10 BEST TIPS FOR PLOTTING: HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR BOOK
Today I'm tackling one of the most important parts of the writing process, and that's structure! Not only is structure an insanely important part of the writing process, it's also a part that a lot of writers mess up. If you can't structure a plot, you don't have a plot. And if you don't have a plot, you don't have a book. I'm here to help you avoid that problem entirely!
This topic was requested by one of my patrons over on Patreon, AJ Mason. Like so many other writers, AJ wanted to make sure she understood how to structure a novel, if there is a specific set in stone method for structuring a novel, and so on. Because of this, I will be answering the 10 most popular questions I receive about structuring your novel right here, right now.
Let’s jump into it!
This video is sponsored by Milanote. As always, all opinions are my own.
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Number 1: What IS Structure?
Structure is the framework of your story, the elements that link the different parts of your story together into one cohesive plot. Think of it this way: without the framework of your house, you just have a big pile of wood, which is pretty fuckin' useless. Narrative structure is similar to that. It connects the pieces of your story together so there's a beginning, middle, and end to your whole, complete novel.
Number 2: What Does a Story Structure Look Like?
The standard story structure is one everyone should be familiar with, and it looks kinda like a pyramid. You've got your beginning or inciting incident, which is the event that instigates the plot of the novel. We have the rising action, which is a series of events that further escalate the conflict. Then we reach the climax, which is where the conflict comes to a head. Then we have the falling action, or aftermath of the climax, ending in the resolution. All stories follow this structure to some degree, but there are different structural options that go into further depth.
Number 3: What Are the Different Types of Structures?
There are a zillion different types of structures to choose from, which may seem overwhelming. But keep in mind they are all elaborating on the same thing: a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. It's not that one is better than the other; they all follow the same pattern, just with different degrees of detail.
A few popular structural techniques are the three-act structure, the four-act structure, the Seven Point Structure, the mirror structure, hero's journey, Save the Cat, and the W-plot. And there are many more out there, I'm sure! Some of these are very detailed–for example, Save the Cat, whereas others are very vague–for example, the mirror structure.
Now, I can't break down every single structural option because one, I don't know them all. And two, we'll be here all day. I gotta pee at some point! So instead, I'm going to break down two of the more popular structures: the three-act structure and the hero's journey. For the rest of 'em, you're just gonna have to Google. The information's out there, I promise!
Number 4: What Is the Three-Act Structure?
The three-act structure is based on classic three-act plays and divides your story into three parts. If you couldn't figure that out already… The three parts are usually referred to as Act 1: The Setup, Act 2: The Confrontation, and Act 3: The Resolution.
The setup is exactly what it sounds like. It's there to establish the characters, the world, and how everything fits together until bam! We are hit with the inciting incident that sets the plot into motion. The setup usually ends with some kind of dramatic situation or question that essentially brings the conflict to the forefront of the story.
The confrontation, or second act, is the rising action of the story. It's a series of events showing the protagonist is trying to fix the conflict only for things to keep getting worse. During this chunk of the story, the character learns, grows, and develops, usually with the help or hindrance of other characters along the way.
Lastly, we reach the resolution, or third act. This is where the climax of the novel happens. The conflict is resolved and the main character learns whatever life lesson they were meant to learn.
As you can see, this structure is pretty general. You can probably think of a lot of books or movies that fit this structure, if not all of them. If you like your structure to be a bit simpler and lax, the three-act structure might be for you.
Number 5: What’s the Hero’s Journey?
I've heard people talk about the hero's journey as if it's a writing cliche, but they're wrong, bitch! It's a structural template; a blueprint for telling a story about a hero, and it's extremely popular. Now, this template is a lot more complicated than others. It includes the three-act structure as well as a special world, and an ordinary world. I'm not gonna go too deep into it, because that could make up its own post entirely. Instead, I'm just going to cover its 12 main points. For the pedants out there, I'm keeping shit general! Don't push me!
Step 1 is called "The Ordinary World," where we see the day-to-day life of our hero.
Step 2 is the "Call to Adventure," which is basically where the plot, conflict, or goal presents itself.
Step 3 is the "Refusal of the Call," which is where our hero says, "Fuck that! I don't wanna go on a quest! I'm normal!"
Step 4 is "Meeting the Mentor," which is pretty self-explanatory. Someone's got to teach our hero to fuck shit up!
Step 5 is "Crossing the Threshold," which is where the hero officially embarks on the adventure and dives into danger!
Step 6 is "Tests, Allies, and Enemies." It's a series of events that makes things harder for the hero, whether that's dangerous tests or new enemies. But of course, they make some handy dandy allies along the way!
