Monday, October 17, 2011

Nanowrimo: Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

There really is something about fall for me, this huge jolt of energy. Thank God, because I have a lot to do. Last week I did my taxes and a book proposal at the same time, two activities that should never be performed simultaneously, and I went to Houston to teach a workshop.

This week I have to write another book proposal while doing edits for another book. In the middle of all of this there is another book that I am dying, just dying to get done. (At some point the brain does explode, doesn’t it?)

But again, this is why I’m a big fan of Nanowrimo. Even though, truthfully, like every full-time writer I have a Nano-like writing schedule most of the time, there’s something about having a designated month where all kinds of people are putting in this kind of insane writing time with the insane goal of having some rough approximation of a book at the end of it that makes it all feel okay, somehow, even doable.

So back to Nanowrimo Prep. We've already covered Story Structure 101.

And I was going to continue today to go over the story elements of each act, starting with Act One, but this year I'm going to try something a little different, first.

The more I analyze structure, the more it seems to me that every story has the same underlying structure. In previous years I’ve come up with a checklist of story elements, and last year I really expanded on that one. But in the last month of some short workshops and my Nano Prep, I’ve actually tried to put the most important of those story elements into an almost narrative, a cheat sheet for story development.

So I’m running it by you all today, to see if it makes sense to anyone but me.


NARRATIVE STRUCTURE CHEAT SHEET, from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.

S/he has:

-- a Ghost or Wound

-- a strong Desire

-- Special Skills

And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants

She gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life.

That impulse may be blocked by a

-- Threshold Guardian

-- And/or the Opponent

-- And/or she is herself reluctant to take the journey.

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

-- Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

-- Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.

Act II:1

The hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN

The opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants

The hero/ine may now:

-- Gather a Team

-- Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

-- Investigate the situation.

-- Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise – magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

We also enjoy the hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love

And usually in this Act the hero/ine is Winning.

Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss or Win that is a Game-Changer.

Act II:2

The hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint.

And formulate a New Plan

Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

And the hero/ine, or if not the hero/ine, at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that the hero/ine might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.


The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

--- Skills are tested.

--- Subplots are resolved,

--- and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist. Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.


If this works to make the process a little easier for you, great! It may be more useful to look at it later, during your rewrites.

And if not, no problem - forget it! I'm just always looking to try to explain things in different ways, because I know for myself, sometimes it just doesn't sink in until I hear it for the tenth or ten thousandth time.

- Alex


If you'd like some in-depth help with your prep, the writing workbooks based on this blog, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are available for just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories, and more full story breakdowns.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


Anonymous said...

Actually it does make sense to me. I've spent most of the last year reading Syd Field, Larry Brooks, James Scott Bell, Jack Bickham and a host of blog material, all on structure. Your list is solid, basic but then over-complication is stifling (I know because I tried to merge everything I'd learned into a formed document and it nearly ate my head).

Love your series and voice, Alexandra. Great work!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I find myself that I have to be constanctly going back between the micro: hyper-detailed - and the big picture - condensed versions. The truth is both, and everything in between.

I'm really not so sure that putting structure into a narrative is going to be helpful to that many people - on the other hand, I KNOW that having principles stated or illustrated in many, many different ways is the best way to learn.

Mark Boss said...

Thanks for these posts--they are a big help in getting me prepared (and motivated) for Nanowrimo.

This year I'm writing the sequel to my Nano project from last year. Do you think there are any substantial differences in the process when writing a sequel?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're very welcome, Mark, and no, I don't think there's much that's different in the process of plotting and/or writing a sequel. You're ahead of the game because you know the world.

But since I write mostly standalones, maybe I'm not the best person to answer the question. Maybe others?

Brittany said...

This is very helpful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Printing this out as I'm in edits after a massive rewrite of the WIP. Thankfully I recognize most of the signposts in the list so p'raps I got most of it write--er, right. Thanks! I hate when my head explodes cuz clean up sucks.

Ruth Donnelly said...

I found this very helpful. I'd much rather know the important character arc and story arc going in than have to work it out in revision, as I have in the past! Going through each point and writing a sentence about how it will look in my WIP has helped me clarify the structure in my own head.

Tahlia Newland said...

This is sooo helpful & relevant to what I'm doing now ie plotting a new novella. I used these ideas for my last one & it made for much less revision. Thanks for sharing. It works for short stories too - I just published one, though I wrote it before I kmnew about screen writing structure. Knowing this has really helped me to know clearly where a story is going.

Susan Oloier said...

This is great, Alexandra. In fact, I have your book, Writing Love, which is amazing! I absolutely appreciate how well you break things down for writers. Great stuff!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're welcome, Brittany!

Amy, I always love it when people recognize they're doing most of this stuff anyway. We KNOW how to tell stories, we've heard/seen/read so many of them. It just helps to be reminded a little.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ruth, I agree - at LEAST have a road map! Character arc always changes in the writing process for me, but I need to know SOMETHING going in to it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thalia, you're right - I just wrote a short story and the three acts are just SO important to shape it all.

Susan, thanks - there is a LOT of new stuff in in Writing Love; it's so helpful to look at just one genre at a time.