Story Structure: The 5 layers needed to create a story

Looking for a guide to teach you how to structure your story? Then you’re in the right place.

This page contains the five basics of structuring a book.

When I first started writing stories I had a tough time figuring out what actually made a story look like a story.

I read multiple books on how to write fiction, looked up article after article online. After all that research my brain was on overload. Why couldn’t someone post the basics in a way I could understand?

After learning enough to finish my first manuscript, I decided to make it my mission to help others in their efforts to learn how to write. This is what I came up with.

The five basics are as follows:

Narrative Structure: The broadest element of a story is its structure. This is an outline or blueprint of what takes place in your story and when it needs to happen.

Chapters: Once the foundations are in place, it is broken up into chapters that manage the book’s pace.

Scenes: Each chapter is comprised of scenes, which are like miniature stories put together by a string of paragraphs.

Paragraphs: Chunks of similar ideas. Paragraphs connect related thoughts and control the flow of information presented.

Sentences: These are the words you put in your story and the way you say them. Sentences are like a musical symphony, creating beautiful descriptions in your reader’s mind.

Thats it!

Well not really, but once you understand the five basics, you can move on to crafting the inner workings of your story.

The other main topics plot, character, setting, and writing style. But we will hold off on the topics for now. Right now, we need to learn what makes a story from the broadest sense down to its most detailed.

Now lets get started!

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Narrative Structure

Whether you are someone that likes to make a comprehensive outline depicting each and every detail of your story or someone that likes to write as they go, understanding the foundations of a story is crucial to knowing how to structure your novel.

Story Structures are blueprints and outlines of dramatic structure intended to give your audience an introduction to your world and characters, before slowly escalating the stakes, until you reader arrives at a climax and resolves it in a satisfying way before concluding.

The point of structure is to help organize ideas, plot and subplots, and tension build up.

Here are some of the best examples of story structure:

3-Act Structure

Im sure you have already heard of this on. The most common use of this structure is 3-Act plays in theatre.

For those of you that are not familiar or just need a little refreshing, the structure divides a story into 3 parts- or in this case acts- to keep.

Three Act Structure
  • Act 1: This is the time to introduce the world, character, setting, and begin creating the plot and subplots. This will all lead up to a big moment right before the next act, shifting the story.
  • Act 2: After the events at the end of the first act, the story starts to take on a new shape and direction. New elements are introduced to heighten the stakes.
  • Act 3: The start of this act begins with a bang! The story has reached its pinnacle of suspense changing the story either for good or bad. After the big moment, this is where explanations of what happened occur, and the gradual let down and transition back into the normal world begins.

5-Act Structure

Also known as dramatic structure or a story arc. This structure in its simplicity is basically just saying:

Give the situation of the setting and characters, build tension by creating conflict, bring that conflict to a peak, gradually bring that tension down, and then then calmly bring the story to a close.

It is important to realize that a story’s structure also depends on your audience’s emotional state.

Stages of The Hero’s Journey

A professor of literature named Joseph Campbell studied a wide range of historically famous stories and recognized a pattern.

In a book he wrote called the Hero With a Thousand Faces, he presents the idea of a monomyth; a concept/theory for a template that all good stories of adventure should follow.

The essence of the template, is that a normal person or character goes through each of the stages listed below on their adventure.

In addition to being simple, the success of the template is evident in many critically acclaimed books and movies, such as Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Star Wars, Too many Marvel Movies…Etc.

Hero's Journey story circle
12 steps in The Hero’s Journey
  1. The Ordinary World: The hero is seen in everyday life. A casual introduction to character and their goals and flaws
  2. The Call to Adventure: The initiating incident of the story happens as a result of some conflict
  3. Refusal of the Call: The hero hesitates to answer the call. Change is scary. Change implies risk
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: The hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to commence the adventure. Mentor guides character based on theme
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The hero decides to take on this adventure
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies: The hero explores the special world, faces trial, and makes friends and enemies through conflict
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave: The hero nears the center of the story and the special world
  8. The Ordeal: The hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth. A great failure leads to important change that leads to success
  9. Reward: The hero experiences the consequences of surviving death. Win the day at whatever cost
  10. The Road Back: The hero returns to the ordinary world or continues to an ultimate destination
  11. The Resurrection: The hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so they are pure when they reenter the ordinary world
  12. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world

WARNING: This model is overused. In fact, this model for telling a story has become so popular that it is almost cliche. If you do decide to write your novel using this exact formula, make sure you make it interesting and unique.

