Story Structure: What is it, and do I need it even if I don’t outline?

Yes, you need to know what story structure is whether or not you outline your work. The more you know and understand story structure, the easier it will be to pants your way through your alpha draft without having a saggy middle or boring story. Outliners should know this too.

Story structure is not a formula. It doesn’t create formulaic books. Some scholars studied a couple thousand works of fiction from around the world and across time and they came up with a basic understanding of how stories work. Humans have this fundamental need to tell stories, and I think this is part of our functionality, or the way our brains work. You don’t need to use story structure, but if you plan on becoming rich and famous, it really helps to understand this stuff. Plus you can’t effectively break the rules if you don’t know what they are. So set aside any quibbles you have and listen.

Fiction is not real life. In real life, things happen for no apparent reason. In 2017 my best friend was hit by a car and nearly died. In a story, that would be relevant to the plot, or it wouldn’t happen. There’s no plot to my life or his, and it just happened. Were I to be telling a story, and I included an event like that which didn’t actually forward the plot or character development, readers would pitch my book across the room. So all the stuff in your book has to matter to your character arcs or your plot development.

If you’re writing a series, you can include things in your WIP that are relevant to the series arc but not the book’s plot arc, but those should be subplots and used sparingly. And you should know your series’ structure (which is basically story structure writ large) before you get too far into your books, or you’ll need to grandfather those things in. I believe Jim Butcher grandfathered Storm Front’s events into his series plot in the Dresden Files series because Storm Front was his first published book and he had no idea, at the time, that he’d publish a 24 book series out of Harry Dresden. That’s why the series seems to take off with Book 3. This is a guess, though, and if Butcher would like to correct me, I will happily post what he says.

In Plotting, pantsing, and outlining I referred to these as “twists.” This is what they’re actually called. Percentages are approximate. You might hit your inciting event somewhere between 10% and 13%, but it should be close to what I list or your story may start to sag.

0% – the beginning

12.5% – Inciting Event. Sometimes called “inciting incident” (which is probably just people making slips of the tongue) or “call to adventure,” for people who like the Hero’s Journey.

25% – First Plot Point

37% – First Pinch Point

50% – Second Plot Point, or Midpoint

62% – Second Pinch Point

75% – Third Plot Point

88% – Climax begins

98% – Climax ends, Resolution begins

Again, these are approximate. Some people end the climax at around 95%.

In addition to these points, there’s usually a Key Decision that happens somewhere between the 20% and 25% mark.

This article is meant to be brief, as in “not a book.” The best book I’ve found for simply, easily, usefully, and briefly describing these things is Weiland’s Five Secrets of Story Structure book. I encourage you to buy and read it. I’ve read about nine books on story structure so far and I’m working on my 10th and 11th ones now, so I’m going to synthesize what those books say for you, but a lot of it will be from her book. (Again, I get no kickbacks for books I recommend.)

Go get a copy of your favorite paperback, one you’ve read so many times you know the story by heart, mark the pages where these percentage points occur, and keep it handy. You may want a pencil or highlighter.

The Hook – 0-12.5% of the book

This is where you introduce the characters and the world to your readers. Your story should begin with your characters in their Normal World, which will be either idyllic and soon to be lost, or horrible and in need of fixing. Something minor but symbolic of the changes to come will happen in the first couple of pages. Get out your book and look through the first chapter. What little thing is this? In Arrows of the Queen, it’s Talia’s 13th birthday, and the news she’s going to be married soon. In Storm Front, it’s Harry Dresden being hired to look into the death of Tommy Tom and the disappearance of Larry Sells (I think; the book is not handy).

In this section of the book your main character should let the reader know what she wants. It’s good for novice writers to explicitly state this. Talia blurts to the women in her hold “I want to be a Herald.” Dresden wants to stay on Murphy’s good side so he can be paid both now and in the future. If your reader doesn’t know what your main character wants, your book will seem vague and perhaps confusing.

There is a hell of a lot of writer advice out there about keeping back story and world building out of your first 12%. I’m not sure I believe that, though I’m open to being wrong. You should never info-dump or engage in exposition in this section because that will bore your readers to tears. However, you do need to let us know enough about your world to orient ourselves. Get out that book and read it carefully. Use a symbol to mark each time your favorite author slips in some bit that makes the world more understandable. Harry Dresden tells us he lives in Chicago, and that there are laws of magic he can’t break, and how magic affects technology, and quite a bit more. Talia tells us what the hell a “Herald” is and why she would want to be one.

Only use character background info and worldbuilding if it helps the reader grasp what’s going on and what they need to know about the character to make sense of the character’s immediate situation. We don’t need to know that the monarch of Talia’s world is always a Herald at this point. We do need to know the basics of what a Herald is. We don’t need to know about the Blackstaff during the first 12% of Harry’s story, but we do need to know that he could be killed if he violates the Laws of Magic on Murphy’s behalf.

