Fifteen tips to strengthen your story structure.

I spent hours breaking down a movie (How To Train Your Dragon) into acts. Who cares? I already knew about the three acts. I’d read Save the Cat, Story; and Plot and Structure is my writing bible.

Fair questions and thoughts.

Most tidbits I knew but I gained a deeper understanding of them. As in exactly how I might use them in my own writing. Okay, here goes:

Premise or logline:

1. Importance of placing a personality the least fit for the job into the role of main character.  (Skinny, accident-prone Viking anyone?)

Act I

2. Opening with telling is not wrong. It just has to be excellent, excellent telling. (Hiccup’s narration at the start of the movie, or opening to HP)

3. Thematic statement should be made very clear as in the character or a secondary character actually asking the question. This is the heart of your story. It’s a must.

4. Outer goal, inner goal, stakes must all be related.

5. All the main character’s flaws/problems should be revealed. And there should more than one or two; according to Blake more like six!

6. After the inciting incident, the main character should be faced with a decision. And it shouldn’t be an easy choice. In fact, it should go against what the character believes to be true. (Hiccup deciding not to kill the dragon.)

7. The disaster or turning point before Act II should be pronounced. It should pop out to the reader.

Act II

8. The start of Act II and the B Story (subplot) is the love story that brings out the internal story. (Hiccup and Toothless) Does not have to be a romance.

9. Also at the start of Act II is the whole concept of the ‘promise of the premise’: the potential scenes that pop into your head when you read the title or logline should happen here. The fun stuff. No potential scenes? Uh-oh.

10. At the midpoint, I knew there should be a big twist, but I didn’t realize that there could also be a false win – where it appears the main character is succeeding but she/he and the reader knows better because secrets are still hidden.

11. The dark moment needs to be just as pronounced as the turning point at the end of Act I.


12. In Act III, the relationships developed, the skills learned, and the emotional truths realized should all play a role in the climax. (Just let that sink in. I mean really sink in.)

13. I need to make sure that relationships, skills, and emotional truths all happen in Act II. Yikes.

14. After the dark moment, often times, it’s a secondary character that leads the main character to seeing what he/she needs to do.

15. At the end of the story, the world must be changed for the biggest impact. If not, the impact is decreased.


Wow. So, just by breaking down a movie I saw elements to add to the structure of my current story.

The question that begs to be asked – can a story find success with weak structure? After reading a lot of books, the answer is obvious. Come back on Wednesday to see if you agree or disagree with me!


30 Responses to Fifteen tips to strengthen your story structure.

  1. Stina Lindenblatt January 17, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    I’ve got another great post to link on my blog on Friday. I’ve got another great post to link on my blog on Friday. I’ve got another great post to link on my blog on Friday. I’ve got another great post to link on my blog on Friday. 😀

    I love this, Laura! Now I’m going to see if my current WIP does the same as recommended here.

  2. Laura Diamond January 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    I love how you’ve broken this down! This structure is exactly why I’ve converted to outlining. A panster by nature, I discovered (after writing 6 novels) that I lacked this overall flow of plot. I was bummed!!!! But I used the three act structure and voila, my story turned from, “wow, nice characters, meh plot,” to, “yup, nice characters AND nice plot.” Thank you very much. 😉

    Nice post!

  3. Laura January 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Stina – I’m going to applying this list to my wip too!

    Laura – I do think structure can make a huge difference! It can’t help with actual writing skill, but can give your story a huge boost.

  4. T. Anne January 17, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    I’m going to take my current outline and hold it up to the structure test. I hope it passes. Thanks for such great insight!

  5. Susan Kaye Quinn January 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Ok, first off, I LOVE THIS SERIES. Seriously. Thank you for sharing this.

    Secondly, you’ve inspired me to do something similar with Hunger Games – read again to break it down, the way you’ve done and do the HARD WORK to learn from it (and of course apply to my writing).

    Thirdly, this crazy funny video, which should accompany all blog posts relevant to Save the Cat

    Fourthly (ok, this is getting silly), I answered your question (About Me, not this) on my blog today.

    And finally, I think the answer to YOUR question is YES, books can succeed without all the plot pieces in place. But they won’t succeed as wildly as they would have. Also, I went back and looked at the Box Office for How to Train Your Dragon, and it’s an interesting story – not a strong opening weekend start, but seriously long tail in sales. Why? Word of mouth. People saw the movie, came back to see it again, told their friends. This is what having all the plot pieces in place will do for you.

    Ok, I’m finally done. 🙂

  6. Lydia K January 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    I’m a convert to structure. Now I need to go back over my draft with these points and make sure I hit them!

  7. Karen Lange January 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    What a great exercise! I need to remember this. I’m completely inspired, thanks so much. 🙂

  8. Laura January 17, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    T.Anne – I’m almost done with a wip and I can’t wait to follow my own notes. A little nervous too!

