How to meld character and story structure together into a plot (even for pantsers)

If you find that your characters run away from you, develop a mind of their own, or passively go along with events instead of affecting them, then this article is definitely for you.

In the Characters article, I discussed how the thing your character Wants is an outgrowth of the Lie he believes and the Inner Wound he struggles against. I also discussed how your character’s pursuit of what he Wants generates your plot, whereas his discovery and acceptance of what he Needs generates your story. In the Story Structure article I talked about plot points, pinch points, etc. This article melds the two; it explains how character and story structure fit together.

 

 

Your characters generate your plot. If you’re trying to create a story and then populate it with characters, you will need to custom-tailor your characters to fit your plot. That can be difficult, because a plot is just a story, whereas a character should be quite relatable, human, and engaging. People like stories just fine, but they really connect to characters. It’s a lot easier to create characters and build plots around them than vice versa.

 

 

Genres and genre conventions

This is currently a stub, on account of this article is going to take me a while to write.

The first thing to discuss when it comes to genre is, which age group is your book written for? It can be a children’s book, mid-grade (MG), young adult (YA), new adult (NA) or adult.

I know nothing about children’s books, so I’m going to skip that.

Genre articles:

Horror

 

 

 

Scenes and sequels, plus beginnings

English is a beautiful language full of enough special rules to choke a blue whale. Many of them pertain to vocabulary. As you might have figured out by now, more than half of the words commonly used in our language have more than one meaning. ‘Scene’ is no exception.

A scene is a chunk of a story with a specific beginning and ending. Each author has her own understanding of ‘scene.’ That said, most people agree that your average book appears to have roughly 64 scenes, give or take. I can’t speak to most books because I haven’t counted the scenes in ‘most books.’

So a scene is a unit of measurement used in a book.

A sequel is something that follows. For example, Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to Frankenstein. Fast & Furious 2 is the sequel to Fast & Furious. The Two Towers is the sequel to Fellowship of the Ring.

Now we complicate things.

Scenes typically contain scenes and sequels.

Whaaaaat?

It’s that thing where our words have more than one meaning.

I use both definitions of ‘scene’ pretty much constantly. A lot of writers do. This is important to learn.

So scenes are made up of scenes and sequels. A typical scene will contain the following:

  • Scene
    • Goal
    • Conflict
    • Result (sometimes called ‘disaster’)
  • Sequel
    • Reaction (can be broken into “Emotion” and “Reason,” but must occur in that order because we feel faster than we think)*
    • Dilemma
    • Decision

These are the basic building blocks of a story. A novel is a chain of scenes and sequels, one right after the other, that inexorably leads to the conclusion. And you can’t have scene-scene-sequel-sequel-sequel-scene-sequel-scene-etc. because that’s not the way human beings work. Even if your story is entirely about aliens or elves or whatever, you still need to write it this way because your readers are going to be human beings. You could do some experimental fiction, but it would probably be hard to read and not sell very well.

When I talk about scenes and sequels, I typically use the following example.

You wake up Sunday morning and you want to make chocolate chip pancakes for your son because they’re his favorite, it’s his birthday, and your recently deceased wife used to make them for him. (Motive, Setting, Goal.) However, when you go to the kitchen, you discover you have no chocolate chips (Conflict and Result). You’re upset by this (reaction) and you ponder what you should do: make them without the chocolate chips, or buy some (Dilemma). You decide to sneak off to Safeway before he wakes up (Decision).

You drive to Safeway to buy the chocolate chips (Goal). However, once you’re in the store, you discover there’s only one bag left and someone else is reaching for them at the same time you are. You get into a fight with them over the chips (Conflict). The fight ends when he calls you names and he’s escorted out of the store (Result). Shaken, you buy the chips (Reaction) and, as you’re heading out the store, he accosts you in the parking lot. You consider running, but your trick knee is acting up again (Dilemma) so you stand your ground (Decision).

And you can take this story in any direction. It could be a romance, a thriller, a spy story, a mystery. He could be your time-traveling son. Who knows? But there you have two scenes, each broken up into scene-and-sequence.

