The Secret To Creating Story Structure

    Outlines Are The Secret to Story Structure!

    Structure is the most important technical aspect of any story.

    It brings solidity and focus to a story; yet it is often overlooked and misunderstood.

    Novelists sometimes believe structure will sap their stories of originality. But this is about a bajillion miles from the truth.

    Structure is nothing more than a roadmap — a time-tested archetype for crafting the rise and fall of action and character evolution within our stories.

    Story structure

    The classic approach to structure divides story into three acts, which we can further divide into distinct categories:

    1. First Act – In which characters, settings and stakes are introduced to the reader. (e.g., in Star Wars: A New Hope, viewers meet the droids, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Luke, and Obi-Wan, and learn what is at stake for the characters on a personal level and the galaxy as a whole.)

     2. First Major Plot Point -In which the First Act ends with a definitive event that forces the character to react. (The murders of Luke’s aunt and uncle make him decide to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan.)

    3. First Half of the Second Act – In which the character reacts to his plight and tries to regain his bearings. (Obi-Wan hires a ship to Alderaan; Luke starts learning about the Force.)

    4. Second Major Plot Point or Midpoint – In which another definitive event occurs, this time forcing the character out of his period of reaction and back into action. (The Death Star captures the Millennium Falcon.)

    5. Second Half of the Second Act – In which the characters begin to come into their own and take definitive action against the antagonistic force. (Obi-Wan goes off to shut down the tractor beam, while Luke, Han, and Chewie decide to rescue Princess Leia.)

    6. Third Major Plot Point – In which the character’s actions seemingly lead him to a place of defeat. (Obi-Wan dies and the Empire places a tracking beacon aboard the escaping Falcon.)

    7. Third Act – In which the character must rally for a final assault against the antagonistic force. (Luke and the Rebels use R2-D2’s schematics of the Death Star to plan a last-ditch assault.)

    8. Climax – In which the conflict between protagonist and antagonistic force reaches a deciding moment. (Luke blows up the Death Star.)

    9. Resolution – In which loose ends are tied up, and the characters react to the events of the climax. (Princess Leia passes out medals.)

    How can we make structure as easy as possible?

    Structure presents difficulties because it gives us a lot of stuff to remember all at once.

    Beyond that, we’re also faced with the question of how in tarnation to structure our stories when we may not yet have any idea what happens in them.

    That’s where the secret comes into play: outline. 

    Structure is applicable no matter your personal writing process. Pantsers (those who prefer to write without much preparation, or by “the seat of their pants”) can use it just as astutely as plotters (those who plot, or plan, their stories before sitting down to write the first draft).

    But for those among us who have chosen to implement the powerful tool of outlining, we will already have a leg up on  structure.

    How does outlining create story structure?

    Outlines allow us to brainstorm important moments in our stories and figure out how all the pieces fit together. We save time and stress in the long run, by using outlines to figure out dead ends and speed bumps, so we can avoid them during the time-intensive first draft.

    Whether your outlines consist of a mental list of major scenes, or notebooks full of detailed planning, you’ll be sitting down to your first draft with a structure of sorts already in mind. This structure won’t necessarily be story structure as defined above. But you will at least have a shape of the story in your head.

    You’ll know its beginning, middle, and end. From there, it’s a natural next step to consciously crafting your outline into properly structured First, Second, and Third Acts, as divided by the Major Plot Points.

    Benefits of creating outlines

    • You can identify and plan major structural points before writing the first draft.
    • You can see your entire story at a glance, helping you identify inconsistencies in plot and character arcs.
    • You get the opportunity to count scenes and estimate word counts, so you can time major plot points.
    • They act as a checklist of sorts, against which you can double-check the existence (and effectiveness) of  overall structural points before diving into the messiness of the first draft.
    • You can use your outline as your dry-erase board for explorations of and experiments with ideas, preventing the need to delete hundreds or even thousands of words.

    Structure, in turn, will guide you in identifying your major plot points. From there, you can figure out how best to fill in the blanks.

    Some authors prefer to use this list of structural events as the outline. You can go ahead and dive into your first draft without knowing anything more about what happens between the pit stops on your roadmap. Or you can use your knowledge of these events to guide you in fleshing out your outline even further.

    Proper story structure is never a choice. If we hope to write stories of worth and popularity, we should always seek to begin with structure. After that, we each have to identify and create the processes that will help us maximize both our creativity and productivity. And for most of us, the outline will be our greatest tool in building strong stories with spot-on structure.

