When it comes to story structure, writers seem to fall into one of three camps: they love it, hate it, or are completely confused by the many iterations of it. With this third group, it’s understandable. Are there 3 Acts, or 4? Do I use Save the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, or something else? Is this turning point called Opportunity, or a Call to Adventure, or…
Can you hear the lambs screaming, Clarisse?
(Yes, I can. And I bet you can, too.)
Personally, I like things to NOT be complicated. Writers should be writing, not stressing out, right? So, I’m going to take a moment to mention some of the structure tools at One Stop for Writers that make life easier for us creatives.
Story Maps (above) is an excellent tool for macro story structure. You can set up the bones of your novel using turning points based on Michael Hauge’s 6-Stage Plot Structure. (We use 6-Stage because in my opinion it is one of the most effective for tracking plot AND character arc elements.) The tool gives you step-by-step help as you plan each part of your outer story (plot) and inner story (character arc).
Timelines (above) will help you organize important details, like different towns your hero must visit during a quest, the clues a killer leaves behind at each crime scene, or the order of events that led to a terrible tragedy in your character’s past. You can storyboard, too, as each timeline tile can be moved and reordered!
One Stop also helps with micro structure, which is structure at the scene level. And this is important stuff, so let’s dig into a specific tool today: Scene Maps.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Each scene should push the story forward.” Only…what does that look like? And how do we know if our scenes are doing their job?
(Well, with Scene Maps, that’s how!)
SCENE MAPS (Formal)
To accommodate all writers, we created two versions of scene maps. Today I’ll discuss Formal Scene Maps, which tracks the four cornerstones of a strong story plus a few other critical scene elements.
Here’s what this tool suggests writers include in their scenes:
Outer Motivation: In each scene your protagonist should have a goal: to find out information, get help, avoid something, gain something, etc. So, always know (and make sure to show!) what the main character’s goal is.
Inner Motivation: It should also be clear as to WHY this particular scene goal is so important to your character. Knowing what is pushing them to act will involve readers more directly in the story as they will identify with the POV character’s needs and desires.
Outer Conflict: If your character’s goal in a scene is too easy, there’s a problem. Outer conflict is that delicious tension that happens when you have a person or force get in the protagonist’s way. Remember, each character in every scene will have their own agenda (goals) so if you want to create great friction clashes, make sure these goals sometimes conflict, creating a tug of war!
Inner Conflict: Sometimes what is causing problems for your character is within: their own thoughts, feelings, and biases that trip them up. So, look to see which of the character’s fears, flaws, self-doubts, and misbeliefs are creating turmoil. These will affect their emotional state and can lead to them misreading a situation or making a mistake (woot, more conflict!).
Primary Emotion: Your main character may feel many emotions in a scene, but one will be at the top of the pile. Making note of this primary feeling during the planning stage will help remind you of it when you write the scene later. (And, if you are using our scene map tool, the emotion you choose is hyperlinked to its entry within the Emotion Thesaurus!)
Emotional State: When you think about this primary emotional state, it can be helpful to make notes of what is causing the character to feel this way. This ensures that when you are writing the scene you’ll be sure to give the stimulus enough description so that the character’s emotional reaction is logical and understood by readers. You might also want to note any point-of-view thoughts, body language, actions, visceral sensations, or dialogue that will also show this primary emotion.
What is at Stake: Your character’s struggle to achieve a scene goal is only interesting if they have skin in the game. So, make sure to show what the fallout (stakes) will be if the character fails to achieve their scene goal. If something is always at stake, the scene is more intense, and readers are more invested.
Scene Notes: Finally, we encourage writers to add as many notes as they wish to each scene to plan which characters will be involved, the location of this scene, time of day, weather, and anything else, like symbolism they want to include or backstory hints to drop in.
Not every scene will have all of these elements, but most should. You can pick and choose which to include for each scene.
Psst! What about us Pantsers?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. If you prefer to pants more than plan, you’ll be happy to know you’re in the driver’s seat – plan as many or as few scenes as you like. If you only want to make notes on key scenes and then pants everything around them, you can.
Like the timeline tool, the scene map tiles can be dragged and dropped into a new position. So go ahead, play with the order if you are still deciding.
Whether you use our Scene Map tool or not, the above list can be very useful to keep in mind. I recommend using it to double check that your scenes are pushing the story forward. It will help you make sure everything is being clearly communicated to readers, including the goal, the stakes, and whatever is standing in your character’s way.
Thanks for letting me show off this helpful tool! I will cover the Informal Scene Map version at a later date.
If you want to find out more about the Scene Map Tool or any of our other tools and features, head to One Stop for Writers and give our 2-week free trial a try.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.