Writing Tips: 4 Steps to Story Structure

Story structure comes naturally to some writers, but for many of us, it’s an odd sort of voodoo. It can easily feel confining, or make you think that all writing has to follow some crazy formula. That’s not what structure is for, though. Structure is a tool to help you ensure that your story follows an emotionally compelling path.

Three act structure is basically just a system of framing your story. In film and photo terms, we use the rule of thirds to arrange the composition of an image. We place the key details in spots we know are visually appealing, and draw the eye to the correct focus for telling our story. Three act structure is basically the same thing for your writing. It isn’t intended to change the elements of your story, it’s more to help you place those elements into the story in a way which will be the most interesting to your audience and help them keep track of the key details.

I generally over simplify three act structure for my stories, because I’m more interested in discovering what’s going to happen to the characters than I am locking myself into a complex structure. But even my thumbnail sketch helps me keep my story on track. (Note that I’m entirely writing with a classically comedic story arc here. So if you’re writing a tragedy, you’ll probably want to operate slightly differently.)

view of my binder for a story in progress

If you’re a Scrivener user, I generally start out by just making folders in the binder for Act I, II and III and then throwing docs into them to hit the various “key events” I want. This could easily be done with just titles in a word processor, but Scrivener does a nice job of making it beautiful. (Scrivener is not paying me for these endorsements, btw, but if they decide to do so in the future I won’t complain.)

1. Build your foundation

I tend to think of Act I as the starting world. Who is my character, and what is their life like before the conflict changes everything? That’s immediately boring, so be careful. You don’t want to write hundreds of pages of Act I (and sometimes you may not want any Act I in your story at all) but understanding where your character begins is essential to establishing who they are and why the central conflict matters.

Here’s a few tips to keep Act I interesting. Remember that ordinary isn’t perfect. Your character should have problems and struggles even in their starting world. In fact, your character should have at least one massive flaw with which we’re going to spend the rest of the story dealing. Act I is a great time to help us understand that flaw before everything goes crazy.

2. Take your character out of their comfort zone

Act II begins as the central character crosses the boundary from their ordinary life into the extraordinary. In the classic fantasy trope, it would be the moment where the character from our world is magically transported into the fantasy realm. It’s the moment where the Little Mermaid suddenly gets legs, or Mister Incredible finds himself trapped in the drudgery of a completely ordinary life (which is a nice example of turning the formula on it’s head).

Over the course of this act, your central character should in some way come face to face with the totality of the conflict or antagonist that they face. They should fail or barely succeed. It’s your moment to convince your audience beyond a shadow of a doubt that your hero is facing something capable of defeating them — and that is likely to defeat them.

3. Kill hope

I generally begin Act III with the climactic moments of the story. Whatever massive cataclysmic issue your character faces, whether it’s a super villain, or their own terrible choices should reach their high point here. The villain is ascendant. The hero is an utter failure. All hope is lost.

Don’t get caught up in the conflict language here. This is all just as important in a romance as it is in a war story. In a romance, this is the moment where the character realizes who she’s really in love with but has just done something so horrible she thinks they’ll never take her back. <Cue dramatic music>

In it’s simplest form, Act III is all about death and resurrection. Whatever it is that we’ve been rooting for, the victory, the hero, the relationship… it comes to a brutal and gruesome end.

4. Bring us back to earth

And then you get to write the heroic comeback (if that’s how your story goes) and tell us a bit about what it all means. Tie up the lose ends you mean to tie up, give us a glimpse of your character in the new world, the transformed world that comes about as a result of all of this, and then type ‘THE END.’

Additional Resources:

Back in film school, I wrote up a simple 12 step guide (using the hero’s journey) to a more intricate structure. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to post it for your use. Just let me know in the comments.

Christopher Vogler has written a great book covering the hero’s journey that could help if you’re interested in learning more about how to view a story through that lens.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

One of the classic works on three act structure is Robert McKee’s book, Story. I highly recommend giving it a read. Folks sometimes find his system too constraining. Just look at his work as guidelines instead of rules, and I think you’ll find it very valuable.

Story by Robert McKee

The antithesis of McKee and three act structure is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. If you find three act structure really constraining, this is the book for you. Regardless of your philosophy, Truby offers a lot of great information of how to develop your stories and characters to their maximum potential.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby



8 Tips to Give Receivable Criticism

National Novel Writing Month is coming to a close. A lot of people have just finished, or at least made great progress on a first draft. In the next few days, some of them may be pounding on your door asking you to read it and tell them what you think.

Before you flee in terror, take a look at a few techniques to turn your cutting remarks into constructive criticism. Because at the end of the day, you have a great opportunity to do your friend a favor. You just have to learn to give them the bad news (or hopefully the good news) in a format they can receive. You can give the best advice in the world, but if your listener can’t hear it, it’s just wasted breath.

