Posted by: Debrah Martin | July 8, 2013


Fortitude!  Have a bit of backbone!



That’s what someone urged me the other day whilst I wait for my house move to go through. Difficult when the bottom of the chain is dodgy and I’m surrounded by the thatcher’s re-thatching the roof of my cottage prior to the move – which means I can’t move for straw!

However, in the mess of hay and hesitation I’m devoting my time to writing to take my mind off everything and backbone made me think about structure.

You have an idea.

You have some characters.

You have a plot.

How do you pull it together into a good read that has your audience agog for more?


Structure is like a recipe – it has all the basic ingredients, the quantities, the timings, but it has to be completed in a particular way for it to taste good when it’s complete. So I decided to put a structure recipe together to see what it looked like as I’m a rather haphazard cook at times – as Webs showed me.


recipeThe Ingredients:





Characters 1,2, 3 and so on


The beginning

The middle

The end

The dialogue


The symbolism or themes

In fact you could easily turn these into a game to play:

Pick a card – and card – and mind-map around it …

the elements of structure

Starting with the plot – did you know there are seven main narratives – based largely on the epic narratives of the likes of the Odyssey, i.e.

  • Hero goes on a journey
  • Hero has an outcome to achieve
  • Hero encounters trials
  • Hero overcomes trials and in doing so develops self-realisation
  • Hero succeeds in his/her task and achieves a happy outcome

The narrative types are divided into:

  1. Overcoming the monster  – for example St George and the dragon, Godzilla, Dracula, Jaws (and my own Webs)
  2. Rags to riches tales – for example Cinderella, High School Musical (oops, sorry but it’s true)Jane Eyre, Slum Dog Millionaire
  3. The quest – see Lord of the Rings, raiders of the Lost Ark, Watership Down
  4. The voyage and return – like Alice in Wonderland, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and any of the current films like After Earth etc
  5. Comedy – see Bridget Jones, The Taming of the Shrew, Shopaholic
  6. Tragedy – for example Bonnie and Clyde, Hamlet (of course), Thelma and Louise
  7. Rebirth – The Secret Garden, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (and my own Chained Melody and  Falling Awake)

(See my blog post The 7 ways of the story teller )

Which encompass genre, plot, timeline and setting and themes.

Now frame these all with a structure and it’s a meal – or a play – in three courses:

theatre curtainsStarter:  Act 1 – The beginning – the problem – or the emotional issue

Mains:    Act 2 – The middle – the catalyst or the journey – the conflicting emotions or issues

Dessert: Act 3 – The end – the journey’s end – resolution itself


(The beginning, middle and end!)

But all set within a logical – or possibly illogical timeline (see The Time Travellers Wife).

The three act structure is a classic and it applies to most plays, stories and films. As with all the rules you are meant to follow, it is a way of remaining safe whilst you plot. You do not necessarily need to follow it religiously but it is wise to keep it in mind – it also makes sense … It’s like going on a journey with your characters – you wouldn’t depart if you didn’t know which vehicle you were using to go in, or where you were aiming to go. How you get to the end point may change along the way, but still you need an end point in mind.

The beginning – is a departure initiated by:

  • A call to action – the hero begins in a mundane life and something triggers a change
  • Refusal of a call – there is a reason for the refusal to act; perhaps fear, duty, emotional attachments, which create a conflict forcing action (Hamlet)
  • Supernatural aid – a mentor, advisor or wise person to guide appears (Gandalf in the Hobbit)
  • The threshold is crossed – and with it a departure from comfort zones, enabling character examination and challenge to occur
  • In the bell of the whale – the hero is separated conclusively from the life they knew and has no way to go but forward

The middle section is the initiation, including:

  • The road of trials – bringing obstacles with it to enable failure and learning (someone once told me never to fear failure or mistakes. They said they always claimed that they learnt so much from their mistakes they hoped to make many more of them!)
  • They meet the god/goddess – and true love or power and its consequences are experienced
  • The woman as temptress – may distract the hero from their journey 9or change the sexes if you’re a feminist)
  • Atonement with the father – usually a father figure is included, but this symbolises the power over the heroes life or death – meeting your maker …
  • Apothesis – there is a death of the old self and a birth of the new
  • The ultimate reward – marks an attainment of a goal – for instance the golden fleece for Jason

The return – and the ending:

  • Refusal of return – possibly the hero does not want to return
  • The magic flight – the hero must escape with their prize in order to return
  • Rescue form without – the mentor or other assistance help the flight
  • The crossing of the return threshold – the hero has to return to their origins in order to complete the quest
  • Master of two worlds – when the hero transcends both the world they left and the world they have conquered (like Neo in the Matrix) – they have achieved
  • Freedom – having faced death and other trials, the hero now has the freedom to live their life their way (Avatar)

Good examples of these elements can be found in The Matrix, the Shawshank Redemption and Star Wars – and generally in any blockbuster that hits the screen. There are endless examples of this kind of structure – The Beach, the Life of Pi, The Alchemist – and after a while you will notice the structure almost automatically. The problem with a rule is that after a while it can become staid and dull – not that any of the above are – so the challenge is to know the structure but to tailor it innovatively to your plot to create something unpredictable and intriguing.

What do I do?

I take the basic plot structure, mind map and then overlay it onto a timeline and a framework as follows:

table for structure

I do this for the whole book – and then of course change and change again as my characters dictate what happens, but it enables me to not completely lose myself in the mire. I didn’t do this for Webs – which was a bit like Topsy and just growed – and it was a nightmare to edit. I have learnt my lesson!

Which leaves you with characters, backstories, dialogue and the POV…

I wrote a little on POV here: His, yours, theirs or Gods- choosing a POV  so I think characters have to come next.

straw and feet


Excuse me whilst I climb over another bale of hay and I’ll see who’s on the other side of it …


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