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By Jonathan Baldie • 21st June, 2018
If you’ve ever watched a movie and thought it was boring, it’s almost always because the story is not structured well. There isn’t a clear transition between acts, there isn’t a cohesive theme, and the story beats aren’t all moving towards a single goal.
History has shown us that stories with the best structure are the most entertaining to watch. The original Star Wars from 1977 followed an extremely linear path and yet started a worldwide phenomenon with millions and millions of fans, and is now worth billions of dollars.
Despite what you may have heard about the production nightmares that Star Wars suffered, stories like it are meticulously planned well in advance. Plenty of hard work is done in making sure that the story has a single message to say. A “single message to say”? That’s quite a nebulous statement so let me get a bit more specific.
Think of the best film you’ve watched or the best novel you’ve read in the last couple of years. If it really is the best, it’s highly likely that this story grabbed you right from the start, and immersed you in an awesome experience right through to the finish. Two hours of film or a day of reading felt like nothing.
To the storyteller, story structure is really about spending time before you’ve even written the first page, on a clear route map for everything that your story’s going to cover. Successful authors spend more time plotting out character arcs, designing each arc, and purposefully tracking the rising tension in their stories, than they do on the actual writing of words.
If you fail to do this step properly, then what really is your story about? You can’t possibly give a good answer to that question, because if you haven’t taken the time to plan out your story’s structure, then you haven’t thought about it enough. A failure in storytelling, then, is really a failure in planning and strategy. There really is no avoiding this critical first step, and it needs to be the longest.
This isn’t about whether you should go for Syd Field’s three-act structure coined in 1978, or any specific structure it all. It’s that you take the time to think about any structure for your story. It’s that you clearly define where each act starts and ends. It’s that you clearly define the arc that your main characters will grow upon. It’s as Dwight D. Eisenhower famously put it, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The actual plan you come up with isn’t as important as what spending the time thinking about the plan rewards you with.
Planning a structure for your story isn’t rocket science. 90% of it is sitting down at your desk, distraction-free, and doing the work. You only need a pen, some paper, and a computer to do that. But here are some tips I’ve picked up that may help you get a bit clearer on the goal.
There is a good reason why Randy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowflake Method’ of writing novels has proved so successful—it forces you to iteratively summarise your story, starting from the most basic single sentence, right down to the individual beats.
Summarising your story helps you to get a clearer picture of what you want your novel to look like. People have lots on their mind, and your potential audience is no different. What impact do you want it to have on them? What’s the one resonant message you want to leave them with? That’s a good starting point.
Then build iteratively from that first summary. Get slightly more detailed on each step of the process. It’ll help you to build each part of the story as you’ll go. You’ll notice and catch and inconsistencies or plot holes. Because you’re taking iterative steps and not leaping over wide gaps, it’s actually easier to see your structure as it progresses.
Finally, try your best to explain your story to someone you know. By a curious attribute of human nature, you’ll more quickly find inconsistencies and things you can improve in your story’s structure this way, than through any other way. Teaching is the best way to learn, and working on your story structure is no different. Explain your story to someone, and you’ll both be able to very quickly poke holes or find parts that really do work.
The most important skill a writer can have is reading. Writing comes second.
If you don’t read, or if you don’t at least lead an interesting life, then what do you really have to write about? There are no experiences there to draw from. Contrary to what you might think, the actual skill of writing prose is not usually what’s lacking in frustrated writers — it’s that they have shallow wells of experience to actually write about.
I have yet to meet a successfully storyteller is who isn’t incredibly passionate about stories themselves. They’re all die-hards of at least one series, franchise, or genre. Storytelling expert K. M. Weiland is a huge Star Wars and Marvel fan. Kristen Kieffer is a huge fan of the high fantasy genre. Where do you think they got their inspiration from to become storytellers? It has to come from somewhere.