While I’m writing specifically to people reading novels, I use these same techniques when criticizing scripts, films, videos, live theater… they’re pretty universal.

  1. 1. Ask what kind of feedback your friend wants.

Some people would love for you to correct all their typos and grammar — which I would call utterly pointless in a first draft — while others may be looking for whether or not the story makes sense, if you follow key turning points, whether or not you’re emotionally attached to the characters, etc. Invite them to tell you what they want. In doing so, they will give you explicit permission to share.

2. Be specific.

“I love it” and “I hate it” are both fairly useless pieces of criticism. They don’t help the author understand what they’ve done right, or what  they need to change. Pick a part of the story and tell them how it made you feel, and take a swipe at telling them why.

3. Tell them where.

This is especially important in longer works, but it’s applicable to anything. “I didn’t like the part where Henry walks in the woods” is great if Henry only walks in the woods one time. But, what if you forgot that when he and Harriet sneak off to the lake, they walk right through the woods? Provide additional details that help your friend know exactly what part of the story to which you’re referring.

4. Avoid absolutes.

“The part where he gets the sword sucks.” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. You’re allowed to think so, but your criticism will be infinitely more receivable if you phrase it that way. For example, “I didn’t like the part where he gets the sword.” Now, I know it’s your opinion, rather than absolute truth.

5. Be nice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying go easy. If you’re friend really wants feedback, you’re doing them a disservice telling them something is good when it isn’t. But, there’s a huge difference between “this scene isn’t working for me” and “this scene makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

6. Find the good.

When we put our critic hat on, it’s easy to forget to mention the good along with the bad. Try to start out and finish your critique by noting things they did well, parts that worked, or characters or traits you liked. Positive feedback (knowing what you did right) is just as valuable as negative feedback (what you did wrong). Don’t tell people you really liked parts that stink, but try to find things that you do genuinely like. This also helps to make your negative critiques more receivable.

7. Hold your criticism loosely.

It’s easy to puff up our chests and think, “they asked for my expertise. Hence, I am an expert!” In reality, you may be one of many different people giving feedback. Remember that no matter how passionately you believe what you’re saying, it’s still just your opinion. They can take it or leave it.

8. Stay friends.

Nothing you have to say about your friends novel, screenplay, or whatever is more important than your friendship. If you feel like the process is just creating tension between you… stop. Tell them gently that you don’t feel like your criticism is really helping them, and suggest they go to someone else. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever run into this situation when I was doing 1-7 well, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

My thoughts on giving good criticism have been heavily shaped by the writing of Andrew Burt over at Critters. So, if you’d like to read further on this topic, I recommend checking him out.

Have fun reading your friend’s hardwork, and if you have any good criticism tips, leave them in the comments.

Writing Tips: Create an Interesting Character Part 2

If you missed it, you can read part 1 here.

So, you’ve figured out a major event that shaped who your character is, and you’ve thought through what they want in this scene. That’s good! Here’s a couple of additional questions to tackle.

Who were/are their parents?

My acting coach always used to ask me the names of my characters parents. It seemed ridiculous. But her point was, who doesn’t know the names of their own parents? Naming your characters parents may not bring anything of value to your story, but knowing about them will. Like it or not, all of us have been shaped by our parents. Some of us were shaped by never knowing them. Others were shaped by the incredible love their parents showed them, or perhaps by neglect or abuse. Whether your character’s parents impacted them positively or negatively, they add a vital layer to who your character is now, and what they’re about to do.

This gets into your character’s background. Where have they been and how does it shape who they are now? Much of this detail may never be revealed in the context of your story, but it’s important because it shapes the choices your character will make.

Where are they conflicted?

I’m not asking where they face conflict. Your story should be rife with that. I mean, where are they at war with themselves? Take me, for example. I’m a very honest person. Being truthful is something I deeply value. Except on those rare occasions when I lie. I love my wife. She’s amazing. My passion for her is hard to quantify. Except in those moments where I put myself first. We humans are a writhing bag of contradictions. When creating a character, my natural impulse is to point them in a straight line, wind them up and let them go. But real people aren’t like that. Somewhere we all have those hooks, those wounds, those bits of damage that will pull us off course. And there are other things, issues about which we just can’t make up our mind. Give your characters those sorts of contradictions and struggles.

What weird things do they do?

Hobbies are great. Your character should have one. And mannerisms. What do they do that’s kind of odd? What are their compulsions? I’m loath to admit this publicly, but good writing is all about honesty and self revelation, right? I have a difficult time bypassing a q-tip. If I see one, I’m compelled to clean my ears. It doesn’t matter if I just did it. And if I don’t see one, I could go a month without cleaning them. Here’s another one: I grew up with parents who told me to clean my plate. When I was in elementary school there was a terrible famine in Ethiopia and a lot of people were starving to death. In my mind, I still have a responsibility to eat everything served to me, and not throw away food. I’ll often catch myself scraping at my plate trying to get everything off of it.