During the scene part, your character will have a goal and a conflict. The conflict will resolve in one of three ways.

  1. Your character won’t get what he wants. (‘No.’)
  2. Your character will get what he wants, but it sets in motion some other action or effect that will come to light later. (‘Yes, but …’)
  3. Your character will get what he wants. (‘Yes.’)

The only time you use #3 is when you’re writing the end of the climax, because, once there’s no more conflict, the story ends and you write the Resolution.

In the above example, the first scene ends with ‘no.’ The second scene ends with ‘yes, but.’ Does he ever make it home to make pancakes for his son? When the answer is yes, then the story is over.

These can be pretty complex. I still can’t readily identify them in the books I’m reading, though I’ve made a start. Happily, Jim Butcher, in his Livejournal, said he didn’t master it until he’d written many books, so I don’t feel so bad about myself. (He does one entry on scene and another on sequel; I posted to the first. The one following is the second.) Butcher’s advice is a little more complex than mine.

Should you begin your story with a scene or a sequel?

When you start a story, start with a scene, not a sequel. Your character has to have something he’s going for. It should be small and related to his world, but it has to exist because you can’t start a story with his reaction to something. If we don’t see the thing he reacts to, we won’t be able to tell if he’s overreacting, underreacting, etc.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) begins with Buffy wanting to make a good impression on her first day of 10th grade at a new school. That’s her goal. Jim Butcher’s Storm Front begins with Harry Dresden wanting to get his mail from a snarky mailman. Arrows of the Queen begins with Talia wanting to read her book in peace. Big Hero 6 begins with Hiro wanting to win a bot fight. The Wizard of Oz begins with Dorothy wanting to know what’s out there past the limits of her farm, and she wants to save her dog Toto. Spiderman: Far From Home begins with Peter Parker wanting to go on a normal class trip as a normal teenager. Every story begins with the main character wanting something minor, something that fits in with their normal day. That’s a scene. The disaster should be something relatively small, yet pertinent to the story, something that tells us a little about the world we’re in and the characters who inhabit it.


*Jim Butcher describes Sequels using Emotion, Reason, Anticipation, and Choice, but it’s basically the same thing. You can read his article here.

How to make characters

Many people have written books on this. I’m not going to, but I will give some basics.

First, a few terms.

FMC / MMC: Female main character, male main character.

Protagonist: The most important, main, significant characters in your story. Usually you will have one protagonist. In some romances you may have two.

Antagonist: The character or thing that opposes or stymies your protagonist. This can be society, a giant shark, a big storm, a killer robot, or people. You can have many antagonists, but there should be a main antagonist.

Villain: The bad guy. Not always the same as the antagonist. In The Wizard of Oz, the villain is the Wicked Witch of the West, but she’s not the antagonist. I believe the antagonist is Dorothy herself. (Yes, you can have one character be both protag and antag; these stories are called “man against himself.”) You can have many villains.

Main, or significant characters: Your protag’s friends and allies, characters who have a lot of ‘screen time.’ Romantic interests, buddies, etc. If you’re writing a series and these characters are in many books in the series, they will have arcs as well.

Secondary characters: Not quite so important, but still relevant. They’ll probably not have arcs.

Bit characters: Someone your character interacts with once or twice; generally unimportant.

Positive Character Arc: A story in which the protagonist learns and grows. Most storis in general, all romances, and all women’s lit have positive character arcs.

Flat Character Arc: A story in which the character, through being herself, changes the world about her but doesn’t learn and grow (because she already rocks and doesn’t need to). For most of the Honor Harrington books, Honor has a flat character arc. Same with Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games books.

Negative Character Arc: A story in which the protagonist needs to learn and grow and does not. These are always tragedies.

Every protagonist, major antagonist and/or villain, all of your main characters, and all of your secondary characters should be at least somewhat fleshed out. I don’t mean “fifteen pages of back story and knowledge of events he experienced in third grade.” I mean some basic stuff. Specifically: what does that character want? What motivates the character? What is her goal? How will she react, presented with a dilemma?

