Story structure is the framework for how the story is told—what holds the plot together, how the story and plot are logically arranged and presented to the reader so that the action unfolds in an optimum fashion, how the various story components meld together to make the story easy to read. Structure doesn't just happen—it needs to be carefully considered by the author for the story to be supported by a solid foundation. If you disregard establishing the structure for your story and dive right into writing, you risk losing coherence and perhaps your readers.
Here are things to consider when structuring your narrative.
Basic Story Components
If you Google “basic components of writing fiction,” you’ll discover numerous trains of thought from a variety of writers and educators. Listed below are those common to most of their theories—the ones that I and most experts agree every story must have to be complete.
One could argue that characters are the foundation for the whole story. They are the vehicle that drives the story and through whom your reader experiences the story, so making them feel real to the reader is extremely important. Without believable characters, readers won’t have someone in the story to like, dislike, or care about in any way, making the other elements of the story rather irrelevant. (See Chapter 3 for more on character development.)
Setting includes the physical location, social/cultural environment, time period, climate, and surroundings. Setting not only provides your readers with a visualization of where the story is taking place, but components of it can also affect the plot and the characters.
Conflict and Roadblocks
Conflict and roadblocks are usually what enables the protagonist to grow. They give purpose to the story. They are what makes a story worth reading. Whether external and internal, conflict and roadblocks are what keep your readers engaged. (See Chapter 9 for more on conflict.)
The plot of the story determines the way you shape the narrative—the organized structure of the action your characters take when they face things, the important points and/or events that have significant consequences within the story. But plot is more than just structure—without a plot, a story is nothing but a series of events. Plot motivates the characters to do what they do, which garners interest and emotional connection for the reader.
Theme is what your story is really about—that often-subtle message that readers figure out on their own after reading the story. Common themes are love, war, reunion, death/tragedy, good versus evil, coming of age, family, innocence, heroism, power, survival. The list goes on and on.
Point of View
Point of view (POV) specifies through whose eyes the story is being told.
Pulling It Together
While each story component is individually essential to the story, how they interconnect with one another is even more important—it’s their interaction that drives the events and outcomes of the story, keeping it running smoothly and easy for readers to follow. Appropriate interconnection of story components is fundamental for making a story interesting, cohesive, and complete.
Following is a simplified explanation of how story components are pulled together to form an integrated story line.
Most fiction includes the same six basic components. A (1) main character in a contributory (2) setting is faced with (3) conflict and roadblocks that prevent him or her from reaching a (4) goal. The narrative incorporates a (5) common theme that is laced throughout the story as told from one or more (6) points of view.
If you're writing fiction, this guideline is a good place to start. Let’s dissect it a bit. The main character (or protagonist) is obviously the most prominent character in the story and needs to be present and accounted for in all the important scenes. Setting plays a significant role throughout the story by anchoring where the story takes place, establishing mood, and supplementing characters’ motivations and feelings in specific scenes. The story’s plot revolves around how the protagonist overcomes conflict and roadblocks that keep him or her from reaching goal(s). A story’s theme, the underlying concept that flows through the narrative, is the common thread that helps to connect all the other components of the story. The essence of the story can change depending on who is narrating it and his or her point of view, so keeping this consistent is extremely important in tying it all together.
Most novels will be born from some inkling of an idea that the author thinks will make a good story.
Inkling Example #1: Mary Lou’s next-door neighbor disappears. The missing woman's husband claims she ran away with someone she met on the Internet. But when the missing woman’s husband seeks out Mary Lou for comfort in a clandestine way, she suspects he may have had something to do with his wife’s disappearance.
Inkling Example #2: The local hospital begins to be the site of unexplained deaths. When a man dies from a relatively minor ailment, his family members devote all their energy to getting to the bottom of it.
Inkling Example #3: Jennifer learns she has a twin sister who is alive and well and living two towns away. But Jennifer isn’t sure how much her sister knows about their biological family, making a possible reunion problematic and potentially dangerous.
Once you have a solid idea in your head, you will likely have thoughts as to how to begin fleshing it out to make the story full and compelling. I find it useful to jot down these wonderful thoughts. (If you have a better memory than I do, you may not have to do this.) To get things organized in my head, I start with an outline, and the way I do it is by creating a spreadsheet with the following column headings:
# of Words
Before I start writing, under the Chapter # column, I create twenty-five rows by entering 1 through 25 down the page (this assumes I’ll end up with twenty-five chapters—just a guess, a place to start). Then, in the Plot Points column, I write a few brief sentences for chapters 1, 3, 12, and 25 based on the narrative arc that many authors use to structure their work.
Chapter 1: Establish the setting and at least the main character in this chapter.
Chapter 3: Novels need conflict, drama, tension, and/or crisis to grab reader attention and keep them turning the pages. At least a hint of the problem should start early and be very evident by this chapter.
Chapter 12: The most impactful conflict, drama, tension, or crisis should come by now, approximately halfway into the novel.
Chapter 25: Predict how the story ends. (If you establish the ending before you start writing, you will have a goal in front of you while you write.)
I choose these plot points because they are typically the ones I know in my head before I start writing. That’s not to say they don’t change during the course of my writing, but I find they provide a good starting place.
Then, as I write, I note the time period for each chapter, expand on the plot points, and when I’m finished with a chapter, I record the word count.
For me, this evolving outline proves to be invaluable throughout the entire writing process. It keeps me on track with the story line, saves time from going back into the text looking for specific scenes, and monitors the number of words I’ve written. (I like to keep chapters more or less the same length, and the total number of pages between 75,000 and 90,000 words.)
If you decide to use an outline, keep in mind that you don’t have to follow it exactly. Sometimes when you’re writing, the story will (seemingly) take off in a direction on its own. If it feels right when that happens, go with it. It's relatively easy to revise an outline.
Whether you are a “planner” (you prepare an outline and develop major plot points before you start writing) or a “pantser” (you do no up-front planning but write by the seat of your pants), whether you write love stories or dark fantasy sagas, every story needs structure to make the narrative components meld together and make sense for the readers.