Novel Writing 101: How to Give Your Story Bones

Hey, friends! How is the story building going so far? Have you made some great progress on creating your story’s world? So far we’ve touched on creating characters with goals, worldbuilding, and creating a plot sentence. Today we’re going to dive deeper into story structure, an essential part of fleshing out your plot and giving shape to your story.

What is the point of structuring your story, you might be wondering? Can’t it just all fall into place as you write your first draft? If you’re really lucky, maybe. More likely you’ll end up with something that looks like a boneless chicken from a Farside joke. But if you come up with the ten or so critical changes that will drive your plot ahead of time, suddenly you’ve saved yourself hours of work during revision.

Think of the structure as the skeleton or bones of the story–those major turning points that will propel the plot forward–and on which you’ll hang all the remaining scenes of your book. By far the best explanation I’ve read for story structure comes from K.M. Weiland’s website You can find her very thorough blog series here. I can’t recommend enough taking the time to read through this series, but for the sake of this post, I’ll be condensing down the main points into more or less a quick summary.

As a framework for our key scenes, we’re going to use the Three-Act Structure. Please note, you don’t have to present your story in this order. I’m sure we can all think of movies or books that reveal a snippet of the ending first, only to show later what happened to get to that point. But before you can decide the best way to present your story, it helps to visualize the entire plot in order. That’s where the Three-Act Structure comes in. (Values in parentheses indicate about how far into the story each scene should occur.)

Act I (0-25% of the story)

The first act introduces the main character (MC) and his or her normal world. This section, which takes up about the first quarter of the book, lays the groundwork for the main character’s internal and external conflicts.

The key scenes include:

Hook (0%) – Your very first scene has to engage the reader with your story. It may or may not tie directly into the major plot goals. It may not even introduce the main character. But it must present a question, a mystery, or a situation which hooks the reader’s interest and persuades them to keep turning the pages.

Inciting Incident (12%) – “Inciting incident” is a fancy term for an event in your story that essentially calls or invites the main character into pursuing their story goal. It could be an opportunity, a threat, or a piece of news that the MC must react to. Typically at this point, the MC chooses to ignore or avoid the invitation, preferring to stay in their normal world. If they do accept, they still have the chance to back out later.

First Plot Point (25%) – The MC has rejected their previous chance to enter the story world, but now they’re out of chances. In this key scene, an event, situation, or new information forces the MC irrevocably out of their normal world and into Act II. This scene must represent a point of no return.

Act II – First Half (26-50%)

Reeling from the events and decisions of the first plot point, the MC is thrust into a new world (often marked by a setting change and/or new characters) and finds him or herself struggling to adapt. The first half of Act II shows the MC scrambling to react and understand the antagonistic forces working against them.

First Pinch Point (37%)  – This scene, like the second pinch point in the second half of Act II, serves to reveal the strength of the antagonist and remind the MC of the stakes.

Midpoint (50%) – The midpoint represents a critical turning point in the story. In one sense, the entire novel hinges on this scene. It might be a major event (at least from the MC’s perspective) or a vital new piece of information. At this point, the MC moves from merely reacting to acting decisively against the antagonist.

Act II – Second Half (51-75%)

The main character has learned crucial information about the forces working against him or her and is now ready to take action against the antagonist. During the second half of Act II, the MC will continue to try different tactics to achieve his or her story goal. But just when victory seems to be at hand, the act ends with a crushing defeat.

Second Pinch Point (62%) – Like the earlier pinch point, this scene reminds the MC of what’s at stake and shows the antagonist’s strength.

Third Plot Point (75%) – This scene is the third critical turning point in the story. It represents a black moment on the heels of seeming victory, and may take the form of an event, crisis, or new information that forces the MC into a final confrontation with the antagonist. The MC’s reaction to this event leads to another point-of-no-return decision, in which everything must change and the MC can’t walk away.

Act III (76-100%)

The final quarter of the novel is the most exciting and fastest paced, as the main character reacts to the events at the third plot point and pushes into the final confrontation with the antagonist. Now all the groundwork laid earlier pays off. The stakes have reached unimaginable heights and the MC must put everything on the line if he or she is to have a chance at succeeding.

Climax (87%) – The rest of the novel has built toward this moment–the scene where the MC finally confronts the antagonist and stakes are at their highest. Here is the make-or-break moment. When the MC gives everything, will it be enough to prevail?

Resolution (99%) A novel runs on conflict. Once the conflict is over, the story must end. By this point, the MC has either won or lost, succeeded or failed in reaching their story goal. Now is the time to tie up loose ends and show how the MC (or his or her world) has changed because of the conflict.

And there you have it, a novel in three easy acts. Well, easy for anyone who hasn’t tried to write one. Probably the best way to wrap your mind around this type of structure and the key scenes is to evaluate books and movies. (Yes, I’m telling you to watch movies for your homework.) This exercise is great for lousy movies too, because often the failure in a movie can be linked back to a failure in its structure.

Note that depending on the main character’s story goal and the antagonist, the types of events that happen for the key scenes will be dramatically different. Try comparing Pride and Prejudice with Jurassic Park, for example. In a romance, the antagonist might be the love interest (like Fitzwilliam Darcy). In other stories, the antagonist might be a natural force (like the weather) or an immaterial struggle (like alcoholism or depression).

Your other challenge is to get out your index cards or notebook and begin brainstorming your key scenes for your story. Look back at your plot sentence and your character notes. Think about what your main character wants, and who or what is opposing them. Then see if you can come up with at least a rough sketch of your story’s skeleton. We’ll keep tweaking it and fleshing it out over the coming weeks, but expanding your ideas now will give you more to work with later.

Until then, happy writing!


Image courtesy of CC0 License.

2 thoughts on “Novel Writing 101: How to Give Your Story Bones

  1. Pingback: Novel Writing 101: Outlines – Pulling It all Together | Kellie Michelle Parker

  2. Pingback: Novel Writing 101: Building a Story with Scenes | Kellie Michelle Parker

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