Stories Need Structure

Reading is fundamentally part of being a writer. Many writers start off as a reader. And over time they decide to try to write their own stories. At least that’s how I started. Unfortunately, reading stories does not teach you how to write stories. Stories need structure even if it’s applied at a subconscious level.

A Pantser at Heart

A pantser is a writer who starts writing without a plan. Years ago, that was me. I’d start with a voice and an idea. Yup, my characters talked to me, or through me. But my stories were unsatisfying. There was no pace, very little conflict, and too often, very little story. They weren’t the stories I’d dreamed of writing.

More than Beginning-Middle-End

I’m sure you’ve all heard that stories need a beginning a middle and an end. But that’s not enough. Many stories have beginnings and middles and ends. What they don’t have is pace or structure or, sadly, compelling conflict. Indie authors suffer from this most ONLY because self-publishing makes it easy to put it out there before their writing has matured. There are plenty of traditionally published authors whose stories suffer from a lack of understanding story structure.

As Many Methods as Writers

Every writer is different. Each of us must find our own way to create but there are basics that you ignore at the cost of writing a meh story.

I’ve learned via books and correspondence courses and webinars and online courses. My teachers include well-known authors: Dwight V Swain’s Techniques of a Selling Writer, Larry Brooks and his Story Engineering, Holly Lisle and her Writing Sideways, and writing gurus Lisa Cron, Shawn Coyne, Blake Snyder, and Robert McKee. (For a complete list of resources I’ve used see this page.) My critique groups have been quite instructive. (Yes, I’ve participated in more than one.) And I’ve had wonderful mentors. William F. Wu and Margie Lawson are two of my most influential mentors.

It’s taken years for me to learn about story structure. And years to develop my own tools to create satisfying stories in a reliable and repeatable way. A way to use story structure that allows my pantser heart freedom.

My Process Took Years

How did I come up with my way of outlining? I started with Jami Gold’s beat sheet. Over the years I’ve added to and massaged that document over time. In a mind-meld kind of way, I’ve mushed together the how-to-write-a-story tools that help me. Perhaps it’ll help you, too.

I use Scrivener to write because of the great flexibility of that program. But I’ve handwritten outlines. I’ve used spreadsheets and I’ve written an English-class-style outline. By far, this has been the best.

Stories Need Structure. This is a flexible outlining tool.

As you can see I’ve divided this poster board into four parts. I’ve identified the parts of the story and I have used 4×6 index cards (cut in half ‘cause I’m weird that way). I attach the cards with removable tape. That way it’s all moveable. This is the least rigid outline I’ve ever used. And that appeals to my pantser heart.

The board sits at eye level on my left so if I get lost when I’m writing I look at it. And, if while I’m writing, I have a new idea I write it on a card and put it up on the board, moving other cards as needed.

I love this new board method for its flexibility and it’s being always in sight. Always in sight means that it is working my subconscious ALL. The. Time. It works when I’m writing emails or cleaning or goofing off and playing games online.

Stories Need Structure

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting what I’ve learned. Because all writers need the reminder. And I want indie writers to deliver better stories to their readers. Most of all, because stories need structure. But I don’t want this to be a one-sided conversation. Please share your thoughts about structure and tools that you use. We can learn from one another.


  1. I like that you note that structure can be applied subconsciously, because that’s how it works for me after years of learning. I used to be an outliner, but my characters and stories always seemed to have other, better ideas to the point that outlining was a waste of time. So I stopped doing it. I’m moving more toward Dean Wesley Smith’s “writing into the dark” (IOW, pantsing), and writing is much more fun.

    I still take classes, because it’s important to never stop learning. And it’s fun!

    1. Jennette, yes. If you’ve outlined for years you kind of absorb that knowledge and apply it subconsciously. What I love about my board is that it’s highly fluid. I don’t spend a lot of time writing down my outline and it changes every time I write a scene because–better ideas. Writing is a messy process (at least it is for me). I’m glad you’re finding a way that works for you and that you’re having fun with your writing.

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