Dan Harmons Story Circle:

Similar to the Hero’s Journey, is Dan Harmon’s story circle. Dan Harmon is a famous writer (Rick and Morty is probably his most famous work) who came up with his own version of what makes for an interesting and fulfilling story arc.

Dan Harmon's story circle
  1. You: The hero is living their everyday life with their everyday problems
  2. Need: The hero has a goal or need that they want to fill
  3. Go: The hero sets off somewhere they don’t know to get it
  4. Search: The hero navigates this new place and its trials while learning
  5. Find: The hero gets something they want one way or another
  6. Take: The hero must pay the price for achieving what they wanted
  7. Return: The hero must go back home
  8. Change: Because of the efforts and lessens learned from the journey, the character is now different in some way and changes. This could be their perspective on something, their goals, their beliefs, etc. Just make is interesting

Stages of Story Progression

When you are early in your learning of how to structure you novel, it helps to see a more detailed plan of how a story works. Linked below is a page where a writer dissects what happens in three successful books, and gives a rundown of what happens and when.

This can be an insightful tool or reference to show natural progression. If you have never written an outline before, check this out.

Click Here for an incredible master outline

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Chapters

Chapters. How to write a fiction novel guide

The typical addiction of what happens next? Chapters aren’t what you think they are. This is something you need to know before to start your chpt 1.

Chapters are actually about structure and organizing scenes into larger chunks that make the story more digestible to a reader.

Chapters must always start with an interesting beginning and end on an emotionally high point, such as cliff hangers.

Typically, a chapter is comprised of one or more scenes that create an arc similar to the 3 arc structure. Every chapter starts with an interesting opening, and ends with a suspenseful hook to keep the reader interesting in reading more.

REMEMBER the beginning and end of every chapter must hook the reader in, keeping them in a state of constantly wanting more.

You need to create an addiction of “what happens next?”

Chapter Length

Chapter length is used to control the pace of reading. Longer chapters feel slower, while shorter chapters give a rushed feel. It is important to understand your audience when considering chapter length as different age groups vary in their attention spans.

Other than structure, chapters are just used for pacing. Short chapters make the pace faster. Longer chapters slow the pace down.

Average Chapter Length of your book should depend on your readers attention span. Microsoft Corp did a study finding that the average attention span in the year 2000 was 12 seconds, and that it has dropped down to 8 seconds.

So what is a good length?

According to https://wordcounter.net/blog/2017/02/15/102944_how-many-words-chapter.html

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone averages at 4,560 words per chapter, Twilight is at 4,580, and Hunger Games averaged 3,700 words.

To summarize, the website states a general guideline is that chapter length should fall somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 words.

An important factor to remember is this varies on your audience. For example, if you are writing children’s fiction your chapters might average 1,000 words, and adult fiction might be 5,000.

Chapter Analysis

Case analysis from the witcher book : The Last Wish

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Scenes

Scenes are probably the most important (and difficult) aspect of story you need to master when studying how to structure your novel.

Each scene is linked through the constant cycle of cause and effect that a character goes through.

Think of a scene as a mini story with a beginning, middle, and end. As one scene ends, it sends the characters on a new journey or direction that begins with the next scene.

In every scene, the audience learns something about the characters, setting, or plot. By the time you are finished writing, your story will look like a chain of scenes categorized into chapters that fit within your story’s structure

There must be a literal and emotional occurrence. The external what happens, and what they mean on an internal level.

Scenes structure

A scene is like a mini story within a story.

Each beginning must start with a hook and the ending with a cliffhanger or attention keeper. Scenes are divided into scene and sequel. A fiction novel must create a powerful world that fills the reader with emotion. 

Alpha Point: Each scene must have some overarching point in the plot that furthers the story towards the ending Aha! moment. The alpha point is the scene’s summary explaining its purpose. 

Subplot: Woven into the scene are other minor plot points related to the main plot.

Scene Structure : Acclaimed author Dwight V. Swain created an amazing outline of how to put a scene together. By following this format, your scene with have a satisfying flow that keeps readers hooked.

