Story Structure

The Trellis Method: Master story structure and write a book readers will love.

Story Elements

A big-picture approach to writing helps you satisfy readers’ expectations, identify details, add emphasis, and sequence events. A successful story aligns several essential elements.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characters, plot, theme, and structure.

  • Characters are who experience the story.
  • Plot is what happens within the story.
  • Theme is why the story matters.
  • Structure is how the story is told.
Story Elements
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Story Beats

It’s all about writing principles, not rules. Story Beats represent general patterns, and authors are free to vary the locations and percentages. As principles, these beats are useful for interpreting and writing stories, but not as rules.

Story Beats
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Story Arc

Story Beats flow across the acts to form the Story Arc.

Story Arc
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Character Development

A story’s heartbeat emanates from characters. Above all, their lives capture readers’ attention and shape the story’s trajectory. For example:

  • Roles contribute to the storyline.
  • Careers often sway those roles.
  • Desires guide thoughts, choices, and actions.
  • Protagonist’s resistance to change hinders problem solving.
  • Unsolved problems create conflict and build tension. 
  • Individual and group connections affect story direction.
  • Traits and behaviors influence reactions to plot events.
  • Distinctive character voices engage readers.
  • Dialogue effects the story’s pace.

Character Types

Use the Character Types to profile an individual’s emotions and behaviors based on whether the person feels secure or stressed.

Character Types
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Character Development Levels

Show realistic character reactions to plot events.

Development Levels
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Character Development Matrix

Characters react based on how they feel — the emotions your readers crave!

Character Development Matrix
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Plot Design

Consider these questions:

  • Do events take place early that create tension, causing readers to engage as their concerns increase for the lead character?
  • Do the events create a story problem that captures readers’ attention?
  • Does something dramatic happen to the lead character within the novel’s first page or two?
  • Do the emotion-laced events in the initial scenes encourage readers to bond with the lead character, experiencing her emotions?
  • Are the stakes becoming clear to both the lead character and readers?
  • Do the lead’s efforts focus on solving one escalating problem she can’t avoid and balance the mixture of narrative and action?
  • Does the lead’s pursuit of a difficult goal create conflicts and tension?

Theme Formation

The combination of external, internal, and philosophical themes creates lasting impressions with readers. For example:

  • What does the lead character need to hear, but she doesn’t want to listen to her most trusted friend or mentor?
  • Do the challenges and conflicts of pursuing that goal convey the meaning and emotional weight based on how they affect the lead?
  • Do the lead’s choices represent one or more dilemmas, ever increasing the story’s tension?
  • Does the lead’s pursuit of goal identify an inner issue to be resolved prior in order to solve the story problem?
  • Does the lead resist the need to change, but as the story progresses, ultimately sees things differently?
  • Will readers learn something from the lead’s struggle that goes beyond entertainment, helping them to deal with real-life issues?
  • At the end of the story, does the success or failure of solving the story problem highlight how the lead has changed?

Genre Influence

A key to unlocking story structure is understanding how your chosen genre influences what readers expect.

Genre Drives Audience Expectations
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Learn More: The Trellis Method