Inciting Event – 12.5% to 20-25%

Your main character will brush against the central conflict somehow at this point. Something major will happen that will deeply impact the character, but won’t be enough in and of itself to suck the character irrevocably into the story. In a romance, this might be the Meet Cute. If I were writing a scifi about the discovery of interstellar travel through wormhole jumping, this might be where I put the successful discovery of interstellar travel. No one has done it yet, but at this point we know how to do it, and the main character might be chosen to make the first attempt. From the 12.5 to 20% mark (approximate) the characters will be preparing, somehow, to enter the conflict. They may have no idea that they’re doing so, but they are.

For example, in Big Hero 6, Hiro is taken to the Nerd Lab and meets his future friends. He’s wowed, both by their coolness and by what they’re working on. He meets Baymax and learns what Baymax can do too. (Movies are wonderful for studying story structure, incidentally, and the more you learn about this stuff, the more you can see it as you watch.)

Around the 20% mark, or between 20 and 25%, your character should make a Key Decision that will lead to the First Plot Point. In Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers decide to fly to Never Never Land. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy decides to run home and encounters the tornado that takes her to Oz. In Big Hero 6, Hiro decides to try to qualify for Robotics School. In Arrows of the Queen, Talia is asked if she really wants to be a Herald and Queen’s Own despite the fact that the previous Queen’s Own was murdered, and they didn’t catch the murderer. In a paranormal werewolf romance I read a few months ago, the main character decided to stay in the diner where she worked despite being alone.

Sometimes, after the Key Decision, there will be a brief sequence leading to the First Plot Point (the point of no return). We see Wendy and her brothers fly to Never Never Land. We see Dorothy run home and try to get into the storm cellar. We see Hiro develop his nanobots and display them at the exhibition. Sometimes the Key Decision is “I think I’ll step through this portal,” and then there’s a sentence of action and then we’re at the First Plot Point.

First Plot Point – 25%. End of Act 1, beginning of Act 2.

Here the main character is sucked into the conflict and can’t leave. In the PN werewolf story, the main character is mugged and saved by a giant wolf, which turns out to be the werewolf she falls in love with. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s house drops on the Wicked Witch of the East. In Peter Pan, the kids land in Never Never Land and encounter Captain Cook. This is a big setpiece scene, a transition from the old world into the new, and a situation that the main characters can’t get out of easily. If the movie is a musical, you’ll usually have a giant musical scene here with dancing. The Munchkin scene in The Wizard of Oz is an example; it starts with Dorothy opening her door into technicolor fantasy and ends with the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

Act 2 is often split into two parts. Between 25% and 50% you’re going to want to very carefully follow your genre’s conventions. This is the section that’s most specific to genre.

Typically your character doesn’t understand the central conflict at this point. They might not even know who the villain is. They’re trying to do the thing they need to do, but because they don’t know what’s really going on, they’re running around rather unproductively and making little progress. This section should be interesting. Your protag is going to meet a lot of new people, including allies, and possibly train or develop something. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets her three buddies and is attacked several times by the Wicked Witch of the West. In Big Hero 6, Hiro mods Baymax and discovers Kabuki Man, his antagonist. Often this section is very engaging.

37% – the First Pinch Point

Here your antagonist makes a move or plots something that will affect your protagonist. This serves a bunch of purposes. First, if you’re veering too far off into fun-land with your protag and their allies, this re-centers your central plot. Second, your antagonist gets to screw with your protagonist, which is both important and should make you cackle and rub your hands together with glee. Third, it usually gives the first half of Act 2 enough “oomph” to get to the Midpoint.

It should be obvious that, by the 37% mark, you need to have introduced your antagonist. Often the antagonist is introduced (or its effects are) by the end of Act 1, but it’s okay to be a little late, and sometimes the antag is still behind the scenes. For example, in Storm Front we don’t see the antagonist until late in the book, but we see his effects and feel his power before the 37% mark. In Big Hero 6, the antagonist is the professor in the robotics lab. We meet him in the first act, see him as Kabuki Man at the 37% mark, but don’t find out the Kabuki Man is the professor until the climax.

50% – the Second Plot Point, aka the Midpoint

This is one of the most important points in the book and deserves a major setpiece scene. This is where everything changes. Your characters may end up with new goals, a new outlook on the conflict, etc. It’s so important that there’s a craft book out there where the author recommends you write this scene first and then work in each direction until the story is written.

At this point your main character will have an epiphany or come to an understanding about what she needs to do to achieve her goals. What she’s been doing so far (either internally, externally, or both) isn’t working, so she decides to try something else. In a movie where two main ally characters hate each other, this is where they resolve to set aside that hatred and work together as a team. In a romance, this is “sex at 60,” the point at which the two characters have sex or a moment of intimacy that signifies sex. In The Wizard of Oz, this is the Emerald City scene. Dorothy has achieved her goal of finding the Wizard, and now has a new goal: kill the Wicked Witch of the West. In Arrows of the Queen, this is where Talia finally begins to feel like she might belong.

62% – The Second Pinch Point

Between 50% and 62% your enlightened characters are still using their old methods of coping, dealing, or problem-solving to get what they want, because they haven’t linked their enlightenment with the need to try new methods. Dorothy is still hiking across Oz, for example, instead of clicking her heels. So even though they know more and are changing their ways, they’re still not getting where they want or need to go, so they’re still falling on their faces pretty much constantly. This can be really fun to write or watch.

