Sunday Musings #4 – Story structure

Posted on Nov 6, 2016 in Blog, Sunday Musings | No Comments
Sunday Musings #4 – Story structure

Hey guys,

I hope you had a strong start into NaNoWriMo! Check out last week’s bulletin for some good tips to keep up the motivation. One potential pitfall we talked about was getting lost in your story, and a remedy for this is to create a plan for your story, also known as an outline.

Now there’s a lot of discussion of “Plotters” vs. “Pantsers” in the writing world, i.e. people that like to plan out the story in advance (plotters) and people that like to write what comes into their heads in that moment (pantsers, from “writing by the seat of their pants”). While everyone works differently, and there are some amazing writers that can create a story just from the top of their heads without any planning, I personally need an outline to guide my way. I see it like this: my writing is a journey, and the outline is my big-picture map with all the important milestones I need to visit. But of course at each milestone I take the time to check out the scenery, and often am surprise what happens there. So in summary: plan as much as you need but also take the freedom to roam freely within your plan.

Story Structure

Where to next? Let your outline guide your way.

I have a whole bulletin planned on the nitty-gritty of creating an outline, which tools I use and where I see the main difficulties, but before we can really get into that we need to understand what we are trying to outline – the story structure. What do we need to consider to create a coherent, compelling and entertaining story that keeps our readers engaged from start to finish? That’s what this week’s bulletin is all about. I hope you’ll find it helpful – I wish someone had pointed me towards these resources much earlier in my writing career.

Story structure – the bones on which your story relies

Stories have been told since the dawn of times. First related orally, then written down by hand, later reproduced by printing presses and now transmitted electronically, stories are a pillar of human culture. And interestingly, there seem to be some universal elements in a story that ring true with a reader, elements that can be found in the oldest stories and the latest Kindle release.

A standard work on this topic is “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell, in which he details the Hero’s Journey as a common motif in the world’s myths. These theories, and their application in storytelling, are further expanded on by Christopher Vogler in his landmark craft book “The Writer’s Journey“. If you are going to read only one of the two, get “The Writer’s Journey” – really a must read.

The milestones of the Hero’s Journey

I briefly touched upon the concept of milestones in outlining during my introduction. These are the points the story should visit to ensure that it is “dramatic, entertaining and psychologically true” (quote Christopher Vogler). “The Writer’s Journey” outlines 12 milestones. For each of them, I will give you a very short interpretation as to how I use them, for more detail, you should really read the book!

  1. The Ordinary World. The everyday world our heroine lives in, used as a counterpoint to the special world she will encounter during the course of the story. This can be “our world” vs. a “fantastic world”, but also different facets of our “real world”.
  2. The Call to Adventure. An event occurs that shakes the foundations of the ordinary world our heroine has known so far, and she has to react to it in some way.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The heroine does not want to accept the call – she fears the unknown and wants things to get back to normal.
  4. Mentor. Another characters is introduced that helps guide the heroine towards accepting the quest and prepare them for their task.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold. The heroine can no longer ignore the quest and decides to make the first step into the special world.
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies. The heroine embarks on her exploration of the special world, learns the new rules of this world and meets others along the way, which can be friends, foes or love interests.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. The major object of the Hero’s Journey will be hidden in the place of greatest danger. In the approach to this place, the heroine prepares herself to face her fears.
  8. The Ordeal. Now the heroine comes to face his biggest fear head-on. Everything is at stake, and it is not clear whether the heroine will succeed or not.
  9. Reward. The heroine has survived the ordeal and is rewarded. This reward can come in all shapes – an object, love, friendship, or personal growth.
  10. The Road Back. The heroine’s journey is not over yet. Typically, opposing forces are not giving up yet on clawing the reward back and stopping the heroine. Maybe there’s someone trying to break the loving couple apart again, or a chase ensues to steal a treasure back.
  11. Resurrection. Before the heroine can successfully finish the quest and return to the Ordinary World, she has to another test (or series of tests). These often mirror what happened in the Ordeal and show the growth of the heroine since.
  12. Return with the Elixir. Finally the heroine is back in the ordinary world, and brings something with her (which again can come in different shapes).

Every story will touch on these elements in some way, but the great thing about this framework is its flexibility and how it can be found in so many different types of stories – from romances to thrillers. Take, for example, my M/M romance “Taboo For You“, in which the protagonist, Sam, tries to come to terms with his turning 30 and in the process discovers his love for his long time friend and neighbor Luke.

The story starts out with Sam in his “ordinary world”: divorced, a teenage son, working shifts at a local restaurant. He’s soon turning 30, and he wants to make up for having grown up so early by working through list of things to do before the 30th birthday. His “call to adventure” comes when his neighbor Luke returns from a long term stay at his family’s home, and offers Sam to do something wild with him, an offer Sam refuses at first. The mentor in the story actually turns out to be Sam’s son, Jeremy, who pretends to be gay to be with his girlfriend without interference by his parents. We then see Sam “crossing the threshold” and kissing Luke for the first time (just for fun, he tells himself at this point).