It may be a bit confusing, but every scene should be divided up into a SCENE and a SEQUEL

The basic outline looks like this:

Scene

  • Goal: What does the character want?
  • Conflict: What prevents your character from getting it
  • Disaster: What complicates things further

Sequel

  • Reaction: What is your characters emotional response to the disaster?
  • Dilemma: Considering the disaster, what are the options to choose from, and which is less awful?
  • Decision: Which option does you character choose?

The scene turns into the sequel, and as the sequel comes to a close, it will force the character into a new goal, and the story another step forward.

Scene

Every scene is designed to keep readers interested by making sure the story keeps moving forward.

To accomplish this, a scene is made up of three parts before turning into the sequel. They are goal, conflict, and disaster

Goal

This is what your POV character wants at the beginning of the Scene. The Goal must be specific and it must be clearly definable.

Give the character stakes to lose and a prize to win.

The reason your POV character must have a Goal is that it makes your character proactive.

It’s a simple fact that any character who wants something desperately is an interesting character.

Conflict

Conflict is the series of obstacles your POV character faces on the way to reaching his Goal. You must have Conflict in your Scene!

If your POV character reaches his Goal with no Conflict, then the reader is bored.

Your reader wants to struggle!

No victory has any value if it comes too easy. So make your POV character struggle and your reader will live out that struggle too.

Disaster

A Disaster is a failure to let your POV character reach his Goal. Don’t give him the Goal! Winning is boring! When a scene ends in victory, your reader feels no reason to turn the page.

If things are going well, your reader might as well go to bed.

No! Make something awful happen. Hang your POV character off a cliff and your reader will turn the page to see what happens next.

Sequel

This is the time to slow down and relax a little. The action is over and now it is time to process what just happened and to decide on what actions to do next.

To summarize, a sequel always comes after the scene and is comprised of three parts

Reaction

A Reaction is the emotional follow-through to a Disaster. When something awful happens, you’re staggering for awhile, off-balance, out of kilter.

You can’t help it.

So show your POV character reacting viscerally to his Disaster. Show him hurting. Give your reader a chance to hurt with your characters. You may need to show some passage of time.

This is not a time for action, it’s a time for re-action.

A time to weep.

But you can’t stagger around in pain forever. In real life, if people do that they lose their friends. In fiction, if you do it, you lose your readers. Eventually, your POV character needs to get a grip. To take stock. To look for options. And the problem is that there aren’t any . . .

Dilemma

A Dilemma is a situation with no good options.

If your Disaster was a real Disaster, there aren’t any good choices. Your POV character must have a real dilemma.

This gives your reader a chance to worry, which is good. Your reader must be wondering what can possibly happen next. Let your POV character work through the choices. Let him sort things out. Eventually, let him come to the least-bad option . . .

Decision

Decision is the act of making a choice among several options.

This is important, because it lets your POV character become proactive again.

People who never make decisions are boring people.

They wait around for somebody else to decide. And nobody wants to read about somebody like that.

So make your character decide, and make it a good decision.

Make it one your reader can respect. Make it risky, but make it have a chance of working. Do that, and your reader will have to turn the page, because now your POV character has a new Goal.

Types of Scenes

The following information was found on this website:

https://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/structure/the-scene/16-types-of-scenes/

The following list of scene types are not all, but the most common kinds of scenes found in screenplays today. And oftentimes, a scene may be a combination of two or more scene types.

1. Setting – Where are we?

2. Atmosphere/Mood – What is it like there?

3. Introduction – Who is it we are dealing with here?

4. Exposition – Necessary information. Quick and Clever.

5. Transition – getting from one place to another. Fast.

6. Preparation – What will it take to prepare for the task at hand?

7. Aftermath – How does the character feel about what just happened?

8. Investigation – Gathering information.

9. Revelation – The reader/audience finds out something important.

10. Recognition – The character finds out something important.

11. The Gift – Using a prop with emotional investment and turning it into a weapon, emotional or otherwise.

12. Escape – The character is trying to get away, avoid, or hide.

13. Pursuit – The character is trying to follow, capture, or secure.

14. Seduction – Someone must convince someone else.

15. Opposites – Two characters from seemingly opposite poles are forced together.

16. Reversal of Expectations – A character expects a certain, very clear outcome, but another character surprises him, influencing him to reverse his intention and do something else – practically the opposite of what he planned to do.

