“The outline is 95% of the book. Then I sit down to write, and that’s the easy part.”
– Jefferey Deaver
Many writers resist story structure because they fear it will limit their creativity and lead to formulaic writing. But here’s the thing: story structure is not an equation designed to reduce your story to quantifiable parts.
This misconception may be the result of structure being taught by story analysts whose gifts lean more toward an ability to deconstruct the anatomy of an existing work than in exploring the nature of the author’s intention. This can leave the student with a keen understanding of how a particular story was assembled while struggling with how to translate that lesson into completing their own work. Although one might eventually begin to grasp the inner workings of structure by studying the various parts of a particular story, this approach is akin to dissecting a cadaver in order to understand what it means to be human. It suggests that story is primarily an intellectual endeavor. It isn’t. What makes your story universally relatable is its connection to the human spirit.
An Outline helps reveal transformation.
It’s a way to trace the experiential beats of a character’s growth that lead to their shift in perception – that “aha” experience we’ve all had when we see something in a new way. An outline will help you see these beats working through the story.
Without these three core elements, a story cannot satisfy its premise:
1) Desire (Your protagonist wants something.)
2) Surrender (Your protagonist lets go of the meaning they make out of their goal.)
3) Transformation (Your protagonist reframes their goal, thus seeing it in a new way.)
Despite what you may have been taught, story structure has little to do with plot. In fact, the structure reveals the underpinnings of your theme. Your protagonist’s quest will reframe their primal drive.
But what is a theme exactly, and how does working with it help you to build your story? Whether you’re conscious of this or not, every character in your story has a relationship to your protagonist’s central dilemma. This is necessarily so, because your characters are all functions of the same dramatic question. They are all in service to your theme. And it is through these various struggles that you can explore your theme. By tracking your protagonist’s primal desire through the story, you explore this dilemma.
Making a story is a process of moving from the general to the specific.
You begin with a basic sense of a story, and through inquiry, your imagination fills in the details. If you hold too tightly to any story element, you limit your story from moving in the direction of its most fully realized form.
In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal book On Death and Dying, she illustrates five key experiences that one moves through in the grief process. In the same way, a series of experiences are essential in tracing your protagonist’s arc leading to their transformation. Although the five stages of grief may overlap, they tend to move in a particular direction: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. When you examine these experiences, you likely sense a certain internal logic to the process. In fact, if you ponder them, eventually your imagination is likely to begin conjuring a story.
We all have access to an empathetic imagination that allows us to connect to our common humanity. Just as the five stages of grief are universal, so are the key experiential stages that lead to your protagonist’s transformation.