Structuring Stories – A Visual Guide

Over the years I’ve read a lot about story structure. There are many excellent guides out there — John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, Robert McKee’s Story, David Baboulene’s The Story Book, K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel, and many, many others. We also have Christopher Vogler’s The Writer Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which draws heavily from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These and many other books provide great insights for writers.

Most of them discuss story structure using similar but not identical language. The result is like speaking a language with multiple dialects — you can get the overall picture of what is being said but complete understanding is a little tricky. For example, are terms like “First Plot Point”, “First Pinch Point”, “Turning Point #1” and so on referring to the same thing or to something different? Why is the story “Midpoint” also called “Turning Point #3”? Near the beginning of the story, are the “Hook”, “Inciting Incident”, and “Key Event” the same thing? (They are not according to K.M. Weiland.)

This post is not intended as a criticism of the authors of any of these guides. We are fortunate to have a rich set materials to draw from when structuring a story. New (and not so new) writers need to be aware of these many differences when talking about story structure.

Pillars of Story Structure

I encourage writers to read a variety of materials, learn from them all, and then integrate them in a coherent framework that works for them.

While working my way through K.M. Weiland’s excellent website and series of books on writing recently, I found myself trying to compare the framework she outlined (she did a darn fine job of it in my opinion) with others that I am familiar with. This diagram lays out the structure in which the key plot points (i.e. “Hook”, “Inciting Incident”, “Key Event”, etc.) serve the same support role as piers on a bridge or pillars holding up a roof. However, piers and pillars alone do not make a bridge or roof nor do plot points alone make a story. The sections that span the gaps between the plot points (i.e. “Stasis”, “Trigger”, “New Situation”, etc.) are as important, just as the decking on a bridge or planking on a roof is important. Without those sections, it is hard to get from beginning to end.

Below the story structure is the point at which plot points should occur (both as a percentage of the story and for a 120 minute film or 400 page book). Keep in mind that these are approximate.

You can download a PDF of this diagram at Pillars of Story Structure V2. NOTE: This is a revised version of the diagram posted here originally.

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