On Structuring Your Story

Chances are you’ve sat down at your desk with an idea in your head. It could be a story solely predicated on one scene in your head, or a character, or whatever it might be. Oftentimes, our desire to create what’s in our mind is predicated on that one thing. But how do we go on from there? Maybe if you’re like me, you have many scenes disconnected and needing something to connect them all. I’m a very linear thinker, so I need to know what comes next or else nothing gets done.

I used to be a pantser, someone who flies by the seat of their pants on a story. Stephen King is a pantser, so it does work for some. Like I mentioned, I used to be a pantser. Now, the pants have come off (metaphorically, of course). I have discovered the glorious feeling of having structure to a story. For the upcoming Sagebrush Kid, I implemented an outline. I knew what was happening in the story, but I just didn’t know how it would all flow out. It is kind of a mystery western, so the ability to outline where I was going allowed me to plan out how I would build the suspense, or further the mystery of the novel. What I would like to share with you, are two basic ways that you can use to help structure your outline/story.

Three-Act Structure

This is the structure that many of us are most familiar with. It’s the basic Exposition, Rising Action, and Resolution. It’s something that we’ve heard so much about from high school English Literature that most of us have probably tossed it out. But why? It works so well! Here’s an example for a short story I’m working on currently:

Act I: Death of Marty Booker. Confrontation of Earl Booker.

Act II: Shootout along the Ruby. Death of Ralph Bennett at Tabletop. Duel between Sidney the Kid Bennett and Earl Booker.

Act III: Burial at Boot Hill in Virginia City. Profession of Bennett’s love for a girl. Ride out into the sunset.

I know, it sounds really cliche. The outline is bare bones, so it should sound somewhat cliche. Your outline is just that. It’s the skeleton of your story. You’re reading the outline wondering who the hell Marty and Earl Booker are, or anyone else mentioned. You don’t know, but I do. This short story is divided into three parts with each part having a specific purpose.

As you sit and think about the story you want to write, think about what happens to the character to set them on this course. How they first deal with it is the first plot point. This ends Act I. In the second act, it’s how the situation is dealt with. It often ends with the climax where the protagonist and antagonist duke it out. The third and final act is simply how the characters live after the climax. Does life go back to normal or is there another piece to the antagonist’s dastardly plan? It’s up to you to decide.

Five-Act Structure

I know, I know. You’re just grasping or not yet fully understanding how to move in with the three-act structure, and then we add on two more pieces to an already simple structure. The Five-Act Structure is admittedly slightly more complicated, but if you’re planning on writing a Tom Clancy-sized novel or the next War & Peace, this might be the best. Let’s take a look at this example I put together with a current side-project:

Act I: ExpositionAct II: Rising Action*Act III: ClimaxAct IV: Falling Action*Act V: Denouement
Characters, World, Problems, are introduced. Ends in the inciting incident which launches the story forward. Series of events that occur that build up to the climax of your story. Protagonist begins to work towards their goal.Highest, most exciting event in the story. Protagonist and antagonist go head to head. Failure or success.Consequences to what happened in the climax. It ends in the resolution, where the problem at the heart of the story is solved.All loose ends are tied up and we get a glimpse of the new normal for the characters.
Terrorist AttackShowdownCapture of DRP PM

Now, there are two things to note:

  • Rising action is a series of events to build up to the climax of your story.
  • Falling action is when the main issues are resolved, giving way for the secondary issues to be resolved.

This Five-Act Structure outline is not complete, as I don’t have everything filled out. There are subplots, different characters facing different obstacles, but as I have all these things jumping around in my head, this gives a place for those ideas to funnel into. Think about it like a financial budget: you make a budget to tell your money where it’s going, or if you don’t the money will disappear and you don’t know where it went to.

Making an outline is very similar. I have an idea and a theme I want to tackle, but I don’t know where it all goes or how to make sense of it. So, in Act I there are specific things that fit into it. You’re basically introducing the characters and all their issues (internal and external), you’re also introducing the world in which they live. This can either be in a fantasy setting or a modern/historical one. The important thing is, there are specific areas in your story that fit into a specific Act. The moment the Boss Fight comes takes place in Act III, so it pushes your creativity to come up with material to fit into the first two acts. The same challenge comes in filling up the second two acts.

The final two acts of a Five-Act Structure is designed for things to “cool off,” or come to some kind of end. Act IV could be chasing the antagonist down after a failed confrontation, or finding out there’s another antagonist behind the antagonist. It gives you freedom to think about what happens as a consequence of the Boss Fight.

Within the Acts

Each Act is a potentially large chunk of a story. It’s easy to get lost in such chunks. This is when your traditional outlining comes into play. Chapter One: This happens. Chapter Two: Timmy gets a toy. They don’t have to be detailed or concrete. For Sagebrush Kid, the outline changed, because I swapped chapters around. This is okay. The outline is the skeleton, but if the femur doesn’t work as an arm bone, move it elsewhere. If the chapter doesn’t work where it’s at, put it somewhere else.

For Tears of the Saint, I put the story into a Three-Act Structure:

  • Act I: Tender Years
  • Act II: Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier
  • Act III: Go, My Love

I made each Act bear some sort of theme to help my planning. Act I is the Exposition, as discussed earlier, so I introduced some of the characters and their world with a plot to carry the introduction. Act I ends with a decision for the protagonists that spring them forward into the second act. The next act is how they deal with their decision, in this case it puts them in Korea in 1951. Act III is the “cool down,” where everything comes to a significant end. This is the first in a series, so I put something there that tells you this is not the end, and (hopefully) makes you want to read the next book.


Look over this post. Do you notice anything? It’s outlined. I had my introduction, first point of conversation, second point, third, and conclusion. It’s simple, doesn’t follow the act-structures, but enabled me to funnel what I wanted to say into a coherent fashion.

That’s the outline you can use to write posts, essays, or anything. In high school, I had a teacher tell us for our five paragraph essays on all our tests that it’s really not that difficult.

  • Introduction
  • Point 1
  • Point 2
  • Point 3
  • Conclusion

Five paragraphs done like that. Outlining anything you’re working on is a time-saver and production-builder. Even if you don’t write, or are creating anything, you can outline your time for anything. One hour is spent doing [insert activity], so how am I going to complete this in an hour, or get to a point within the hour to feel accomplished.

Budget your time, story, and money. You might not rule the world after, but you’ll feel a whole lot better.

By: Ethan H. Gaines

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