Maybe your character bites their tongue when they concentrate, or they make little whistling sounds without realizing they’re doing it. These traits do two vital things for you. First, they help your audience to tell your characters apart. Don’t be Robert Jordan and make every female sniff in annoyance and pull her braid. (I’m a huge Jordan fan — but that was one of the weaknesses of his books) Let each character have their own unique quirks. It helps us keep track of who is who. The second thing this does for you, is it reveals something about who they are. If you do this right, their quicks give us hints at the things that shaped and drive them. And that can become another mystery we want to unravel. So we turn to the next page and keep reading.

Of course, there’s a ton more that goes into creating a good character, but I don’t want to commit to another episode right now. I’ll probably circle back to this eventually, though.

In the mean time, what questions do you ask yourself as you seek to make compelling and interesting characters? Please share them in the comments.

Tips for Writers: 8 Tips to Get You Writing, Right Now!

It’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated). My word counts this year aren’t that great. In fact, I don’t think I’ve quite hit 10k words this month, but I’m close to that, and I think my total time investment is only around 6 hours. So I’m at well over 1000 words an hour. 🙂 Maybe that’s good, maybe not. But, sometimes the hardest part is getting started. So, I thought I’d share some of the tips that have set me free to write in years past. Without further ado, here’s my top 8 tips to get you writing, right now:

  1. Write now, fix later. I know. I want the perfect word too. But I can come back and put in the perfect word when I’m editing. When I’m trying to get the story down on the page, I have to stop worrying about the fact that I just used the word “resolved” four times in the previous paragraph, or that “empty” isn’t quite as good as “hollow.” For now, focus on getting the ideas onto the page. You can clean up the mess later.
  2. Hold it loosely. It’s your baby. Every word is pure gold — even though you’re writing quickly and not choosing the right words. For me, I’m a discovery writer. So I run down roads and pathways that go nowhere. I love them. But they still will often need to hit the cutting room floor. So don’t be afraid to just start throwing words on the page and see what happens.
  3. Make a backup so you can wreck it. Sometimes, I’m afraid to add, to change, to do the next thing because it might be worse than what I already have. When I feel that way, and even when I don’t, I just make a backup and keep going. I always know that backup is there, and if I really make a mess of things, I can return to it.
  4. Structure is good. One of the great lessons of screenwriting is how critical structure is to good story telling. When I’m constrained to a tight limit of minutes, I have to be incredibly precise in when and how the dramatic arc of the story builds and lands. While a novel is a vastly different bird, it’s not particularly different in this regard. You may not need to chart out every moment of the story before you start — I would never get a word written if I did that — but it helps a lot to have a loose map of the story before you start. I actually break the main events of my story into three acts.
  5. Use good tools. Sometimes you do get hung up on a word or a phrase. See point one and keep going. But if you can’t, grab a thesaurus or a reverse dictionary. Get the word you need and keep going. Also, Word and Google Docs aren’t ideal for long form documents like novels (or heavily formatted ones like screenplays). Personally, I love Scrivener. It provides me all the critical data I need, allows me to easily format and organize my writing, my research — everything I need. I wish I could get a commission every time I tell someone about it. 🙂
  6. Write somewhere else. You’ve got your favorite work spaces, the places where you do your day job, or you pay the bills at the house, maybe where you play a computer game or your favorite living room chair. When it’s time to get serious writing done, go somewhere else. All those places have a host of built in distractions, ties to all those other activities. So go somewhere that doesn’t, and enjoy all the new mental focus you can find there. Now don’t mess it up and bring in of those other activities into you new space!
  7. Protect your writing time. If you’ve set aside time to write, it can feel impossible sometimes to get started. That’s okay. Write garbage if you have to, but start writing. If you absolutely can’t write, do some research for your writing project. (Even if you’re writing a work of fiction that takes place in it’s own universe there are stories from history, bits of science, traits of human psychology that you’ll want to carry into your world.) Or, read some writing tips. The internet is filled with suggestions from excellent writers that will help you be better. If you can’t get anything accomplished in service of your project, at least use the time to become a better writer.
  8. WWcD? What would <your character> do? I know, you’ve got important plot points to hit, but this is a novel. The straight line is almost never the right call. So, at this moment in the story, instead of worrying about what needs to happen next, work on what your character would do. I may want him to give some vital exposition, or take a stand against the bad guy. Or maybe, I want him to be nice and do the right thing, but… the circumstances don’t make that likely. Let your character lead you on a merry chase, and see where it takes you. Worst case scenario, you can always fall back on number 2.