How to Structure a Story

I have so many writer friends who don’t outline at all; they sit down at the computer and just write off into the mist with complete faith that a story will emerge somehow.

This makes me cringe. I used to do it, and I have four manuscripts that will never see the light of publication because of it. The last one I ended up writing three times. First I had to fix the first half after I got completely stuck three-quarters of the way to the end. Then I had to finish the story. Then I had to rewrite the whole thing to actually make sense. Mostly.

I filed it in the “never publish this” folder and decided there had to be an easier way to create stories, and that led me down a research rabbit-hole where I didn’t get much writing accomplished for several years, but I learned a lot.

The game changer for me was story structure. Every good story has a certain structure to it — folklorist Joseph Campbell analyzed the master stories in myths and fairy tales and found the universal structure along with approximately eight billion variables that could be thrown in. Since the analysis was pretty much his life’s work, he can be forgiven for over-complicating the structure.

Since his work, many others have broken it down into a how-to-do-this format, including Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler, Jack Bickham, Larry Brooks, James Scott Bell…and a dozen others I can’t think of off the top of my head (but who are very good novelists and technical writers). You can even find the crucial information on the internet, broken down into diagrams.

Every single time I sit down to write a novel, I have to relearn the lessons of story structure. The current projects I’m working on stalled completely sometime in September, and I finally figured out why when I tried to outline the story structure. In both cases, it was totally whacked.

In one story, I had the first and second turning points happening almost simultaneously. Argh! In another, there was no second turning point, although there were three weak turning point-wannabes. Heavy sigh. The historical novel had no final climax where the conflict was resolved. Double argh!

So, I got them all figured out, although it took a while. And the words have started coming back. Finally. Which is usually a good sign that I have the story structure worked out.

If only I didn’t have to re-learn this with every book (and also that my romance heroes are the women — I have to remember it at some point in every story and usually end up rewriting a few scenes), my life as a writer would be a lot easier.

But not nearly as interesting, LOL. Happy holiday writing and reading!

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