Why Story Structure Matters

by Jami Gold on January 2, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Inside view of top of clear dome's structure with text: Why Story Structure Matters

It’s no secret that I’m a proud pantser (writing by the seat of my pants), and yet I’m a firm believer in story structure. My writing worksheets for story and scene construction make that latter point abundantly clear.

But I haven’t discussed before why story structure is so important. Recently, a couple of situations reminded me how story structure lies at the core of our ability to tell a story.

A simple question from one of my readers about prologues and beat sheets led to a bigger discussion about the roles different scenes play in our stories. My reader wanted to know whether we’d include a prologue’s pages in the word count of a beat sheet.

I could have just said “Yes” and called it a day. But I think it’s important to understand why a prologue would be included in the page and word count for beat sheets. And understanding that point might help us understand the importance of story structure in general.

Prologues Are Part of the Story Too

If we wrote a story and told an editor, “Keep reading. The story really starts on page ten,” the editor would tell us to chop the first nine pages. Whether they’re called prologues or chapter one, the beginning of our story counts.

If we could cut the first scene or two and the story arc wouldn’t change at all, we haven’t started in the right place. That’s why beat sheet calculations need to include the pages of a prologue. If it’s not part of the story, a prologue doesn’t belong at all.

In the email to my reader, I shared my experience with prologues. I have one story with a prologue (so I’m definitely not anti-prologue *smile*), which shows the behind-the-scenes inciting incident. In other words, I could call it chapter one and it wouldn’t change the story structure. The prologue belongs at the beginning of the arc.

On the other hand, I finished drafting my seventh story on New Year’s Eve (Yay!), which I originally thought might have a prologue. But even before I started my first draft, I realized the prologue would be all backstory. The information in the scene didn’t become important to the story/character arc until later (at about the 80% mark!), so the scene could be told in flashback later, but it didn’t belong as a prologue.

The difference was where the scene fit into the story’s arc and structure. A story starts just before things begin to change and ends when the change is complete. Some prologue scenes will fit into that story beginning spot and some won’t—and the latter probably shouldn’t be prologues.

Story Structure and Beat Sheets Are the Story Arc

When it comes to storytelling, arcs—a change over a beginning, middle, and end—create the sense of a story. No arc, no story.

A story’s beats are the events that force the characters to face dilemmas and make choices. If the characters aren’t making choices, if they’re not deciding on this path or that path, there’s no opportunity for change. There’s no arc.

If we have scenes that don’t matter, or they’re tangents to the story, they’re not just a problem because the page numbers of our beat sheet tell us our pacing is off. They’re a problem because they make the story arc zig when it should zag and zag when it should zig. In short, they interrupt the flow of the storytelling.

I’ve said before that a story’s arcs and themes give a story a sense of purpose. Story structure and beat sheets are really a way of quantifying the ingredients of an arc to enhance our storytelling ability.

A Broken Story Structure Equals a Broken Story

I recently read a story with an incredibly cool premise and fantastic characters and worldbuilding, but the story itself didn’t work for me in the end. The narrative didn’t include some scenes I expected, probably to create mystery and intrigue. At first, I reacted as a reader and felt cheated.

But that was just my opinion, right? It wasn’t that the technique itself was wrong. Or was it?

Then I put on my editor hat, and started digging into the story’s structure. I discovered one of the missing scenes was the Inciting Incident and another of the missing scenes was the Black Moment/Crisis.

Do you see the problem? If they were random scenes, the technique might have worked. But by withholding the scenes for those important story beats, readers never saw the characters face their dilemma, never saw them make their choices, never saw them change.

No change, no arc, no story.

Story Structure Isn’t about “Rules”

Story beats exist because they fulfill a purpose. If we skip the inciting incident or the End of the Beginning turning point, readers miss out on how the character takes their first steps from their “before” situation.

  • What forces them to become involved? (conflict and stakes)
  • Why do they make that choice? (motivation)
  • What do they hope to accomplish with that choice? (goal)

Without showing those elements in a scene, the character’s arc is never established. The dots between the “before” and the “after” points become all zigzag-y and randomized.

