Adventures in story structure

Hey all,

To those of you who partake of the holiday, happy Thanksgiving! To those who do not, I hope you can be grateful for good things too. I am personally grateful you made it to my blog!

So, down to business.

I recently went to UW Madison’s Weekend with Your Novel, a weekend conference/series of workshops. I brought Machine with me, met a bunch of excellent writers, had an amazing time in a wonderful critique group and generally speaking learned oodles, mainly that there is a great deal I have yet to learn.

To that end, I’m going to talk about something that until this conference, I had given very little attention to: story structure.

As a seat of the pants writer, I typically have the beginning, an end, the main characters, some of their motivations, and nothing else when I start a new book. I may have a theme or a question I want to ask, but even that is usually discovered as I write. I’m not big on outlining either, seeing as it usually just gums up my creative works, making me feel constrained or obligated rather than comforted, and though I might do some free flow plotting as I go, even that isn’t usually kept beyond its immediate usefulness. Even at the end, I don’t usually outline beyond what I need to keep track of what’s happened.

Except, apparently, that’s not really what professional authors do.

One of the main themes that kept coming up in the workshops (albeit workshops I chose in part because of how little I knew about their topics) was story structure, and if you, like me, have never been much for outlining, you would be shocked by just how crazy story structure advocates are for these things, including–to my great, inexperienced distress–agents.

Now, I’m not currently looking for an agent for Machine, but it had never occurred to me that if/when I do (again) they might ask me what the inciting incident is or, as I was told, open my book to the center and look for the midway “death” or conflict moment, closing the book and no longer reading if it was missing.

A frightening prospect for the uninitiated I’m sure.

I’d never heard of beat sheets either, and though I’ve heard of the 12 step hero’s journey, I’d never really looked into it. So, what are these things?

Let’s start with the basics.

Outlines and maps

Sound obvious? You’d be surprised. I’d always thought Outlines were for basically outlining what happened in your book, the plot maps for showing the beginning, rising action, climax and falling action.

I was wrong.


Apparently, which in hindsight makes a lot of sense, you can map pretty much anything. Plot points, character arcs (including the antagonist), relationships, conflict, even setting or obstacles. You can diagram multiple story lines from different timelines on the same drawing, show emotional states or even track the weather. And people do. Crazy and awesome.

Beat sheets

In theatre, beats are written into scripts to show when a character is processing, or at least that’s how I think of it. They’re the moments when something changes, when a character(s) is thinking, when they need time to make an emotional change. The same thing can happen in books, and you can track them within your novel on things known as beat sheets. Now, I’m still a little squidgy on this, because I feel like what I learned in the conference was that you can have several in a chapter, whereas the beat sheets I’m looking at (I found a bunch of them here), have seven or eight in a book. But, in either case, I think the exercise would be useful.


Besides those few things, there are also other story structures you can look at, whether it’s a general plot arc (revenge, hero’s journey, etc.), or broken down into steps like the 12 step hero’s journey (info on that found here). I haven’t dug too deeply into these yet, but I find them fascinating and have already started doing some research/writing to see just where Machine falls.

Now, because it’s Thanksgiving and I’m still playing with these ideas myself, I think I’m going to stop the blog here, but I would be interested to hear from any of you what you think about these things. Have you mapped out your stories? Had encounters with agents or publishing industry professionals? What happened? Did I miss any key stategies? Do you use them? What do you think?

Thanks everybody!

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