In another article I said you need to create your characters before you start writing your book. I don’t mean you have to create every character, but you do need to have your protagonist, your antagonist, and the main characters you know you’ll need fleshed out before you begin. If, for example, you know you’re going to write a romance set in New York at an ad agency, it might be good to write up your protag’s boss, a couple coworkers, your protag’s roommate and/or best friend, and your protag’s love interest. While you write you might discover that your protag talks a lot to a particular barista; you can work on that character when you get to him.

I also advise you keep a sheet of paper for each significant character you create, so that  you can list things pertinent to him. For example, if you give him brown eyes, write it down so that 100 pages later he doesn’t have green eyes.

No story is solely based on a character’s desires, though. For your protagonist, antagonist, and arguably for major villains and main characters, you will need to know a few other fundamental elements: their needs, fears, and inner wounds.

Needs, Fears, and Inner Wounds

Your character wants something desperately, which is why he’s willing to risk some part of himself to get it, possibly even his life, soul, or family. That’s what drives the plot of your story.

But your character often needs something as well, especially in a positive or negative character arc story. (In fact, you can’t write a tragedy without your protag needing something.) What your character needs drives the story element of your story.

(Wait, what?)

Story: the whole shebang AND the internal, underlying character arc. One of those “one word, two meanings” things. The story is related to the theme.

So The Wizard of Oz’s plot is about four friends who set off to get things they want from the Wizard and who kill a witch along the way. The Wizard of Oz’s story is about four people who already have the things which they think they need the most, and how they come to realize they have those things.

The thing your character needs is related to his inner wound. So is the thing he wants. It works like this:

At some point in your character’s back story, something happened that affected your character fairly strongly. This is your character’s Inner Wound. Because of this, your character believes something that isn’t true, which is your character’s Lie. Your character fears the repercussions of this Lie. His goal, what he wants, is to put to bed this Fear. He thinks he can do it by getting what he wants, but in reality only the thing he needs will resolve his conflict and ease his fear.

But … but … but … wait, what?

In a series, the protagonist’s inner wound, fear, etc. won’t come out until several books through. In a book, the protag’s wound/fear shouldn’t be explicitly stated until at least after the Midpoint, because otherwise you’re going to drown your reader in back story. You want to drop enough hints that your reader is salivating to know just what happened to screw up your character so badly, but you don’t want to tell them until the last possible moment–and maybe you never tell them. That’s okay. The reader doesn’t need to know your character’s inner wound–but you do.

So: Harry Dresden. We know he’s afraid of a bunch of wizards who have put him on probation and may kill him if he violates any of the Laws of Magic. We learn this in Act 1 of Book 1 of the series. Harry is living a life of fear, even though he rarely shows it. But he thinks about it and it’s one of the things that motivates him (the other being money, i.e., not starving). It isn’t until several books into the series, when he encounters a figure from his past, that we learn that he used magic to kill his foster father, who was abusing him, and even later we discover that he was in foster care because his mother and father had both died, leaving him alone. Harry Dresden fears being alone. He will do anything for his friends, loved ones, and especially for his family–and he doesn’t even learn about who all the members of his family are until Book 12. He might have more; the series isn’t over yet.

A good rule for this sort of back story is, when in doubt, keep it out.

So you know your protag’s fear, the thing he doesn’t want to think about. He might not even realize it’s his fear. How many of us know ourselves that deeply? But it drives him. Harry Dresden wants to find the killer in Storm Front because, if he doesn’t, the White Council might decide it was him and have him executed. He’s in that position because of X events from his past, and those events, his Inner Wounds, have created his fear of being alone. Although he’s living very much alone at that moment, he doesn’t want to alienate Murphy, who is both a source of income and a potential friend. It’s complicated because it’s a series (and I’m sure that, when Butcher wrote Storm Front, Dresden’s inner life was much less complicated!) but it’s there.

Your main antagonist needs to have his/her/its inner wound, need, and fear developed as well. Often your antagonist is a mirror of your protagonist, so we see what will happen to your protagonist if he loses. You want your antagonist to be richly detailed, because that makes for a better story. Most of the antagonists in the Avatar cartoons were extremely developed and compelling characters, especially in the Korra seasons. One of the antagonists in the Aang seasons, Zuko, successfully transitioned into a protagonist through one of the best redemption arcs I have ever read or seen. Those characters stick long after you finish them. Conversely, two-dimensional antagonists aren’t interesting, which means the conflict isn’t interesting, and therefore the story isn’t interesting.

Loki is a fascinating and extremely well-developed antagonist, probably the most interesting in the MCU. That’s why he has such a following. (It doesn’t hurt that Tom Hiddleston loves playing him.) Thanos and Nebula are also well-built.

So, to reiterate:

Your character had something horrible happen in the past. This prompted him to develop some belief that isn’t true, which is his Lie. He either fears the repercussions of his Lie/Wound, or he wants to resolve those things, and that’s what prompts his goals (his Want). However, if he achieves his Want, he will either not be satisfied, or, worse, he will fail in some fashion (there’s your tragedy). Only by achieving his Need will he resolve his Wound/Lie/Fear.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is living with her aunt and uncle. She’s an orphan. Her back story is never explained, but we know she loves her dog Toto more than anything else. She fears losing him, and he bit the neighbor, who wants him put to sleep. She runs away from home. While she’s away from home, she finds out from a kindly charlatan that her aunt is very sick and may be dying. In desperate fear of losing another family member, Dorothy rushes home, only to be brained by falling debris flung about by a tornado. The whole story runs on Dorothy’s fear of losing Toto, then Auntie Em. She runs all over the place, trying to save the people she loves, trying to find something outside of herself that will solve her problems, but her strength is internal and she needs to stay put to properly use it.

One last caveat: In many cases, what the protag wants isn’t a bad thing. Often it’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with saving the planet or keeping the Ark from falling into the hands of the Nazis. But the protag of a positive character arc story will fail if he doesn’t achieve his Need as well. The book won’t do well. The story will feel ‘off’ and it won’t sell well. The protag can achieve a positive Want and fulfill his Need. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. But if the Want interferes with the Need, the Need must prevail, and if the character achieves both, he must achieve his Need before he can achieve his Want, or the story won’t work properly (low sales, feels ‘off,’ etc.)

Romances: a special case

Romances are very hard to write.

I’m going to use heterosexual norms here because F and M are different letters and it will reduce confusion. Romances featuring gay folks are structured the same as romances that feature straight folks.

In a romance, the FMC and MMC must be tailored to each other. Each of the two characters must contain, intrinsic to that character, whatever is needed to resolve the Fear/Lie/Inner Wound of the other. They must resolve each other, fitting together like a key and a lock.

In a standard story, your main characters can complement each other, but they don’t need to resolve each other. In a romance, there’s no wiggle room.

Many, many kinds of stories have romantic subplots, so even if you don’t write a romance, you may have a romantic story arc and you need to know this. If your series is going strong for 9 books and then in the 10th you want to get your FMC hitched, you’ll need to create a MMC tailor-made to fit her existing needs.

This does not mean the romantic interest must resolve your character’s deepest fear! For example, Mercy Thompson (written by Patricia Briggs) is most afraid of being abandoned. She gets married in one of the books. You’d think that would resolve her fear, but it hasn’t. It’s lessened it, but she still fears being abandoned by her family, which is larger than her husband. Likewise, getting married doesn’t keep Miles Vorkosigan (by Lois McMaster Bujold) from fearing that he’ll never have a place of his own in a disability-phobic society in which his father’s and grandfather’s achievements have outshone his own.

When your protagonist’s innermost fear has been resolved, the series is over. If you’re going to write a series, make certain your protag’s innermost fear is broad, hard to overcome, and can spin off many “sub-fears” that you can play with in each book’s positive character arc.

This is also why romances don’t usually have sequels; typically the romance is the story and the character’s innermost fear is resolved by the romance. Romance series usually focus on families, with Bob getting married in the first book, Frank (his brother) in the second, and so forth.

