A story without structure is like a body without bones: it’s messy and won’t get very far. Structure gives both you and your readers a clear sense of direction and purpose. If you check around for story structure outlines, many of them will based on Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It is a basic plot structure, typically used in screenwriting. However, it can really apply to any media form because it follows a basic three act structure. This one is somewhat based on Snyder’s outline as well. Note that all of the elements of this outline are not completely set in stone, but this is a good structure for sequence of events. Sometimes it’s hard to analyze exactly where every point of a story falls into the beat sheet, but you’ll get the idea. The three most basic ingredients you need before you can fill out the details of this structure are: a protagonist, a goal, and an adversary. It also helps to have ideas about your story’s theme, your character’s hamartia, and your character’s plan to get whatever it is they want. (Note, I’m gonna talk about Disney’s Tangled a lot, and I’m not exactly sure if I lined up all the plot points right, but they make good examples.)
Your opening should be attention-grabbing and set the tone for the rest of the story. For example, in Tangled, we see a wanted poster in a shadowy forest with a humorous illustration of the co-starring character of the film, Flynn Rider, who is giving a narrative epilogue which denotes that the preceding story will be a lighthearted and amusing off-beat fairy tale.
I’m not really sure how frequently novels do this, but I know that in screenplays the “theme” of the film is in some way presented, either as a statement or a question, within the first five or ten minutes of the movie. This statement is the premise which the rest of the story addresses, an obvious example being Pride and Prejudice’s opener: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” In Freaky Friday the “theme stated” is where the mother and daughter state that her life is much harder than the other’s. By the end of the story the statement can be proved, disproved, or if it’s question it can be answered—but the protagonist must not know the full truth or untruth of the premise until late in the story.
Nothing has happened yet, the character’s world is still business as usual, but the stage is set and ready for something life-altering. Showing your character’s life struggles and desires is important here. This is where we see how angsty yet self-conceited the socialite’s life is, how invisible the youngest daughter feels, how the 30 year old wishes he has someone to marry and start a life with him. In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe this is when the four children go to live with Professor Kirk. In Tangled, Rapunzel wants to see the “floating lights” but Mother Gothel will not let her, saying that the world outside Rapunzel’s tower is too dangerous. So, while nothing has changed, the stage is set for action.
This is the inciting incident, the big moment, the spot where the story really starts. This is where the world is flipped upside down: the protagonist gets superpowers, the car accident happens, the protagonist discovers a mysterious old box in the attic. In Rapunzel’s case this is when Flynn comes into her tower, and in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe this is when Lucy first enters the wardrobe. The catalyst thrusts the protagonist into action and is the first key event.
This whole new world the protagonist was just thrown into can be a lot to handle, and your protagonist may not know how to deal with it. He or she usually questions how to go on, or whether to go on at all. For example, maybe he thinks he found the perfect girl, but doesn’t know if he is good enough to pursue her. Or she was offered a place as queen, but doesn’t know if she can handle such a duty. In Tangled, Rapunzel has much indecision about continuing with her adventure—she longs to see the outside world, but worries she is doing wrong to Mother Gothel by running away from the tower. In the debate stage, the protagonist still has time to turn back. Rapunzel repeatedly considered forgetting the whole thing and going back to her tower before Mother Gothel even knew what happened, but at the same time loves her newfound freedom and wants to go on the adventure. She goes back and forth like, a dozen time. Not all debate scenes have to be this extreme, but you get the idea.
Transition into Act II: The Decision
The protagonist is done debating and makes a big decision: she will get revenge on the man who killed her family, he will find the girl he loves and woo her, she will use her newfound talent to change the world, he will find the cure for the disease. In Tangled, Flynn takes Rapunzel to the Snuggly Duckling Inn, and Rapunzel is inspired to follow her dream to see the floating lights. In this section, Rapunzel commits to the adventure and there is no turning back. In The Lord of the Rings this is where Frodo decides to journey to Rivendell. The world your character knew before is gone and they are officially committed to the new journey or goal.
B Story Comes Into Play
While this comes in at different times, the B story should be introduced no later than at this point. Perhaps your A story is stealing the crown jewels, but your B story is a love story (a very common B story)—now is the time to start bringing that love story into play. In Tangled, the A story is seeing the Floating Lights and the B story is Rapunzel and Flynn’s romance. The B story begins when the friendship between Flynn and Rapunzel begins to develop into romance as they share heartfelt moments in revealing personal secrets to each other around the fire. The B story is often used to observe the A story and give insight. In the Star Wars prequels, the friendship between Anakin and Obi-Wan (the B story) plays an important role in the A story (Anakin’s turning to the dark side), but also discusses the main plot, as in where Anakin complains that Obi-Wan is holding him back (just as he believes the Jedi as a whole are holding him back from saving Padme) and where Obi-wan tries to set Anakin straight on the burning planet, but ends up mourning their lost friendship.
Fun and Games/Promise of Premise
This is what you sold your story on, the fun part that the readers want to see. If you sold your story on action, we better see a thrilling car chase, and if you sold it on romantic comedy, we better see all kinds of awkward situations with maybe some kissing thrown in. This is where we see the highlights of the genre. By choosing a certain genre, you are promising to come through to your readers on certain elements. So in a mystery story this is where we see all the cool Nancy Drew detective work, in a fantasy story we explore the strange new surroundings and creatures and in a sports story this is where we see training and maybe even minor competitions in preparation for the big game.
This can either be an up or down on your plot roller coaster, but from here on out things should move fast and be fairly intense—no more messing around, turn up the heat! This is where we bring in false defeat and false victory. The protagonist either thinks he lost it all or thinks he’s won. You can use one or both of these elements throughout your story, and even use them multiple times. For example, in The Princess and the Frog, this is where Tiana is able to be turned back into a human and realize her restaurant dream, but realizes it is a false victory because it is the people that matter, not the restaurant dream. In Tangled, Rapunzel is tricked into believing that Flynn has betrayed her—a false defeat. The A story and B story should also cross here. For example, the villain kidnaps the hero’s love interest (cliché, I know) and the villain tries to force her to either save her love interest or solve the A story. This puts the A and B story at tension, which is an especially good element for relationships (and, as mentioned, B stories are often relationship stories).
The Plot Thickens
Blake Snyder calls this plot point “Bad Guys Close In.” In other words, the aliens have not only landed, but they come armed; the superhero must not only save the city, but save his whole family. Things are really coming down to the wire, and the leads may wonder if winning is even possible. In The Princess and the Frog, this is where the voodoo dude tricks everyone into thinking Charlotte married Prince Naveen and Ray gets killed.
The protagonist hits bottom. It looks like things will never work out right. His love interest gets engaged to someone else, or the doctors say she cannot be cured, or he sees no way to stop the bomb from going off. The protagonist often even considers giving up. In Tangled, Rapunzel is heartbroken, thinking that her dreams are shattered and Flynn has betrayed her. She feels that perhaps Mother Gothel was right, and that the outside world really is nothing but cruel—basically, she has gone as low as she can go, to the point that she almost resigns herself to her fate. Likewise, at this plot point your protagonist should generally think all is lost and should hopelessly despair.
Transition into Act III
This is where things start to look up. The protagonist gets determinations and a new perspective, which causes her to see a possible way out. Remember that B story we introduced earlier? The B story often helps give the A story a push in the right direction at this point. The love interest gives the protagonist words of encouragement, the protagonists remembers words of wisdom from his mentor, etc. In The Return of the King, this is where Sam carries Frodo up the mountain. Note that this is very similar to “Transition into Act II” because it is where a decision is made to act and carry on.
This is it, the big moment, the bursting point. Either we win now or we lose for good! In sport movies this is where the whole team either walks away in shame, or wins the world championship. This is where Frodo battles Gollum for the ring, Scar fights Simba, and Luke fights Darth Vader. This is where we see the most action and drama with very little down time. This is the big game, the final showdown.
Finale and Resolution
The miraculous solution arises and is implemented. In Tangled Flynn saves Rapunzel from Mother Gothel and Rapunzel saves Flynn from death. In Batman Begins, Batman lets the train crash, killing Ra’s al Ghul. In The Return of the King, the ring finally gets into the lava in Mount Doom. The final problem is solved and everything is over, one way or another.
The after picture is the final image that shows that a change has occurred since the beginning of the story and gives and may give an indication about how the things will continue after the story is over. The after picture is the exhale after the storm, a denouement. All loose ends should be tied up. Example: Sam gets married and has a family, Frodo goes across the sea with the Elves, Batman starts to rebuilds his parent’s home, Rapunzel gets married to Flynn, and Tiana gets her restaurant where Naveen plays jazz in it. In Princess Diaries, Mia flies over Genovia, narrating her plans for the future. Disco parties and happy laughing friends are a common “happy ending” after picture, but I would encourage creativity in this area.
You can use these ideas but rephrase them in your own words. If you use the exact idea credit me, but if you use your own version of the idea no credit required!
Tips and Techniques
Links for further resources:
Comments of interest:
“I also find it is useful to look up your novel’s title to see if it is already taken or there are a lot of similar titles; the more unique a title is, the easier it will be to find. The only other tip I can think of (which you pretty much already covered) is make sure it is a memorable title, something that will “stick”. Using unique or less common (but easy to pronounce) words paired with simple words is one way to make a title stick in a reader’s memory. A title like, I don’t know, “The Cat and Malison” or “Little Magnolia”, or “The Great Enigma” (those are weird examples).” -Stilwater-Rundeepo
“This is very helpful. One other thing I thought of however. If your novel is one in a series, should the books have similar titles? Or titles that relate to the series name itself? As in for example, if you have a series titled Knights of Bloodtree, would a book with a name of one of these indicated knights be better than a book with the name with an adjective (like what you mentioned with Tangled and the like)? This is my biggest dilemma with my own series.” –Rhavencroft
I’ve seen books in series titled various ways. For example, all the Narnia books have completely different titles, but all under the main title: The Chronicles of Narnia. As I glance at my bookshelf, I notice I also have a trilogy titled Kidnapped where each book has a title with the same theme: The Abduction, The Search, and The Rescue. In the I, Q series by Roland Smith, each book is titled with the main location the book takes place in: Independence Hall, The White House, Kitty Hawk, and Alamo. Again, the titles are different, but hold the same theme. Another example is using the same word, as in the DragonKeeper Chronicles where the books are titled, Dragonspell, Dragonquest, Dragonknight, Dragonfire, and Dragonlight. Similar to this titling method is Nancy Yi Fan’s novel Swordbird and its sequel Sword Quest.
With your example of Knights of Bloodtree naming each book with the name of the primary knight of the story would be an excellent idea, because it is a logical titling method that gives you a good idea of what the book will be about (assuming you’ve been introduced to the knights in some way in the previous books). So the books could be titled like, Knights of Bloodtree: Sir Ivan, Knights of Bloodtree: Sir Gregory, etc. Or with a different approach they could be titled: Knights of Bloodtree: The Sword of Destiny, Knights of Bloodtree: The Sheild of Sorrows, Knights of Bloodtree: The Helmet of My Forefathers, etc. Those aren’t great examples, but you see how they have a similar theme.
So in all honestly, I don’t think there is no ONE right way of doing it. Though I would personally recommend sticking to a similar theme/titling style for all of the books in a series to make it cohesive.
Whether you have no plot, half a plot, or just need to spice things up a bit, this article gives advice on to create and solve conflict in a character-centered story, along with a few ideas for inspiration.
Growing Plot from Character
In many stories, the protagonist is the heart and the plot is the body. This is a good strategy. The character drives the plot and the plot in turn creates needs for the character to attempt to overcome and structure to make the story flowing and paced.
Often I start with a character and a few loose ideas about that character, but not a very strong plot idea. If you’ve got a well-developed character but are lacking in plots, it’s a good idea to grow your plot from your character. Write down what you know about your character: his or her personality, past, future goals, etc. Once you know what your characters have been through, where they want to go, and what kind of they are, you might get some ideas about what is missing or what needs fixing in their life. I’ll illustrate how to do this method.
Meet Mitch. His mom was a perfectionist and she tried to make him perfect. He rebelled, and even now that he is twenty-something, much of what he does is driven by the desire to annoy his mom and assert himself. Mitch was bullied at boarding school his mom sent him to, and with no one to protect him, he developed haphephobia (fear of touch) and an outer shell of autonomy. Also because of bullying, he gave up on social life and receded into more a nerdy endeavor: computers. As a teen, he was still bullied but started hanging out with some shady kids who promised to teach him self-defense if he would do little things for them, like illegally downloading movies for them, and hacking their friends’ Facebook accounts. This is how Mitch became a hacker. Eventually, he got caught on a fairly minor offense, but the government agreed to let him off if he would start helping them instead. Now he tries to stay out of big-time hacking and makes a living as a freelance worker helping websites improve their security. Oh, and how does he anoy his mom? By spiking his hair, wearing guyliner, not having a “real” job, and never coming to family events, just to name a few.
Okay. So now we’ve got a character with a past and a personality. How can we grow a plot out of this? We’ve got quite a lot to go on. For a short light-hearted story, maybe his mom makes a big effort to get him to come to the family New Year’s party, using all kinds of tricks and persuasion. For a longer more intense story, maybe a bad guy tries to force Mitch to do some hacking work for him. Maybe the “bad guy” is a girl who kidnaps him to try to force him to hack something. Maybe she also has a crush on Mitch, but when she tries to make a move on him, his haphephobia flares up. Just brainstorm: use as many “what ifs” as you can!
Say you’ve already got a good protagonist and antagonist and your main plot is shaping up. But, things are looking a little sparse. Maybe what you wanted to be a novel will only amount to a short story if you write it with the overly-basic plot you have now. If your plot is too simple, worry not, for there is a cheat: sub-villains!
Just having one fight with the villain doesn’t amount to much. Just think if Star Wars was about nothing but a kid who is told his father is Darth Vader, then fights him. There would not be enough time for character development, Luke wouldn’t gone through enough for his final battle to be triumphant and dramatic, and there certainly wouldn’t have been three movies.
Take The Lord of the Rings for example. Frodo and Sam had to get past all kinds of people trying to get the ring from them before they could have the final battle with Sauron and Gollum. This is a technique the Alex Rider series often utilized. There would be some sort of assassin or henchman that Alex had to get through before he could have the final battle with the villain himself.
Create a sub-antagonist you have to defeat before you can tackle the main antagonist. For example, before defeating the crime lord, have your protagonist have to get through the crime lord’s body gaurds. And remember, an antagonist doesn’t always have to be a person. For example, if your protagonist is battling a more abstract “villain” such as cancer, he or she may struggle to find funds for treatment before they can fight the cancer itself (I should note that some have argued that a disease cannot be an antagonist, but that is irrelevant to my point here).
Make conflict stacks, Russian doll plots: to get to one goal, they have to get through several other goals first. Make. Them. Suffer. Be a sadist. Give them a really, really bad day.
Example: your protagonist found the perfect girl, and his goal is to go to the coffee shop she works at, and ask her out. Simple, right? Not by the time we’re done with him. Perhaps this is the last day he has to ask her out before she’s gone forever, because he overheard her saying she had found a new job and is quitting the coffee shop this weekend. He decides he better ask her before it’s too late. First, he gets a haircut to look as stylish as possible, but ends up getting the worst haircut of his life. Let’s say he solves that by the masterful innovation of his sister, and he’s all set to go to the coffee shop. Next, he realizes he left his car in a no-parking zone on the street outside his house, and it’s been towed. But, he solves that by getting a taxi. The taxi gets caught in traffic. Time is running short. When he finally gets there, a car runs through a puddle, splashing all over him as he stands on the sidewalk. His shirt is ruined. He checks his watch, only a few minutes left until closing time. He runs to the clothing store, changes in the fitting room, and runs back to the coffee shop. Just as he enters, he sees the girl of his dreams hugging another man. He is silently devastated, until he overhears that it’s her brother. Soon, he sees her getting ready to leave. Finally, it’s his chance to ask her out. But, did I mention he’s chronically shy? After he painfully stammers his profession of love, the girl finds him cute and says that yes she’d love to go out with him. The guy is ecstatic. It was all worth it. Now, all this doesn’t just make the story longer, it makes it more interesting (in this case, somewhat comical as well) and the triumph more triumphant. The more misery your protag has to go through, the more happy we will be when he gets what he wants–or the more devastated we will be if he fails. So next time your plot seems too simple and boring, brainstorm every obstacle you can throw in your protagonist’s way.
What is the Worst Thing That Could Happen to Your Character?
The emphasis in this sentence is on YOUR character. What is specifically bad for YOUR character. If the only friend your character has left is her sister, make that sister move away for college or a job. Oh, does your character get bullied at school? A perfect time to send him to live with the bully and his family for a week. Did her parents dies and now she has to take care of her younger brother but she worries she isn’t doing a good enough job? Let’s confirm those worries and get the younger brother into trouble for getting into fights. In this technique, it helps to think of opposites. If your character is a high-class movie star, send him to spend a week in a slum. If your character is a down to earth hermit who likes to sit home alone and read, send her on a road trip with a pretentious movie star.
Of course things like the death of a loved one or death of self are typically the WORST thing and can work well, but in order to be interesting, those things should be specific in some way to your character. Nearly everyone is upset when they lose their mom, but what is different about it for your character? Did he wish he would’t have become estranged from her years ago? Was he dependent on her because she was the only one who understood him, and now he feels utterly alone? Does he deal with pain and loss in a unique way? Similarly, nearly everyone is upset to die. But why is YOUR character upset? Is it because he knows he won’t live to see his sister’s wedding next month? Because her best friend is going through depression and she worries her friend might commit suicide without her support?
On another note, don’t always think that you have to do something terrible to your character to have an engaging story. People don’t always have to die and become severely traumatized for an interesting story! Take for instance my character, Bart. He is the laziest college student you’ve ever seen. He is overweight, bribes others to do his schoolwork to get a passing grade, and does nothing but eat junk food and his own personal movie-watching-and-reviewing hobby. For him, the worst thing that could happen is losing his family, but the worst thing that could happen to him that is specific to his character would be being forced to get off the couch and work hard. So, to make Bart miserable, we could assign him a huge project at school, have his mom tell him that she’ll cut off his funds if he doesn’t start helping more around the house, or even send him to a work camp if we’re feeling especially creative. The point is, we are putting the character in a situation that is unpleasant for him specifically, whereas another person might not mind much.
Have your protagonists solve the plot in a way that is unique to them.
We’re not here to see just any ole normal person solve their problems in a normal way. We’re here to watch your fascinating character do their thing, to see your creativity as an author. The method your protagonist uses to solve her problems is what reveals her character. For example, in the Star Wars prequels, Padme’s first instinct is often diplomacy while Anakin’s first instinct is fighting.
Remember Bart? The lazy guy? Say he got sent to that work camp. How would he solve that in a way that was unique to him? A regular person might try to work hard so the people in charge guards don’t start picking on him. But not Bart. Physical labor is not in his vocabulary. Bart would probably do the same thing he does with school assignments: barely scrape by, and somehow bribe or blackmail other people to do it for him. This is an example of how a protagonist approaches his dilemma in a way that is unique to and consistent with his personality.
Suggestions for Plot Elements:
Suffering: He gets a cold, she gets a life-threatening disease, his air conditioning goes out in the heat of summer, she can’t get enough sleep.
A Want or Need: riches, fame, a good cup of coffee, money, medical care, a poison antidote, something to eat.
A Rescue: Your protagonist must rescue her brother from bullies, rescue his mom kidnappers, rescue her friend from financial troubles, or rescue his girlfriend from an awkward situation.
Detainment: This could have serious consequences if your protagonist’s main goal is time-dependent. Maybe he is too polite to pull out if a conversation with a chatty old lady, her flight is canceled, or he gets kidnapped by the bad guys.
Revenge: This can be a powerful driving force, whether or not it is justified. Your protagonist could get revenge against the girl who bullied him in elementary school, the villain who killed her father, or the cousin that always made him feel inferior.
A Surprise Discovery: she finds old documents in the attic and discovers he’s adopted. Or, more creatively, discovers her parents used to have different names. Were they secret agents? Criminals? Or maybe your protagonist discovers something about himself. Maybe he discovers he has special talent in some area, or she finds out she is blood-related to a group she always hated.
A Mentor: Add a mentor, then throw him out. Whether the mentor is in the form of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Brom, Yoda, Mr. Miagi, Gandalf, or the dance teacher, your protagonist much must learn something valuable from him. Mentors are a great tool for character development. Maybe your protagonist spends a lot of time ignoring the advice of the mentor, only to remember the mentor’s profound teaching in the climax if the story. Additionally, getting rid if the mentor can be very traumatic for your character. He might not even know how to go on without his mentor. And remember, you don’t always have to kill the mentor, maybe the mentor is called to a mission of her own, has to leave town for business, or gets into a fight with the protagonist and leaves in anger. Also, it’s always great to have the mentor come back at a key moment, either physically, or in memory.
Psychological issues: Your protag doesn’t have to be crack crazy to have some troublesome mental disorders. PSTD is a common one for action adventure characters, such as Tony Stark’s stressful flashbacks in Iron Man 3. It’s good to keep in mind that the character should have both external AND internal problems to deal with. In fact, sometimes she might have to fight more with her own mind more than anything else. For example, in Princess Diaries one of Mia’s main problems was her own social awkwardness, inferiority complex, and fears about becoming a future queen. So, maybe your protag can’t shake the feeling that maybe he was wrong about starting the revolution, that peace really is better than a chance for freedom, or is convinced she is not worthy of her love interest, or knows he has to fight a bully to protect someone but fears violence because he came from a violent home, or develops debilitating depression after her best friend dies at his side on the battle field. Note that mentors can be useful characters to help your protag either get over or cope with his psychological issues.
Note: remember that conflict doesn’t always have to come from bad circumstances. For instance, if your protagonist comes into some luck, remember that there will always be the ones who either want to cash in on your his success or take his success away. A typical example, if your protagonists gets a cute boyfriend, maybe her old boyfriend wants to break them up, or or her best gal wonders if her new boyfriend has a tall dark best friend SHE could potentially have.
Plot suggestions: http://www.rangen.co.uk/writing/plotgen.php
Plot devices: http://www.rangen.co.uk/writing/plotdevgen.php
Murphy’s Law generator: http://www.rangen.co.uk/writing/murlawgen.php
Story generator: http://www.seventhsanctum.com/generate.php?Genname=storygen
Customizable generators: http://www.plot-generator.org.uk/
Plot twist generator: http://shortstoryideas.herb.me.uk/twist.html
Story generator with Christian elements:http://www.wherethemapends.com/writerstools/writers_tools_pages/randomizer.htm
Personality disorder info-comics: http://writerswrite.co.za/personality-disorders-illustrated