Note from Nick: This is a guest post by by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland), who runs the awesome blog Helping Writers Become Authors, of which I’ve been a huge fan for some time.
Does that title sound too good to be true? Well, it isn’t. No, seriously, if you read at the same pace as me (and, yes, I timed myself), then by the time you’ve finished reading this post, you’ll have learned how to structure an entire novel.
Who knew it was that simple, right? I didn’t. I resisted structure for years, until one day I got hit in the face with a simple explanation of it. Just like that—in five minutes—it changed my entire approach to writing (and, if we want to get melodramatic, my life).
10 Steps to Story Structure
We find many approaches to classic story structure. This is mine. I divide the prominent aspects and turning points into ten basic steps. Why ten? Because if we can ace these major moments in our story, the finer details tend to just fall into place. We can all remember ten things, right?
Just what are these magic ten steps that are going to lead us to a stronger, more amazing, (dare I say?) more fun story? Let’s take a look.
The First Act
- The Hook.
- What Is It? Your story begins with the hook. This is your first opportunity for catching your readers’ attention and convincing them to read on. The Hook will always be a question (perhaps explicit, but probably implicit), piquing your readers’ curiosity and urging them to read on and find out, “What happens next?”
- Where Does It Belong? The Hook must show up in your first chapter, preferably on the first page, and even more preferably in the first line.
- The Inciting Event.
- What Is It? The Inciting Event is the first domino in your story’s line of dominos. This what starts everything. To identify your Inciting Event, ask yourself, “What event starts the ball rolling in my story’s plot? Where does the conflict begin? What sets in motion the story’s action?”
- Where Does It Belong? The Inciting Event is most often found in the opening chapter. It is, after all, the beginning of everything. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Sometimes the Inciting Event occurs before the story itself actually starts; sometimes it won’t happen until late in the first quarter of the book.
- The Key Event.
- What Is It? If the Inciting Event is what gets your plot rolling, the Key Event is what sucks your protagonist into that plot. Even if you have a great big Inciting Event (like, say, the beginning of a war), it can’t affect your character until the Key Event drags him into the mess (as would happen if he were drafted into the Army).
- Where Does It Belong? The Key Event will always follow the Inciting Event, usually promptly. Unlike the Inciting Event it can’t take place before the Hook, since this is the moment in which your character officially becomes engaged with your story. Sometimes the Key Event will take place as late as the beginning of the Second Act, but never later.
- The First Plot Point
- What Is It? The First Plot Point marks the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. This is where everything changes for your character. Up to now, the First Act has mostly concerned itself with setting up your character’s “normal world” and introducing the supporting characters, the settings, and, most importantly, the stakes. But now, the First Plot Point rocks that normal world. Everything changes, and your protagonist will be forced to start reacting to the new status quo.
- Where Does It Belong? The First Plot Point will occur roundabout the 25% mark in your book. This placement doesn’t have to be precise, since a book is long enough to allow a less than exact structural timeline. But you’ll always want to aim to have your major plot points dividing your book into rough quarters.
The Second Act
- The First Half of the Second Act
- What Is It? Your character is going to spend the First Half of the Second Act in reaction mode. The First Plot Point changed his world—and probably not for the better. For the next quarter of the book, right up until the Midpoint, he’s going to be fighting to keep his head above water.
- Where Does It Belong? The First Half of the Second Act will span (approximately) from the First Plot Point at the 25% mark to the Midpoint at the 50% mark.
- The Midpoint
- What Is It? The Midpoint is your story’s second major plot point. This is where everything changes—again. Just as your character’s world was rocked off its axis by the First Plot Point, now it gets shaken up all over again. The difference is that now your character is more equipped to handle what happens. Where, before, he was thrown into reaction mode, now he’s ready to start taking action.
- Where Does It Belong? The Midpoint, very intuitively, belongs smack in the middle of your story, where it will also divide the Second Act right dab in half.
- The Second Half of the Second Act
- What Is It? After the Midpoint, your character is going to start going on the offensive. He’s no longer going to be willing to simply have the antagonist bring the battle to him. Instead, he’s going to start implementing his own plans and throwing off his own insecurities.
- Where Does It Belong? The Second Half of the Second Act begins at the Midpoint and will continue all the way to the beginning of the Third Act, at the 75% mark in your story.
The Third Act
- The Third Plot Point
- What Is It? The Third Plot, as your final major plot point, is, once again, going to change everything. Whatever happens here is going to force your character to a low place. He’s going to finally have to analyze his actions and his motivations and get down to the core of his own personal character arc. This is where he’ll start to identify his own destructive (or perhaps just ineffective) mindsets and start rejecting the personal lies that have held him back up to now.
- Where Does It Belong? The Third Plot Point signals the beginning of the Third Act. As such, it needs to occur right around the beginning of your book’s final quarter—or right around the 75% mark.
- The Climax
- What Is It? This is what it’s all about, folks! Your Climax is where your story finally gets down to brass tacks. This is the point of the whole story. This is where the conflict must finally be resolved, for good and all, one way or the other.
- Where Does It Belong? Although events will be heating up all the way through the Third Act, the Climax proper won’t begin until around the 90% mark in your story, and the Climactic Moment itself won’t hit until the very end—perhaps only a scene or two away from the end of the book.
- 10. The Resolution
- What Is It? The Resolution caps your story with finality. This important scene is the exhale to your Climax’s inhale. Here, you give readers the opportunity to see how your character will react to the events of the Climax. How is he a different person from whomever he was in the beginning? How has the world changed around him? How does his future look from here?
- Where Does It Belong? By this point, your story is essentially over, so there’s no need to drag things out. Most Resolutions will only need a scene or two to tie off loose ends and leave readers with a happy feeling in the pits of their stomachs.
Whew! And there you have it. Five minutes later, and already you’ve got a basic grasp on what is perhaps the most important tool in any writer’s arsenal: story structure.
(Want more? I talk about story—and scene—structure in depth in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.)
K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.