All the rest

Some people will tell you that you need to know everything there is possibly to know about a character before you write her. Some writers fill out huge questionnaires, character sheets, interview their characters, etc. You can do that if it works for you. All of that supplements what I wrote above. It doesn’t replace it. I personally don’t find it particularly important to know what color paint is on the walls in my protag’s bathroom, but you might.

Typically I develop the following for any given character:

  • Nationality
  • Race
  • Height
  • Weight and body shape, muscle-to-fat ratio
  • Hair color, style, and texture
  • Eye color and shape
  • Facial and body hair
  • Shape of face and hands
  • Birth marks, scars, tattoos, or other distinguishing features
  • Preferred clothing (what they would wear) and current clothing (what they have to wear)
  • Politics
  • Sexuality
  • Education level (years, public or private, university names if they attended)
  • Professional certifications
  • Languages they speak, and to which degree
  • Special skills
  • Hobbies
  • Skills they’re not good at
  • Dislikes and distastes
  • Phobias
  • Family size
  • Birth order
  • Relation to family (loving? Distanced?)
  • Some significant details from their childhoods and early adulthoods
  • Best friends and enemies from the past
  • Items important to them
  • Fighting style (fight, flight, freeze, submit; favored weapons; skill level at combat)
  • Aliases
  • Quirks
  • Stuff specific to your story and/or genre
  • Quality of home and car from childhood
  • Quality of home and car in current story

For example, I have a character named Miguel Delgado Herrera. He’s a Nicaraguan Latino. He’s 5’5″ tall and weighs about 150 pounds, all muscle. He’s built solid, almost stocky, but he’s quite flexible. He’s balding, so he shaves his head. He has a mustache and van dyke. He probably has a few scars, but nothing major. No birthmarks or tattoos. He has a squarish, handsome face, a nice smile, and an easy, polite, affectionate attitude that gets him a lot of female attention, which he doesn’t want because he’s asexual and aromantic. He was educated at Nicaragua’s main university, achieved a JD there, and is licensed to practice law in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Peru. He was a Sandinista, so he’s liberal. He speaks fluent Spanish, enough Russian to get by, and some English, but not well enough to understand slang. He’s a gymnast and a marksman with the rifle, and he drives well. He loves cooking and is very good at it. He also enjoys Sudoku.

He has an unreasoning hatred of Hondurans and blames them for the death of his first best friend, Guillermo, when he was 21 years old. His personality shifts when he has to deal with Hondurans; he becomes irritated, biting, harsh, and can even verge into being cruel.

He was born six years after his sister, one of two kids. He grew up middle-class, with both father and mother, in a loving and happy family. His parents worried when he didn’t develop an interest in girls and had him tested for hormonal problems at the doctor’s office. His peers in school made fun of him and called him gay because he exhibited no interest in girls. He developed the belief that he was defective (initial Inner Wound and Lie) and nothing his parents or sister said convinced him otherwise. Otherwise, he wanted to be an actor when he grew up.

When he was 15 years old, his sister was kidnapped out of their home. When he was 18 he defied his parents to join the Sandinistas because he wanted to avenge her kidnapping. He trained and fought as a soldier for a few years, then went to school to become a human rights lawyer. While he was a soldier his best friend was shot and killed.

When he was 25 he ran into a vampire, who infected him with semi-vampirism. (Book 1 begins here.) He joined a vampire hunting society and trained to be one of them. About two months into it, he ran into his sister, who’d been similarly infected shortly after being released from prison. Their reunion was dramatic and heartfelt.

He now hunts and fights vampires as a team with his sister and his brother-in-law. They live in a middle-class (for Nicaragua) home in the nation’s capital, and he drives a BMW because he’s a lawyer as his day job. He is a very, very messy person, but his mess is confined to his bedroom.

His current best friend is Lisette, another vampire hunter. He likes to cuddle with her because, although he’s asexual and aromantic, he still enjoys human contact. If he had to save an object from his home, it would be one of her paintings, but he doesn’t have a favorite item.

In book 1, Miguel’s Lie is that he’s defective. His inner wound is those experiences from his teen years. His Fear is that he’ll be alone. His Want is to create, save, preserve, or otherwise become an integral part of a family. His need is to realize he’s not defective. He achieves both his Want and his Need, but he doesn’t achieve his Want until he achieves his Need.