    Are you a plotter or a pantser, and how does this influence your approach to story structure? Tell us your opinion in the comments!

    About the author

      K.M. Weiland

      Historical and speculative novelist K.M. Weiland is the author of Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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    • Sue Hyams says:

      Brilliant post – thank you! I have to have some sort of structure before I start writing and always fiddle about with outlines of various shapes and forms. This will really help!

      • “Fiddling” – or experimenting – is wonderful. The more we try things and figure out what works for us and what doesn’t – and just generally refine our personal processes, the most empowered we become as writers.

    • Just purchased your new book, and I’m looking forward to devouring it!

    • “You can use your outline as your dry-erase board for explorations of and experiments with ideas, preventing the need to delete hundreds or even thousands of words.”

      That’s an excellent point. Preventing the need to delete words also saves time, because you never write the needless words.

      • Exactly. Outlines require a little larger outlay of time in the beginning, but they huge dividends in *saved* time down the road.

    • Really I use to write my blog posts from the head just as one commentator Debbie Alferio said she did. But I noticed a major difference when I got to know about creating outlines from write2done. the article that I outlined before the actual writing was more detailed, lengthy and interesting.
      Morever, It was fliud while writing. I did not do much corrections, rewriting and editing on it. It came out just fine. Another thing I noticed was that while writing anytime I remembered anything, I quikely inserted it into the proper place in the outline I have. So every thing was just falling into place.

      I think the major problem is that most of us are in a bit of hurry to get the job done, afterall, I know what I needed to write, so why bother with the outline. But the truth as I see it now is that your outline keeps you in control of your writing. You can’t just stroll away from your major assingnment when you work with a prepared outline.
      Yes, the article is good. outline gives STRUCTURE to stories.
      Thank You.

      • I did exactly what you’re talking about – getting in a hurry to write and skipping the outline – a few years ago on a novel. And, boy, did I live to regret it! Thanks just to that little bit of impatience in the beginning, the book ended up taking me three times longer than it should have. But the one thing it did do was teach me: always take the time to outline!

    • Paul Dolapo says:

      Thank you Weiland. What I can deduct from this post and the comments is that; whatever works best for you,stick to it!
      I have always written without outlining and sometimes I stray from what I intended to write about. I’ll try to write with outline now and see which one is the best for me.

      • You’ve got it! At first, that advice can almost sound wishy-washy. But the truth is digging down and discovering the specific techniques that work best for *you* is a lifelong project. It’s not about “anything goes.” It’s about eliminating what doesn’t work for your personality and lifestyle and dedicating yourself to what does.

    • Belinda says:

      My first three novel-length stories were outlined briefly (but with detailed scenes I wanted to remember) before I posted chapter by chapter online, about every fortnight as I finished each one (instant reader feedback = a learning tool). But after 8 chapters or so, I’d start realising what I could’ve foreshadowed if I was to oomph in a lot more depth, and I’d only then see that I should’ve made a character different to aid sympathy for the MC or for a vital conflict … Well, finishing them became a chore, because they were so far from what they should’ve been. Even re-writing them is tedious because there’s so much to change if they’re to become the stories in my head.

      So, I learnt the hard way to structure my outlines if I’m to save mega-time and be satisfied with my story by the end. Only yesterday I put my current story into “Contour for Windows” and had lots of light-bulbs flickering above my head in cartoon speech-bubbles–foreshadowing and character-types that usually only hit me with that amount of “Bingo!” while I’m writing the actual scenes. And the stuff in my head that seemed only kinda cool, when put in order with everything else, showed themselves as big twists I’m now excited about.

      Interested to see how “Structuring Your Novel” can help me further (goodness knows, this is the area I need it most!)

      Yep, structure is my friend, I’ve come to see. If only I can convince my brain the process is not laborious and rigid! 😉


      • I like to say that outlines are “more like guidelines” (in my best Geoffrey Rush voice, of course). Really, that could also be said of structure. Structure provides us a handful of guideposts to help us see where we need to steer our stories. But what we build upon those posts – or how we maneuver in between them – is still dependent upon our wide-open imaginations.

    • Nann Dunne says:

      How refreshing to hear your statement, “Outlining is a tool. If it’s not optimizing your process, there’s no need to use it.”