Similarly, if we skip the Black Moment, the character never experiences a crisis of faith or hope. Without that, the story’s situation might seem like no big deal to overcome, weakening the story or character arc.

The same goes for the other major story beats, like the Midpoint and Climax. Without them, the reader misses out on the goals, stakes, and motivations driving the story, and the story and character arcs are never fully established. And all of that weakens the storytelling.

Story Structure: The First Step of Revising

All of that said, it’s perfectly fine to mess up this stuff in our first draft. It’s okay to draft random scenes and zigzag all over the place. Heck, as a pantser, I change my mind on what plot event will create a turning point all the time.

But when we revisit the story, when we revise, that’s when we need to analyze our story structure. Or if we struggle with self-editing, we might need knowledgeable alpha readers (alpha readers are for rough drafts and come before beta readers) or a developmental editor to help us out.

When reopening a completed draft, we can check:

  • Does the story have a proper arc (beginning, middle, and end)?
  • Does the story have turning points (choices for the characters)?
  • Are there any missing or misplaced beats?
  • Do the stakes (consequences) increase throughout story?
  • Do the conflicts make sense (for antagonists’ goals and motivations)?
  • Is the story arc smooth (follows cause and effect)?
  • Are there any scenes not acting or reacting to a beat?
  • Do the scenes between beats react to the previous beat and/or lead up to the next beat?

It’s my belief that any story can be fixed, but the trick is knowing how to fix it. Often, analyzing the story structure will provide those answers we need. And by learning more about story structure, we might be able to avoid problems from the start. *smile*

Do you agree or disagree that story structure is important for storytelling? Do you pay attention to story structure during drafting? How about during revisions? Are you able to self-edit for story structure or do you struggle with making sure all the pieces are in place and that they all flow well?

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19 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee January 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Story structure even matters when you’re being experimental—which is something some writers seem to ignore. Even writers like Robin McKinley and J.R.R. Tolkien have story structure. Structure is what makes a story a story.

There are also multiple levels of structure, from the story level all the way down to the sentence level.

Personally, I tend to “wing” structure for longer stories (though I’ll plug them into a spreadsheet to make sure it at least approximates the “appropriate” pacing). I have a natural “ear” for it, and while some of my stories are a bit off-kilter on the structure, they’re supposed to be—because the narrator’s off-kilter, too. It fits. Some readers can’t stand it, but those have contacted me about how much they love it.

Are those off-kilter stories marketable to a general audience? I doubt it. According to the Wattpad stats (which are admittedly in beta and have some obvious signals of not being entirely accurate), only about a quarter of readers who start the first one finish it. But I’ve somehow managed to end up one of the most-followed users on that site. (I know because Wattpad sent me a nice e-mail about it.)

I’m the type of pantser who starts with a character and situation, then sits down and figures out some of the “big picture” points to hit after the initial energy wears off (which tends to be about the 10% mark, so it can be a clue about when something I intended to be a novelette is going to end up a full novel).

But that’s for longer work—short stories, I have a few questionnaires and templates I’ve designed for myself that ensure that the stories have a solid structure to them. (Otherwise, my attempts at short stories tend to end up vignettes—which are quite different.) The questions and templates force me to keep in mind the structure aspects I’m naturally weak in…and the more I practice, the less I need them. (And the more the questionnaire becomes useful as a plot bunny producer, when I want to write about a particular character.)

I had one short story wherein I knew pieces were in the wrong place, but I couldn’t see the parts to fix it. I hired someone on Fiverr to edit it (most of whose advice was actually wrong for the genre—but to be fair to her, the story was a mess). Her markups helped me see the pieces and rearrange things (and add the missing bits) to make the story a lot more comprehensible.

