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Monday, June 28, 2021

How to Actually Use a Story Structure

In the writing community, there are three story structures (in addition to basic story structure) that tend to get the most attention: 7 Point Story Structure, The Hero's Journey, and Save the Cat! These structures (and similar ones) are also sometimes called "beat sheets." (And worth keeping in mind is that, in the writing world, some terms can be ambiguous, as both "structure" and "beats" are used in other situations as well.) 

These are essentially approaches that help you see, understand, and match the (arguably natural) progression of a good story. Some writers, especially beginning writers, dislike story structures because they can appear formulaic--sucking out the mysticism, magic, and creativity of writing. While no one has to use a story structure, of course, if you share these sentiments, I think eventually you'll find over time, that these structures actually do the opposite. And they lead us to ask bigger questions about the human experience: Why do these structures feel so right to us as human beings? Is it because they ring true to our own journeys, to reality?

But rather than talk about the psychological and archetypal significance of structure 😉, let's first talk about how to actually use a story structure. Because I think some writers struggle with that.

Story time:

Years ago, I was preparing to brainstorm and outline a future book I wanted to write. And I thought, Hey, why not do this properly and go to story structure right away? It will save me such a headache!

But funny enough, I was having a difficult time figuring out how to actually brainstorm and plot out my story with a story structure.

So I took to the web.

And some books.

Searching and scanning and looking. . . .

And you know what I found?

There wasn't a single professional writer that actually came up with a story using story structure!

Even those that claimed to--that said they were going to show how do it--actually did something different: They simply plugged in stuff they'd already brainstormed. 🤦‍♀️

I admit at first, I was a little disappointed.

I'm not going to say you can't come up with a story using story structure right away, but I know almost no one who does it. And some of the (unpublished) attempts I've run into, often do feel a bit stilted, somehow lacking heart. 

Know This: Very Few Writers Start with a Story Structure.

I am sure there are some people out there who literally start with a story structure and use it to help them brainstorm. But I haven't found any professional who does. If anyone out there reading this, actually does this, please feel free to leave a comment and tell us about your process. 

In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks breaks down a rendition of 7 Point Story Structure

Using a Story Structure After You've Already Done some Brainstorming.

Most writers do at least some brainstorming before applying a structure.

To me, there are three main elements, that I call the Trinity, in storytelling.

Character (character arc)

Plot (cause and effect events that make up "what happens")

Theme (what character + plot are saying about life)

Everything that happens in a story should connect to one of these. If it doesn't further the arc, the plot, or the theme, it probably doesn't belong in the story. Setting is also another big feature in storytelling, and in some stories where the setting is the point, simply furthering the setting may be enough, but in many stories today, it's not. Still, there is always room for exceptions. For example, the point of a scene may be to show how nothing progresses. Also, many professional writers could care less about theme, and they write just fine. But it's there whether or not they care about it. And it progresses whether or not they are aware of it. 

In any case, knowing your protagonist's arc, the basic plot, and, yes, even theme, early on can help you evaluate what does or does not work well for your story. 

Before using a story structure, I'd probably recommend most writers do at least some brainstorming with these three things. They don't have to be nailed down. And they can change. But at least having an idea of how your protagonist grows, what's going to happen to him or her, and what insight is drawn from that experience, is beneficial. For theme, I would not expect even a thematic statement, but rather, at least a theme topic, which in a lot of stories, can be mined out of the premise (character + plot) anyway. But again, some writers could care less about theme, and they are doing just fine. Find what works for you.

Another element that often gets brainstormed early is the inciting incident--whatever disrupts the character's "normal" and sends her on her journey. Nearly every structure will have that moment in it, if by different names (Catalyst, Call to Adventure, inciting incident, Plot Point 1). Essentially this is what kicks off the story. If this moment didn't happen, there would be no story. 

You also might have an idea of how the story ends, which will fit in at the end of the structure (obviously).

Once you get some brainstorming done, then you might want to start looking at structure to help develop more ideas.

