Nano Prep #2: Structure

Hello, internet buddies! Let’s continue our NaNoWriMo prep today with this question: What is a story? Well, even if you can’t verbalize the answer, you know it intuitively because you’ve been hearing stories all your life! Stories are narratives that follow a familiar structure, and coming up with your story structure is your nanowrimo homework of the week.

Here’s one example of a story structure. This one is called the Story Circle, and it’s been popularized over the last few years by television writer Dan Harmon.

The Story Circle

1. Character begins in a zone of comfort.
2. But they want something.
3. So they enter an unfamiliar situation.
4. They adapt to it.
5. And get what they wanted.
6. But pay a heavy price.
7. Then they return to a familiar situation.
8. Having changed.

In my most recent novel, The Assistant, what Jessica Warne wants more than anything is to gain respect, stability, and financial security. She’s somewhat representative of the Millennial generation, in that she’s smart and hard working while also being deeply in debt, underutilized, and stuck in a shitty job with few prospects. So when she gets a job offer from a high end staffing firm that offers her huge pay, big challenges, and an all-expenses paid makeover, she’s over the moon! Finally, she’s been given the opportunity to prove her skills and become a successful adult. The Duke Agency offers Jessica a path to what she wants, but what will joining the agency cost her? That question is the entry point to the Emerald City Spies series.

In fact, I wrote one story circle for that series as a whole, and smaller story circles for each novel within the series. The story circles fit together like LEGO blocks, and I find that to be a satisfying way of holding a narrative together.

Not a fan of the story circle? Here’s another sample story structure that I found online and jotted down a while ago. (I don’t know who came up with it, but I’ll update this post if I can find the original source.)

In order to [Avoid Problem] a [Flawed Character] must [Try To Achieve Goal] but when [Complication] they realize they must overcome [Antagonist] and [Personal Flaw] by [Action] before [Deadline].

Nice and compact, right? But you can see how all the big elements of the story are contained within that structure. Have you noticed that stories usually contain both an antagonist (external enemy) and a character flaw (internal enemy)? Perfect characters are dull, and stories that moralize about personal growth without real-world consequences are also dull. That’s why most stories contain both character growth and an external threat of some kind. Those elements work together to create a satisfying story.

For those who like lots of detail, you can find story spreadsheets on Jami Gold’s website that contain more detailed templates for story structures. They’re a great resource, but personally I prefer to keep my structure loose at this stage to give myself lots of room to play as I’m drafting the story. But feel free to check the worksheets out if the structures I laid out above feel too vague. I’m also a big fan of Libby Hawker’s short book on structure: Take Off Your Pants.

It might feel too early to outline your book, and that’s fine. For now, I want you thinking big picture.

Things to Keep in Mind

A few general tips as you add some backbone to your story: Stories are built on conflict. So one way to think about a story is that your job as a writer is to get your character up in a tree, throw rocks a them, and have them figure out how to get out of that tree. Your character will probably have a goal of some kind, and they’ll try multiple times to achieve that goal, failing at first, but eventually succeeding. It’s normal for your characters to have multiple cycles of trying to reach the goal, failing, then trying again. If it’s too easy for them, it might not be an interesting story. If you like, you can brainstorm some ideas now. Or not! It’s entirely up to you.

Character tries X, but is blocked by A.
Character tries Y, but is blocked by B.
Character tries Z, and succeeds.

And here’s an important bit: you don’t need to follow any story structure template to the letter! You might use the story circle, for example, but skip one of the steps. This isn’t paint by number, so feel free to go outside the lines so long as what you’re making takes the general shape of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Let’s Get Ready for Nano!

To recap, here’s your suggested homework for the week: Take your story idea from last week and apply some structure to it. Use big, broad strokes, and think about how your story will flow. Where does your main character begin? What is their goal? What will be their main plan to reach that goal? Where will they fall down? And how will they be changed by the time your reader reaches the final page?

Think it through, and jot down some notes, but don’t stress if you feel it’s too early to make these decisions. Some writers like to go into their story completely planless, and you might be one of them. But for me, having a loose structure defined stops me from flailing too much during the first draft, so I encourage you to think those questions through.

Next time, we’ll do some time-saving prep work as we tackle Characters, Point of View, and Setting.

Previous posts in this series: Let’s Half-Ass NaNoWriMo Together, Nano Prep #1: The Idea