The first in a series about finding your writing process, starting with writing toward the basic shape of all successful stories, the Basic Plot Structure.

I thought I’d start simple and work outward to the more complex, since that’s the most sane way to write stories themselves. In fact, it is the basis of one popular process I’ll go into later called the Snowflake Method. But first, let’s look at one underlying process or structure that seems to be common to all successful stories: the plot structure.

Whether you’re a Pantser or an Outliner, eventually a story must be honed into the right shape that is recognizable as a satisfying story. Any writer will already know this shape, resembling a triangle or a mountain, which our hero must climb to find their Inner Hero. It involves a Setup to get us up to speed on our fictional world, an Inciting Incident to rip our main character out of their comfort zone, a long series of ever-increasing obstructions for them to climb over, a Climax where they figure out what they needed to do from the start, and a Resolution where they find their new life.

archplot structure chart

Whether you support the whole idea of writing to a structure or form, thanks to all the movies and books your audience has watched and read already, this is the form of story they are already expecting to see. If we deviate too far from it, we run the risk of our work hitting the wall (literally) or a trash can before they finish reading it. Luckily it’s a pretty open and forgiving structure.

Note the Three-Act structure laid out beneath that triangle. This is also a pretty common part of an audience’s expectations, though they may not consciously register the passing of each Act. The Acts are more a measure of turning points that should (some say “must”) happen for the hero in a successful story (and just about every movie you’ve ever watched and enjoyed). We can talk about Acts later on.

This shape doesn’t just happen–it must be designed. Outliners start out with this shape in mind and plan their scenes to “rise to the challenge” their heroes will have to face. Pantsers, like their fellow audience members, already “feel” this shape and roughly write toward it, only to later revise and nudge things into the right places. Neither way is better than the other, of course, except for the writers using it.

Whatever works for you is the way to go. That one thing we must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous … oops–I slipped into Scrooge territory there. Sorry.

It is interesting to note that the triangle above used to be drawn more like an isosceles triangle, before the Internet and a million action movies jaded us to the plodding pace old movies and books now must seem to younger audiences (well, to me, too, anymore). Especially the beginnings and endings.

The Freytag structure

Back then, as you can see in this Freytag graph, beginning setups were much longer, and resolutions more gradual. Nowadays, we’re clever enough to do the Setup as part of the Inciting Incident and the Resolution is practically melded into the Climax itself. It’s elegant and makes a lot of sense, especially when dinosaurs are roaming about eating everyone.

As far as processes go, this is pretty basic stuff, almost to the point of being subconscious anymore to the practiced writer. But it is upon this model that most other processes are built, or at least target, so I thought it best to put it out there for those just starting out.

For a much more in-depth exploration of the importance of story structure, I recommend reading Super Structure* by James Scott Bell. This book is not only friendly and fun to read, but immediately breaks the myth that writing to structure confines your process; instead freeing you to write your story faster and in a way that will connect more solidly and emotionally with your audience.

(*affiliated link)

Next week: The Snowflake Method.