I’ve been wanting to have a post comparing different plot structures/outlining systems on the blog for a while, and today Rose Atkinson-Carter is filling that gap! Big thanks to her for this guest post.
I have added affiliate links to this post. They are marked with an asterisk, and purchases made through them earn me a small commission at no extra cost you. Plus, BookShop supports local U.S. bookstores! The books that I’ve recommended are all in my own personal writing library and I’ve referenced them myself for various projects.
All that out of the way, I’ll turn it over to Rose!
As you outline your novel, you’re juggling dozens of different parts. You have character arcs, pacing, and plot to consider and somehow put together into a cohesive whole. The process can be daunting. Writers often find themselves stalled in the planning phase, unsure where to go next.
Sometimes, what you need is a game plan: a dependable story structure that can set you on the right path and help you finish that outline. Even if you’re more of a pantser, an understanding of story structures and how a plot should progress will help you develop in your writing.
Let’s look at some common types of story structures and see how they can make planning your novel easier.
Let’s start with a classic: the three-act structure. Found in everything from stage plays to page-turning thrillers, this structure is timeless and works for just about any kind of story. As the name suggests, there are three acts, each of which has three important beats.
Without getting too far in the weeds, every act has a specific purpose:
- Act one is where you introduce your reader to the story, your characters, and their backstory, before propelling them into the plot with the inciting incident — an event that sets off the action and which causes the character to pursue a goal.
- The second act sees the character begin to pursue their goal and come across obstacles (and enemies) on the way.
- The third and final act sees the character at their lowest point so far, before the final confrontation with their antagonist — and, hopefully, the achievement of their goal.
It’s easy, simple, and familiar, giving your story a clear beginning, middle, and end. If you’re stuck on how to move the plot forward and need a nudge in the right direction, a three-act structure can function like a step-by-step guide to creating one. Maybe the best part is that the pacing is built right into it, so you don’t have to worry about whether the action is developing at the right pace.
But if you’re having trouble coming up with a plot at all, a more detailed form might be just what you need.
Seven-Point Story Structure
Though in part inspired by three-act structure, seven-point structure is a far newer type of story format. It was truly popularized by author Dan Wells in 2013 and features seven “points” that a story needs to hit. These are:
- The hook — an introduction to the world and its characters.
- Plot point 1 (or inciting incident) — an event that drives your character to embark upon an adventure.
- Pinch point 1 — a conflict is introduced.
- Midpoint — the point where the character begins to take action in their adventure.
- Pinch point 2 — the conflict worsens.
- Plot point 2 — the character manages to turn a corner and resolve their conflict.
- Resolution — the story’s threads are tied together.
Don’t worry if this all seems a little confusing; the main point is that your story fluctuates between highs (plot points), where your character takes action towards their goals, and lows (pinch points), where conflict occurs.
You might notice that this is incredibly similar to the three-act structure. So you’re probably wondering what this structure offers that you can’t get from a more well-established method. The key with seven-point structure isn’t the structure itself but how you use it.
Dan Wells’s method has you start your planning at the end. You determine what you want your resolution to be and then you go to the beginning and consider the hook. Then you move on to the midpoint — the turning point of the story — before figuring out your plot points and pinch points. Essentially, you create your ending and your beginning before you make the middle.
Doing this allows you to craft a carefully balanced story that flows logically and has the tense stakes you need to keep your readers interested, as well as helping you maintain a sense of direction. The extra points that Wells added here are great if you need some extra help creating a plot.
Maybe you’re looking for something that provides even more guidance though. The next structure is probably the most detailed of them all.
Archer’s Note: I loved K.M. Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel* for understanding the 3-act structure with Dan Wells’ additional points. If you’re looking for a deeper resource on these structures in particular, I highly recommend it!
Save the Cat
Hollywood can teach novelists a thing or two about plotting. Screenwriter Blake Snyder created the Save the Cat beat sheet for writing screenplays, but it’s since been adapted by storytellers across mediums to write compelling, well-paced stories.
The structure provides 15 beats that a story needs to hit, including the kinds of events that happen in each section. It’s the younger, more stylish cousin of the three-act structure and was specifically designed to help writers get through the saggy middle without the extra baggage to slow it down.
If you’re struggling with writer’s block or just aren’t sure where to take your story next, research this cutting-edge technique to see if it sounds useful. The detailed step-by-step nature of it means everything is already meticulously laid out for you. You also don’t have to worry about your pacing as much. Save the Cat lays out at what point each event should happen very specifically, so no need to worry about your plot being too fast or too slow.
While the structures I’ve looked at so far can be used for basically any story, the next two can be used for specific types of narratives.
Joseph Campbell introduced the concept of the hero’s journey in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces*. Looking at various world myths, he found and described a common structure that underpins our oldest tales.
Building on the classic three-act structure, he divided the hero’s journey into three specific stages:
- The Departure Act — the hero leaving their ordinary world.
- The Initiation Act — the hero travels into unknown territory, where they face challenges and obstacles which turn them into a true hero.
- The Return Act — the triumphant hero returns.
Screenwriter Christopher Vogler further expanded this formulation into 12 phases, and this is the form we’re most familiar with today.
Archer’s note: This expansion is outlined in Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey*, which is another great resource—and one of the first plot resources I ever used.
Since the hero’s journey originates from mythological stories, it’s used most for adventure stories, specifically science fiction and fantasy. It’s a classic structure that is instantly recognizable and understandable for readers. And from a writer’s standpoint, it provides a specific guide for creating plot points and developing characters. If you’re focusing on a single protagonist and working on a fantastical story, using the hero’s journey can help you create a tightly plotted and well-rounded narrative.
But if you’re looking to write a less upbeat story, there’s a structure tailor-made for literary tragedies.
So-called for its triangular structure, Freytag’s pyramid was created by 19th century writer Gustav Freytag. This five-act pyramid can be used to describe the classic tragic narrative, such as those we see in Shakespeare’s plays. These five parts are:
- Introduction — establishing the characters and what’s at stake.
- Rise — life seems to be going well for the characters.
- Climax — a point of no return, where everything suddenly changes.
- Return — the character’s descent begins.
- Catastrophe — the horrible ending,
Perhaps the most singular of all the structures I’ve examined so far, Freytag’s pyramid is only used to construct tragic narratives. So if you’re looking to write an emotionally-tense story that focuses on human flaws and has an unhappy ending, this is definitely the way to go.
There are many more story structures besides the five I’ve outlined here. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to plotting. It’s all about finding the structure that works best for your story and writing goals. Hopefully this guide has helped you identify some potential candidates that’ll be a great match for your writing, and let you know where to begin. Happy writing!
About the Author
Thanks again to Rose!
Now I want to hear from you, the reader. Have you used any of these structures before? Which have you found to work best for your process? Are there any you hadn’t explored before?