An insider’s guide to story structure

By Allison Tait

Do you know an inciting incident from an exciting accident? Do you know what needs to happen at the mid-point of your story? Have you heard of the three-act structure?

Structure is one of those areas of writing fiction that can feel both simple and incredibly complicated. If you're an avid reader, you probably think that you  know how story works, right? Surely you’ve taken in structure by osmosis over years and years of consuming words While you might have great instincts to determine whether or not a story works, it's useful to have a firm grasp on the function of structure – and how to make it work for you.

If your mind explodes as soon as someone starts talking to you about rising action and resolutions, then maybe it's time to learn a little bit more about the conventions of structure. If structure is an area that you struggle with, you can rest assured there’s an AWC course for you. Try Fiction Essentials: Structure, Creative Writing Stage 1 and The Story Doctor.

But while you wait for the next course to begin, we’ve rounded up a series of quality articles to help lay the groundwork for your strong story foundations.


“I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible.”

Kate Forsyth is an internationally bestselling, award-winning author, poet, and storyteller. She’s also known at AWC as the Queen of Plotting, and this article lays out her process with some terrific outlines and diagrams to keep things clear. In the article, Kate says: “I am an ardent believer in the importance of plotting … if only because it makes the writing process so much easier and enjoyable.
Don't we all want that? To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable.

“However, I know from personal experience that the more effortless the writing seems, the more work has actually gone into it. I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible. However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer.”

 


“The task of self-editing always seems huge, but just like eating an elephant it should be done one bite at a time.”

Angela Slatter (also writing as A.G. Slatter) is an award-winning author of novels and short stories, with an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing. She teaches creative writing courses of all types at the Australian Writers Centre. In this typically no-nonsense article, Angela takes a step-by-step look at the self-editing process, including how to find and use the rhythms of a three-act story.

Angela says in the article: “The task of self-editing always seems huge, but just like eating an elephant it should be done one bite at a time. I always start with the small stuff because it’s relatively quick and easy and it gives me a sense of achievement that buoys me up to tackle the bigger issues – yes, being a writer is a constant system of sticks and carrots. The basics are always spelling, grammar and punctuation. When you’re reading over a draft, put on your critical thought hat: have you used the right word? Have you written ‘enervated’ when you mean ‘energised’ because they sound a bit alike?”

On structure, she adds:
“Another important thing to keep in mind is structure. I like a three act structure because it gives you a good guide for where to put which plot points. It’s especially useful for new writers to train them in the rhythms of a short story, so they become second nature. When you’re editing/auditing your work, ask: do all of the parts make up the whole in the way they need to? Is there too much/not enough set up/foreshadowing in Act One? Is there to much exposition/marking time in Act Two? Is Act Three simply too short or too long? Has the climax of the story occurred in a fashion that leaves the reader saying “Huh?” because the writer hasn’t given enough foreshadowing/hints/ breadcrumbs in the previous acts? So, once again, you need to read your draft with a critical gaze: forget that it’s your baby and you love it to distraction; actively look for its faults.”

 


“When it comes to plotting, there is plenty of room between nothing and everything for you to find your comfort zone.”

Kylie Scott is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling, Audie Award winning author who has sold over two million books and was voted Australian Romance Writer of the year four times by the Australian Romance Reader’s Association. She is also a reformed ‘pantser’, and in this article outlines her process for planning a novel, working through tropes, conflicts and the story arc. Kylie shows that a plan need be nothing more than a vague outline, but that thinking about the structure of the book can save ‘thousands of words in your ‘trash’ file’.

Kylie says: “When it comes to plotting, there is plenty of room between nothing and everything for you to find your comfort zone. The question is, what do you need to constructively move forward with your story? What are the sorts of things worth plotting out, in order to give a little structure and direction to your pantsing?”

 


“Specific genres have questions which define them, and which are generally the big overarching question in the book. This question drives the story.”

Pamela Freeman is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than 40 books and novellas, plus short stories and scripts. She is Director of Creative Writing at the Australian Writers’ Centre, with a Doctorate in Creative Arts (Writing). In this article, Pamela asks writers to consider ‘the question of the book’ and shows how answering that question drives the structure of the story.

Pamela says: “Specific genres have questions which define them, and which are generally the big overarching question in the book. This question drives the story. or your structure to be successful (that is, for the story to be satisfying to the reader), you need to answer that overarching question. What that means is that the climax and resolution have to be directly related to the question. If they’re not, the reader may enjoy the book, but they won’t be satisfied by it.

“It also means that many of the complications in the book will be about the obstacles to getting that question answered. And those obstacles are basically other questions, which are strongly related to the overarching question, and which make your book your own.”

 


Author bio

Author Allison Tait smiling

Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al is a pantser who is trying to reform herself to save time and words. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.

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