This is everything I need to write his story. Anything else accretes as I continue the series.

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.

Three things you need to do to write well

There are three things you absolutely must do if you intend to write novels.

The first is to actually write. Many people will say you should write every day, and I generally like that because repetitive practice does wonders and writing every day will get you to published quicker than anything else will. This holds true for sports, dance, music, art, and any other physical skill or mode of expression a person might want to develop into a career.

I’ve taught for many years now and I have had kids tell me they want to play professional ball. One of them, now in 10th grade, carried a basketball with him everywhere. Every chance he got, he was practicing. He woke up early to practice, stayed up late, and did quite well on our team. His parents got him a personal trainer (at great expense to themselves) and I honestly believe he has a shot. But he is one of at least 100 kids who’ve told me they intend to play pro ball, and he was the only one who practiced every day. Typically they tell me they want to play, but they don’t put in the 3-6 hours of practice a day that they need to become professionals.

Fortunately no writer has to put in 3-6 hours of practice a day to go professional. We’re not looking to be professionals at the age of 19. We won’t peak in our twenties and retire in our thirties with a busted knee. But it would be a good idea to do a little organized writing every day. It gets you in the habit. Some people say that if they have to write every day it turns into a chore, and this can be true for some (not for me; I get an endorphin rush every time I write). But, if you intend to go professional, writing really will be a chore. At least part-time. If you only write when it’s fun, you won’t make much money at it.

That said, I don’t write every day. I wish I could. The ADHD makes it hard and so does my job. When report cards are due I must grade first. I don’t intend to make any money off of writing for at least several more years, though. I love my day job. I’m 44. I’m hoping to be publishable by the time I’m 55, so that I can have supplemental money (note — supplemental — writing pays for shit for most people) when I retire. I’m not your average young hopeful with dollar signs in their eyes.

The second is to read.

Read everything, but especially read fiction, and especially read fiction both in your genre and of the length you want to write.* You must read, and you should read fiction for at least half an hour every day. I typically read fiction for an hour or more. You could get away with not reading as much if you’re writing for TV or movies or something, but if you intend to write something other people will read, you must read too. I’ve read a lot of works from people who don’t read, and they struggle greatly with things like how to use words to describe settings, feelings, character, action (especially fight scenes, sex scenes, etc.). They struggle with sentence formation, paragraph structure, and the like.

Reading will not only tell you a lot about what’s considered normal in your genre, but it will teach you more about the above than any craft book, lecture, YouTube video, etc. You must read. (Plus there are genre conventions that work well, visually, but don’t work at all in text, like the jump scare. That’s a staple for horror movies but doesn’t work too well in print.)

You also want to read a tremendous amount of nonfiction because you need the largest base of general knowledge you can possibly get. I loved general education classes in college and structured my GE to help me as a writer. Today I’ve read articles on the writing process, ADHD and ADHD medications, assault weapons laws, weight loss recidivism, women and professional imaging, Morton’s toe, parents who eat lunch with their kids at elementary schools, wolf packs, teaching, and the news. Part of that is my ADHD, but part of it’s also building up such a base of general knowledge that research becomes easier.

I’ve also noticed that if I write a lot without reading much fiction, I run out of words. It’s the strangest thing. I stop being able to describe things. I think of reading as taking in fuel. You better gas up before you drive to grandma’s, that sort of thing.

The third is to critique other peoples’ works. That one deserves its own article in the interest of not making these too long.


*It’s also very, very important to read outside your genre. You should be familiar with every genre’s conventions, especially since they cross over to an extraordinary degree. Many thrillers, mysteries, SF/F books, etc. have romantic subplots, just as an extraordinary number of books are actually mysteries. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is basically a mystery packaged as a young adult fantasy novel. I know there are a number of men out there who would not be caught dead with a romance, but that’s what Kindle is for. No one can see the cover of the book you’re reading when you’re reading on a Kindle, and if your masculinity is that fragile, you can always delete it from your Kindle when you’re done. It’ll still be there for you in Amazon’s cloud.