Story Structure: Your Story Needs a Spine

Open book pages
Story structure provides the spine for the body of your novel. It’s what everything else hangs off. And even though you can’t see it, if you don’t have it, you don’t have a story.

We as humans are wired for story. It’s how we convey information that is important for the survival of the species. Think of Aesop’s fables or the parables Jesus told. They convey important truths in a way we can remember and understand them. The most powerful stories tap into this truth by engaging the reader’s brain and emotions.

Your story needs to do this too.

So, how do you do that?

You may get to this point in a variety of ways, but at some point, every story needs to look something like this.

You have a main character who has a past with a wound (backstory). She has been living life just fine, thank you very much, protecting her wound. Until something happens (inciting incident) that means she can no longer operate in the world the way she has been. This is where the story begins on the page.

She wants something external and tangible (story goal), but what she really wants, deep down inside, is the magic elixir that will heal her wound (internal goal). Because she is human (or possibly alien or nonhuman), she is stubborn and resistant to change. So while reaching for her story goal, she will be trying to protect her wounds. You will throw at her all sorts of things that become increasingly more difficult (conflict, plot complications) that will force her to deal with her wound, but because she won’t stop protecting it, she makes things worse for herself.

Until she reaches a point where her wound is exposed and all is lost (the black moment). It is here that she realizes what she needs to do to find healing. She has become stronger and learned more during all her trials (epiphany). She does that thing she needs to do, which she can now do, that couldn’t do at the beginning of the story. She may need to fight a final battle with the new-found strength and knowledge she has. Or she might be able to go straight to tying up all the loose plot threads until we come to a satisfying conclusion.

That’s a very loose structure that allows for all sorts of stories to follow it. But it retains the key things the brain is looking for:

  •       Everything must be there for a reason.
  •       Everything must tie itself to the wound in some way
  •       Everything must resolve itself in a reasonable way.

It also ties the action of the plot inextricably to the character’s inner life. Every one of her actions is a result of her wound. Different characters with different wounds will react to the same situation in a different way.

Just like everyone’s spine is different—but everyone has one—so every story can be different using the same structure.

Final note: Did that story outline above look suspiciously like a synopsis? That is because it is a synopsis. Use that basic template the next time you need to write one.

Additional resources on this:

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius

Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story

Christopher Vogler’s the Writer’s Journey

Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation


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