    Lydia – I’ve known structure is important but some things take time to sink in.

    Karen – Thanks! And good luck!

  9. Christine fonseca January 17, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    Love this – and pesonally, I always have to start with structure…

  10. Susan Sipal January 17, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Great analysis, Laura. And I think posts like this are great exercises for us even when we know the structure and have read the writing books. I always need reminders. Each time I read someone else’s analysis, I apply it to my WIP and it helps me evaluate whether I’ve forgotten an important element.

    I’m enjoying this series. Thank you!

    • Laura January 17, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

      Christine – I start with structure too but I things change in the writing somehow and I always have to really dig in when revising.

      Susan – The neat thing is that every book has its different strengths when it comes to structure. So I learn something different with each book!

  11. Angela Felsted January 17, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Sructure. Important, but it requires so much extra thought. Not a pantsers favorite word, but certanly necessary.

  12. Margo Berendsen January 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Okay, this was seriously amazing. I enjoyed the parts 1 through 3 (esp. since I loved the movie, in fact when the kids clamor for a movie night both my husband and I sometimes make them pick Hiccup! – we’ve watched it at least 8 times), but this post really hit it home.

    I’ll have you know that I immediately cut and pasted your 15 tips into a document and then went about filling in where my story fit the necessary parts of structure and where it didn’t. I’m happy to say it lined up for the most part, but I was missing two pieces: 3) theme stated and then my dark moment at the end of Act II was in the wrong place and sort of too spread out. And I’m writing that part RIGHT now so I’m so excited I can fix it NOW instea of in revisions.

    Thank you thank you thank you!

  13. Margo Berendsen January 17, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    Oh yeah and I am tweeting this and going to link it in my next post, too. I wish I had a bigger following so I could spread the word more!

  14. Laura January 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    Angela – I know structure is hard for pantsers. Good thing is that if you read a lot – then a lot of structure comes naturally. And I’ve heard Save The Cat is great for pantsers.

    margo – Thank you! The small tweaks on a manuscript can make all the difference!

  15. Jill Kemerer January 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    I loved that movie. I also thought Toy Story 3 had a fantastic story. Very logical breakdown here!

  16. Kelly Polark January 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Great points. And I have to see this movie!

  17. Laura January 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    Jill – All the Toy Story movies – in fact all Pixar movies have great structure. That’s one reason they are so successful!

    Kelly – It’s def. worth watching!

  18. Sherrie Petersen January 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    I think the thing that surprised me most when reading Save the Cat! was the “whiff of death” thing. Actually, a lot of it surprised me, but mostly because as soon as I read it I would think, of course! Why didn’t I notice that before? That book is brilliant and I love how you’ve broken it down with this series.

    Do books succeed without this structure? Of course. But the ones that stay with me the most, follow this the best. Unfortunately, knowing that, looking for it now when I read, has made it that much harder for me to just get swept away in the pages of a book 🙁

  19. Patti January 17, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    I really do need to go get this book maybe it will convert me to be a planner.

  20. Paul January 17, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    Great post, Laura. I’ve read those writing books you’ve mentioned, but it’s always helpful to see the same material from a different angle. It is so easy to lose track of a good structure during the writing.

  21. Karen Strong January 17, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    This post is like a plot chick’s dream! 🙂

    Yeah, we know about the 3-Act structure, but I never tire of seeing it in action and you broke it down nicely here. Like Margo, I’m going to have to tweet this link as well!

  22. Jody Hedlund January 17, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    Love your breakdown! And my son is absolutely obsessed with this movie. He plays with his “Toothless” toy all the time!

  23. Jennifer Shirk January 17, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Wow, this is really good. Do you outline before you write and use this or do you apply this tips after the first draft is done?

  24. Anna January 17, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    Great breakdown! I especially like the concept of the “fake win.” I hadn’t really thought about that before, but it certainly does pop up in stories.

    • Laura January 17, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

      Thanks to anyone who retweeted! I’ve been learning a lot from Save the Cat and breaking down movies and books. I do plot as much as I can before – though of course it changes! When I finish my first draft, I will go through and check my structure during macro revisions!

  25. Kristen Torres-Toro January 19, 2011 at 1:34 am #

    I definitely agree- a sound structure is a sound story.

  26. Lisa Green January 19, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    What an amazing analysis! This is great, I’m definitely going to use it. Thanks!

  27. Julie Musil January 19, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    This is an awesome breakdown. Plot & Structure is my bible also. After reading it, I love to break down plots in movies in books. The strong one are those with the best structure. Great post!

  28. Cinette January 20, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    I’ll have you know that I wrote out your 15 tips by hand, just to help them sink in better. Found some tips that made me think Ah Ha! That’s what my outline is missing! Thanks a bundle, Laura!

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