Need Help Understanding Story Structure?

by Jami Gold on September 1, 2015

in News

View up the center of high-tension electrical tower with text: Need Help Understanding Story Structure?

Some writers are instinctively able to put together (mostly) coherent stories while drafting. But without conscious knowledge of the underlying structure of stories, they might struggle to fix problems in revisions.

Other writers put together words willy-nilly and end up with tangents and a story that doesn’t hold together. Or they might zoom through the first several chapters, but then get stuck halfway and not know where to take the story next.

And still other writers want to plan their stories in advance, but having a story outline doesn’t necessarily prevent problems. After all, their plan doesn’t do any good if it’s simply chaos that’s been written down.

All of these writers have one thing in common: A strong sense of story structure would help them during planning, drafting, and/or revisions.

My insane release schedule this year (4 books in one year!) kept me from offering my workshop this past spring, but now that we’re approaching NaNoWriMo season, it’s time…

It’s Here! The Lost Your Pants? Workshop!

That’s right. My popular Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story workshop is now open for registration. *smile*

Whether we’re a “pantser” (writing by the seat of our pants) who just wants to learn a minimalist approach to story development, or a plotter who wants to understand how plot and character arcs work together, this class might be able to help.

Attendees will receive several tools (worksheets and beat sheets) developed especially for the workshop. Also, the class will help us prepare for NaNo, as the tools help writers work out enough story direction to make “fast drafting” techniques work for them.

This workshop consists of two sessions:

  • Tues., October 13th, 9 p.m. Eastern (New York) time/6 p.m. Pacific time
  • Thurs., October 15th, 9 p.m. Eastern (New York) time/6 p.m. Pacific time

Both sessions are recorded for registrants, so even if you can’t make it at the scheduled time, you can sign up and listen later at your convenience. It will not be offered as an OnDemand class for later registrants.

General Admission:

Learn techniques and receive tools developed especially for pantsers. More Info »

Gold Level Admission:

Gold Level also includes a Phone Consultation to discuss your Story Plan. More Info »

Platinum Level Admission:

Platinum Level also includes a Phone Consultation and Editorial Analysis and Feedback for your Story Plan. More Info »

How Does Knowing Story Structure Help Us?

I’m a die-hard-and-proud-of-it pantser, so I developed this process for myself. In other words, I promise my fellow pantsers that I’m not one of those authors who will tell you that you need to plot because otherwise “you’re doing it wrong.” *smile*

However, if we’ve seen articles about pantsing vs. plotting before, we know that many writers and editors don’t respect the pantsing process. Pantsers are often considered hacks who can’t put together a coherent story.

But I believe that most problems experienced by pantsers come down to whether or not they understand story structure. And a lack of understanding story structure will cause issues for plotters too.

Any author—a pantser or a plotter—will struggle with a story if the structure isn’t sound. If there’s a premise but no plot. If the plot arc isn’t solid. If the emotional growth is stagnant. If the stakes don’t increase. If the scenes don’t have goals. Etc., etc.

On the other hand, any author—a pantser or a plotter—will be more successful at writing a story filled with connections and meaning if their knowledge of structure is complete. Especially if they fully understand how the plot and character arcs work together over the course of the story.

Who Is this Workshop for?

I jokingly refer to this workshop as my “plotting for pantsers” class, but it’s really about how to plan our stories at a high level and work our way down only as much as we need to. We’ll learn the basic “need to know” plot points and character development steps, and more importantly, we’ll learn how those elements all play together.

(And yes, I say “we’ll learn” because every time I give this workshop, the conversation we have in the chat helps me understand all of the intricacies of story structure better too. That’s one of many reasons this class is only offered live.)

Attendees will receive exclusive tools to step them through a unique process that helps writers no matter where they fall on the pantser/plotter spectrum:

  • Those who write by the seat of their pants will learn how to plan “just enough” to keep both their freaking-out inner editor and their diva muse happy.
  • Those who plot a story in advance will learn how to use flexible tools to create a coherent outline before drafting.

Doing NaNoWriMo?

If we’re planning on doing NaNo this year, this class will give us a head start on getting our story ready for November 1st. I think I’ll be doing NaNo this year (buddy me—I’m Jami Gold), and I always use this workshop to get my story into shape too.

Many of us who write by the seat of our pants can get through the first part of the story by winging it. But if you’re anything like me, sometime in the middle of the story, we might slow down and get stuck for what should happen next.