Step 7 is "Approach the Inmost Cave," which basically comes down to the hero trying to tackle the conflict head on and failing big time.
Step 8 is the "Ordeal." The hero faces the conflict again, they struggle immensely, but ultimately, they win!
Step 9 is "The Reward," where the hero is benefited in some way from saving the day. Usually, they become a better, stronger person and they claim some kind of prize or reward.
Step 10 is "The Road Back," which is where the hero heads back to their normal life or maybe grapples with the decision to go back at all.
Step 11 is "The Resurrection." The hero faces death one last time in an ultimate showdown, and through this experience, they come back better and stronger–a new person!
And finally, we have Step 12, which is "Return with the Elixir." The hero returns home and shares his prize with all the land!
This is the hero's journey in the teeniest, tiniest nutshell! There are a bazillion different interpretations and variations of the hero's journey. It has been around for eons, so if you want further detail, do your research! The information's out there! As you can see, this option is way more detailed than the three-act structure on its own. So if you want a more detailed, regimented structure, the hero's journey might be for you!
Number 6: How Do I Know Which Structure Is Right for Me?
First things first, what is your writing style? If you're free as a bird and don't like hard and fast rules, maybe try a less regimented structure. If you're the type who thrives with organized lists, then a detailed structure might be better suited for you. And if you're somewhere in the middle, maybe you want the freedom to add and remove structural points as you please, then blending some of these structures may be a good idea for you. The three-act structure is often compounded with additional plot points per the author's discretion. It's your book, your rules!
Second, take a look at your genre. It wouldn't make sense to use the hero's journey if you're writing a horror novel where everyone dies at the end. Some structures are better suited for certain genres. That said, even if you're writing a genre that pairs very well with a specific structure–for example, the hero's journey works great with sci-fi and fantasy–that does not mean you have to use that structure. So long as you're at least sticking with the standard pyramid we've discussed ad nauseam, you're fine!
Which brings me to my last point: story. You know your story better than anyone else. Where do you want your story to go? What do you want your characters to achieve? Find the structure that fits your end goal best and you're good to go!
Number 7: How Am I Supposed to Fit My Jumble of Ideas Into a Structure?
If you're planning a novel, you probably have some plot points in mind, some conflicts, or characters that you want to fit into your story. This is where outlining and storyboarding come into play. Take your ideas and see where they fit within the structure of your novel. This is where a platform like Milanote really comes in handy. You can literally splatter all of your ideas across a Milanote board and move them around to match your structure!
Pro Tip: If you're really new to this and not sure what you're doing, I'd recommend creating a structural blueprint right on your board. You can even use the standard structure of a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Then match your plot points on the structure itself, kinda like pin the tail on the donkey. This is a great way to see which pieces of your story are vital to the plot and what's just unnecessary fluff.
Number 8: “Okay, so I Just Pick a Structure and Follow It Exactly…Right?”
I mean, you can, but you don't have to. After you get comfortable plotting, it's very common to develop your own sense of structure. Keep in mind, your story must follow the standard of having a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. However, there may be additives that fit your style. Many writers I know create their own structure that's sort of a mix of other popular structures. Ultimately, the more you write, the more familiar with plotting you'll become, which means you won't necessarily have to follow these structural models as rigid guidelines. Instead, you will adopt a method that fits your brand of storytelling.
Number 9: Do I Really Need a Structure?
YES! Usually, I say there are exceptions to the rule. But when it comes to structure, you're shit outta luck. If you are writing a fiction novel, it has to have a structure. All plot lines revolve around some kind of conflict or goal, and having a structure ensures that your novel follows that conflict or goal to completion. Without structure, your book is just a series of unrelated events. Just your characters meandering through life, and that is not a plot. It's also boring as hell!
Structure is the epitome of what makes a novel. You gotta have one if you want to have a storyline!
Structure is the epitome of what makes a novel. You gotta have one if you want to have a storyline!
Number 10: “But Jennaaa, How Do You Structure YOUR Novel?”
Like I mentioned earlier, I have been writing for decades, so I have adopted my own structural method. If you'd like to see my personal structural method, you can check out my video on the topic! I also have a blog post breaking the whole thing down just for you. My structural method is second nature. I've been using it for years because it works really well for the kind of genres I enjoy writing, which are typically fantasy, sci-fi, action adventure, and romance.
So that's all I've got for you today!
If you’ve been clueless about how to structure your book, I hope these tips helped ya out! Whether you choose the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, the Seven Point Structure or something else, be sure to do your research. Once you get comfortable with structuring your stories, you can start to add your own flair to them.
What’s your go-to story structure? Let’s chat about it in the comments!
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