header('Cache-Control: max-age=259200'); Structure Helps Your Writing Resonate with Readers
Jan 112010

Writing as Craft IconJust like we need a bit of structure in our lives in order to thrive and stretch our selves to reach our goals, our writing needs a bit of structure to it. This helps keep the story coherent and cohesive and helps it resonate with the reader. I’m sure there are experimental constructions out there where upon first glance it makes no sense at all and as a reader you can’t make heads or tales of it, until you learn the structure and suddenly everything clicks and makes sense.

Now, structure isn’t the same as plot, nor is it the same as a formula.

When people talk about stories, books, tv shows and movies as being formulaic, they don’t necessarily mean their structure is boring and worn out. Usually they mean their plot is tired and so well-worn, there are no surprises for us.

However, people have been telling each other stories for millenia. Some jaded folks claim there are no new stories or ideas. But we’ve seen numerous stories told where the structure is repeated time and time again. Why? Because it works with a wide variety of plots and people are comforted and satisfied by the familiar. Indeed many of the same basic plot lines have been retold with new characters throughout the ages.

The most familiar form is probably the three Act Structure as described by Aristotle in his Poetics. It can be found from ancient Greek plays to numerous books and movies of today.

Aristotlean Play Structure

Structure: Exposition->Rising Action->Climax->Falling Action->Denoument

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Denouement/Resolution

This system will look very familiar if you graph it like Gustav Freytag did at the right when he analyzed ancient Greek and Shakespearean dramas.

Many people are interested in how novels and screenplays are organized and each have their own perception of how it works best and why. Some look at it from the angle of characterization and the emotional stories of those characters. Others have likened it to a journey that the character takes and the steps involved to propel the character on his journey and the adventures and trials experienced and his glorious return as a hero. here’s even a twist on this for the heroine’s journey. Yet there are others yet who are more plot-oriented with some delving into what motivates the characters to make the decisions that they do during the course of the plot.

Popular Takes on Structuring A Novel or Screenplay

  • Traditional Three Act or 5-Part Structure
  • Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey
  • Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure
  • Debra Dixon’s Goal/Motivation/Conflict
  • Michael Hauge’s Six Stages
  • Kara Lennox’s breakdown for a 400-page novel
  • Billy Mernit’s Seven Steps for Romantic Comedies

I’ll be looking closer at these in the coming months, but I don’t think most of them are really completely different structures so much as various lenses with which to analyze a story or alternate sets of questions to ask yourself as you go about building your story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser will determine your level of comfort and need for outlines, but I’m sure you’ll still find yourself asking these same types of questions that will affect your structure at one point or another, either before your first draft or as you try to assemble a later draft into a coherent story.


Which type of structure comes naturally for you? Have you ever used some other type of structure? Diary, Framed Flashack, Family Saga, or something else?

  11 Responses to “Structure”

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  1. Hey, there
    Great post!

    I’ve never really read anything about plotting. One day I just got fed up with having a ton unfinished stories and decided that I needed to figure out where my stories were going to go before I wrote anything.

    Now, I suppose I fall into a three part structure. I focus on knowing the beginning, middle and end of my stories, so I know what direction to write in. To me, it’s the simplest way to plot.

    I do take a couple other steps to tie everything together, but that’s another story.

  2. Hi Kaige! I guess I’ve been using a combination of these, particularly the 5 part and GMC, but also Hero’s Journey to some degree. I am still waiting for it to “come naturally”, though! I’m a sucker for new craft stuff, so I’m going to check out the other types because I’m not familiar with them. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Great Post! I’m still trying to develop my basic knowledge of plot. I’ve read a few books and taking notes on whatever I learn.

    I look forward to reading more.

  4. Jamal: It’s funny, that’s exactly the same reason I started hitting the craft books. I never seemed to be able to get past a certain point and couldn’t figure out why! It’s part of how I found your web page with your great Conceive. Develop. Write! series.

    Katrina: Bria tells me I know all this stuff backwards and forwards, but my internal critic doesn’t agree yet. I think Bria forgets DH is the one with the degree in English and mine’s in Business/Econ. But having something to reference or just having different ways to look at a given plot to see what I’ve dropped is helpful.

    Chris: Thanks, I’ve found the best thing to do is any time you have an idea, to work out the basics of the plot. It doesn’t have to be fully developed from the get go, but it helps you work through the feeling of how it should go. Also, I try to do this with books I read, especially the ones in my genre. It makes for a bit less satisfying reading (I’m pickier about what I’ll accept from authors now than I used to be), but it has helped me learn what makes a given book work or not in ways that just reading a craft book hasn’t. Theory’s good, but you need to balance it with the practical (as in PRACTICE) side too. And yes, that’s the part I try to rebel at too. 🙂

  5. I love the way you got the graphic to blend. I suck so badly right down to magic marker on a big sticky note, lol.

    Cool post. I look forward to following your exploration-stuff, and checking out Jamal’s blog. 🙂

    • Awww. You do not suck, Jodi. Magic Markers & Sticky Notes vs. graphics stolen off Wikipedia — that’ll be part of the topic for next week’s post — it’s all about Style. 🙂

      I’m glad others are finding this information/exploration interesting and useful. I hope to keep digging deeper as time goes on.

  6. I almost said ‘I’m not really a storyteller’, but then realised… I am!

    I tend to finish my stories with the climax. Sometimes I have a small epilogue. I suppose it depends — a short story can end on the climax (or pitfall, whatever), while a long story can necessitate a longer denouement.

    Before today I had no idea the word ‘pantser’ even existed. What an odd word. I just went and looked it up — good one 🙂

    • Hey, thanks for stopping by! You’re right, short stories are so economical they tend to compress, consolidate and concentrate everything including the structure to the bare minimum necessary. Hubby’s definitely a pantser — awesome term — and I drive him nuts with my need to plot everything out and know just where I’m going. But then that’s probably why we balance each other well too. He’s artistic, I’m practical. LOL

      • It is my PLEASURE to be stopping by!

        I can’t help noticing that the slug (the URL) of this post reads ‘structure’ but with the Ts taken out…

        Why? 😛

        • Hmm. Guess I missed fixing that when I wrote the post.

          My laptop keyboard has issues. It seems Apple made a bad design choice, so that if your power cord frays behind that mag safe connection and you don’t replace it immediately if not sooner, it causes a short across the keyboard that affects a couple of lines of keys… notably 5’s, T’s, G’s, B’s, -‘s and [‘s. This happened to me LAST year as well. Since then, I’ve set up with a USB keyboard and am tethered to my desk until I can go get it fixed.

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