This workshop shares additional planning layers we can use at any point in our drafting process. The tools help with planning both the plot and character arc, as well as seeing the conflicts and obstacles we can use in the middle of our story to kick start our writing again. When we have to get in 50K words in 30 days, we need to quickly overcome those times we’re stuck. *smile*

Great! But What If the Times Aren’t Convenient?

The last time I gave this class was a year ago, and unlike the rest of my workshops, which are available OnDemand, the Lost Your Pants? workshop is only offered live. However, everything is recorded for attendees.

The webinar recordings include all audio, slide presentations, chat window with questions from attendees, etc. It’s almost as good as being there. *smile*

It’s an intensive class that includes oodles of exclusive materials and always goes over on time because I make an effort to answer every question and help people with their stories. So while this class will be recorded for registrants, the recordings won’t later be made available for others.

In other words, between the fact that it’s only given as a live class and that I don’t offer it very often, I recommend that anyone wanting to take this workshop sign up this time around.

Anyone who has seen my beat sheets and worksheets for writers knows I love story structure, and this class receives great review every time I offer it. Previous students have said:

“This is the BEST online workshop I’ve taken … Using this method, I was able to fast draft THREE 100k manuscripts in 2-months a piece (over only 8 months). RECOMMENDED!!” — Jennifer Rose

“Jami Gold is … the master at taking all those books on craft and rolling them into a single, easy, cohesive plan.” — Melinda Collins

“For those of you who … haven’t taken one of her courses, I highly recommend them – she is an AMAZING teacher!” — Harley Christensen

See more comments from Jami’s previous students.

And…I’m done with the promo. Promise. *grin*

How important do you think story structure is for storytelling? Do you have a good handle on story structure? Or do you struggle with understanding how story elements fit together? Are you doing NaNo this year? Do you have any questions about the workshop?

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12 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc September 1, 2015 at 7:19 am

I took a previous class and I LOVED it! So informative, so freaking useful. I’m so glad you’re offering it again, Jami.
Hopefully many more people will take advantage of this worthy class!
Have a GREAT day 🙂

Tamara

Reply

Jami Gold September 1, 2015 at 7:39 am

Hi Tamara,

Aww, thanks! 😀 I’m so glad it’s been useful. Thanks for stopping by!

(And one thing I didn’t mention in the post is that all students get lifetime access to the class. So just a reminder to all my previous Lost Your Pants? students that after this class runs in October, the private page will be updated for the latest handout and recording links. 🙂 )

Reply

Ashley September 1, 2015 at 2:38 pm

Crap. NaNo time ALREADY?!

Reply

Jami Gold September 1, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Hi Ashley,

LOL! Two months. 🙂 I know, I know. I’m not ready either.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope I didn’t cause a heart attack! 😉

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Evolet Yvaine September 1, 2015 at 3:11 pm

I signed up!!! I’m no good with time zones, as I live in AZ, so are these times 3 hrs ahead of me?

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Jami Gold September 1, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Hi Evolet,

Yes, the times are 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific. This time of year (and into October), Arizona matches up with Pacific time, so these will be at 6 p.m. for you. 🙂

This website allows you to put in any date and time and convert to another. It’s saved me from doing that math. LOL! Thanks for the comment! (And for signing up–I’m so excited!) 😀

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Serena Yung September 7, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Cool, I think before reading and commenting on most of your posts, I probably didn’t understand story structure in that much detail, though James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure that I read before meeting your blog was helpful too–despite the bias Bell seems to have towards plotters as opposed to pantsers, haha. I especially liked your posts on scene elements and on how to make the tangents and subplots work. The character arc posts and many others were insightful too.

Discussing specific situations in my stories through comments here really helped me learn too. It’s one thing to know theory and quite another to know how to apply the principles to your own work!

Oh did I tell you about a FB post in the Writer’s Group where a poster claimed that most authors are either good at storytelling or good at writing, but not both? I personally think Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, for example,
amazing at both, lol.

But if it’s true that everybody is better at one than at the other (maybe due to personality differences?), then I think I’m better at storytelling. Of course I have tons to learn for both storytelling and writing, but storytelling feels more intuitive and writing feels more “learned” to me personally.

Again, I’m not saying I have talent in storytelling, since I don’t even believe in talent, lol. Just saying that I seem to “feel” storytelling more “instinctually” than I “feel” writing, where the latter seemed to have developed from my education at school. Um, I hope that makes sense, lol!

