Why You Should Be A Structure Expert
NEWSFLASH: you need to become a structure expert. I often say this, but writers resist this, saying that it wrecks their spontaneity … Or all structure is just a formula … Or they’re pantsers … WHATEVER.
Fact is, these writers just don’t want to do the work. Yet the writers who DO the work will:
- Never get stuck in The Story Swamp
- Make powerful connections with their target audiences by design
- Develop the tools, such as different plotting archetypes
- Never write repetitively
- Write FAST!
What’s not to like? So if you want to become a structure expert and HELP your writing, follow the steps below.
STEP 1: Compare The Different Structural Approaches
I remember when I started this writing lark, I had to make comparisons MYSELF like a chump. Being the interwebs, you’re bound to find someone else has done the heavy-lifting for you now.
Thanks John Yorke, from his fantastic book Into The Woods for this great comparison below … As you will see, all the usual suspects are here, plus a couple I hadn’t seen before. You will also note there’s lots of crossover between the approaches.
This one from Greg Miller does something similar. He also includes some of the more ‘newbie friendly’ approaches, such as Blake Snyder’s, as well as the more accessible like Dan Harmon’s.
So read books, articles, go on courses, talk to other writers etc. DON’T just make notes you never look at again, reflect and mull over.
EXPERT TIP: Find as many structural approaches as you can. Compare and contrast.
2) STEP 2: Realise it’s Structure/Character (or Character/Structure, whatever)
Lots of writers appear to think writing is about structure OR character. Nope. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
(So, it’s not a choice between structure or character … It’s like Venom! They are BOTH, just like that scary-ass skull-munching mofo).
Most writers ‘get’ the protagonist should DRIVE the action in most genres and types of stories, so a good place to start would be the below.
Of course, characters don’t HAVE to change, though a huge portion of stories demand it. (Knowing this upfront will help you decide if your protagonist needs to change).
Lots of writers like a circular approach, since it helps them get rid of the ‘which comes first?’ element of structure and character. As we can see from the below, they go TOGETHER, hand in hand. Noice.
Circular approaches to structure lend themselves particularly well to story archetypes like The Quest, AKA The Hero’s Journey, which we can see here.
EXPERT TIP: If you want to be a real expert, realise structure/character is a symbiotic relationship.
STEP 3: Decide How YOU See Structure
Are you a 3 Acts Girl? Or maybe you like The Five Acts, The 22 Steps, Save The Cat … Something else?
Do you like structure broken down into steps or other bite-sized chunks? Or do you prefer a more holistic approach?
Maybe you like visual representations? I think this one is a great reminder.
Or maybe you prefer circular representations like those in step 2? Or maybe you like linear versions?
Myself, I prefer linear like these two (above and below, for better or worse). It makes sense to me … Stories start and end, plus there’s a big fat middle in the centre of it. As far as I’m concerned, ‘3 Acts = beginning, middle, end’. Boom
But that’s just how I think, there’s no reason you should think the same. Of the two linear representations here, I prefer the one directly below. It seems ‘cleaner’ and more straight-forward, whilst retaining a sense of escalation which I like.
This ‘story diamond’ made Twitter blow up a few weeks back. I’d seen it before, but never included on previous B2W posts about structure because honestly, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON HERE.
That said, I did check out alternatives to the story diamond and a Bang2writer found this version lurking around on Tumblr. This seems much clearer to me … Yet all it had to do was be a ‘fatter’ diamond and include those vertical lines. Interesting.
EXPERT TIP: Think about which approaches appeal to you and why. See if any visual representations online can help.
Step 4: Make Up Your Own Approach
No, I’m not saying you ‘should’ make up your own visual interpretation of structure. (Though if you want to, go ahead!).
Here’s the B2W version of the 3 Acts. As you’ll see, it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. But it does consolidate my knowledge of both character and structure, working together. It also includes the importance of escalation leading towards that all important ending.
Audiences and readers LOVE a great ending, after all! But how to ensure that ending really POPS??
Easy … START AT THE ENDING, for both screenplays and novels. I alwaysalwaysalways begin with the ending and plot backwards. This stops me from starting ‘too early’ in the story too, so it’s a win-win.
All screenwriters should only start writing once they know the ending, so this is no-brainer.
Many novelists would not agree however, saying they want to ‘find out’ their own ending, especially when they are writing twists.
But what if I said novelists could have their cake AND eat it on this issue? You don’t have to know the exact details of the ending, just the rough idea of where it ends and why.
I believe I have changed the ending of ALL my novels quite considerably from their initial outlines, in fact.
EXPERT TIP: Find all the bits you like best about various structural approaches and create your own.
You’re now a structure expert who knows what you’re doing. This means your writing is FAR more likely to hit its target by design, instead of by accident. That’s worth its weight in gold, because you’re far less like to …
- Get lost in plotting hell
- Miss your target audience
- Write overly half-baked or generic plots
- Write repetitively
- Get writer’s block
Thanks for this great article. I’m perversely fascinated with structure. Huge fan of Linda Aronson.
All the best
LOVE Linda Aronson!
Thanks Lucy – awesome as always! I think that the “lurking” diamond structure is Blake Snyder’s “transformation machine”: https://www.savethecat.com/tools/the-transformation-machine-one-sheet
Aha! Muchos gracias for that addition Matt
In London from 11-13 October anything on th n
I’m just absorbing Linda Arinson’s alternative structure survey not included here. (21st C screenwriting)
What does B2W think about her work mapping those ? She’s pointing out a whole raft of currently permissible variations to the 3 act staple. McKee originally schematised the cliff-edge with his notion of miniplot and antiplot (vs archiplot) – but Arinson goes someway into the region where all three meet , are now regularly used and work well to diverge away from the 1 prot over the 3 act rise (lopsided mountain ) model repeatedly illustrated here.
Linda Aronson’s approach is the very first one on the very first representation at the bg of the article
I huge mistake I used to make was trying to fix weak structure with word smithing. Once I nailed down structure based on genre, things went much more smoothly
I agree, genre conventions can tie closely with plotting archetypes for sure