Structure from Story Notes

So, I’ve been helping someone with their story who has been developing and sitting with their story for a really, really long time… They have tons of individual documents: character profiles, backstory, multi-page synopsis, worldbuilding docs, etc.

Every time we move forward a bit in one area, they go back and start revising and rewriting all the docs.

You will be hard-pressed to find a greater champion of the story discovery process. I firmly believe every minute spent in discovery, planning, plotting, imagining, is 60 minutes saved in editing and rewrites. That said:

When you find yourself constantly revising and NOT developing actual structure, you’re spinning your wheels. Avoid this.

Tweaking, refining, and revising a story can be a quagmire. For perfectionist personalities, you can get stuck in this “improvement loop” indefinitely.

Structure is story commitment.

The inciting incident, in my Robot Kids manga (the Storycraft showcase story), is when the main character Kai, saves the rebel girl, Molly.

When developing the story, before I set this as the inciting incident, anything was possible. Maybe the inciting incident could have been something with the tyrannical clan searching for the EMP weapon, or maybe something with Kai’s mech pilot rival, Gonzo.

Every time I had a new idea, every time I tweaked and revised, without any structure I was free to slide the narrative wherever I wanted.

Don’t get me wrong, you want this flexibility when developing a story… but at some point, you MUST start making decisions… you must start defining the structure and making commitments to the story.

Something I have to explain to non-writer clients all the time, is that narrative is a complex Jenga like puzzle. Everything is built off and connected to everything else–at least in a well-developed narrative. Every time you try to remove a piece, you risk causing the whole narrative to fall apart.

This is where commitment to the story HELPS YOU avoid spinning your wheels with endless discovery. The more structure you set in place, the harder it gets for you to make revisions.

I always say, “When you’re doing it right, the stories write themselves.” In this sense, it’s very much the case… as you add structure elements, the elements themselves begin to dictate what you can and can’t revise.

The elements in place act like gatekeepers, the more you set, the greater the effort required to design around them and make new revisions work. Most of the time, you’re only going to go through that effort if the change is really worth it.

Go Big or Go Home.

Lots of times, writers keep kicking the story discovery can, imagining, revising, thinking, because they’re scared (lacking confidence) to commit to structure, OR they simply don’t know where to start.

This is one of the big benefits of using a plot point based structure.

Your structure method might call for the hero to have a major failure in the middle of the first act… or come to some sort of big realization (probably not, I’m just making those up off the top of my head). The idea is, plot points give us a specific target to anchor our narrative material to.

Where you don’t have the hero suffering a major failure in act one, you can look at your story note documents and discover a way to make it happen!

In Storycraft I break down 24 plot points for solid story structure. This is the structure I typically use for most everything, but it doesn’t matter which structure of which system you’re using.

If you’re using a plot point based structure system and having trouble committing to the structure, look to the BIG movements first. The biggest movements are the biggest, strongest gatekeepers in your story.

If you’re not running a plot point based structure, try focusing on the turns of the story. These are the narrative reversals; points of high narrative drive that push the story in an unexpected direction.

Again, start off with the biggest turns of the story.

Almost always this is going to be,

  • your inciting incident of the opening,
  • the climax of the third act,
  • and the midpoint turn in the dead middle of the story.

Try to nail these first.

I recommend splitting your story into (roughly) 4 equal acts; 3 acts, but the middle is about 50% of the entire story, so you wind up with Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, Act 3.

Look for a big turn near the start and end of each act (you’ve already got 3, if you did the inciting incident, midpoint turn, and climax). Adding the others gives you a total of 8 core beats.

8 gatekeepers still leaves a lot of room to develop the story, but it’s a solid start of forming structure and committing to the story. When you have these 8 guys in place, it’s hard to spin your wheels in discovery much longer. ▪

About the Author —
Newcomer or veteran writer, if you’re working on a project that needs commercial success, Nick urges to you read this intro article.
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.