite different to words and characters and storylines, but both end up growing rather than being designed.

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              1. I suppose we’re all trying to figure out our /own/ processes so discussions like these are opportunities to learn. I know I like ‘tight’ stories, but I’ve learned there are many ways of getting there. πŸ™‚

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  13. Mostly I start out with, ‘Oooh, that’s a very cool scene’ and then figure out what to do with as I go along. When I’m in the throes, like I am now, I do a quick read through/edit of the previous days work, then it’s full steam ahead. πŸ˜€

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    1. Sometimes scenes write themselves. Then we have to figure out how to stick them together; that might be where structure comes in. Good to hear you’re working on something new, and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. When I first started writing Amaya’s Legacy it just spewed out of some weird hidden other dimension. Having rewritten it what feels like millions of times it does follow a structure. I sat down and carefully planned the next 3 books chapter by chapter, but I suspect that if and when I finally write them my characters will blow very rude raspberries at my story structure and cart me off to places unknown…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s how it was with my first few books; now writing first drafts is more of a slog. I bet you will end up throwing out the plan, or at least some of the details. Characters can be quite insistent!

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  15. Hi Audrey. An interesting topic and one I’ve often wondered about. I did learn a loose plotting technique from a correspondence writing course decades ago (sounds quaint now – correspondence course). But like other writers have mentioned, get beyond the opening scene and the characters take over, driving the story in unexpected ways. That’s one of the big pleasures for me, exploring the unknown territory they show me. I’m sure it comes down to the personality of the writer – some are more the intuitive type, others like to think ahead and work within a structure.

    It might also be that as others have said, it’s useful to pick up the idea of a structure, either from theory or simply from reading good novels, then it becomes internalised and, without thinking about it, we coax our characters back into some sort of structured narrative (conflict/resolution thing) before they go off the rails completely.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know one writer who says that once they know exactly how a work in progress develops and ends, they lose interest. It’s working on the edge of that knowledge that fuels the writing.
      I usually know the end, but not how I’ll get there. I figure that out scene by scene. Once I have a first draft is the time to look at the structure–not like building a house, that’s for sure.
      I really like the idea that some of us absorb the principles of structure without realizing it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Audrey, I never know how a work is going to end, only that it has to make some kind of sense of everything that’s gone before it. I suppose the risk in that is that after a year or so of effort, it won’t make sense and in desperation you’ll contrive an ending that’s implausible – the “it was all a dream” ending. As an indie that’s okay because we’re not up against a deadline. I agree, once you’ve pushed your way through the first draft and have something that works, then you can look back and start tightening things up along the lines of plot rules and structure.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I know my reading has given me a ‘feel’ for when things aren’t right in my stories, but I suspect plotters are more efficient at it because they are consciously aware of the processes as well. Unfortunately, I have to sneak up on my imagination or else my fiction turns into a how-to. Horses for courses. πŸ™‚

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        1. One of the Offspring’s school friends wrote a fantasy story and started a Kickstarter campaign to get it printed. I read the story, and it was actually quite good, but when I said she must read a lot of fantasy she said no, she didn’t read because she didn’t want to have her ideas influenced by what she was reading. Whether that meant she never read, or only didn’t read when she was actively writing, I don’t know.
          Most of that generation play rpg games which are all based around a tight storyline, so I’m sure they absorb a lot of story telling techniques from there, or maybe from movies.
          I’m just very grateful my Offspring reads for pleasure.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, I can see that movies and complex games with storylines could have a similar effect to reading. Books are “mind movies,” after all. And let’s hope younger people do read for pleasure, given all the books everyone is cranking out!

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  16. I’m a plotter, Audrey, but I write in a similar way to you. The first draft unfolds with a degree of flexibility that I don’t like to interfere with. It’s after that, during the first rewrite that I sit back and view the story from two different narrative structures – 7 Step and Save the Cat. I almost always make changes to increase the stakes, strength plot points, and make things worse for my characters. Poor characters. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Diana. It makes sense to add to or intensify parts of the story in second and subsequent drafts. I always have a tough time making the characters suffer or struggle, maybe because I identify with them, at least with the first person narrator.

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    2. 7 step and Save the Cat? I move things around and tighten things up, but as a pantster, I’ve never heard of these narrative structures. What are they, or more importantly, what do they do?

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      1. They might be fun to browse, Andrea. And as an experiment, revisit the plot from one of your books from the structural perspective (the 7-Step is really easy to work with). It would only take about 20 minutes.
        It’s just an outline of the key elements of story “tension” including pinch points where the characters are under extreme pressure, and pivots where something happens that intensifies the action or stakes. You’ll probably find that most of the elements are already in your story, but by pinpointing them, you can increase their effectiveness in building tension and propelling the reader forward. I mainly use 7-Step. Then I use Save the Cat to look for opportunities to present the characters with “impossible choices” and stuff like that. It’s kind of fun to apply, as Audrey and I do, after the first draft is done. It’s a bit like a developmental edit. πŸ˜€

        Liked by 1 person

              1. Just read a post about ‘Save the Cat’ but to be honest I have no idea what any of it has to do with a cat. As for the structure…hmm. I can see the logic in the analysis, and I guess I can sort of fit most of my stories into it, after the fact. I can even see how it would make writing more efficient, and /faster/ but…like plotting, it’s something I can’t do. To me this would feel like writing a technical manual. 😦

                Liked by 2 people

  17. -grin- No! I’m a pantster like you, Audrey, and I never know how the story will end until suddenly, I ‘see’ it.

    To be honest, I try very hard /not/ to think too far ahead because I’m much too logical. I actually use music to put that logical part of my brain to sleep so the imaginative half can get a word in edgewise.

    But. Good stories are a combination of many things, including structure and pacing, so I see fiction writing as a form of tailoring. You cut out the basic components, pin them together, then make them fit like a glove. No one-size-fits-all.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I’ve come across the term “discovery writing.” It has pretty much the same meaning as pantster, but I think it is not only more elegant, but more descriptive of the process as well. You start out with your story idea and characters, and then, as you write, you explore and discover more about the characters, their motivations, and backstories, as well as the intricacies of the plot.

    In any event, I’m a couple of days away from finishing the first draft of my next story, and boy will I be glad when it’s done. Revising, playing with words on the page, is so much more fun than working on filling all that white space.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I like that term–discovery writing. That is how it feels, especially when I’m working with characters who have appeared in previous books.
      I’m with you on first drafts–getting them down can be brutal. Once there’s text to mess with, I’m happy.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. This morning I am sitting down to read over a novella I wrote a long time ago. My intention is to read it, let it lie in my mind for a time and then it will tell me what to do. I have done this with two previous and longer works. So, I am a believer in the “write from the inside” method. Thanks!

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