story structure, done dirt cheap

Amy Deardon has an analysis of story structure over at her weblog. It’s pretty thorough and I could argue with parts of it, but instead let me redirect. I put in her comments box my favorite quick-and-dirty story structure for beginning writers.

1) set x = 0
2) Protagonist discovers a problem
3) Protagonist takes a step to solve the problem
4) which ends up making it worse
5) x = x+1; if x<7, return to step 3
6) When the situation can’t get any worse, protagonist solves the problem

If you’re a brand new writer, you’re going to discover a lot of Amy’s elements while you’re toodling along through your book. You’ll realize you need to set up “normal” before you set up “problem” and you’ll begin to realize you need the stakes to be high. In fact, every go-around through trying to solve the problem and making it worse is going to raise the stakes for your characters.

In Seven Archangels: Annihilation, for those of you who’ve read it, the first attempt to solve the problem of Gabriel being kidnapped is that Remiel follows him into Hell to save him. Does it work? Not only does her attempt fail, but there are personal consequences to her as well. Now the stakes are higher, and the characters have more problems to solve. Repeat that three times and you have a short story; cycle that seven times and you have a novel.

(I told you this was quick-and-dirty.)

My beef with deep analyses of story structure is that they tend to put off beginning writers who start feeling as if they need to have all these elements in order to make a story. But the reason these elements crop up in just about every story is because we as humans find them innate. It’s helpful to clarify for advanced writers, but I’d hate to see beginners frightened off from telling their tales because they can’t identify the midpoint or aren’t sure when the slide occurs.


  1. ivyreisner

    You know the “alligator over the transom” story, right?

    Seriously, I love this. I’m printing it and keeping it in my notebook of fabulous things I’ve read online.

  2. philangelus

    No, I’ve missed that one. What is it?

  3. ivyreisner

    In the old days, before central air, there was a window on top of each door that could be open when the door was closed for better ventilation. This was called the “transom”.

    The oft-told story is that an author was writing a detective novel. The client’s life had been threatened and the detective was trying to coax her to reveal the name of the person who had threatened her. Well, the author was told to end every scene with a disaster–the hero tries to solve the problem and things get worse. Not really understanding this, said author ended the scene by having someone throw an alligator trough the transom into the detective’s office. It was a crisis, but it had nothing to do with what came before or after–a disaster for the sake of inserting a disaster.

  4. philangelus


    In one of my writing books, it says, rough paraphrase, “Everything has to be tight in fiction. In real life, someone might walk into this room, hit you in the face with a pie, and leave — never to be seen again. If that happens in real life, you deal with it. If that happens in your novel, you edit it out.”

  5. ivyreisner

    “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” – Tom Clancy.

  6. philangelus

    And in Reality, God doesn’t have to worry about our willing suspension of disbelief.

    The thing about fiction is it does need to be tight. It’s got to run like an engine, and you don’t want a lot of nuts and bolts flying around it. All the actions/mishaps need to feed into one another so that at the end, you couldn’t pull any of them out of the story. Everything flows naturally one to the next and at the same time, necessarily.

  7. ivyreisner

    Things need to feed each other. If the character is an alcoholic and the major problem is that he has been charged with a crime he did not commit, then at some point he should crack under the pressure and show up to court drunk, thus prejudicing the jury against him. The pressure of the trial should drive him to the bottle; the alcoholism should damage his case.

  8. Cricket

    I think Amy’s Law (using Law in the scientific sense here, a pattern that has been noticed and can be made use of) is one of the reasons stories written in installments often fail. (As opposed to stories written as one piece with lots of sub-pieces.) It’s difficult to see the proportions as a whole while a story is being written in installments.

    I wonder if that’s what’s hindering my current epic. I’ve written enough that we know what size to expect for each act. Maybe my muse knows Amy’s Law says I should get ready for the final act instead of throwing in another problem. (Or maybe I’m too nervous to navigate the knife-edge between Nancy Drew and Poor Harry.)

    Then we have what to do within each installment. If they’re written separately, especially if spread out, there’s a temptation to restart at “define normal”. If you know you have to finish an installment, there’s the temptation to at least finish the climax, leaving only the resolution for the final installment, which is boring, so you start the next installment with another problem.

    Other thoughts:

    I think Amy’s Law also works like an onion. A book follows it. A trilogy follows it. Several trilogies set in the same universe follow it.

    Then again, I think the proportions sometimes need to change. Some settings require more time to establish normal.

    I’m going to try using this structure when memorizing stories to tell. We’re told to “learn the bones”, and if the bones are all similar, it may help.

  9. ivyreisner

    Cricket, I think you may have uncovered why I can’t get into Dickens. He wrote in installments, and when he was told to wrap it up, he ended the story. He never knew how long his stories would run, so the structure just feels “wrong” to me.

  10. Cricket

    Actually, I was thinking of fanfic, but some of Dickens would count. So would Tolkein. Most biographies and autobiographies. Any history book.

    Analog magazine often serializes novels and novellas, with breaks by word rather than by content. They include a summary of the parts that have gone before. Sometimes, though, over several years they’ll publish a bunch of novellas (or novelettes), one per issue, and then the author will put them all in one big book. Like the Scavengers universe.

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  12. Amy

    Hi — wow, I just noticed you’d referenced my story structure idea! Thanks. I studied story because I wrote my first novel SOTP (seat of the pants) and ended up throwing out a lot of good stuff because it wasn’t pushing the story ahead. There are a million and one ways to tell a story, but they all have an underlying structure that I found was very very stable. Philangelus in the formula that escalates the problems is right on — this describes mini-story sections that increase stakes, and you need bunches of these especially through the mushy middle.

    I’m developing an algorithm based on story structure that really seems to work — I’ve taken students who don’t even know what they want to write about, and in about two hours we’ve roughed out a reasonable outline for them to start writing. But it’s an individual thing — far be it from me to say there is only ONE way to design a story. If story structure is too intimidating, don’t worry about it! The most important thing is simply… to write.

    BTW speaking of serializations, for whatever it’s worth, one of my favorite novels happens to be one of these: Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.