Sam faces many tests connected to his developing feelings for Luke, before he goes on a trip with Luke and sleeps with him for the first time (approaching the ordeal). At the midpoint, Sam finds out how much Luke has actually done for him (paid for many things over the years, including the trip) and realizes that this whole thing means much more to Luke than he thought. After going through this realization, he pulls back from Luke (this is his road back, a final roadblock before the happily ever after). With some help from the mentor Jeremy, their relationship is finally resurrected during a game of soccer, and Sam returns to his ordinary world but with a new partner & some personal growth: going back to university to reach for his dreams.

Story structure – acts

One common way to structure a story is by acts. Typically, there are three acts:

  • Act 1
    • Characters, ordinary world and special world are all introduced. At the end of this act, the central question of the story should be clear: what is at stake? Also, the heroine has accepted the call and stepped into the special world.
    • Typical length: 25%
    • Milestones of the hero’s journey in act 1: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold
  • Act 2
    • This act makes up the biggest part of the story – it’s really two acts (2.1 and 2.2). These two are divided by the mid-point, a pivotal moment in the story.
    • In act 2.1, the heroine meets allies and enemies and faces a series of tests that bring her closer to her central goal.
    • The midpoint is marked by facing the Central Ordeal. Here the heroine faces her biggest fear, but also very important: she learns something that will later (in act 3) help her succeed, so it is paramount that midpoint and resurrection are connected.
    • In Act 2.2, the heroine takes the reward and tries to make her way back, facing further tests.
    • Typical length: 50% for the complete Act 2.
  • Act 3
    • Act 3 brings the climax & resolution – will or won’t the heroine succeed in her story goals? Will she defeat the beast? Will she win her lover’s heart? As mentioned above, now comes a final battle with the heroine’s biggest fear (which was foreshadowed at the midpoint of the story).
    • Typical length: 25%
    • Milestones of the hero’s journey in act 3: Resurrection, Return with the Elixir

To dive deeper into this topic and to learn how to create a compelling act structure for your story, check out these two books:

  • My story can beat up your story” by Jeffrey Alan Schechter, especially the chapter “I plot, you plotz” which gives specific plot points or beats you can use when creating your story structure. This book focuses on screen writing, but I found it very helpful for creating a structure for my novels as well.
  • Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell, a look at how to create engaging plots. Full of practical exercises, this book will teach you how to craft great beginnings, middles and ends. Besides the craft focus, you also learn systems how to generate ideas and how to turn them into great plots.

Character arc

The Hero’s Journey has an external and an internal level. There are outer goals for the hero to achieve (saving the friend, winning love), but also inner goals that she may or may not be aware of (finding courage, overcoming a deep fear). Her inner story should follow the same structure as the outer story to ring true and show a believable development.

  • Make sure you know what your main characters’ story arcs are. Map the main characters’ development the same way that you lay out the outer events of the story.
  • Know their goals: what do they want to achieve on a physical, emotional and spiritual level? This is what Schechter calls “the central question”. In other words: what is the external goal (e.g., finding your friend), what does it mean to the main characters (e.g., it was the only friend) and what unresolved inner conflict is fought along the way (e.g., trying to find courage).
  • Mesh a character’s inner and other journey – external events that lead to internal development, and vice versa.

World building

Know the basic rules of your world – what can and can’t happen in this world. Limitations make for conflict and make the world feel more real. This is especially true for a fantastic world (typical example: how does your magic system work?), but also for stories set in the “real world” – what rules apply in this part of it? The world of a criminal gang has rules very different from a hospital emergency room.
There’s an element of bending the rules as well (this is a fictional story), but make sure they are consistent within your story.

Where to from here?

Phew… that was a lot of information, and many resources to check out! I know that this can be overwhelming, but don’t despair. For today, I’d like you to have these takeaways:

  • Make a plan before you start writing. Which milestones do you want your characters to achieve, on their outer and inner journeys?
  • Think about acts, character arc, world building. For now, just keep in mind that these elements are necessary to create a compelling story.
  • Read “The Writer’s Journey“. If you need a starting point to learn about writing, here it is.
  • Look for these elements in books and movies. Try to see what other writers and screen writers are doing with the elements of a story. There are many resources that analyze books and movies. Some to check:

Writing tip of the week

This week, I’ve got a couple of Audio Books for you that further discuss the Hero’s Journey (and both involve Christopher Vogler who’s also a pleasure to listen to ;). Here are the links to Audible:

Fiction reads of the week

Strong Signal” – an erotic mm gay romance that was a great evening read!
Co-written by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell, this is a fun and sexy collaborative novel.

Bits & pieces

I think there was some good food for thought in there! Happy plotting!

Books mentioned in this bulletin:

  • The German translations of my books now have their own home:
  • You can get a free e-book by signing up for my newsletter
  • Disclaimer: All links to books in this article are affiliate links, which means I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you make a purchase using these links. There is no additional cost for you if you purchase the books via these links!

Session #3 – Writing in November: make the most of NaNoWriMo to boost your word count
Session #5 – The practical guide to outlining

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