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Story Structure When You're a Pantser

Liz here. 
When I say the words story structure, do you break out in hives? When people start talking about plotting and outlining, do your eyes glaze over? 

I answer yes to both those questions. When I first started as a writer, I didn't think at all about the structure of the story. I just wrote. Which is great. You need words on the page to build any kind of story. But over the years, I've come to appreciate structure and think a little more about it. 

Don't hyperventilate. I haven't gone over to the dark, plotting side :) These days, I'm just a little more intentional about what scenes I put where. 

All stories have to start with an inciting incident. What sparks the hero/heroine's journey? You have to think about this in order to know where to begin the book. If not, you'll end up writing multiple versions of the beginning because you can't put your finger on it. So, as you sit down to that first draft, ask yourself at what point does the journey start. Where do things begin to change for your characters? 

I also now think about turning points. There are going to be two major turning points in a full-length novel, not including the climax. These are the places where the characters have big decisions to make, decisions that affect the rest of the story. Before I even write, I find myself thinking about what these might be. And when I get to the 1/3 and 2/3 points in the book, I know I need to have a major shift coming up for my characters. 

And every story needs a black moment. The point where everything seems lost. Where the hero/heroine will never reach the goal. As I write, I think about this too. What will it be? And how will this lead to the climax and resolution? 

This is great to keep in mind even as you're writing a synopsis, as Jen stated earlier this month. You'll have a basic structure to write it from and to keep you on track as you're building your story. It's not plotting, I promise, but a way to keep your book from wandering on too many tangents as you write. 

Keep calm and keep pantsing on! (But do it keeping story structure in mind.) 

How do you, as a pantser, use story structure?  

Story Structure: Your Story Needs a Spine

Jen here:

Story structure provides the spine for the body of your novel. It’s what everything else hangs off. And even though you can’t see it, if you don’t have it, you don’t have a story.

We as humans are wired for story. It’s how we convey information that is important for the survival of the species. Think of Aesop’s fables or the parables Jesus told. They convey important truths in a way we can remember and understand them. The most powerful stories tap into this truth by engaging the reader’s brain and emotions.

Your story needs to do this too.

So, how do you do that?

You may get to this point in a variety of ways, but at some point, every story needs to look something like this.

You have a main character who has a past with a wound (backstory). She has been living life just fine, thank you very much, protecting her wound. Until something happens (inciting incident) that means she can no longer operate in the world the way she has been. This is where the story begins on the page.

She wants something external and tangible (story goal), but what she really wants, deep down inside, is the magic elixir that will heal her wound (internal goal). Because she is human (or possibly alien or nonhuman), she is stubborn and resistant to change. So while reaching for her story goal, she will be trying to protect her wounds. You will throw at her all sorts of things that become increasingly more difficult (conflict, plot complications) that will force her to deal with her wound, but because she won’t stop protecting it, she makes things worse for herself.

Until she reaches a point where her wound is exposed and all is lost (the black moment). It is here that she realizes what she needs to do to find healing. She has become stronger and learned more during all her trials (epiphany). She does that thing she needs to do, which she can now do, that couldn’t do at the beginning of the story. She may need to fight a final battle with the new-found strength and knowledge she has. Or she might be able to go straight to tying up all the loose plot threads until we come to a satisfying conclusion.

That’s a very loose structure that allows for all sorts of stories to follow it. But it retains the key things the brain is looking for:
  •       Everything must be there for a reason.
  •       Everything must tie itself to the wound in some way
  •       Everything must resolve itself in a reasonable way.
 It also ties the action of the plot inextricably to the character’s inner life. Every one of her actions is a result of her wound. Different characters with different wounds will react to the same situation in a different way.

Just like everyone’s spine is different—but everyone has one—so every story can be different using the same structure.

Final note: Did that story outline above look suspiciously like a synopsis? That is because it is a synopsis. Use that basic template the next time you need to write one.

Additional resources on this:

Jennifer's latest books~ Protective Custody: A cop burned by love falls for a key witness in a crime implicating the town’s rich and powerful.  Coming Home A strong- willed young woman must discover her brother’s killer before she’s the next victim. The prequelBe Mine, is also available. Can a simple thank you note turn into something more? Get the first chapter of Coming Home and Protective Custody by signing up at www.JenniferVanderklipp.com

Structure in Writing

Diana here:

Did you know there are 4 kinds of structure in writing?

Milieu or Story World
The story is focused on a world different from the character’s normal world.  The reader sees it through the character’s eyes. It begins when the character arrives in the world and ends when the character leaves it, the other world continues, but the reader won’t know anything about it unless there is a sequel or series. Examples of this story structure can be found In The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, Star Wars.

The Idea Story
This type of story structure begins with a question and ends when the answer is found. Many wrong turns and twists occur in the story before the answer is discovered. Mysteries and detective books/movies are idea stories. Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, and our own Pencildancer, Jennifer Vander Klipp’s book Protective Custody are idea stories.

Character Stories
Ah, I love these and write them. In this structure, the main character has a problem that has to be solved or something bad will happen. Often the character doesn’t feel equipped to take on this problem but must.  By the end of a story, the character will change their belief. YA (young adult) books are often character stories as they are coming of age books. In my book, The Honey Bride, my character, Katie Tucker is painfully shy, and she is terrified of bees. Both things become critical for her to overcome if she’s to save her family farm.

The Event Story Structure
These stories center around an event like a world war, the city is in danger, there is an earthquake, aliens invade the planet to get the water.  Lord of the Rings and Hunger Games fit here.

All fiction stories no matter if they are romance or fantasy, mystery or RPG will borrow from each type of structure, but one will be stronger than the rest. When you look at your writing where does it fall in these four areas? Are you a blow it up and see where the buildings fall? Maybe you love dialogue and people? Are you busy creating other worlds? Or do you have burning questions that must be answered?

Why do you need to know this? That's a question I asked in every math class, still waiting on that answer. However, You need to know the answer to this question. Knowing it will help you write that market copy, back cover copy, and pitch your book to an editor or agent.