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The Power of Story Structure

A tunnel of arches in Spain. Photo by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash.
Photo by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash.

Structure is less about constraining your writing and more about understanding what readers expect stories to look like. 


North American stories tend to follow a three-act structure. You may also have heard of other formats, like four-act structure, five-act structure, seven-point plot structure, the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, Story Circle, Save the Cat, or others. 


Essentially, they’re all based on the idea that a story has a beginning, middle, and end—with plot points falling at key moments in order to keep readers interested.


While thinking about structure may feel restrictive if you’ve never done so before, there are endless variations (just look at all the different stories out there). Understanding structure won’t make your novel less unique, but it will provide you with a helpful foundation to work with.


Plotters find structure useful to apply before drafting, while pantsers often  think about it during the editing phase. If your story has pacing issues, applying structure is one of the best ways to fix them.


If you don't believe that most North American stories follow three-act structure, take a look at some of your favourites and see! And you can absolutely break these expectations, but you may find your story is stronger if you understand the expectations you're breaking and why.


Below are the action beats for three-act structure.


Act 1


0–10% - Set-Up. Show what your protagonist's regular life looks like before it's interrupted. What are their goals? What are their flaws? What are they afraid of?


10% - Disturbance. Interrupt the protagonist's normal life.


10–20% - Reaction. How does your protagonist react to the disturbance? They may debate about what to do, consider running away, or emotionally prepare for what is to come.


20% - Doorway 1. The climax of the first act is like a door your protagonist walks through, and there's no returning to life the way it was before.



Act 2


20–50% - New World. The protagonist learns about the new world they have been thrust into. Introduce new characters, such as friends, enemies, mentors, and lovers, here. The setup is over; the adventure begins.


40% - Villain Flexes. If your villain hasn't made an appearance yet, they should do so here and cause trouble.


50% - Midpoint. Raise the stakes! The protagonist can't just react or run anymore but starts to take action.


50–80% - Action. The protagonist takes action, makes decisions, plans adventures, and gets into all sorts of trouble.


60% - Villain Closes In. The villain gets in a significant hit against the protagonist.


75% - Low Point. All seems lost, and the protagonist feels beaten and helpless.


80% - Doorway 2. A major clue or setback propels the protagonist into the story's final act. They realize what they need to do.


Act 3


80–95% - Executing the Plan. The protagonist may take a scene to prepare, gather a team, or equip themselves for what needs to be done. Their mission seems impossible and tension is high.


95% - Climax. Things look grim. The villain often does something unexpected, so the protagonist is at a loss. The hero has a "moment of truth" where they realize what they've needed all along and does something crucial to turn the tide.


99–100% - Resolution. Where will the protagonist go from here? How has the climax changed them? What is the consequence of their actions?

 

Here are examples of what this structure looks like in three SFF novels:



If you're interested in digging deeper into structure, I particularly like Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland.


I hope you find story structure helpful!

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The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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