Last week, I explained the components of story structure using TANGLED as an example. Today, I’m going to talk about how you can build the structure for your story. If you didn’t read last week’s post, or you need a refresher, give it a read! I’ll be here when you’re finished.
I used to think of structure only as a tool for breaking down the plot of a story. But, as I mentioned last week, structure is also deeply tied to the emotional arc of a story and its characters. To nail down your story’s structure, you have to figure out the motivations of your main character (MC). Yes, that’s motivations plural, because your MC should have two: an external motivation and an internal motivation. I’ll explain both quickly, using TANGLED as an example.
An external motivation (EM) is the more physically attainable desire of the character. Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights.
An internal motivation (IM) is the more spiritual desire (and can therefore be more complicated or vague than the external, though not necessarily). Rapunzel wants to see the world and find her place in it—she wants to belong.
Both of these motivations are going to drive your MC, and therefore your story.
[*Note: If you have multiple MCs or point of view (POV) characters then each of their external and internal motivations will drive the story and will often overlap, whether in alignment or conflict. This also applies to the motivations of villains and minor characters.
An example of alignment: Flynn’s EM is that he wants the crown (AKA wealth). Rapunzel uses this to convince Flynn to bring her to the lights, and so their external motivations align.
An example of conflict: Mother Gothel wants to keep Rapunzel’s magic all to herself. Rapunzel’s desire to go see the lights threatens Mother Gothel’s desire, and this leads to conflict.]
Both the external and internal motivation can alter or evolve (and probably should) throughout your story.
Rapunzel’s EM changes because it is resolved: she sees the lights. When she figures out that she’s the lost princess, her new EM is freedom. Then, when Flynn’s life is in danger, her EM becomes saving him.
The evolution of the IM is generally subtler, funneling down from a vague desire to a tangible one. Rapunzel’s IM to belong shifts to a desire to belong with Flynn, and then also to belong with her true parents and her kingdom.
Though both the EM and IM can evolve, the IM probably shouldn’t be met until the resolution, or potentially the climax. Depending on your plot, the EM can be achieved and changed multiple times throughout the story, though it probably shouldn’t be outright resolved until at least the midpoint. In TANGLED, Rapunzel’s original EM is met just before the dark moment, and this brief happiness makes the dark moment that much darker. On the other hand, her IM evolves, but is not fully met until the resolution.
So, whether you have a completed manuscript (MS), are just beginning to brainstorm, or are at any stage in between, it’s important to know your MC’s motivations. Once you know that, you can begin to figure out your story’s structure. Because there is no right way to write a book, I’m going to outline an approach from three different writing methods: pantsing, plotting, and what is often called headlights writing (something in between the first two). I’ll briefly go over each writing style, but if you already know which one you identify with then feel free to skip ahead to that section.
Drafting is probably your favorite part of writing because you love to finding the story as you go. You don’t know all the specifics, but you probably know your beginning (the inciting incident). Most likely, you’ll want to use your first draft as the foundation on which you build the structure for your story.
Once you’ve got your MC’s motivations, loosely break down your draft into three/four acts and identify the main structural components (much the same way I did with TANGLED). Straight away this will let you know what changes need to be made, like if you don’t have a clear midpoint or if the inciting incident doesn’t happen within the first few chapters. This is generally a great way to plan your first round of revisions; you’ll be able to see what your story needs and what it can lose. This can even work on a word count basis; if your MS is 100k words and your midpoint doesn’t happen until the 75k mark, then you probably need to move things around or make some cuts.
From there you can trace the EM and IM and see how they line up with the major beats. This is a great way to troubleshoot a wonky emotional arc or plot. You can identify where the EM became muddled, if the IM evolved too quickly, or if that scene doesn’t make sense because the character wants X and not Y. This also works if you find yourself stuck mid-draft; you can look back at what beats you already have, which one should come next, and how soon your MC should get there. If you’ve got your inciting incident and deciding incident, and that’s the midpoint, then you should be on your way to a dark moment. Bring on the heartbreak!
Revisions might be your favorite part of writing, but you probably prefer brainstorming above all—that magical phase of preparing to write. You almost certainly know all your major beats. You’ll want to build the structure as best you can before you start drafting.
If you want to get even more detailed, you can also plan out the stuff between the major beats. Generally speaking, you should aim to raise the stakes between each beat, steadily increasing the tension as you move to the climax. There should be a natural rise and fall, with moments of action followed by moments of peace, while each action is more important and has greater consequences than the last.
Keeping your EM and IM in mind, come up with a general (or super-detailed) idea for each major beat. This will be the architectural frame within which you’ll create your story. You might want to write it out as an outline:
- Inciting incident: A stranger comes to the tower
- Deciding incident: Rapunzel leaves the tower with the stranger
Or, you could write it as more of a summary: “A shady but handsome stranger shows up in the tower, and then Rapunzel strikes up a deal with him to go see the lights, and then…”
Either way, you should focus on the emotional arc of your MC and how that will influence and be influenced by the major beats. If your MC desires belonging and acceptance then what can occur at the midpoint to reveal and evolve that desire? Should the original EM be achieved before the dark moment, and if so, what will the new EM be? How will that factor in to the climax you envisioned? With your structure set, you can freely build the rest of your story to fit within its frame. Chances are your finished draft won’t perfectly match your outline, but if you mostly stick to the major structural beats, you’ll have a great jumping off point for revisions.
Your favorite part of the writing process is probably whichever one you’re not actively working on. As the name implies, you can see what’s directly ahead, and anything beyond you’ll figure out when you get there. You probably have most of the major structure beats in mind, but know an unexpected curve could change things.
This is the writing style I identify with, and what I’ve found most helpful is focusing on the emotional aspects of structure to then discover the plot as I go. Try to figure out how the EM and IM might evolve during each major beat and how this will affect the emotional arc of your character(s). Does your MC feel excited or afraid to go after their EM at the deciding incident? If your MC’s greatest fear (which is closely tied to the IM) is rejection, how can this fear be realized during the dark moment? Emotional consequences can be difficult to figure out, and sometimes your characters will react differently than you expected, but that’s okay. Like I said in the pantsers section, evaluating the structure and emotional arc can be a great way to troubleshoot. Recalculate your route and drive on!
If you think you’d do better focusing on the plot and discovering the emotional arc as you go, feel free to try that! I think it comes down to your strengths and which part of the writing process you enjoy more. Emotional arcs actually come easier to me than plot—though I rewrite scenes many times over, I can usually nail down what should be happening emotionally; it’s what should be happening physically that I struggle with the most. Since I like revising more than drafting (give me a mangled mess of words over a blank page any day) I try to focus on what I do well while drafting and what will inevitably need the most work during revisions.
I want to reiterate that the external and internal motivations are super important. No matter what kind of writer you are, you should know the EM and IM from the start. The MC’s motivations are the driving force behind your story, and without them, your structure will be just that: an empty house without any of the stuff that makes it a home.
I hope you found this and last week’s posts helpful! If you have any questions or need me to explain something in more detail, jump down to the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!
ICYMI, we’ve got an amazing giveaway going on right now and there’s still plenty of time to enter! One of the books up for grabs is a signed copy of WINDWITCH by Susan Dennard, who will be doing a live chat on romance and other relationships this Thursday at 8pm ET with our very own Akshaya Raman! Susan is a wonderful human and writer, and I learned so much of what I know about craft from her incredible writing resources. I’ll definitely be tuning in to the chat to hear her wisdom and ask questions, as will most of the WBP team, so you should join us!