Story Structure

Science Fiction Writers' Week

Harness the Power of Story

Enhance your story with time-proven structure.

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.

Table of Contents

Global Story Beats

The blueprint of story structure flows across the traditional acts. For example:

Principles, Not Rules!

Please keep in mind the Global 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 Arc

The Global Story Beats flow across the acts to form the Story Arc. For example:

Story Arc
Click to Enlarge

To learn more about Global Story Beats:

Story Scene Beats

Segment Global Story Beats into scenes. After that, focus on the conflict to engage readers.

Want to know more about conflict in scenes? Take a look at this post:

Scene Sequence

Individual scenes are organized into sequences based on the Global Story Beats.

Check out this post to learn more:

Story Spine

When you build a Story Spine, it’s what supports a well-constructed narrative. In other words, the Story Spine is a multifaceted writer’s tool, enabling you to improvise a narrative quickly, identify what it’s about, and edit a bloated draft.

Curious about how you can put the Story Spine to work? Check out these posts:

Custom Metadata for Story Structure

Unleash the power of Scrivener by adding Custom Metadata. Think of Custom Metadata as notes stored in a spreadsheet, but instead of maintaining information in a separate application, Scrivener places the information in a side-bar (i.e., Inspector) next to each scene. For example:

Track Story Contribution

Only scenes that make a meaningful contribution to the overall story should remain after editing. Therefore, track the value of each scene.

  • INTENSITY: Rate level intensity from low (1) to high (10).
  • PLOT/PURPOSE: Denote plot or subplot, and define scene’s purpose. For instance:
    • Build suspense
    • Develop character
    • Introduce character
    • Establish a setting
    • Intensify conflict
    • Move story forward
  • TIME: Give a sense of when this scene takes place.
  • POV: Identify who is the controlling point of view in this scene.
  • PROBLEM: Show a scene challenge or threat that’s a subset of trying to overcome the story’s global problem.
  • GOAL: Define the scene action needed to solve scene PROBLEM.
  • WANT (Optional): Replace the scene GOAL with the hero’s personal cravings fueled by lie and misbelief.

Track Scene Beats

There are Scene Beats that mirror Global Story Beats. Therefore, capture and track the elements.

  • HOOK: Offers something new or references the foreshadowing established in a prior scene, such as:
    • Shows action or reaction
    • Foreshadows trouble
    • Dialogue grabs attention
    • Raises question
  • SETUP: Provides brief information regarding the character and current location.
  • TRIGGER: Forces to the surface the scene PROBLEM.
  • WRANGLE: Shows hero reflecting briefly on the choices and actions required to deal with the problem.
  • ACTION: Moves character from the scene PROBLEM toward the scene GOAL (or WANT) based on hero’s choice and action.
  • CLIMAX: Shows the outcome of character trying to achieve GOAL (or WANT), and sets up the drive to next scene, such as:
    • Ends with a cliffhanger
    • Redirects story with a revelation
    • Presents hero or villain with a setback
    • Reveals a secret or a lie
    • Teases readers with a question
    • Interjects an unexpected plot twist

Track Scene Content

  • CONFLICT: List the opposing forces. For example, character versus character, character versus nature, character versus self, character versus society, character versus supernatural, and character versus technology. In addition, show how this conflict influences tension (occurs as readers anticipate more conflict) and suspense (grows as the conflict remains unresolved and readers wonder, What happens next to the lead character?). Also, describe how this CONFLICT intersects with STAKES, WANT, and NEED.
  • NEED (Optional): Show how the hero’s fatal flaw rears its head, resulting in her lowest point where no solution to the scene PROBLEM because character’s inner issues (the individual’s emotional wound, lie, and misbelief) hinder attaining the scene GOAL.
  • STAKES: Give the hero an overwhelming reason to continue making choices and taking actions despite the opposing force. Plot events cause TURNING POINTS, but it’s the STAKES that increase tension (e.g., will she succeed?).
  • TURNING POINT: Show the positive or negative strategic shift in value of hero’s next choice and action. For example, how the value move from (+/-) or (-/+) or (+/+ +) or (-/- -) based on whether the scene GOAL was achieved.

Additional Content Tracking

  • SURPRISE (Optional): Change dramatically the general trajectory of the hero’s efforts to solve story problem by introducing a plot twist.
  • QUESTIONS: List questions opened or closed within this scene.
  • CLUES: Show which facts were disclosed within the scene and to whom.
  • RED HERRINGS: Show which untruths (red herrings) were disclosed within the scene and to whom.
  • FORESHADOW: Show what will happen in the future and when author plans to pay off the foreshadowing with an event.
  • SYMBOLS/MOTIFS/OBJECTS: Show common meanings through Symbols/Motifs, and Objects that have special meanings to the story.
  • CHARACTERS: List the characters in the scene on stage (+) and those only heard or referenced off stage (-).
  • SETTING: Describe where this scene takes place, and how the location contributes to the story.
  • WEATHER: Describe the atmosphere and how the climate adds to the story.
  • EMOTIONS: Show what creates a sense of wonder, romance, adventure, humor, mystery, drama, or lust.
  • SENSES: List what the POV character senes: smell, taste, hear, touch, and see.

Replace MS Word and Apple Pages With Scrivener

I have not discovered a convenient way to update and track the above information from within Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. In the past, I used a separate spreadsheet that required frequent updates.

Instead of maintaining an Excel or a Numbers spreadsheet, the power of Scrivener simplifies adding, updating, and viewing Custom Metadata in the Inspector and Outliner.

Here’s a post that breaks down the use of Custom Metadata:

Deepening Reader Connections

Use Scrivener’s Custom Metadata to apply and track Deep POV techniques to your writing, and ProWritingAid’s Dialogue Report to identify and replace unusual dialogue tags with action beats.

Jodie Renner offers instructions and examples in her book, Captivating Your Readers.

For more information: