STORY STRUCTURE: 10 Simple Keys to Effective Plot Structure

Structure is something that every agent, editor, publisher, Hollywood executive, public speaker, marketer and story teller talks about, to the point that it can seem complicated, intricate, mysterious and hard to master. So I want to give you a starting point for properly structuring your novel, screenplay or presentation without overwhelming you with rules and details and jargon.

Here are what I consider ten key elements of structure – ten ways of looking at structure that will immediately improve the emotional impact – and commercial potential – of your story.

Long time television writer Doug Heyes says that there is only one rule for achieving proper plot structure: What’s happening now must be inherently more interesting than what just happened. The goal of structure – the goal of your entire story, in fact – is to elicit emotion in the reader or audience. If your story is increasingly compelling as you move forward, that’s all you need to worry about.

The events and turning points in your story must all grow out of your hero’s desire. Without an outer motivation for your protagonist – a clear, visible objective your hero is desperate to achieve – your story can’t move forward. Repeatedly ask yourself, “What does my hero (or heroine) want to achieve by the end of the story? Can readers clearly envision what achieving that goal will look like? And will they be rooting for my hero to reach that finish line?” Apply the same questions to whatever scene: “What does my hero want in this sequence? And how is this immediate goal linked to her ultimate outer motivation?” If your answer is “I don’t know,” or, “They don’t,” your story is dead in the water (a sailing term that means “adrift, not going anywhere”).

Structure is built on desire, but the emotion you must elicit grows out of conflict. The more obstacles a character must overcome, and the more impossible it seems that he will succeed, the more captivated your audience will be. The conflict must build: each successive problem, opponent, hurdle, weakness, fear and setback must be greater than those that preceded it. Repeatedly ask yourself, “How can I make it even harder for this character to get what he wants?”

In each successive scene, something must happen that has never happened before: a new situation for the hero; a new secret to reveal; a new ally to join; and new enemy to confront; a new lover to pursue; a new (even bigger) problem to solve; a new tool for solving it. If scenes are interchangeable, or if nothing of significance changes from one scene to the next, you’re treading water.

In creating the overall structure for your story, look at it as symmetrical, and divided into three sections (these are NOT the three acts – we’re looking at structure a bit differently here). Section 1 shows us your hero at the beginning of the story, living his everyday life. He’s stuck in some way – settling for something, resigned to a life that isn’t that fulfilling, or oblivious to the fact that deep down he longs for more.

At the other end of this symmetrical structure is another portrait of that same hero, this time transformed. Living a different life, more mature and self-aware than he was at the beginning. This final sequence must give us a clear picture of your hero, after having reaped the rewards (positive or negative) for finding (or not) the physical and/or emotional courage that was necessary to achieve his goal and complete his journey.

In between these before and after snapshots is the journey itself – the hero’s pursuit of that all-important goal.  This is where the compelling desire and the overwhelming conflict come face to face. But without those beginning and ending sequences, the structure is incomplete, and the story won’t work.

At the end of that opening snapshot your hero must be presented with some opportunity. Something must happen to your hero that will engender her initial desire, and move her into some new situation. This is where the forward movement of your story begins, and it is out of this new situation (often geographic, always unfamiliar) that your hero’s outer motivation will ultimately emerge.

Whatever outer motivation drives your hero, she shouldn’t begin pursuing that goal immediately. She must get acclimated to her new situation, must figure out what’s going on or where she fits in, until what has been a fairly broad or undefined desire comes into focus. Only then can she begin taking action toward the specific outer motivation that defines your story.

Structure applies to both the outer journey of achievement, and the inner journey of transformation. In other words, as the hero moves on the visible path toward that finish line, facing ever increasing obstacles, he must also gradually find greater and greater courage to overcome whatever fears have been holding him back and keeping him from finding real fulfillment or self worth. Repeatedly ask yourself “How is my hero changing in this scene? How are his emotional fears revealed and tested?” And, ultimately, “What does my protagonist have the courage to do at the end of the story that he didn’t have the courage to do at the beginning?” Whatever the answer, this is your hero’s character arc.

Superior position is the term for telling your reader or audience something that some of the characters in the story don’t know. This gives you one of your most powerful structural tools: anticipation. When we know who and where the killer is before the hero does, or when we know the hero is keeping a big secret, we will keep turning the page to see what happens when that conflict appears, or that secret is revealed.

Your job as a writer is not simply to take the reader to incredible places and show them exciting or astonishing characters and events – it’s to make the reader believe they are real. Your reader wants to suspend disbelief, but you’ve got to enable them to do that, by having your characters behave in consistent, credible ways. Your audience is eager to embrace fantastic, faraway worlds, bigger than life characters and startling events, but only if your characters react to them the way people in the real world would. You can even give your hero extraordinary powers, but we have to learn how she acquired them, and these powers must be limited in some way, in order to make her vulnerable.

This list certainly doesn’t cover every element or principle of plot structure that I lecture about or use with my consulting clients. Nor does it reveal all of the tools and turning points at your disposal. But every story I have ever encountered that followed these ten principles was properly – and effectively – structured.