Story Structure: All a Novelist Needs to Know

story jigsaw puzzle for writersThe structure of every story follows the pattern of the average human emotional experience. That pattern is the same, whether it’s a first kiss, eating a chocolate bar, having sex, or reading a full-length novel. Hollywood scriptwriters have found this pattern, follow it, and often make great heaps of money for their producers by doing so.

But how does this help the novel writer? We’re all much more “seat of the pants,” aren’t we? Creative, innovative, never following the crowd? Well, yes, we all have an intuitive grasp of the idea, or we wouldn’t be writers. But my experience is that a formula helps you most when you discover you’ve screwed up. Be as creative as you want, but when you finish your first draft and discover it’s flat, boring, and takes too long to get anywhere, what do you do? You go to the formula to see what you missed. Because it will be there.

My favourite crutch at times like that is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Candace Williams took a page from this book for her article on Storyboarding, and now I’m going to refer to the same hallowed tome for information on story structure. Blake Snyder has honed the structure of the fiction experience down to a fine edge, even stating the page number where each event must take place in a 110-word screenplay.

Now, we’re not pitching to Hollywood producers, so we have a bit more latitude, but when I analyze a manuscript with problems, I always find that it misses its marks on Snyder’s plan. Here’s his pattern in simplified form (without the page numbers to stir up your righteous ire).

The One and Only Pattern for Every Story Since the Beginning of Time (No Exaggeration)

  1. Setup – The first 10% of the book, ballad, or screenplay. It sets up the world before the adventure starts. It shows us what the hero needs to change in order to win.
  2. Catalyst – An event that knocks down the world the author has just shown. Traditionally called the “Inciting Incident.” It requires the hero to take action.
  3. Debate – Can I? Should I? Or should I give in and compromise, like everyone tells me? By answering, “Yes! I’ll do it!” the main character becomes a hero, and the story starts.
  4. Break into Act 2 – the moment when we leave the old world behind.
  5. Fun and Games – The nice thing about breaking the rules is that often, at the beginning, it works. What attracts the reader to the book? What’s the hook? Enjoy it while you can, because storm clouds are gathering.
  6. Midpoint – a game-changing event. Stakes are raised. Either a big win or a big loss. But if it’s a win, it’s a false win. It seems to be the path to victory, but the hero hasn’t learned the real lesson yet, so it will send him off on a false path. Or else it’s a false loss, and the hero pulls himself up by the bootstraps and takes the real path towards victory.
  7. Bad Guys Close In – If the midpoint is an up, this is where the bad guys come back with a bigger stick. If the midpoint’s a down, this is where the bad guys keep winning.
  8. All is Lost – the opposite emotion of the midpoint. It’s never as good as it seems at one of these points, and it’s never as bad as it seems at the other one. Or vice versa. This is where the help goes away, and the hero realizes he’s on his own.
  9. Dark Night of the Soul – at this point the hero must either give up or reach down inside himself and find the strength to go on. Of course, he goes on.
  10. Break into Act 3 – the hero finds the solution. Now all he has to do is apply it.
  11. Finale – The hero applies the solution and wins. He dispatches bad guys from smallest to largest. At the end, the biggest bad guy has to be defeated so that the new world order the hero is looking for can exist.

If somehow you’ve managed to include all this, you’ve got the bones of a good story. And if you’ve missed even one of these, you’d better go back and put it in, because your story will be lacking.

Invest in Your Craft

If you want a reference that you can go back to time and again, that you can turn to whenever you have a problem, go out and buy Save the Cat, or one of the other how-to books on story writing, such as Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. (His pattern is called LOCK: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout.) Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland has good information, but I think he spends too much time selling you on the idea instead of telling you how. Buy one. You won’t be sorry.


I perused about a dozen other how-to books on novel writing, and I found they all broke the primary rule of plots. Instead of giving us the facts about writing, they talked about it, round and round: the theoretical, “What is Plot?” the cutesy, “What is the Who?” the highly detailed, “Basic Writing Ability, Natural Storytelling Talent, and The Right Temperament.”

If you spend too much time reading books like that, you’ll end up with the same problem they have: the academic approach. You’ll learn to write round and round, telling all about the story, without ever showing it.

And stay away from the cutesy titles. “How to Write a …(superlative adjective)… Book in …(unrealistic number)…of Days…(deleted expletive)!” These are books written by marketing experts making money off writers.

Get Writing

You don’t need all that theoretical stuff. You need to start writing. And if you use a simple template that is based on the emotional experience your reader will go through, you’ve got that much better chance of making a hit.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

14 thoughts on “Story Structure: All a Novelist Needs to Know”

  1. I still have my notes from nearly 30 years ago, when I took a weekend workshop presented by the Screen Writer’s Guild and this is what they shared then! Thanks making it easier for me to share with others, by providing this post.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and relating this and other posts like it to my own process. I call myself a pantser but in actuality I believe I go through the same steps without writing them down. They stay in my head. It works well for me that way, perhaps because it gives me the illusion of freedom. Once I write it down I feel hemmed in.

    1. I think the better we get as writers, the more we have these points firmly in our intuitive minds, so we refer to the references less and less, and so are freed to be more creative.

  3. Great article, Gordon! Writing with a structure in mind need not inhibit a pantser. It’s the bones of a good story, not a dry story, or a cookie-cutter story. It’s the writing first, the structure as the unseen (unnoticed) background second. When I cook, I think of the recipe as a suggestion, not a mandate. It’s the same with having a story structure. There’s plenty of room for you and your muse to produce good writing within a good plot.

    1. Yeah, my wife cooks that way, too. They say most creativity is achieved by taking two ideas and putting them together in a new way. She often puts two recipes together. In my next book, I steal a character from Shakespeare.

  4. I think you’re so right that story structure is important. Even for those who don’t outline, there need to be some basic structure points that you hit. All stories have to hit certain highs and lows and any book that addresses that is a good one. I just read Libbie Hawker’s Take off Your Pants, and found it right useful in just getting the basic framework.

    I read an interesting article awhile ago where a professor talked about presidential inaugural speeches. And he noted that the best speeches were ones that told a story. Our brains are hardwired to hear stories, and the most effective story tellers, tend to win, in politics, novel writing and life in general–if you believe professors. 🙂

  5. I am an inveterate pantser, in that I normally only know the beginning of a book or story when I start, but I read and absorbed Save the Cat and find it useful. Even though I don’t write beats ahead of time, I keep the structure in my head as I move through the book. Great post, Gordon!

    1. I think authors are turned off by the word “structure,” as if they think they have to write a sonnet or something. I have to remind myself that it is the structure of the reader’s emotional experience that we’re talking about, not a cookie-cutter, fill-in-the-blanks formula of writing.

  6. Save the Cat was already on my TBR list, Gordon. Good to see another vote for it.

    But your last paragraph is golden. Studying story structure and character building is all very fine, but at some point you need to put your butt in the chair and write.

    1. Can’t support Lyne and Gordon enough. When I ask my group members what they are writing, too often the answer is ‘nothing’. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. Write every day even if it is only a paragraph and even a lousy one. Because tomorrow you will edit it–and that is writing too.

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