by K.M. Weiland
(Excerpted from 5 Secrets of Story Structure)
Does that title sound too good to be true? Well, it isn’t. No, seriously, if you read at the same pace as me (and, yes, I timed myself), then by the time you’ve finished reading this post, you’ll have learned how to structure an entire novel.
Who knew it was that simple, right? I didn’t. I resisted structure for years, until one day I got hit in the face with a simple explanation of it. Just like that—in five minutes—it changed my entire approach to writing.
10 Steps to Story Structure
I divide the prominent aspects and turning points of structure into ten basic steps. Why ten? Because if you can ace these major moments in your story, the finer details tend to fall into place around them. We can all remember ten things, right?
What are these magic ten steps that are going to lead you to a stronger, more amazing, and (dare I say?) more fun story? Let’s take a look.
The First Act
- The Hook
What Is It? Your story begins with the hook. This is your first opportunity for catching your readers’ attention and convincing them to read on. The Hook will always be a question (perhaps explicit, but probably implicit), piquing your readers’ curiosity and urging them to find out, “What happens next?”
Where Does It Belong? The Hook must show up in your first chapter, preferably on the first page, and even more preferably in the first line.
- The Inciting Event
What Is It? The Inciting Event is the turning point in the First Act when your character first brushes the story’s main conflict. To identify your Inciting Event, ask yourself, “What event starts the ball rolling in my story’s plot? Where does the conflict begin? What sets the story’s action in motion?”
Where Does It Belong? The Inciting Event is the turning point halfway through the First Act (one of the secret pieces of story structure!). This timing allows for the story’s Normal World to be properly established. Don’t confuse the Inciting Event with the Hook. The Hook will be the first in the line of causal dominoes, bumping one scene into the other, but your protagonist won’t come into direct contact with the main conflict until the Inciting Event later in the First Act.
- The Key Event
What Is It? If the Inciting Event is where your protagonist first encounters the main conflict, the Key Event is what irrevocably engages your protagonist with that conflict. Even if you have a great big Inciting Event (like, say, the beginning of a war), it can’t affect your character until the Key Event drags him into the mess (as would happen if he were drafted into the Army).
Where Does It Belong? The Key Event occurs toward the end of the First Act. Often, it will be so closely linked to the following First Plot Point as to be almost inextricable. Other times, the Key Event and the First Plot Point will be two distinct moments.
- The First Plot Point
What Is It? The First Plot Point marks the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. This is where everything changes for your character. Up to now, the First Act has mostly concerned itself with setting up your character’s Normal World and introducing the supporting characters, the settings, and, most importantly, the stakes. But now, the First Plot Point rocks that Normal World. Everything changes, and your protagonist will be forced to start reacting to the new status quo.
Where Does It Belong? The First Plot Point will occur roundabout the 25% mark in your book. This placement doesn’t have to be absolutely precise, since a book is long enough to allow a less than exact structural timeline. But aim to have your major plot points dividing your book into rough quarters.
The Second Act
- The First Half of the Second Act
What Is It? Your protagonist is going to spend the First Half of the Second Act in reaction mode. The First Plot Point changed his world—and probably not for the better. For the next quarter of the book, right up until the Midpoint, he’s going to be fighting to keep his head above water.
Where Does It Belong? The First Half of the Second Act will span (approximately) from the First Plot Point at the 25% mark to the Midpoint at the 50% mark.
- The Midpoint
What Is It? The Midpoint is your story’s second major plot point. This is where everything changes—again. Just as your character’s world was rocked off its axis by the First Plot Point, now it gets shaken up all over again as he is struck with an all-important Moment of Truth. Before the Midpoint, he was thrown into reaction mode; now he is equipped to start taking action.
Where Does It Belong? The Midpoint belongs smack in the middle of your story, where it will also divide the Second Act in half.
- The Second Half of the Second Act
What Is It? After the Midpoint, your character is going to start going on the offensive. He’s no longer going to be willing to simply have the antagonist bring the battle to him. Instead, he starts throwing off his insecurities and implementing his own plans.
Where Does It Belong? The Second Half of the Second Act begins at the Midpoint and will continue all the way to the beginning of the Third Act, at the 75% mark in your story.
The Third Act
- The Third Plot Point
What Is It? The Third Plot Point, as your final major plot point, is going to change everything once again. Whatever happens here is going to force your character to a low place. He’s going to finally have to analyze his actions and his motivations and get down to the core of his own personal character arc. This is where he’ll start to identify his own destructive (or perhaps just ineffective) mindsets and start rejecting the personal Lies that have held him back up to now.
Where Does It Belong? The Third Plot Point signals the beginning of the Third Act. As such, it needs to occur right around the beginning of your book’s final quarter—at the 75% mark.
- The Climax
What Is It? Your Climax is the point of the whole story. This is where the conflict must finally be resolved, for good and all, one way or the other.
Where Does It Belong? Although events will be heating up all the way through the Third Act, the Climax proper won’t begin until around the 90% mark in your story, and the Climactic Moment itself won’t hit until the very end—perhaps only a scene or two from the end of the book.
- The Resolution
What Is It? The Resolution caps your story with finality. This important scene is the exhale to your Climax’s inhale. Here, you give readers the opportunity to see how your character will react to the events of the Climax. How is he a different person from whoever he was in the beginning? How has the world changed around him? How does his future look from here?
Where Does It Belong? By this point, your story is essentially over, so there’s no need to drag things out. Most Resolutions will only need a scene or two to tie off loose ends and leave readers with a satisfied feeling in the pits of their stomachs.
And there you have it. Five minutes later, and already you’ve got a basic grasp on what is perhaps the most important tool in any writer’s arsenal: story structure.
Click the link to jump to KM Weiland’s article “What Are Plot Points.”
K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as well as Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.