More recently (okay, a few days ago), I took a story slotted to be submitted to a publisher and put it on Wattpad. (The publisher’s okay with me doing that. The story’s second in a series.) One of my readers evidently got the e-mail for the middle post first, and therefore first read the story without the first section, before he realized what had happened and went back and read the first section. He says it made sense starting from the middle, but the first section was very much necessary. I found that interesting. 🙂

As an editor, one of the major problems I come across is problems with cause and effect, often in the form of missing PoV reactions, motivations, and rationales. I’m not saying you need every page to be full of them, but unless you’re writing the kind of story where the PoV character doesn’t really matter—as in some sociological sci-fi—then you need the causes of PoV actions and the effects of PoV experiences.

Can you be creative with cause/effect structure? Certainly. Ally Carter pulls it off. But too often I see writers being creative with structure unintentionally—or doing it for the sake of being creative, without comprehending what, exactly, they’re doing—which ends up, well, sabotaging what they’re intending to pull off.

Some of those writers thankfully get my point when I show them the problem. (“You didn’t use X quite right. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use X or that you should stop using X altogether—Author A proves that false. I’m saying the way you used X produced some problems, namely Y and Z. Here’s what Y and Z are and how you produced them. You should probably learn how to avoid Y and Z before you play so much with X.”) Others respond as if I’m saying, “You should never use X ever.”

Then there are those writers who have been told “You should never use X ever” and who go O.O when I say, “What about using X? That would fit very nicely here.”

…And I got sidetracked from your questions on story structure into issues of other types of structure. Um, oops?


Jami Gold January 2, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes, very true! I saw a post way back analyzing the story structure of 500 Days of Summer. I’m not sure if you saw that movie, but it seemed to be all the scenes of a story cut up and randomized. Yet, when you analyzed which scenes were shown when, even though they weren’t in chronological order, they still created an emotional arc.

That’s interesting about how you approach novels and shorts differently. I do too, but in an opposite way. As a pantser, I obviously wing structure as well. For novels, I might have general concepts of some of the major beats, but for novellas and shorter, I have no clue whatsoever until I’m typing the words. 🙂

And honestly, even after the fact, I give myself a lot of leeway on the page numbers of the beats and try to “listen” to the story flow and pace naturally. If the story and the structure work, I don’t worry about being “off” page-wise 5-10% (according to the beat sheet) here and there. I let my natural instincts lead me much of the time.

Like you though, once the pieces are in place, I often have a hard time seeing the pieces of my stories until someone points them out–especially at the paragraph/sentence level. Once someone else has “broken” the puzzle, I can fix it, but I often need someone to point out the pieces first.

I’m much better at finding the pieces in others’ work, especially for the big structure things. (Hence the developmental editing stuff I do. 🙂 )

LOL! at your sidetrack about Xs and Ys and Zs. And yes, I know just what you mean. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Krysta January 2, 2014 at 9:42 pm

First of all, happy new year! My job gets busy during holidays, so I haven’t been lurking in all my other internet haunts either…

On prologues: After going over my first drafts, I find that my prologues usually turn out to be a summary of my worldbuilding/backstory. It might not be good for the best draft of the story, but it’s good for me in the long run. Truly good prologues are hard to write!

Story structures is important for story telling, but it is also important to try and deviate from it at times. As a reader, I’d get bored if all stories follow a formulaic structure. I wouldn’t mind reading ‘breather’ chapter where the scene doesn’t contribute a lot to the rising tension/stakes, but develops other parts of the character.

I think I pay the most attention to the story structure during the first draft and plotting. On the next drafts, I only look at the story structure when I get stuck editing/rewriting or believe the scene doesn’t flow smoothly. I like to think myself as a plotter with the story and a pantser with the story beats… (An opposite of you?)


Jami Gold January 2, 2014 at 10:34 pm

Hi Krysta,

Yes, many prologues are good to write for a first draft so we understand the information, and then during revision we have to decide whether they really belong. Like when we research information, we–as the author–need to know much more than we ever put into the story. 🙂

As far as breather scenes, I absolutely agree they belong in stories too. Often we want to have a happy scene right before the Black Moment for a “higher they are, the farther they fall” feeling. *evil laugh* In other words, good and happy scenes have a place in story structure, especially when (as you said) they include other aspects like character development.

