Story Structure Workshop

Please remember as with all advice, especially writing advice, that it is subjective. Feel free to agree, adapt, pick and choose, or dismiss any or all of the following.



What is plot?

The underlying structure that supports the story

3 Act Structure

The Beginning aka the Setup: ‘normal’ established, stakes are introduced, and setting is established

  • PP1: The point at which things change and there is no going back
  • Ex. Star Wars a New Hope: Luke doesn’t really get started until his family is murdered

The Middle: highs and lows in the action build toward the conclusion

  • Response: Establishes MC’s new need/quest and what is at stake now in relation to it
  • Mid-Point Shift: The understanding of what’s going on is made clearer
  • Attack: Raises the tension and foreshadows the ‘Dark Moment’ or moment of crisis

The End:  the resolution

  • Dark Moment: moment of doubt or the fall before the triumph
  • Final Confrontation: the MC confronts the antagonist and succeeds/fails/in-between
  • Dénouement: wrapping up the subplots and loose ends

5 Act Structure

Contains the same main elements; PP1, mid-point, PP2, Dark Moment but due to the increase in acts more readily supports additional sub-plots and longer works.

Arranged as: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Dénouement

Basic Plot Elements

  • Character-can be unsympathetic, anti-hero, villain but should be interesting to the reader
  • Conflict-character’s goal, motivation and what’s preventing them from attaining it
  • Consequences-what happens should the character fail/succeed?
  • Resolution-what actually happens

Two main styles of plot

  • Narrative or External Plot – External events drive the character forward
  • Character Driven or Internal Plot – A character’s impulses, desires or needs drive the plot

20 Common Plots

Quest Adventure Pursuit Rescue
Escape Revenge The Riddle Rivalry
Underdog Temptation Metamorphosis Transformation
Maturation Love Forbidden Love Sacrifice
Discovery Wretched Excess Ascension Descension


Related to the main plot but not the focal point of the story

General Guidelines

  • The MC of each subplot needs a reason to be in the book
  • Subplots must affect the main storyline
  • Subplots should deepen/broaden the story
  • Most stories have 2-3 subplots whereas some need none
  • Multiple view points don’t necessarily need more subplots


What is Pacing?

The flow of story progression closely related to tension

General Information

  • Dialogue reads faster than narrative
  • Low tension = low reader interest
  • High tension = high reader interest

Causes of too little tension

  • Bloated Plot – Too many characters and too many subplots. Complex vs complicated.
  • Fix: Combine or cut characters/subplots
  • Dull scenes – Infodumps, scenes lasting too long, showing/telling issues, superfluous scene
  • Fix: Add a problem, merge similar scenes to add action, check emotional reactions
  • Ex. Driving scene, argument, a secret revealed. Skipping the drive to Bob’s house.
  • Flat Action – Scenes that fall flat even though they should be tense moments
  • Fix: Check if the previous scenes have setup the danger (physical, emotional or social stakes) for the reader. Is ‘The Moment’ described fully? Don’t pull punches during emotional moments

Can scenes have too much tension? Generally no.

Pacing Problems

Infodumping –

  • Beginnings – Does the reader need the information? Do they need it now?
  • Middles – Can the information be cut? Can it be spread out?
  • Fix: try weaving information in with conflict and tension. Iceberg it use 10% to get across the other 90%

Descriptions –

  • Too much can slow the reader down – cut down to what is essential to give the 
  • reader what they need to establish setting, character and conflict.
  • Too little can feel too fast or like talking heads – make sure the important scenes are given attention and the scene is set.

Every scene needs a goal and tension, even the quiet moments
The reader should worry about the character(s) and know the stakes
Scenes without tension should be addressed and generally cut if they can’t be fixed

           Scenes can deepen the character/story rather than move the plot forward
But there should still be tension in the scene
            Ex. If the MC and char are idle, they should be in disagreement
Following a highpoint is a good time for a subplot scene

Plotting Systems

Outline or not to Outline – Most advice says to try until you find what works for you

No Outline – Pros: More creativity and spontaneity
Cons: False tangents and plot holes
Helpful suggestions: Reread before writing, record where you’ve been especially dates and times

Outline – Pros: Security and structure
Cons: Sacrifices developing tangents and it can be very rigid
Helpful suggestions: Try a variety of methods, try to remain open to changes

Index Cards – Layout beginning, middle, and end scenes along with any other major scenes. Easy to play around with and rearrange.

Headlights System   aka outline as you go, like headlights on a dark road only outline as far ahead as you can see. 
Ask questions like:

  • What is my MC’s emotional state at the end of the scene?
  • How will he react to the next scene?
  • What is the next action my MC needs to take?
  • What strong scene ahead needs a transitional scene before it?
  • Do I need to add any new characters?
  • Has a character in the most recent scene suggested any new plot developments?

Narrative Outline – A treatment/ overview
Generally 20-40 pages written in present tense, often revised and edited before writing the first draft

David Morrell Method – Writing a letter to yourself about why you are writing. Often asking ‘why?’ about several aspects of the story. Sometimes used by people who don’t outline

The Borg Outline – A lot of pre-work shares similarity with the Snowflake Method

  • Starts with an abstract covering MC, motivation, Conflict and the type of ending
  • Summary statement like a query or backcover
  • Overall structure – how many arcs, points from each, type of plot
  • Character work – biographies, arcs, interviews
  • Summary of the acts
  • Chapter summary lines
  • Individual chapter summaries
  • Rest
  • Rough draft


  • Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maas
  • Story Engineering – Larry Brooks
  • Plot & Structure – James Scott Bell

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