Some quick notes on story structure

I was one of the Judges at the 2000AD Pitchfest at Thought Bubble on the weekend, and while there were some good ideas there by several of the entrents (and God knows, having to stand onstage and pitch your story to a room full of people and a panel of professional writers is a terrifying prospect and I have respect for anyone who gave it a go) I felt there was a certain lack of basic structural points in the majority of the pitches.

Structure’s so important to writing. There were some perfectly valid, visually cool, potentially resonent stories pitched during that hour, but without structure you’ve got the classic ‘house with no foundations’. It should also be said that having a sense of the craft of storytelling is how you become a professional. Pro writers aren’t always struck by the muse. Don’t necessarily have ‘so many stories in my head that I HAVE to get them out.’ The ‘muse’ happens within the structure. It’s the pins in the map for beats that you absolutely have to hit on your journey that stop you wandering off into the wilderness or staring for hours at the window waiting for an idea to hit you. Or, far more likely, disappearing up your own arse.

Without structure you get the classic – Oh, I got two-thirds through the story but I don’t know where it goes.

So, here’s some BASICS (emphasis on). And yes, all these rules can be subverted once you know what you’re doing and and you can be FAR cleverer than this down the road. But stories, and pitches to editors, should have these points clearly defined up front:

  1. Who is the protagonist?
  2. What do they want? (the most important thing in your story, you could argue)
  3. What’s stopping them getting it (drama! – here’s where an antagonist usually comes in)

A basic three-act structure usually runs like this:

First 25% – Who is protagonist? What is the world they inhabit that is at threat?

Then an ‘Inciting incident’ occurs and the world is thrown into turmoil. The protagonist WANTS something and begins their journey.

Middle 50% – Obstacles occur and usually increase in difficulty. This is the drama. The protagonist wants something. They cannot get it.

Then you get your ‘Third act twist’ (something big changes) at the start of the…

Final 25% – Resolution. The protagonist either gets what they want or doesn’t, according to the theme.

Theme’s bigger for me than for some writers. I like to know what it is going in. And it occasionally changes along the way. But for me one of the maxims in your third act resolution is that ‘the theme suggests what the third act resolution will be’. It either proves the theme correct or disproves it.

The perfect basic three-act structure is Jaws:

First Act – Sherrif Brody has moved to new town, wants to protect his family, shark starts eating people. (Actually, the inciting incident occurs here in the first scene – the shark eats the swimming girl, Brody is called in). The world is now in a state of flux. There’s a problem that needs solving.

Second Act – Brody attempts to protect tourists and his family against the shark while staying on land due to his fear of the water (hey, character work!)

Third Act – (twist) They head out to sea to hunt the thing that’s been hunting them.

In the context of a four-page Future Shock for 2000AD (four pages – not easy), you have zero room to mess around. A story depends on momentum and needs to move forward – one of my comments at the pitchfest was ‘no flashbacks’. You don’t have time to look back. Characters will reveal themselves via the choices they make in your story, not what happened to them in the past. Watch John Carpenter’s The Thing – all we get to know about McReady at the start is he likes playing chess vs. the computer and loses. But from the moment the dog runs into camp we’re with him and his choices all the way.

Anyway, I digress, and this is a bit of an info dump. But a four-page Future Shock should really be:

PG 1 (first 25%) – protagonist, world, inciting incident, WANT.

PGS 2 & 3 (middle 50%) – Obstacles.

PG 4 (final 25%) – BIG TWIST (inherent in a Future Shock) Resolution.

Not readily applicable for a Future Shock but I really like Dan Harmon’s (Community) circular story structure paradigm. It runs like this.

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort.
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation.
  4. Adapt to it.
  5. Get what they wanted.
  6. Pay a heavy price for it.
  7. Then return to their familiar situation.
  8. Having changed.

Harmon goes into way more detail than this – I’m sure you can track it down. And there’s a definite sense of character arc here, which is vital. At the end of the story the protagonist is not the same person they were at the start.

Also, here’s some suggested reading. There’s good practice in these books. And while I appreciate that some might moan and claim that they can lead to formulaic writing I’d still say that you’d better learn basic chords and scales before you start ripping it up and revealing yourself to be Miles Davis.