Nevertheless, it’s good to be more explicitly, consciously aware of what makes a story enjoyable, so we can analyze our and other people’s stories, discuss these issues, and improve our stories. Otherwise, I’d probably just be using my feelings on how to fix my story or other people’s stories, which is not entirely bad, since intuitive feeling and judgment are important. But telling someone to “just use your feelings to decide what to do” is not helpful if they want to understand what exactly is going on and why XYZ changes should be done. It also wouldn’t help “more instinctual storytellers” to become even better if they weren’t aware of the precise nuts and bolts.

Oh maybe storytelling feels more “natural” to me than writing does, because I read a lot of novels and am constantly reading them, so the structure and flow of a story got internalized into my subconscious? Whereas for writing–maybe I simply didn’t write as much as I read in my pre-university life! I had always been worried in my teenage years that I read too much and wrote too little. Now that I’m older, I worry that I write too much and read too little…even though I do the latter everyday too.

Sorry the above discussion took so long, haha.

About storytelling and structure, remember your post on how we would probably prefer reading a story with great storytelling but poor writing, over a story with impeccable writing but poor storytelling (or an uninteresting story)? I’ve found a rather extreme example of this!

Lately, a friend let me read his story. It was sort of in the genre I like, and his writing quite good, or at least decent. Yet I’m not very interested in the story, because of various reasons mostly due to personal taste. So unfortunately I’m not enjoying the story as much as I had hoped.

In contrast was a pokemon fanfic starring Gengar, my favorite pokemon, that I particularly loved. The story was really intriguing and I wanted to keep on reading (sadly it’s still very short and the author hasn’t updated for more than half a year already.) However, the grammar and spelling were atrocious! Even the author apologized for not being able to spell or use grammar. Sometimes I even felt the author was doing it on purpose to annoy the reader. XDD

And not only that story, there were some other pokemon fanfics, where you would have thought these authors had never learned grammar and spelling before, lol. It’s so hilarious. Yet their stories are very gripping (to me) because I love the subject matter and story.

All right, those examples weren’t QUITE related to your topic of good story structure, but I thought these “extreme cases” would be fun to share, haha.

Reply

Jami Gold September 8, 2015 at 8:22 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, I really like Larry Brooks’s Storyfix site and Story Engineering book for story structure, but as you said, many of the great story structure teachers are very anti-pantser.

I just happen to believe that story structure and pantsing aren’t exclusive to each other. 😀 (And I’m proof they don’t have to be. LOL!)

Hmm, I haven’t heard that writing vs. storytelling idea before, but it seems like people are too eager to simplify complex concepts (to the point of losing nuance) just to create an “us vs. them” conflict. (Reminds me of certain political issues. 😉 )

So no, I don’t buy that. We might start out better in one than the other–or like you said, our instincts might be stronger in one than the other–but both aspects can be learned.

For me, I had a bit of instinct in both, and I’ve pushed myself to learn “everything about everything” with both of them. And part of that is as you pointed out: when we’re more consciously aware of things, we’ll be better able to apply those instincts.

That’s why I think it’s so important to learn storytelling/story structure explicitly along with clarifying our assumptions of writing rules. 🙂 Thanks for bringing up those great points!

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Serena Yung September 8, 2015 at 10:59 am

Darn it, I accidentally hit the back button before finishing my message -_- , so I will only write out the most interesting parts here:

Yeah due to this anti-pantser vibe, I see some (or many) beginner writers believe that if they don’t have a plan before writing, their story will be no good. I think beginner writers feel very insecure writing without planning. Not saying that being a plotter is bad, but as you said before, it’s unfortunate that some writers who would do better at pantsing, are discouraged from doing so. Thankfully, many of these writers, including myself, eventually learn that pantsing does not necessarily lead to messiness and never-ending plots, and pantsing may work better for them than plotting. You’ll edit the story a lot after it’s done anyway.

For the “storytelling” topic, the poster defined it as pacing, tension, conflict, and story arc, which seems to approximately mean “page turner-iness” to me. And I really feel now that apart from tension (anticipation or dread) and strong emotion, there really needs to be an emotional connection between the reader and the main characters. The reader needs to care about them to want to keep reading. For my friend’s story, there sort of is some tension and strong emotion, yet I just don’t care about the characters because I find them boring. They’re good, decent people, but yeah, they’re very uninteresting to me, unfortunately. Partly because they’re mostly middle-aged or over and I don’t relate well to characters that much older than me. I relate most to story characters who are below the age of twenty, though there are exceptions. Yeah, unfortunately I’m a bit age-ist when it comes to reading novels.  The only young (late teens) lead character in the story is a girl who is also a good and decent person, but there’s nothing about her that interests or excites me either… Gee I feel so mean saying this, but yeah, I’m not emotionally gripped by the characters and don’t care much. I will still finish reading it since it’s my friend’s story, though.

