Story Structure

If all stories were as simple as a beginning, middle and end, then writing a novel would be easy. They would also be a bit dull, which is why longer stories are structured to include sub plots. Yes, there is still a beginning, middle and end, but it’s not quite as simple as that. There must be difficulties to overcome, disasters to avoid and other such complications along the way.

When discussing story structure recently, Fleur Sinclair introduced me to the Harmon story circle. Dan Harmon claims his theory will work for any and every story and that he bases his writing on this every time he creates a new script.

Harmon story circle

What makes more sense to me though is the three act structure, also shared by Fleur at my writing group. Here you can still see your basic beginning, middle and end, but with sub plots woven in. It shows the rising action of the story and how it leads eventually to a satisfying ending. Visually, this works better for me as a model than the story circle.

Three act structure

I know many people set off writing their novel without planning, but I think it takes a certain person to be able to do that. Creating all the intricacies and tension along the way is difficult, even if you have in mind your beginning, middle and end. These bits can also make or break your story and without a certain level of planning, it can be easy to get lost in the middle of your story and so weaken their effect.

If you are writing a story at the moment, can you fit it in to these models? If not, is that ok, or should you be asking yourself why not?

I am in the middle of a re-write at the moment and I found I was getting a little lost, even though I have planned the story. The point is, I am re writing it because I want to make sure that I create the right amount of tension, weave in enough sub plots to keep the readers guessing and also to make them care about the characters.

I used the three act structure to check that my story is going in the right direction. I needed to take a little step back in order to re-focus and it showed that my structure is fine but I need to work a little more on the motivations of my characters. It’s a question of the ‘why’s’ and not the ‘what’s’. People need to believe that your characters have a true-to-life motivation for doing what they are doing.

It’s hard, but no one ever said it was easy. Here is a PDF version of the three act structure that allows you to fill in the details of your own story. Use it to see how it fits in to this common story structure and hopefully it will help you if you are struggling to iron out any plot difficulties.

For now, it’s back to the writing for me…

Sharing this for What I’m Writing.

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18 thoughts on “Story Structure

  1. These structures are helpful, thanks for sharing. Like you, I find the second one more visually easy to make sense of. I can see where my novel fits with it but since my first draft isn’t even finished I obviously have elements missing! I really useful post and it sounds like you’re getting there with your novel. Thanks for linking to #whatImWriting xx


  2. I prefer visuals too. I am terrible for ‘doing it my own way’ and then perhaps re-visiting things like this once I’m done. I worry that looking at these pre-planned structures will inhibit my flow-still not decided whether this is true or not!


  3. What a truly helpful post! I love how to included both shapes. I’ve never seen the round one before.

    I think there’s something to be said for having a plan, a long a there’s room for flexibility. I am writing my first novel, and I can’t tell you how much time/energy/words I’ve used up because I didn’t plan… That being said, I think in some ways I needed to meander around before finding what worked, but for my next novel I definitely plan on more planning 🙂 And charts like these, when used as a guide, can be super helpful.


  4. I used the three act structure when I was planning my current novel – I haven’t looked at it in ages though, and it’s really interesting to consider my current draft in this light again! I haven’t seen the Harmon model before, but interestingly I can see how my novel fits with that too. I’m not totally sure the circle works for me, but I like that it is very character driven. Great post! X


  5. Great post, yes I love the three act structure. I like to spot it in books I read and a number of films use it too. It’s hard to apply to your own writing but I agree it’s pretty much essential to follow a format. I find myself thinking of the book mainly in two parts (with an event halfway) and then a point just before halfway and then just before the end when disaster strikes. The circle does nothing for me, but then our minds work in different ways and it’s good to have a concept of whatever template works for you.


  6. Well I’m downloading that PDF! This is all the stuff I need to keep an eye on with my novel, it’s part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish. Thanks for the heads up on this one Nikki! xx


  7. I like the idea of planning, but never really get round to it. Writing a first draft for me is more like getting as much out as I can before it drives me mad than figuring out plots and subplots. If they come, then they come. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter.
    The structured approach is the proper way, I think. It’s the way to make sure that editing your work isn’t like pulling teeth and that the darlings are more likely to stay put than be put down.
    Definitely something to consider in future.


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