Get these on your Christmas list:

A Whore’s Profession, David Mamet (There’s an excellent transcript of a lecture Mamet gave to film students in this which is filled with brilliant advice).
Story, Robert McKee
Save The Cat, Blake Snyder
Into The Woods, John Yorke
Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
On Writing, Stephen King.

When I first started writing I felt it was all about ‘talent’ and stories just dropped to some from the ether. Not true. Writing is actually a craft. You learn the rules and you practice and you get better at it.

It’s the story of Arnold Palmer being in a bunker, getting a good contact and rolling his shot into the hole. His opponent says: “Lucky bastard.” And Palmer replies: “Yes, and you know what? The more I practice the luckier I get.”

UPDATE – one thing occurred to me that I should have mentioned here, especially in regard to Future Shocks where it’s paramount – recognise and subvert the cliche.

This is possibly one of the toughest things to do as a writer because cliches just drop in our path continually as, probably, the first solution to your story problem that comes to mind. They’re easy to embrace. And avoiding them comes down to a question of taste and smarts, really. But ask yourself this very important question about the big twist at the end of your Future Shock:

“Is it a cliche?”

If the answer is yes, don’t despair. Use that cliche. Subvert it. If it suggests going right, go left instead. A really easy, useful writing trick is just to ‘flip it.’ Take a cliche, turn it on its head. Suddenly you’re hailed as a genius.

A couple of the story ideas in the Future Shock competition at Thought Bubble concerned going back in time to take out a vile dicatator before he became the vile dicatator. That, I’m sorry to say, is about as cliche a Future Shock idea that you can come up. BUT, there’s no reason you can’t make it work to your advantage and have fun with it. Take the cliche and readers’ expectations and then, at the last minute, do something leftfield and unexpected with it. Take the piss, show the reader that you ‘recognised the cliche’ and were smart enough to swerve it and go in another direction.

At this point I should probably say that the first Future Shock idea I ever sent to 2000AD was called “the most unoriginal Future Shock idea we’ve ever received at 2000AD” by then editor David Bishop. We learn from our mistakes. Hopefully…

Al Ewing once wrote an excellent mini-comic called ‘The Ultimate Future Shock’ which pretty much contained every sci-fi trope or cliche in it, and took the piss out of all of them in the process. Sci-fi, more than most genres, seems to offer up way too many tantalisingly easy cliches to the writer. It’s a minefield avoiding them.

Certain phrases should make your CLICHE-OMETER claxon go off – “Dystopian Future” would make me throw a pitch to the wastepaper basket unless the writer showed pretty quick that they knew they were heading down a very well trodden path and had something fun and fresh and smart to say.

Part of good storytelling is being ahead of the reader. Tell them that you’re taking them down one path and then, just as they’re feeling comfortable and safe, pushing them through the trapdoor to the left.





  1. Mark Sexton says:

    Cheers for this Rob! A great lesson and reminder for anyone interesting in storytelling. I’m moved to go back and do some instructive reading (cheers for that list of books too)!

  2. Thanks Rob, great post. After reading Robert McKee’s Story I worried I’d somehow banished a primordial, instinctive way of creating stories, much like reading all of Andrew Loomis’s drawing books and having too much technical knowledge to draw in a naive style. But I suspect, as with all things, it’s a case of getting so familiar with the structures that you can positively choose what to discard or subvert. Picasso seemed to manage alright.

    • Rob Williams says:

      Hi Will. Yeah, I think so. The Snyder ‘Save The Cat’ book even has a beatsheet that details what beat you should hit on what minute in your 120 page screenplay. And you can see that in a lot of modern movies. It can lead to formulaic writing. But I think it’s up to the individual how much of this stuff to use and discard. If it’s too inhibiting, we can go outside it or subvert it. Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is like one long brilliant railling against McKee, to the point where McKee even appears in the movie (played by Brian Cox iirc). But even then – and I’ve not seen Adaptation for a while – I think Kaufman ‘ironically’ follows Mckee’s structure in the movie. Personally, I think the structural parameters keep me on the straight and narrow, but I totally appreciate why some might dislike them.

  3. Kathy Bailey says:

    I think structure is necessary and you can be free WITHIN it. Good post.

  4. James Mackay says:

    Years ago a couple of us handed out “Pitchfest Bingo” sheets at Dreddcon. Audience members had boxes with things like “It’s a virtual reality prison!” to cross off.

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