For example, if my protagonist's Call to Adventure is that an old friend shows up begging him to help find a sacred pendant hidden deep in the jungle, I might look at The Hero's Journey to see what beats typically come next. Normally, the protagonist will be hesitant or even refuse the invitation . . . until something or someone comes along to convince him otherwise. I can then start figuring out why he'd refuse, and what it would take to get him to change his mind (and maybe it would even play into his character arc).

Or perhaps I have an idea of how my protagonist is at the beginning of her arc, but I'm not really sure how to move the story forward after introducing her. I might look at Save the Cat! and see that usually right after I introduce her, it's a good idea to establish what her "normal" life is like and to touch on theme.

Using a Story Structure After You've Done lots of Brainstorming

Alternatively, you might do lots of brainstorming, first. You might start with some ideas, then take off with a bunch more. You might want to brainstorm whole sequences, scenes, concepts, whatever. (Of course, these are often rather abstract at first, but part of the writing process is making the abstract more concrete--we do this over and over and over again.)

Using a story structure after lots of brainstorming but before writing, can help you place those elements in the most appropriate or satisfying locations. For example, if you have a huge, dramatic, heart-wrenching scene, well, that would probably be fantastic as The Ordeal, All is Lost, or Plot Point 2 moment. If you have a funny, lighthearted segment about visiting Disneyland, that should probably go somewhere before the midpoint. If you have a moment that the antagonist really hits the protagonist hard, that should probably be a pinch point

I'll give a more specific example. Say my protagonist does decide to join his friend in finding this sacred pendant deep in the jungle. They get a whole group together to go on the quest. But at some point, we'll learn that their "guide" doesn't actually know where the pendant is--he's been paid off by another group to lead the protagonist and his friend to their deaths. While technically this reveal could fit well in a couple of spots, I might look at 7 Point Story Structure and see that one good place to consider placing it would be the midpoint. This new information is going to propel our protagonist to stop reacting to the jungle quest and start becoming more proactive against the antagonistic force (which is embodied in the guide wanting to kill them).

In The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler breaks down Joseph Campbell's work on The Hero's Journey for modern writers.

Using a Story Structure After You've Written Something

Some writers prefer getting straight into the writing process. These are usually discovery writers. They like to "discover" the story as they go. Most of us have at least a little bit of the discovery writing process in us. We might brainstorm enough, then get to writing, without worrying about structure. It might be that the need for structure will reveal itself when we get writer's block--and we may not worry about it until then.

But story structure is important to any story (whether or not the writer is aware of that fact). If the story structure doesn't work, then the story probably doesn't work (even for discovery writers). 

After getting some writing done, or even a rough draft, it can be helpful to look at a story structure to shape it into something more defined, to give it more power.

For example, maybe while writing my story, I discovered that my protagonist fell in love with his friend's sister. Maybe it's a concept I played around with in the first draft, or maybe it's just something I started writing a couple of scenes of. I might look at Save the Cat! or The Hero's Journey and realize a good place to introduce this romance, is after the protagonist Crosses the Threshold or after Break into Two, respectively. Perhaps then I can start molding this plotline into a B story. 

Also, for some writers, it may be helpful to simply glance at a story structure while they are writing, just to get an idea of what to discover next.

Using a Story Structure to Troubleshoot and Revise a Draft

I think we all know the writing process can be pretty messy. After a draft (or several) is written, it can be helpful to use a story structure to figure out how to revise it and troubleshoot any problems. A story structure can help you revise your work into a more complete, or whole, narrative. 

If I have an area of my story that just is not working right, and I can't figure out how to fix it, a story structure has a good chance of revealing underlying issues. It may reveal that my midpoint came too late in the story, or worse, that I'm missing a true midpoint altogether. It might show that the reason my story starts to drag in the first half of the middle, is because I'm missing a pinch point. 

Or maybe my story's problem is that my protagonist never has an All is Lost scene--he never has a moment where it seems all odds are stacked against him and there is no way of continuing forward. 