In Big Hero 6, for example, Hiro wants to fight Kabuki Man, so he and his friends design and train in their superhero suits and Hiro flies all over San Fransokyo. Dorothy encounters the Flying Monkeys. Talia tries to figure out who’s corrupting the Heir to the Throne. Dresden’s tracking down Harry Sells.

My favorite part of a story to write is the part between the 37% mark and the 62% mark simply because that’s where the greatest amount of character growth seems to happen.

Between the 62% and 75% mark your antagonist should make himself known again–you want to keep your story on track if it seems to be veering off.

75% – The Third Plot Point, Beginning of Act 3.

Again, this is a huge setpiece scene. Between here and 88%, your character should be at his absolute lowest low-point and might even make some pretty unethical decisions. Often there’s some sort of symbolic or real death, especially of a mentor. Your character should be alone, on the ropes, ready to give up, because even though he knows what he needs to do, he doesn’t have all the info he needs to do it, or the strength to do it, or the heart.

Dorothy is told that if she doesn’t give up the ruby slippers in one hour, she’ll die. She’s locked in a room by herself. Talia’s psychic trainer is murdered and she is the only one who can get the McGuffin and rescue her friend–and she’s weak, afraid, and undertrained. Murphy is pissed at Dresden, tries to arrest him, and he has no allies. Hiro recklessly endangers his friends in his pursuit of Kabuki Man and then leaves them behind when he loses.

However, typically your character is only one piece of information or significant action away from winning. She just doesn’t know it.

88% – 98% – The Climax

The climax typically begins around 88%, though I’ve seen it start around 85%. Novels aren’t as precise as movies. During the climax the protag begins to wrap everything up, starting with the least important problem and working toward the most. They realize and apply that last bit of information needed to save the day.

Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch for her broomstick. Then she discovers that Oz is just a guy from Nebraska. She tries to leave in his hot air balloon, but it flies away. Then Glinda comes and tells Dorothy to click her heels three times. She goes home. Conflict over.

Hiro goes to the site of new construction, prepared to fight the scientist-developer, who he thinks is Kabuki Man. It’s not him. He fights and overcomes Kabuki Man, but then discovers that the man is the professor. He realizes that an innocent woman is locked into the hyperspace area that the scientist-developer created, so he enters that area, finds her, and has to leave Baymax behind, losing the last bit of his brother. Villains neutralized, great wrong righted, person saved, conflict over.

Talia guides her friends to where the McGuffin is and they rescue it. Then she saves the mind of one of her closest friends, cementing her place with the Heralds. Conflict over.

Dresden defeats Larry Sells and all his minions and stops the ritual they were enacting, solving the murders and closing up the subplots. Conflict over.

Once the conflict is over, the story is basically over. However, people really, really like resolutions. They want the “happily ever after.” We crave it. That leads us to …

Resolution – 98%-100% (sometimes starts at 95%)

Here you show the protagonist after the story is over. You resolve any lingering bits and restate the theme. There are many ways to do this. A lot of people recommend you show the protag back in her original world, only improved. Closing with a scene that mirrors the opening scene is a nice touch.

For example, Dorothy wakes up in bed, in Kansas, happy to be there. She says “there’s no place like home!”, which is the theme of the movie. Talia sees her best friend off on his training trip and thinks she’s finally found a place she belongs. Dresden preserves his relationship with Murphy and doesn’t get in trouble with the White Council. Hiro rebuilds Baymax and heads off to Nerd School with his friends, no longer a depressed loner.

If The Wizard of Oz ended with Dorothy clicking her heels, if Big Hero 6 ended with Hiro flying the missing girl through the portal, the story, while over, would have felt unfinished. You need the resolution to provide readers with a sense of satisfaction, of resolution.

You need this even if you’re writing a tragedy. Tragedies don’t have “happily ever after” endings (called HEA; HFN means Happy For Now), but they do need to satisfy. In Romeo & Juliet, for example, the story is over when Juliet kills herself, but in the resolution we find out what happened to their warring families. It must be done.

Once you internalize this, it will make both plotting and pantsing stories much easier to do.

Again, this isn’t a formula! This was developed through the study of existing stories. It’s set up with these percentages because they’re where those things occurred in well-paced, successful stories that had already been written before anyone studied story structure. Experienced writers might start their climax at 80% and resolve it at 95%, etc. That’s up to you.

Watch movies, looking for this stuff. Disney and Pixar are both excellent examples of movies that stick rigidly to story structure, and you’ve probably seen them all anyway. All of the MCU movies adhere strictly to this structure. The new Hobbs & Shaw movie, which came out less than a week ago, sticks to this structure. I see it in TV episodes, too; I’m currently watching Elementary, which is structured this way. Buffy seasons were also structured in this fashion, with each episode structured thus and the season structured according to this fashion. Once you start noticing it, it will be hard to un-notice.

That said, I started learning about story structure about 4 years ago and I’m just now able to identify it as I watch new movies. It takes a while before you can really make it out. But read your favorite novel, watch movies, etc. and you’ll start to get it too.

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