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Top Five Tips to Structure a Story

October 24th, 2014

Building_Your_StoryIf your plot is what actually happens in your story, then your structure is both its overall shape and the thing that holds it all together. It’s how your story unfolds. It’s also something many writers struggle with. So here are some essential tips, adapted from my new title ‘Building Your Story; a Guide to Structure and Plot’ (Compass Books 2014).

1.            What’s your big question? Every story needs one, whether it’s will she make it to the altar, will they dismantle the bomb and save the world, or what is the meaning of justice (in the context of the story)? Define your big question before you begin and you’ve already determined the most basic of structures – your start point and end point.

2.            Define your beginning, middle and end. The three act structure is the most simple of all and most writers are familiar with it and use it as a matter of course – but they still fall prey to ‘saggy middle’ syndrome. Before you start writing, pay particular attention to what’s going on in that second act, even if your plan consists of little more than a list of plot points. It shouldn’t just be filler, but the place where tensions build, conflicts arise or deepen, and characters develop.

3.            How are you using time? A story happens in time. Sounds obvious, but there are many stories out there that seem to exist in a bubble – there’s no sense of time passing. Decide what time period your novel takes place over – a week, a decade, a century? – and see how you can use this to structure your story. Thrillers, for example, can make good use of countdowns; a memoir covering a year could take a chapter a month.

4.            Establish setting. The overall setting of your story can provide a strong backdrop and even help shape your story. To give two extreme examples, Emma Donohue’s tightly written, claustrophobic Room does indeed largely take place in one room. The Harry Potter stories follow the termly patterns of the Hogwarts school year. Even if the overall setting of the story isn’t that crucial to the plot, the settings of the most dramatic moments should be considered. Scene setting can complement what’s going on – think Christian Grey’s playroom – or highlight it by contrast, such as a grisly murder taking place in a clinical hospital room.

5.            Think about your character’s motivations. Your character should grow and change along with the story and his or her personal ‘arc’ should shadow that of the overall structure. Also, keep those personal stakes high. When they think it can’t get any worse, make it worse.

Kelly Lawrence is a Writers Bureau tutor who writes in a variety of genres, from erotic memoir to historical romance, and spirituality to Young/New Adult, and even the odd bit of poetry.


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