The times I’ve noticed that approach not working is when the tension/stakes/story questions disappear with no new story questions or issues replacing them. Even a subplot can be used to drive the story forward, but something needs to create questions for the reader while everything else can be good on the surface. I see this a lot in editing for others, that when the pace feels like it slows down, it’s really about not having driving story questions.

Ooo, that’s interesting about your method. I love hearing about how we can all find different approaches to work for us. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Serena Yung January 2, 2014 at 10:49 pm

In general, I agree that having the story beat sheet kind of structure is good. But I’ve seen some interesting examples that don’t follow this structure, but still engaged me as a reader. So like Carradee said, there will always be some authors who prove a certain rule wrong, lol. Or more like rule of thumb since the rule DOES work in many cases.

But maybe I have a higher tolerance for stories with weird structures because some literary classics are very experimental, so I got used to such wackiness, lol. I understand that not all readers would be as desensitized as I am towards bizarrely structured stories, though.

As for examples, there are some stories that have an odd sequence of events, I.e. it’s not the standard, chronological type. It’s not even the reflecting back to my dark past; or terrible thing X happened and this is how it all came about type. I’m thinking mostly about Margaret Atwood right now. Authors like Atwood arrange their story scenes in seemingly random order, with no clear chronological order at all. In fact, it feels SO unchronological that I’m usually quite confused about what’s really going on. (Well, okay. My confusion came less from the lack of time order, and more from how a lot of things were only hinted at but not explicitly shown. And A LOT of stuff only leaves you guessing, lol.) I recently read a contemporary book where the scenes are very scattered too. Each chapter features the first OR third person POV of a different character. (There were SO many characters that I think there literally was a new character each chapter. XDD) And the chapters jump around in time, sometimes going back, then going forward again, etc. But this book is much easier to understand than Atwood’s books, because at least IN GENERAL this book travels from an earlier time to a much later time. The book starts when these two characters were young children, and ends when they become grandparents. (They are a pair of siblings, actually, not a couple, in case it sounded like that by the way I worded it. XD)

William Faulkner also really loves playing time games with the reader and confusing us. ^_^ And it’s even worse because he writes in a stream of consciousness and more often than not, you just have no idea what is actually happening in the story, lol. It would be quite a frustrating read, if I didn’t have Wikipedia to help me. XD. Still, it was really fun to read something so wild. And man, “The Sound and the Fury” was the bomb. XD. Almost TOTAL confusion about what is actually going on. Faulkner’s works typically have a very unsettling feeling about them. You just KNOW that something really, really terrible or disturbing has or is still happening, but he only ever hints at it, very very subtly, but he never lets us see enough before he flies off again, leaving us as clueless as ever. XDD

So I’m not really sure what I can say about the story structures of these books…They certainly had some conflicts and incidents, and sometimes moments of revelation, but… And many have tragic or ambiguous endings too, so NOTHING is resolved in the end! 🙁 The path just goes down and down and never comes back up. -_- Argh. I hate tragedies yet at the same time they’re so fascinating! lol.

