Exploring Story Structure for Plotting
Pantsing vs Outlining
Pantsers argue that trying to structure their story ahead of time makes their creative juices dry up, so they have no use for outlines and templates. But there is a spectrum to all things, and unless you’re a purist pantser, you probably want some sort of guidance to help you navigate the path of your story. The more complex your story is, with more characters, story arcs, plotlines and subplots, the more likely you are to need a map of some kind to help you: enter the story structure template.
Classic Story Structure
There are dozens of variants of the Classic Story Structure, which is a generic outline of story blocks or story points usually arranged in a three-act structure, most commonly a simplified version of the hero’s journey adapted by Christopher Vogler from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, involving at bare minimum an external story arc (the story points of the main plot) an internal story arc for the protagonist’s emotional journey or change arc and some pinch points for the antagonist.
There are several problems with trying to use this classic template to develop your story plot. Firstly, it doesn’t give enough weight to the antagonist, nor allow for the charting of the antagonist’s internal story arc. Without this, the antagonist will be thin and be in danger of becoming a melodrama villain, which you don’t want. Secondarily, the Classic Story Structure is too generic and doesn’t fit most story types that modern writers want to tell. The classic story structure is vanilla. Sure you can adapt it and add things to it to make it into the story structure you want or need. But what if you don’t know how to adapt it to the type of story you have in mind? Thirdly it isn’t granular enough to accommodate beats, the smallest chunks of story.
When I started to try to map out my first romance for example I found this classic story structure woefully inadequate, it just didn’t fit. Then I started thinking about other types of stories that need different structures, such as Thrillers, Mysteries and Ensemble cast stories. After careful consideration I have identified nine variations to the classic story structure that are different enough to warrant their own template. They are:
The Classic Story Structure
The Pure Romance Story Structure
The Romance + Story Structure
The Thriller Story Structure
The Suspense Story Structure
The Mystery Story Structure
The Action Story Structure
The Quest Story Structure
The Saga Story Structure
The Ensemble Cast Story Structure
You can get all ten in one bundle or just get the one you want here. In this series there is a post on each one, discussing the template in detail, which genres it is designed for and how to adapt it to your particular story.
In the rest of this post, I am going to discuss the layout, conventions and definitions of the templates and dive into the classic story structure in detail.
Layout, Conventions and Definitions
Each template has been developed in an excel spreadsheet so it is easy to modify and move things around. The cardinal rule is that everything is a guideline or a suggestion, you are the master of your fictional universe and you can change anything you like. That said the template can provide you with some structure that will resonate with your readers at a subliminal level and it will also provide you with some inspiration if you get stuck.
The templates are organised on two axes. Across the top are the key story blocks or points of the story structure split into three acts with a mid-point dividing the second act in half. Down the side are three types of story threads:
Plot lines refer to the major plotlines of the main story. You will have at least one of these which can be variously described as the external story arc or plot. Other plotlines will involve the protagonist, and will spell out specific plots for the protagonist involving secondary characters (where those characters are not POV characters with their own story arc).
Story arcs are the internal story arcs of the Protagonist the Antagonist and any other POV character that has their own development or change arc.
Subplots are for secondary characters that have their own external storyline but not necessarily an internal change arc.
You can add as many of these as you need to your template. You will find the minimum suggested ones in each template for each type of story, some of them optional. But again you can take any out that you don’t want.
The template has room for you to add your specific scenes and beats descriptions corresponding to the story points given. You will see that the story points for the character arcs and subplots often occur in the same column as the main plot story points. You can add additional columns if you want to split these out into a sequence. They are stacked under each other to compact the through line so that it isn’t unmanageably long and to show that they are linked. The story points for the characters internal arc may be embedded in a scene about the main plot story point or it may have its own scene. If you want to split them into separate beats you can do that too, which is what the beats rows are for. A beat is the smallest chunk of story.
The Classic Story Structure Template
This template is a variation of the classic story structure you will find all over the place. The major difference is that this one contains three story threads:
The main plot line ie the external plot, what the story is actually about
The Protagonists (internal or change) story arc
The Antagonists (internal) story arc
Whereas most of the ones you will see have only one thread with a couple of story points to cover the protagonist and antagonists story arcs respectively.
The Template I have designed allows you to fully detail the characters change arc and insert beats or create scenes to trace all the steps in this change arc. This doesn’t mean you have to create or write scenes or beats for all of these, but it will enable you to work through the logical progression of the characters emotional journey. You can also create scenes or beats and not put them in the final manuscript, but the fact that you have worked them through will give what is in the manuscript more depth, your character will feel more real and you will avoid making illogical leaps of behaviour, action or reasoning.
This is particularly useful for the antagonist, most of their thoughts and actions may not appear in the actual manuscript but they happen, just off stage. By building them out in the template you make sure that your antagonist, as well as your protagonist is fully realised and has gravitas. Trust me this method will make your antagonist much more powerful and will avoid the dreaded two-dimensional melodrama bad guy. If you follow this method your antagonist will come alive in your manuscript. It will help you get inside his/her head and work through all aspects of what he/she does to mess with the protagonist. This will avoid any errors in logistics and believability of action. It will force you to show how the antagonist achieves what they set out to achieve.
The Story Structure Template is available in the Bazaar. The Antagonist and Protagonist Character Development Templates are designed to work with this method of plot development. You can get them all from the Online Bazaar.