But I want to take this a step further. 

While many people in the writing community feel that 7 Point Story Structure, The Hero's Journey, and Save the Cat! are all completely different structures, I've actually found that most (though not necessarily all) well-structured stories fit into all three, more or less. In part, this is because those three structures say similar things, just from different angles. What 7 Point Story Structure calls "Plot Point 1," The Hero's Journey calls "Crossing the Threshold," and Save the Cat! calls "Break into Two" (more or less). However, each structure does come at it from a different angle with different emphases, and each structure has components missing from the others. So, while it's helpful to use one of these structures to troubleshoot and revise, for some writers, it might be helpful to run your story through two of them. Or even all three. I mean, why not?

Okay, the real answer to that, is that for many people, such an effort is enough to make their heads spin--especially if you are still struggling to grasp one structure, let alone three. No writer has to do this. I'm just saying if you are really stuck on a story or want to really dial into structure, you might want to consider feeding your story through all three. Because whether you are talking about Legally Blonde, Harry Potter, or Wonder Woman, most stories will come close to fitting all three simultaneously. (Though of course, we always know there are exceptions.)

In Save the Cat! Blake Snyder shares his popular beat sheet for screenwriting (which can be applied to novels as well.

A Word to the Wise

I know some of what I mentioned in this article will seem like common sense to people. But story structure can become problematic when you are using it in a way that is actually hurting your writing (i.e. the wrong way (i.e. the wrong way for you)). For example, I would imagine that most writers who literally start with structure aren't going to be happy. I have yet to find someone who actually uses structure that way. Everyone I know of, at least gets started on the story itself first, and then sooner or later turns to structure to develop, organize, and refine their tale. Figure out what works best for your writing process. And remember, there are lots of successful writers who don't stress (and in some cases don't even know) about this stuff. But whether you are aware or not, for a story to be great, it has to have satisfying structure. So even if applying story structure isn't helpful to you right now, there is a high probability it will be a useful tool to you eventually. And if you are like me, you will have wished you had learned it much sooner rather than later. 


  1. It's taken me several years, and only recently, to come to the conclusion you provide here. The way story structure was often presented to me was "Write this way and you won't run into the same problems as everyone else" and it of course had the absolute opposite effect.
    Future generations of writers have no idea how much time and frustration this will save them. XD

    1. Hey Amanda,
      Yes! I hear that mindset all the time. In reality, understanding story structure doesn't solve *everything* and it doesn't mean you won't run into problems. You totally still do! It might minimize problems, which is really helpful. These days I'm wary of anyone who says you have to write it "this way."

  2. Hi September, I'd read a few books on writing before I started actually writing. Then I stumbled on to 'The Story Grid' by Shawn Coyne only months in to my writing journey and without if I wouldn't have completed my first novel. For my kind of story it made more sense than the hero's journey.This led me to Story by Robert McKee and many, many more. One I've not read is 'Save the Cat'. The last one in my collection is 'The Structure of Story' by Ross Hartmann which I think is brilliant.

    1. Charlotte,
      I've read those books and they are excellent! I definitely recommend them to others. When I was stuck on one of my WIPs, I read "The Story Grid" and using it, was able to immediately detect problems--even if I wasn't emotionally ready to accept the fact they were problems at the time XD Really helpful. And Story by Robert McKee is amazing too. And of course, love Ross Hartmann's book.

  3. I'm probably one of the rare ones that use structure from the beginning and use it for not only story plot but for character arc as well. I literally sit down with a character in mind because I write series, and what needs to happen by the end and then I structure out the book, character and scenes using 7 point structure. If I don't use structure I get a total mess of a story and have to revise it so heavily it almost feels like its not worth it.

    1. Oh yay, I'm glad you commented then!

      "If I don't use structure I get a total mess of a story and have to revise it so heavily it almost feels like its not worth it." -- Sounds like one of my WIPs -_- lol!

      Thanks for sharing your process. ^_^


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