      I am so tired of some outliners presuming that every pantser writes and writes and writes with no direction in mind and then spends weeks or months revising in order to produce a good and structurally sound story. I’ve even heard, “It’s impossible to write a good story unless you know the ending before you begin writing.” I have six published books of fiction and one of nonfiction. In none of the fiction books did I have the ending in mind when I began writing. I had a general idea of what I wanted the story to portray, and I kept asking “what could happen next?” as I proceeded. Each time, I wrote the story in a linear fashion and when I got somewhere around the middle of the story, the ending came to me and I steered all the threads toward that end. I find it exciting to write that way–ideas pop into my head and often surprise me with their appearance. And I didn’t wander all over the place “searching for story.” When I finished each book, it took minimal revisions to have them ready for publishing.

      Three of my fiction books were shortlisted for awards, and one took a second place, so obviously the stories were appreciated. I acknowledge that structure is an extremely important part of writing, but to think that can be achieved only by outlining is a fallacy.

      After hearing for so long that outlining had so much merit, I tried it with my current WIP, and guess what? When I finished the outline, it ended my enthusiasm for the story. I felt as though it were already written and I had been cheated out of the fun of discovery that is a wonderful part of pantsing. I’ve had to step away from it and hope I could forget enough of the outline that I could return to the writing with my enthusiasm renewed. That hasn’t happened yet, and it has been frustrating for me.

      You are correct in saying that outlining is a tool. If it works for you, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. Thank you for not joining the outliners who assume that pantsing is wrong and won’t work. It does work for some of us; and I dare say I’m not the only successful writer who is a pantser. On the other side of the coin, outlining doesn’t certify that your story will be published. A story without structure will be lame; but a structure without story won’t have legs at all. A melding of the two is an important part of story-writing, imo—not how you got there.

      Thank you again, for your common-sense attitude about pantsing.

      • I’m passionate about outlining and its benefits for writers. But I’m even more passionate about the fact that every writer’s process is just as unique as the writer himself. It’s undeniable that outlining simply isn’t right for some authors. For every author who finds enormous benefits in pre-planning, there’s also going to be an author who finds his creativity stilted by it. For any one of us to find a true measure of proficiency and productivity in writing, that person first has to get down to the bottom of his own personality and inclinations and figure out what specific techniques make *him* (not Stephen King, not Margaret Atwood, and not the members of his local writing group) most creative.

    • I never use an outline to write. I always have some idea in my head of what I want to accomplish in a story and where I want it to go, but for me, outlining makes me feel as if I am restricted in some way. If I have an outline, I am the type of person who would be very annoyed to stray from it at all. I prefer to let my muse take control and end up at my destination, often with a few surprises along the way.

      • In a sense, that “idea in your head” *is* your outline. We often think of outlines as the old Roman-numeral nightmares from high school. But an outline is totally flexible to our needs.

    • Ihave been writing for 7 years.Iwrote my first book without an outline
      I rarely use outlines.I have written over 400 short stories without outlines..

      • Outlining is a tool. If it’s not optimizing your process, there’s no need to use it. You’ve obviously found a system that works great for you. Keep using it!

    • Thanks to K.M. and Larry Brooks, I’m a sold out plotter. I’ve written four books by the SOP method. I had notes, of course, but no knowledge of this very basic and easy to understand structure. Even pansters need to understand this before sitting at a keyboard. I only have an hour to write every day, so I need to use my time efficiently. Two months working on an outline saves me two years of rewrites (I don’t think that’s an exaggeration). There’s nothing like reading your first draft and realizing you left out foreshadowing or didn’t have a strong enough reason for the hero to begin his journey. No more of that. I do the hard work up front, then I’m free to write. This was a bit of review for me (since it’s hanging over my desk) but a fresh look always helps.

      • “Two months working on an outline saves me two years of rewrites (I don’t think that’s an exaggeration).”

        I don’t think that’s an exaggeration either. I’ve only ever failed to outline one book. That book was, bar none, the toughest book I’ve ever written. I spent almost a year writing the first fifty pages, before realizing I was torturing myself for no good reason. I stopped, outlined, rewrote those fifty pages, and finished a solid first draft.

        Sometimes an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

    • Eva says:

      Thanks for that very straightforward rendering of an outline. I’m not a planner by nature and many of the blogs I’ve read have been more confusing than helpful. I can relate to this one. Thanks very much.

      • Generally, I take a very relaxed (if still very in-depth) approach to the outline. Honestly, a good outline is whatever works for *you*. For some of us that’s going to be detailed structural planning; for others, it’s going to be just a few notes.

    • Thanks so much for hosting me today, WTD!

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