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By David Young · March 2, 2022
Story structure is essentially the roadmap you give your audience. It allows them to navigate your story, giving them a clear idea of where you’re going and how to get there. (For those of you born after the GPS, a roadmap is a bit less “hands-on”, acting as a blueprint rather than a direct line-by-line direction.)
Give your audience a bad map — they get lost and head home super frustrated. Give them a good map — they’ll be able to kick back, take in the sights, and enjoy the ride.
So, how do you do it? How do you carefully guide your audience through your story? Here are 7 things you’ll need to write a strong story structure.
It’s important to know where you’re going with a story. By deciding what the Final Image will be, where the story ends, you can have an idea of where you’re guiding your audience.
You must have the destination to give any meaning to a roadmap.
Whatever is looming on the horizon, we at least know our destination once you’ve decided what the story’s goal is.
As the Goal of the story is your destination, the Starting Point is exactly what you think it is: it’s the place where the journey begins.
You can’t lead anyone down a road without knowing where they are before the journey starts, and that’s your Starting Point. Make sure that the beginning shows the status quo, what the story’s world looks like before the Action that sets everything into motion.
If you have a Start and a Goal, then you have the main two elements of any journey. The rest is the little things that happen in between.
In every good story, there’s an Action that sets everything into motion. This major event, often coinciding with or following the inciting incident, introduces the main conflict in the story.
By making sure that this Main Action occurs early on, you’re ensuring your story has begun moving along the path toward the Goal.
After all, you can’t stay at the Starting Place forever. You should choose a Main Action (and a main conflict) that can eventually lead to that end Goal.
Your story’s structure will be anchored by the Main Action, but for your structure to be strong, there should be multiple events caused by the Main Action that culminate in the end Goal.
Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship from the Main Action should mean that your story connects Event A to Event B, then Event B to Event C, and so on until the final result is your Goal.
If you’re not creating this chain effect, then your story structure is likely suffering from a lack of causality, and it will feel like it’s lost a lot of direction.
You have to be sure that your scenes aren’t useless.
Sometimes, writers get too interested in conversations or character actions that have nothing to do with the story, and eventually, they create scenes that don’t add to the story.
This is indicative of a poor story structure and needs to be eliminated by ensuring that each scene serves a purpose toward the actual story’s end Goal.
Always have your scenes changing things in the story. Whether the status quo starts moving from positive to negative, or negative to positive, you should be raising the stakes with every new scene that you write.
Things should always be moving, and every scene that starts out on a positive note should end on a more negative note. The same should be true of those that start out negative: they should end on a higher note. This helps your scenes establish a dynamic value that keeps things engaging throughout your story.
Whether it’s a tag after everything’s been “resolved” or an act break that needs a little shock factor, you should allow the feeling of a cliffhanger.
They become a driving force in places where there is a perceived break in the story and urge people to turn the page or stay tuned in a place where the story doesn’t seem to continue a major plot point straightaway.
Cliffhanging is a thrill for audiences everywhere — and it’s a useful way to get people to invest emotionally in the next part of your story.
Not a single one of these works on its own to create a strong story structure. That’s because structure is reliant on the cohesion of many little parts. Only by adhering to all the steps above can you start to see how your story transforms from being a few related events to an entire dramatically sound journey. And, now that you’ve got this road map to creating a well-structured story, you can start your own journey now!
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.