Story Structure: A Lost Art?

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If you’ve written anything of length, you no doubt understand the debate between “planners” and “pantsers.” On one hand, who wants their outline to dictate every beat, sentence, paragraph, and more?

On the other hand, who wants to suffer the unbelievably painful realization in the last few chapters that their story is DOA due to a lack of planning?

Whatever side you’re on, there’s an important lesson here. 

Story structure is still vital to the story. 

No arguing allowed.

Boom. Done. Bottom line.

If you don’t want to plan your story, at least plan the story structure.

And if you don’t want to write your book without some idea of where you’re going, work on your story’s structure first.

What is story structure? 

The structure of the story is kind of like an outline, but one that has a set framework, guidelines, and goals. It’s like a little outline on steroids — it not only lets you see your book “at-a-glance,” it also helps you conceive of, plan, and work out the kinks and plot holes in your story — before you start writing.

Best of all, it helps you formulate your story arc: that elusive, “I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it” thing that all writers know about but few actually put into play regularly — or well.

Over at, Larry walks writers through story structure through his idea of the “Six Core Competencies.

I’ve read his first book, Story Engineering, and am working through Story Physics, the follow-up, and let just say: I’m a fan.

Another great tome to pick up on these subjects is K.M. Weiland’s Story Structure (not yet available, but I’m special so I’ve read it!).

The point is, whether you want more creative freedom than what an outline seems to be able provide, or you want the rigidity and foresight of having all the pieces in place before you dive in, the thing you shouldn’t ignore — no matter what — is your story’s structure.

If you ignore structure, people will ignore your story.

Need an example?

(*Nick considers pulling out example after example of crappy, nonsensical stories that have no structure*)

Let’s look at Hollywood:

David Hollis, the head of distribution for Disney, tells TheWrap regarding the massive flop of The Lone Ranger:

“The frustrating part for us is that we had all the ingredients here. You take a classic franchise, team the world’s most successful producer, an award-winning director and the biggest movie star in the world and you think your chances of success are pretty good. But we just didn’t make it work.” (original quote)

What’s so funny to me is that he’s completely missing the point — sure, those things (great direction, production, acting, etc.) can all help, but without a great story, presented in a properly-structured way, your story is probably going to fail.

Did The Lone Ranger have great direction? Check.

Great acting? Check.

Great studio behind it? Double-check.

…And much more going for it? Quadruple-check. 

But did it properly structure its story in the 3-Act Play (actually 4 acts, but that’s for another day) style, using the right high- and low-points throughout, spaced evenly enough to sell the story?


I know because I watched it — all 2+ hours of the grueling, almost-there-but-oh-wait-aw-that’s-not-how-it-should’ve-happened story. The characters are strong, but aren’t allowed to really shine, and the settings are flawless but don’t get the right kind of attention.

All because of bad structure.

So go fix your story’s structure.

If you need help, I’m going to be opening a course on this stuff soon, called Write A Novel Now. It’s open for trials (only $7/month, first month free, yada yada), so go check it out!

Also, let me know what you think of this stuff — do you want more? Less? Want me to shut up altogether? Leave a comment below!

Nick ThackerStory Structure: A Lost Art?
  • K.M. Weiland

    Thanks for the shout out about Structuring Your Novel, Nick! Good post on a subject dear to my heart. :) I haven’t seen The Lone Ranger yet, but I’m interested in giving it a watch just to see how far it strayed from proper structure. Badly structured scripts aren’t something you see too often in Hollywood. Bad stories and other problems, yes, but structure is something scriptwriters usually have a great handle on.

    • Nick Thacker

      No problem — I’m still working through your book, too. It’s REALLY awesome, so I’m taking my time!

  • Guest

    I read your post from beginning to end. you need to slow down and put more effort into your writting. you come off sounding like a salesman. going door to door, quickly repeating the same lines without thinking.

    you should publicly recognize the people who helped you. who knows, you might need their help again one day.

    • Nick Thacker

      Hmm interesting comment, Guest. Thanks for the advice. While I disagree with your opinion, that’s your opinion.

      And I guess I could publicly recognize every single person who’s ever helped me with anything in every post I write, but that would make for extremely long pos

      I’ll continue to publicly recognize those people as I see fit. Thanks!

  • AlexBrantham

    I’d agree that there is more than one way to structure a story, of course… and that any convention can easily become a strait-jacket. However, my guess is that most of the people interested in this blog post are likely to be closer to the “beginner” end of the spectrum than “master”.

    Sure, when you’ve published a dozen best sellers you can do what the heck you like. But the single biggest mistake made by beginners (IMHO) is forgetting to have a structure to their story, so they just go rambling off into the wilderness in the hope that one or two readers might follow – and, when you’re beginning, following the recipe is a good way to start. You can always get clever later!

    • Jessica Burde

      In general I agree with you, but you are kind of missing my point. I learned about 5-act structure long before 3-act structure. I wasn’t rambling off into the wilderness when I wrote my first stories using 5-act structure, I was following a different recipe.

      Let me extend your analogy. I love to bake, and I’ve often had people ask me about baking bread. If someone came to me and said “I want to bake bread and I have these ingredients (story idea)” I wouldn’t say, “Well, you’re ingredients list includes eggs and milk, and those aren’t a part of white bread, so you can’t use them.” I would say, “Well here are two easy recipes, one is for white bread, but the eggs and milk don’t fit in this recipe, so if you want to use them, you’re better off following the challah recipe.”

      I wouldn’t recommend a beginner making croissants (monomyth), until they’ve mastered some easier recipes. Hell I’ve been baking for nearly 10 years and my croissants still come out off more often than not! But letting a beginner know that there is a selection of easy recipes, and they can pick the one that they like best is not the same thing as encouraging them to get clever.

      • Nick Thacker

        Good stuff here!

  • rochellebarlow

    Without structure our stories would be bags of skin. That’s icky. I love all the resources you’ve given on story structure. I just picked up Story Engineering (I know, I’m late to the game) the other day and am starting through it. I can’t wait for KM’s book to come out. I’m pretty special too, she must have missed me on the list… ha ha. I’m interested in reading more about the various act structures that Jessica brought up. I’ve mostly read about 3 and 4 acts. But, I am a newbie, so maybe that’s okay.

    • Nick Thacker

      Same here — I’d love to find a book on the “other” structures that don’t get as much love!