17. Unexpected Visitor – Someone unexpected shows up. Problems arise.

Scene Length

Average around 1500 words

Short: 500-1000

Medium: 1000-2000

Long: 2000-Chapter length

https://kayedacus.com/2013/02/12/scene-it-how-long-should-scenes-be/

Alternative methods for writing a scene

10 Point scene plot:    https://writerswrite.co.za/how-to-plot-a-perfect-scene-in-10-minutes/ (scene breakdown)

Focusing only the parts where ‘something happens’ in one clear and simple sentence – make sure it has an action word. It could look like this:

  1. Nik convinces Jade to let him go to Chrome Bar.
  2. At bar, Jade has to deal with a nosy journalist.
  3. She thinks the bar is too crowded and insists they return to suite.
  4. Just then a Kim Kardashian-lookalike model arrives at the bar. Nik offers to buy her a mojito.
  5. To annoy Jade, Nik openly flirts with ‘Kim’
  6. Nik whispers to Jade that he and ‘Kim’ are going up to his suite.
  7. She follows them up to the penthouse and does a security check.
  8. While ‘Kim’ is in the bathroom, Jade checks her purse for any cameras or listening devices.
  9. In the adjoining suite, Jade is restless but eventually falls asleep.
  10. The next morning, she opens Nik’s door and finds him naked and dead, with a bullet hole in the middle of his head. ‘Kim’ is gone.

Now, all you have to do is take each plot point and write 100-150 words on each and you’ll have your scene written before you know it. This is where you can have fun with character development, dialogue, etc., knowing your ‘story spine’ is in place.

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Writing Paragraphs For Fiction

Colorful image of shapes transition to showcase writing paragraphs for fictional books

Everyone has their own writing style and this is where most differences start to show.

How you want to communicate your ideas, and how you chunk your information together is up to you and the way you tell your story.

But lets say that you’ve never written a paragaph before in your entire life. What do you do?

Well, paragraph are a string of sentences that contain similar topics and information put into a chunk of writng,

Next you put a transition into your paragraph to

When finished, your paragraphs should be a sequence of thoughts connecting to each other within a given scene.

Still stuck?

This section goes into detail on an extremely helpful technique using motivation and reaction chunking that will give you a great introduction on how you should write paragraphs.

MRU’s

Back to using Dwight V. Swain’s methods, another is his concept of MRU’s

Each motivation and reaction your POV has. should be written as a paragraph or multiple paragraphs that follow in order of M -> R -> M -> R-> M and so on in a never ending cycle.

Motivation (what POV does): The external and objective of what the POV can see, hear, taste, smell, or feel

Reaction (what POV does): The internal or subjective of what the POV. It more complicated and must be used on a time scale of feeling, reflex, and rational speech or actions.

Now that you have a rough idea of paragraphs, it’s time to go a little deeper. In other words, it’s time for the last of the basics. Sentences.

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Storybook Sentences

Everything before a sentence is structured in some form. Writing sentences is like talking, and it is the words that come out and have meaning.

The way you talk and the words you use are unique to you.

Listed below are the fundamental writing methods you will use to convey what is happening in your scenes.

  • Action: This is what a character is doing in the scene
  • Dialogue“: Is anytime 2+ characters speak. This is conversation and verbal conflict. Dialogue progresses the story, revealing something about the characters, exchanging information, and humor.
  • Narrative: This is everything going on in the background that connects pieces in a story. It is the setting, time, tone, and place.

Every scene should have a balance between action, dialogue, and narrative.

By combining these three elements, readers will be more engaged in the text. The structure of their styles breaks a repetitive flow, and their content keeps a nice switch for short attention spans.

Sentence Flow

The amount of words put into a sentence actually impacts the pace someone reads. I could give you multiple descriptions on what I mean and ways to effectively do this, but the image below does it best.

Picture of a post giving an example of the proper use of sentence length and flow

In addition to flow, another important device in writing sentences, is voice.

Active Voice

A sentence where the subject performs the action stated by the verb. It follows a clear subject + verb + object. It is describing something that is happening, as it is happening.

Example: Gary ran to the store, even though dark clouds were pouring down rain.

Passive Voice

Is more of a description of event that happened

Example: Rain from the dark clouds overhead soaked Gary on his way to the store

Changing your voice can tremendously improve your writing

Passive voice must be between 5% and 8%.  

Here is a list of passive words you should try to eliminate from your writing to reduce passive voice.

These describe a state of being instead of the act of doing

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Resources

Story Structure:
Chapters
Scenes
Paragraphs
Sentences

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