Obsessed with Story Structure

Today you’re going to get a glimpse into my own personal kind of crazy. It turns out I’m slightly obsessed with story and novel structure.

Slightly is an understatement.

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure lately. Partially because I’m going to be giving my VCFA graduate lecture on the topic in January, but also because I’m in the midst of structuring (or more accurately re-structuring) my current novel-in-progress.

After spending a lot of time this week color coding, cutting, pasting, and outlining, I created (and posted on Facebook and Twitter) the following  structure chart image:

A lot of people who saw this image were both fascinated and confounded. But mostly, they wanted to know what I’d done here and why. So, today’s post is going to be about how I created this chart and what exactly is going on in it.

DISCLAIMER: This process helps me. I’m a visual learner. This is something I’ve developed to help me get a big picture look at my novel. I have no idea if it will be helpful to anyone else. If this all sounds like gibberish to you – then it probably is!

Step One: Write the First Draft

Some people like to think about structure before they begin their novel. If you are one of those people – awesome! I’m not. I usually have no clue where my novel is going and I let my characters take me for a ride to find out. But if you find any of the following good to think about while you write your first draft – fantastic! But don’t worry if you don’t want to think about structure till draft two.

Step Two: Broad Strokes and Color Coding

Once I have a draft, I like to type up the whole novel based on major scenes and events. Because my current WIP is in vignettes, I went a step farther and typed up each vignette. In each strip, I noted four pieces of information. First, the POV of the character (my novel is in dual POV). Second, the title of the vignette so I can find it later when I revise. Third, the location of the scene. And fourth, the major action and/or emotion of the scene.

After I typed all this up I proceeded to add color coding. This included colors for the major plot line, all the sub-plots, flashbacks, each narrator, etc. The amount of colors always depends on the complexity of the book. This book has a lot going on that I wanted to track…hence the thirteen different colors.

Step Three: Cut, Paste, and Re-Arrange

At this point, the process becomes a bit like a craft project. I cut out each vignette strip and played the re-arrange game. I looked for patterns, high points, low points, momentum, pacing, etc. I started to play around with the best way to construct this story. I asked myself questions like: Do I start with flashbacks? When do I get to X-reveal. Is there too much dead time between X-reveal and the midpoint? What can I cut out completely? Etc. This part takes a lot of time for me. I spend hours moving around and re-arranging the pieces.

Step Four: Start Graphing

I got out my graph paper and went to town!

For this structure chart I decided to let one graph-paper square equal one vignette. However, I’ve done this process with a non-vignette novel before, and I used page numbers (i.e. one square equals one page, or five pages, etc.).

There were four things I wanted to look at with my graphs and they were:

Three Act Structure:

This top graph is classic three-act structure.

  • Blue = Act One
  • Orange = Act Two
  • Green = Act Three

The yellow boxes denote major plot points, or moments that shift the energy of the story in an important way. In the text along the top I’ve outlined (roughly) the major beats of The Hero’s Journey structure (i.e. the call to action, threshold, midpoint, crisis, etc.). This particular book doesn’t really fit into three-act/hero’s journey structure nicely, but I was curious to see where the major beats fell.

The Major Relationship:

This second graph is a more accurate image of my novel. It’s a pattern that arose from the novel itself. Since my book is primarily a romance story, I see this chart as the push and pull of that relationship.  The novel is in dual POV, so the pink lines are my female character, and the blue lines are my male character. The red is where the two character’s overlap/interact. This helps me to see the motion and interaction of the major relationship of the story.

Chapters and Flashbacks:

This is my novel broken down chapter by chapter. The red is (again) the interaction between my protagonists. The yellow, however, is flashbacks. This is something I’m struggling with in the novel (when and where do I reveal background information). This allows me to see where the flashbacks are clumped as I move into revision.

Sub-Plots and Secondary Characters:

And lastly, this chart shows subplots and secondary characters. This allows me to see if a character disappears from the story for a hundred pages, or if I introduce a secondary character too late, etc.

