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Story Structure: Putting Our Pants On One Leg at a Time, Like Everybody Else

by Kelly Lynne, editor

What do stories have in common with a pair of pants? Structure! To be recognizable as a story, a narrative must obey a few conventions, but like pants, infinite variety can be layered upon that.

The concept of story structure is anathema to some writers, a restriction to be balked at, but the reality is a story without structure is no more a story than a pair of pants is a pair of pants without the basic structure of waistband, seat, and two legs.

Why do pants, shorts, underwear, capris, etc. have two-leg structure? Because human beings are built that way. We Earthlings need our clothing designed around a pattern based on our body shape. This is structure. Are all pants alike? NO! Dimensions, fabric, stitching, embellishment, pockets—these are all variations that make each pair unique.

All stories follow a basic structure no matter the genre or length. This is how our human minds expect a story to go for it to feel finished.

The most basic structure is: a story asks a question and then answers that question. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning:

1. Introduces the characters

2. Establishes the situation

3. States the conflict

4. Poses the story question (which should lead to the premise)

The middle: A progression of consequential events, involving the characters who change as a result of those events.

1. Each event must lead toward resolution of the conflict.

2. Each event must reveal more about the characters.

3. Each event must relate to the premise.

The end:

1. The climax, which is the pivotal event which resolves the conflict and proves the premise.

2. The resolution, which answers the story question, if the answer is not obvious as a result of the climax.

3. Each event must relate to the premise.

Genre fiction is like choosing a category of pants. Let’s say a consumer wants a pair of bootcut jeans. She will go for denim, full-length with outseam and inseam and the right measurements for hips and waist, probably 5-pocket. But within that definition are multiple brands which differ in stitching, pocket design, how much the ankle opening flares for boots, shade of denim, stretch or full cotton—every pair is slightly different, and so every book within a genre is slightly different but the same general structure that the consumer expects to find in that genre.

Ultimately the success of your book depends on delivering the product consumers want. Write the book of your heart, but make sure it doesn’t have three legs when you’re done.

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Kelly Lynne edits multiple genres of both adult and YA/middle grade fiction.

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