In contrast, for the pokemon fanfics, there is always at least one character (especially the Gengar) that I really care about, so no matter how bad everything else is, I would persevere so that I will see that character again and see what happens to them. The current fanfic I’m reading has much more decent writing (though still not “up to par” for formal publishing), and it’s very gripping because I do care about the two main human characters, and am very interested in their relationship. (It is uncertain whether there will be romance between them, but it’s a tantalizing thought. Even if they stay just friends, I still enjoy watching their interactions.) The mystery and tension in the story are strong too. The emotions aren’t very intense so far, but that’s okay because I still care a lot about what happens to the main characters. Intense emotion isn’t absolutely required for enjoyable reading (for me, at least).

One more thing: Remember how we distinguished between an “engaging” vs. a “compelling” story? Now I would add more levels to this:

–pleasant
–engaging
–gripping
–compelling/ addictive

So pleasant would be literally pleasant, you enjoy reading it, and you look forward to reading it again, though you aren’t THAT eager to return to it and it’s pretty easy to put down. Engaging means you quite like it, do look forward to read it, but it’s again rather easy to put down; so it’s basically “pleasant” except the enjoyableness and desire to pick it up again are more intense. Gripping means you really like it, it’s rather hard to put down, and you definitely look forward to picking it up again. But you can put it down if you force yourself to, and once the book is down, though you think positively about it, you are in no hurry to continue reading. But for compelling/ addictive, it’s really, really hard to force yourself to put it down, you really enjoy it, and even when you manage to put the book down, you keep fantasizing about it and hungering to get back to the story asap, and you may even feel impatient with your friends because you can’t wait to be left alone again so you can return to the story!

Of course these four descriptors are just generalizations, as for example, a gripping book can still make you fantasize about it throughout the day and make you yearn to pick it up again, just not as fervently as with the “compelling/ addictive” books. Also, a book may have different intensities of “page-turner-iness” throughout. For my friend’s book, it started off “mildly pleasant”, then “engaging”, then “gripping”, and right now it’s “kind of boring.” Hopefully it will become more gripping again!

But as I mentioned before, being addictive/ compelling is not necessarily a good thing if the reader is very busy with their work, school, homework, etc. I still don’t understand why some authors want their readers to stay up all night reading their book and losing sleep. 🙁 Quite inconsiderate, if I may say so. Not saying that it’s wrong to make a book compelling, but it would be good to be more sympathetic towards readers who have very busy schedules themselves. =_=

Cool, I managed to make this comment relatively short!

P.S. I’m really thankful that you are a fellow pantser and that you also understand how following our muse =/= writing “randomly” and without any order at all! And yes, story structuring and pantsing don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 😀 BTW, I’d like to sign up for your class, but I’m worried about spending too much lately and am trying to save… 🙁 But I’ll see!

Reply

Jami Gold September 8, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Hi Serena,

I agree. When we’re first starting out, we want some direction, and it’s a shame when that direction isn’t right for us personally or neglects to mention a YMMV (your mileage may vary) sort of thing.

Hmm, interesting on the “storytelling” definition. I don’t disagree with the definition (especially with your addition of emotional connection), but considering that I have posts here about all those topics, I definitely think those are all things we can learn and improve.

Oh! I like those levels:
–pleasant
–engaging
–gripping
–compelling/ addictive

I think they work quite well. LOL! at your “it’s inconsiderate to write addictive stories.” As someone who often has to read in a few minute chunk at a time, I can relate. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 8, 2015 at 5:45 pm

Oh, I definitely think we can always learn more about pacing, tension, emotion, etc. too. Writing would be MUCH less fun if we couldn’t keep learning new things! Sometimes I think maybe at least half of my enjoyment in writing comes from this “lifelong journey of discoveries.” 😀 And even if I’m very familiar with a certain “rule,” seeing it apply to a specific story or story situation helps me understand the “rule” even more. Like in the examples of pokemon fanfics vs. my friend’s story above. I would say the act of learning is enjoyable in itself. 😀

BTW this is unrelated, but my author self-esteem really HAS risen since commenting on your post for that topic. I pretty much don’t automatically see my work as inferior just because it’s mine anymore! Yay!

Reply

Jami Gold September 8, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Hi Serena,

Oh yes! I agree–I love the sense of “lifelong journey of discoveries.” 🙂 And yay! I’m glad that post helped you find a different mindset!

Reply

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