Oh and one of the beastliest (in terms of story structure) books I read had alternating chapters where one chapter would be the first person POV of this man doing some rather humdrum stuff, though he does more interesting things later. The next chapter would be a second person POV of another man who does a lot more exciting stuff. Then the following chapter would be the first person man again. And the chapter after that, back to the second person man. And so on. You are never sure who this second person man is, though. Is he supposed to be the reader? Is he a hypothetical person? Is he an imaginary person? If the latter is true, then who imagined him? The first person guy? The reader? Somebody else? O.O. As if that isn’t confusing enough, in the last two or so chapters, we suddenly have a short chapter with a detached third person narrator talking about this man. I have no idea who this man is or whether he is the first person guy or the second person guy, or both, or neither. Then the last chapter had a super fascinating and weird and sad/tragic second person narration of yet another man. But again I don’t have a clue whether this man was the guy from the chapter before or the first person or second person guys…or whether they were all the same person, or whether they were all just hypothetical people, argh! XD. Just as mind warping as “The Sound and the Fury”, lol! If not even worse… The problem was that NONE of the main character(s) were ever given a name… So I–don’t know what to say about inciting incidents and those other beats. There didn’t seem to be a very clear structure to the story. There didn’t seem to be a story at all. Or that so many random things happen but you don’t understand the point of all this, haha. And this book won the author a Nobel prize, lol. No wonder it was so experimental, haha. (It’s a coincidence how Faulkner’s style won him a Nobel prize as well, lol.) But like with Faulkner’s and Margaret Atwood’s works, this book, aside from some relatively boring parts, was really, really intriguing. I think the maddening confusion made it especially intriguing to me, haha.

But in general, yeah, I do prefer stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. (Even most literary classics, to my knowledge so far, use a standard structure.) Very experimental stories can be quite annoying at times, because they’re so hard to understand, haha. And sometimes stories like Faulkner’s make me feel uncomfortable and I would much rather have something nice and straightforward and satisfying like the STANDARD structured books, lol. The standard structure is certainly much more reader friendly!


Jami Gold January 2, 2014 at 11:21 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, as I replied to Carradee (and your comment and my reply probably crossed in the ether 🙂 ), I’ve seen stories that experiment with structure, often with non-chronological events. The example I mentioned to Carradee was the movie 500 Days of Summer, which did still have beats in the right place beat-sheet-wise despite being out of chronological order. (I found two interesting posts about that here and here.)

However, the point of structure isn’t about chronological order but about an arc. Usually that arc will follow chronological time for its sense of beginning, middle, and end. But the experimental types of stories will instead focus simply on the “rising action followed by falling action” aspect of an arc. In those cases, the beginning, middle, and end aren’t driven by time but by action and emotional levels.

In other words, even though their scenes and events are shown out of chronological order, they still (usually) wind up in a rising-rising-rising-and-then-falling order for the action and/or emotional level. Obviously the idea of increasing stakes and the usual beats might be thrown out the window for those stories, but they usually deal with increasing emotion/tension in other ways.

That rising-rising-rising-falling feeling creates a sense of beginning, middle, and end–i.e., an arc–which makes it feel like a story despite its experimental nature. Usually. 🙂 (After all, there are exceptions to every rule, as you noted. LOL!) Thanks for the comment!


Serena Yung January 3, 2014 at 10:48 am

Cool. I’m not sure there was exactly rising and falling action and emotion in Faulkner’s stuff, if I remember correctly. But there were parts that were more intense or weird or disturbing than others. There were plot turning points too, I guess, e.g. when the foster parents die. I feel that these stories might be more intuitive / guided by intuition. Even if there is no structure (don’t remember exactly), there is definitely at least TENSION /suspense/mystery all the way through to keep me engaged. I’ve discovered that if there is tension/ mystery/ suspense/ conflict/ a very negative emotion like fear or anger, I almost always feel “gripped” enough to want to read on. Do most readers feel like this too, or am I just easily hooked? 😀


Jami Gold January 3, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Hi Serena,

I haven’t read Faulkner, so I can’t say. That’s why I said “usually.” 🙂 There are sure to be exceptions. Thanks for the comment!


Robyn LaRue January 4, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Good food for thought, as usual. It also helped me clarify a weak turning point in my current WiP. Thanks!


Jami Gold January 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Hi Robyn,

Yay! I’m glad it helped. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


bellardila52 October 20, 2015 at 12:25 am

I think story structure is so important to writers because it is a tool to make the story good. The story structure has to be understandable by the reader, therefore they can understand what happens between the protagonist and the world in that novel.


Jami Gold October 20, 2015 at 6:15 am

Hi Belladila,

Exactly! 🙂 Story structure is what tells the reader what to roof for, expect, dread, etc. Thanks for the comment!


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