Putting it Together…

I drew all four graphs – one above the other – so that I could use the same unit of measurement throughout. This way I can compare the charts to each other. If there’s a lull in the story I can look through the graphs and see why (maybe I’m developing a sub plot, or there’s way too many flashbacks clumped together). I can look at the big picture and see patterns, or pacing, or trouble areas (like it takes way too long to get into act two right now).  Charting like this really helps me to see the current architecture of the draft and what to be aware of when I revise.

Feel free to try this process (and develop it to meet your concerns and needs). You can create a chart for anything and color code based on what you need to pay attention to (action moments, time, dialog, character arch, whatever!). There’s no right or wrong way to do this. It’s just a tool to help see the big picture.

Let me know if you have questions. I realize this may be written in a form of geek-structure-speak that only I can understand, so let me know if there’s anything you want me to clarify. Happy charting!

12 thoughts on “Obsessed with Story Structure

  1. I’m stunned. This is so cool, but I doubt I’ll ever do it. I just write and think, write and think some more. Often I write the end first. but I can geek when I want to: and I can write music, so there’s a similarity. I’m impressed, Ingrid. It’s actually very pretty, the diagram. It reflects your work ethic, your organization
    and your passion. So what if Elmore Leonard says, “I just make it up as I go along.”? Every writer has a unique method. I’m completely self taught and my teacher was an idiot.

  2. Amazing! I’m just—wow! That’s quite a bit of work, but I can see how beneficial it can be. I’m definitely going to adapt this and use it to see where my work is heading. Thanks!

  3. Gosh – that’s very impressive, and it looks like a lot of work. Since I write genre, I tend to weigh down a short Act II with backstory and character interaction, and then it’s off to the climax in Act III with it covering almost half the novel. (I give my characters a lot of set-backs with a generous helping of running and screaming!)

  4. . . . doesn’t the magic get sucked out of your story when you do all this analytical stuff? What happens to the “dream-like-movie” created in the reader’s minds, thereby easing them into each of your scenes.

    But then I write kid lit and so maybe the complexity of what you wrote about doesn’t apply.

    . . .but then even with adult books the main purpose of the novel is to “express the romantic side of human nature.” This means stories run on human motivations. It’s the arty side of writing that makes this stuff shine.

    Taming the “revision beast” can kill the best fiction if not handled with care.

    I can see going to this extent when writing a heroic fantasy that does follow specific steps in it’s structure.

    There is also the danger of losing your voice/style when complicating the creative process. The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard as a child.

    ONE LAST THING +++ never forget this +++
    There is a world just around the corner of your mind, where reality is an intruder and dreams come true and you may escape into it at will. You need no secret password, nor magic wand or Aladdin’s lamp;
    . . . only your imagination and a little curiosity, about things that never were that will soon come to life.


  5. Ingrid- I just have to say how much I admire you. Of course, I admire your awesome ability to organize & layout your material. But I send this message to say how impressed I am with your willingness to share so much with people. This is one of the most truly admirable traits one can have, in my opinion. We are all “connected” on this beautiful planet & your altruistic ability to share with all of us is AMAZING. Thank you and you are appreciated Ingrid! Stacy Piper

  6. Donnie – You make a great point! Yes, one does need to be careful of letting structure get in the way of the “magic” of writing. It’s a tricky balance, but I do think you can use both. This is why I write the first draft first before structuring, because that draft allows me to really be honest to my characters. The second draft is about finding a structure that stays with that honesty and gives it shape. Structure is a guide, not a dictator. One should always try to listen to the work and find the natural patterns and structure that is organic to the story you are trying to tell.

  7. I always love your blog entries! They always open my eyes to something new. Thank you for sharing! Will you be at the Alumni Mini-Residency at VCFA in July 2013? I’ve been every year since I graduated and would love to meet the face behind the great posts.

  8. This is such a beautiful graph that your art background is immediately obvious. I’m most intrigued and love the patterning we get visually from the POV characters and where they meet. I’m not sure why we’d see blue and pink together if only one is telling the story at a time though. Also, how do the diagonals work? Does the action spike then fade as suggested by the triangles? Hugs, and can’t wait to hear this lecture.

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