Read as many books as you can. I always say that if you’re struggling to get through a book, it’s not you, it’s the book’s fault. Seek out books in topics that you’re interested in — they don’t have to be fiction or non-fiction, or any specific genre, just follow your favourite topics. The different translations of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations can mean the difference between an enjoyable experience and plodding drudgery.
If you’re stuck on what to read, just think of the biggest problems you have in your life, and then try to find the best book on Amazon to solve that problem. That ensures you’ll finish it, because you have extra motivation to get to the solution.
Watch movie critics analyse movies, and learn why some stories are better than others. I highly recommend Chris Stuckmann’s YouTube channel, because he analyses movies in a very clear and down-to-earth manner, contrasting him from the stereotypical haughty and holier-than-thou film critic.
Okay, so what do we do with all the information we’re now gaining from these novels, books, and stories we’re consuming? Build what’s called a ‘Commonplace Book’. Every time you find a cool anecdote, a memorable story, or a useful fact, note it down in a central place.
Then when we come to write our story, we have a rich repository of information to draw upon. Each piece of information in our notes can solve a problem we’re having in the story, or inspire us to add a new section we hadn’t thought of. This will also help you to build the discipline and organisation required to structure your story — you have to keep on top of your Commonplace Book to make it work best for you.
Your Commonplace Book can be a notepad, a journal, or a box of 4x6 index cards. I personally prefer to use Trello boards — each board is a book, each Trello list is a topic, each card is a piece of useful information I can use later.
This method works. It helped Ryan Holiday write three books in three years, it helped Robert Greene write each one of his classic books, and it helped Ronald Reagan write each one of his speeches even before he made it to the White House. Even if you’re not a storyteller, you need to try building a Commonplace Book.
2016’s Batman v. Superman film was boring because it lacked any clear act structure. That is because there are hardly any clear and definitive actions that irreversibly move the story forward. BvS is just a sequence of really cool scenes loosely strung together.
Contrast it with another Batman film, Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne is invited by Ducard to train with the League of Shadows. He succeeds there, but at the final test, refuses to kill a man and burns down their headquarters—an irreversible choice that shows us something about his character. Then he gets roughed up and shown what real power is by the crime boss Falcone—he’s now a targeted man, and the ordeal makes him realise he needs to strike fear into his enemies. He chooses to become Batman. He decides to do this because of the experiences we as an audience actually see him go through.
In great stories, character development is shown through the choices they make. We don’t want to hear another character saying “he’s really brave,” we want want to see him doing something that shows his courage. That is why the Star Wars prequels failed—they’re nothing but exposition, and none of the characters ever make any choices that actually reveal their characters.
This is how we separate acts from each other. In the original Star Wars, the acts are clearly distinct from one another, because each ends in a dramatic action or choice taken by Luke. He decides to leave Tatooine with Ben Kenobi. He decides to save Princess Leia rather than keep himself safe. He turns off his targeting computer and trusts in the Force. Each of these is a momentous reveal of character. Each of these moves the story forward.
Do the same for your story, then, and mark out well-defined breaks in each act, that pushes the story forward and raises the stakes further and further. Characters must always develop, and tension must always rise.
Every element of your story must cohesively point to the ending, which is arguably the most important part of your story. A story’s ending can only be great if the story is structured in a way that builds up to it as an unavoidable conclusion. A bad ending is never faithful to the story, because nothing happened in the story to suggest it would happen.
The ending is the last impression that your audience has of your story, and if you neglect it, you’ll leave your audience disappointed. Contrary to popular belief, most twist endings aren’t really twists. That’s because good twist endings are always heavily foreshadowed. Think of the last good twist ending you watched—it almost certainly left you saying, “Of course! That makes total sense now!” after you thought back through the hints left through the story.
That, like any part of storytelling structure, is no accident. The creator of that story meticulously planned out every piece of foreshadowing to point to that ending. Each successive scene developed the tension to that climax. Everything pointed to the end. You must think of your story as an ever-building note that rises to a dramatic crescendo, and plan everything accordingly.
I highly recommend you check out these books for excellent tips on structuring your stories: