This article, written by Troy Lambert, is from the March 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Plot structures are not new. Everything from Greek tragedies to Shakespearean plays have been written in three- or four-act structures and their timing measured in beats. There are a ton of books and videos on the topic. Vonnegut shared his now famous “Shape of Stories” lecture. Bradbury, Harlan, Orson Scott Card, Kevin J. Anderson, and many others willingly share their own favorites and advice.
Think of a few books that may come to mind immediately: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, Million Dollar Outlines by Dave Farland, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and seemingly countless others. Every one of them shares a plot structure formula designed to help with story pacing, finding and fixing plot holes (or avoiding them in the first place), and meeting reader expectations.
Of all the plot structures out there, each with a corresponding book and following, how do you find and choose the one that works best for your stories? Here are some things to consider.
What are plot structures?
First, we should look at the basics. What is a plot structure? In its simplest form, it’s a road map for a story. Every story must have a few key things: a beginning, middle, and end. To be compelling, there must be interesting people in an interesting place doing interesting things. Plot structure often goes by different names like plot templates or story structures.
In other words, character, setting, and plot. Plot is made up of conflict: usually a main one that defines the overall theme of the book and several smaller ones. Done well, each conflict will raise the stakes for the characters and entice the reader to want to know how things turn out in the end.
Plot structures simply outline the order and the timing of these events. Most have been developed over time through the study of the most memorable stories. We’ve given those parts of stories names like “the inciting incident,” “the midpoint,” and “the climax.”
Sometimes these formulas feel a bit more like math than writing, and there are plenty of writers out there who don’t refer to them at all. They are “pantsers” or “discovery writers” who write with no outline. Most have an innate sense of story though and arguably write to a plot or story structure they hold in their heads.
Luckily, plot structures at their core are pretty simple, and they all have some things in common.
What do all plot structures have in common?
While you will encounter those who believe that whatever plot structure they adhere to is “the best” and should be used by all writers, those of us who have studied plot understand that most story structures have several similar elements, and the rest comes down to what works best for each individual writer.
When you break these plot templates down to their base elements, they all share:
- An initial hook of some sort that gets the reader interested.
- An inciting incident, one that really kicks off the plot, adventure, or journey.
- One or more try/fail incidents where the main character thinks they have the solution to the overall conflict in the book, but they fail. Usually, they learn something from these failures.
- A dark night of the soul, which is the point where the main character is at their lowest, and the primary conflict seems impossible to solve.
- A climax or resolution where the primary conflict of the story is solved or resolved, at least for now.
- Sometimes a denouement, or the aftermath beyond the climax.
The dark night of the soul usually happens at around the middle of the story and can be called the midpoint as well. Stories are often divided into three or four acts, although a four-act structure is really just a three-act structure with act two split down the middle.
And that’s about it. Certainly, there are some finer points in each structure, but the essential pattern, much like Vonnegut states, is simple: It’s an ordinary day, something goes wrong, things get worse for a while until they are the worst they can get, something else happens, they get better. The end.
So why are there so many plot structures and books about them?
What’s the difference between some common plot structures?
Most differences in plot structures and templates really come down to a few simple things:
- How detailed the plot structure is. Many, including Save the Cat, have been divided into as many as 40 different scenes or plot points.
- The arrangement of those events into either three or four acts. Although a small difference, for some writers it is key to their storytelling.
- The genre of the story being written. A common structure, the Hero’s Journey, is more suited for fantasy type stories with plot points like “approaching the innermost cave” and “seizing the sword.” While they can be adapted (like my own Sleuth’s Journey, a version of the Hero’s Journey adapted for mysteries) to other genres, they lend themselves more easily toward a certain type of story.
- An author’s personal writing style and way of thinking. For example, Take off Your Pants is a plot structure (and book) designed for discovery writers that has very minimal structure and a looser format than many other templates.
So now that we know many of these plot structures are the same, and we know why they might be different, how do you choose the right one for you?
What are three steps to figure out what plot structure is right for me?
There is no one best plot structure for every story, and inevitably most writers say, “I start with this plot template, and then…” There’s always an “and then” that personalizes a plot structure to the author’s style, thinking, and the story itself.
That means deciding on the right plot structure for you is even easier, because almost certainly no single one will be a perfect fit. You will add your own “and then” to any plot structure you choose. So when you are looking at different books and structures, ask yourself these three key questions.
1. How detailed is too detailed for me?
Some plot structures are very detailed, and many writers feel it hampers their creativity. To figure out if a structure is too detailed for you, take the “Big Idea” of your book and start dividing it into parts: the three acts first, then chapters and scenes. When you get to the point where you (or your muse) feel uncomfortable, stop.
Many writers find that around 12-20 plot points or scenes are enough. Those outline points serve as writing prompts as you create your story, and therefore can be very helpful at keeping you on track. But too much outline leaves your muse little room to roam, and anything that makes you want to stop writing or not write at all is no solution.
2. What genre do you write?
This may sound like an obvious question, but each genre has its own tropes and even jargon. A plot structure might be fabulous, but you can’t use something that doesn’t resonate with you. There are exceptions of course. I’ve used the Romancing the Beat plot structure for a thriller, but only after changing some of the plot points significantly.
It’s a lot of work to adapt a template. Instead, choose a plot structure that is proven to work well in your genre. To find out what those are, talk to your peers and find out what they use. You’ll often find reviews of various books and plot structures through a simple Google search for “plot structure for [insert your genre here].”
3. Which plot structure resonates with me?
This one is a bit tougher to answer because it is so subjective. For instance, if you have been to nearly any large writer’s conference, you will meet people who swear by one or more writing instructor’s methods. You’re going to have to do some research, read, or watch videos to see what plot structure style makes you the most comfortable while still working with your stories and your genre. Fortunately, there is a lot of information out there. From romance to thrillers, from cozy mysteries to military sci-fi, there’s likely a plot structure someone has created (or adapted) specifically for this kind of fiction.
You’ll find your answer when something just feels right. The good news is that even as you evolve as a writer, the plot structure you use might as well. This isn’t a permanent decision. You can change your mind whenever you want.
Plot structure is as subjective as musical taste. One person’s idea of something good might be something you can’t tolerate. But all plot structures have some common elements that most often happen in a similar order. The differences are often subjective, and almost any template can be modified to meet your needs.
So, if you’re looking for a definitive answer, I’m going to sound like an IT guy answering any question on Friday at 4 o’clock: it depends. But if you start with a clear understanding of what plot structure is, and ask yourself a few key questions, you’re sure to find your solution.
Troy Lambert is an author, editor, freelance writer, and the education lead for Plottr. He’s written over two dozen novels, loads of short stories and novellas, and spoken at writers’ conferences all around the country. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two very talented dogs who are often asked to assist with writing blog posts and book blurbs.