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Five Books to Help Understand Story Structure

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, your novel needs to have a structure. Here are five books that can help you understand story structure and write a coherent novel.

Plotters vs. pantsers. It’s one of the dichotomies of writing fiction.

Writers in the first group work out the plot of their novel in an outline, which may be very detailed, and then write their story. They don’t always adhere to the outline; while writing, new ideas may bloom, and new characters may come to mind, leading authors to make changes, but they often stick to the story structure that they initially developed.

Pantsers are different. These authors begin with a character, a setting, or a situation, and just let their subconscious guide them as the story grows organically. Rather than wanting to be locked into an outline, they exercise the freedom to go down rarely-traveled paths and discover the story that is within them.

Nevertheless, at the end of the first draft, both of these types of writers need to analyze their manuscripts and ensure that their stories are structured in a way that readers will grasp. Here are five books that can help writers understand story structure.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell.

Most writers have heard of Joseph Campbell's idea of the hero's journey. Combining research into the perennial hero myth across cultures and Jung's idea of archetypes, Campbell developed a template for this type of story. "The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life." This story structure has been the backbone for many Hollywood movies, notably the first Star Wars movie, which George Lucas modeled directly on Campbell's structure. But everyone is the hero of their own life, and this story structure can be used for adventures that don't span galaxies. Understanding this template can help novelists develop satisfying stories.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee.

Robert McKee developed his approach to screenwriting over many years working in Hollywood. Through seminars, and then his book Story, he presents what he calls principles, not rules. "A rule says, 'You must do it this way.' A principle says, 'This works... and has through all remembered time.'" Writers may think that a book for screenwriters isn't for them, but while Story discusses films, the ideas in the book apply to all kinds of stories. This 25-year-old book is a bit out of fashion these days, as it is sometimes seen as providing a template for the many cookie-cutter superhero movies that are made by the dozen. But McKee's discussion of story structure, looking at events, beats, scenes, sequences, and acts, also applies to novels. And using movies as examples ensures that many readers of Story know the basic plots he discusses, and can better understand his analyses.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody.

Save the Cat! is an approach to storytelling developed by Blake Snyder, originally for screenplays. This structure breaks down a story into 15 beats or plot points, which describe the hero's journey to discovery, which, in one way or another, is at the heart of most novels. Jessica Brody adapted this for novels, and her 15-beat structure can be useful for plotters, and even for pantsers who start a novel, and then reach a point when they want to plan out the rest of their story. See our article Outline your NaNoWriMo Novel Using the Save the Cat! Story Structure for more on using this technique with Scrivener.

Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering is a general book on the storytelling process, with a focus on story structure. He points out that there is "a structural expectation and paradigm for your story, and if you intend to sell what you write, you can't mess with it." Sections in the book cover topics like concept, character, and theme, but about one-third of the book looks at story structure. While many writers look at a three-act, five-act, or seven-act story structure, Brooks presents a four-part story structure, which consists of set-up, response, attack, and resolution. He doesn't limit himself to this high-level approach, and also discusses plot points, the midpoint of a story, the final act, and more.

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, by Christopher Booker.

Many people have tried to determine how many different plots exist for stories. Some say there are 6, 36, or 1,462 plots for stories, but in this long book (700+ pages), Christopher Booker looks at literature through the ages, and has determined that there are seven basic plots. Leaning on a Jungian analysis of stories, the book contains dozens of examples of well-known stories and how they fit into these categories. While this reduction of all stories to seven basic plots may not be the one true answer to the question of story structure, this book can help writers better understand the commonalities across stories and how readers are primed, from childhood, to expect certain plots. This book is not for everyone, but if you want to dig deep into story structure, it's worth dipping into.

The story structures discussed in these books are not the only options for writing a novel, and you will certainly find stories that don't fit neatly into these categories. But when you're planning a novel, or have finished your first draft, it can be helpful to be aware of different story structures that might help you tell the story you want to tell.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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