What Is A Structural Toolbox?
Put simply, a structural toolbox is the foundation work all writers need to put in to ensure they …
- understand how structure works
- can apply structural techniques to their writing
Think of it as a collection of tools you have to hand in order to identify and fix your stories. This is why I like to call it a structural toolbox!
An important thing to remember on structure is that one size will definitely NOT fit all. Different stories will call for different solutions … Just like different DIY jobs around the home will require different tools.
Why Writers Don’t Like Studying Structure
If this seems pretty obvious stuff, that’s because it is. However, lots of writers will resist developing their structural toolbox.
Their reasons for this may vary, but here’s the most common reasons I’ve bumped up against when working with writers …
- ‘My stories arrive in my head ‘fully formed”. Let’s be clear: NO ONE’s stories stay the same from the moment of conception through to completion. Not even veteran uber-writers like Stephen King’s.
- ‘Structure is ‘just’ a formula anyway.’ Actually, it’s a framework: ‘beginning-middle-end’. All stories need these three things, whether they’re linear or non-linear. It’s a framework we’re all familiar with since childhood. But we’re arguing semantics and this objection is, at its roots, redundant.
- ‘This is just overthinking / writing guru BS.’ It’s definitely true that writers can go down the rabbithole too much on any element related to the craft of writing. It’s also true there’s a whole industry dedicated to encouraging them to do this. That said, there’s always a middle ground. Understanding the many different ways structure can work, such as all the different plotting archetypes, can actually ENHANCE our writing.
- ‘The structure will change in the development process anyway.’ These writers are correct, it probably will. That said, if we don’t know where we are starting and why, then we are very likely to get lost in ‘development hell’. It’s like starting out for a particular destination with no map … you wouldn’t, would you?
- ‘This is what I’m paying script editors like YOU for!’ Some writers may say it’s ‘impossible’ to diagnose structural issues by themselves, so they need script editors like Bang2write to tell them where they’re going wrong. But here’s the kicker: even if I tell them how to fix their structure problems, they still can’t … Because if they don’t truly understand how structure works, then they’re flying blind.
I get it. Developing a structural toolbox is a LOT of work. But when writers are urged to ‘work on their craft’, this is what is meant. What’s more, no writer ever regretted knowing more about structure!
How To Develop Your Own Structural Toolbox
i) Read widely and make notes
Find out about all the different ways of looking at structure and plotting … there’s lots of them! Whether you’re writing novels or screenplays, you will discover there’s multiple ways of describing how that framework goes together.
Here are some books that B2W recommends most often:
- Poetics by Aristotle
- Writing Fiction: A User-Friendly Guide by James Essinger
- Into The Woods by John Yorke
- Constructing A Story by Yves Lavandier
- Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
- The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Make plenty of notes, however you seem fit. You will notice in the course of these notes that you find some of the structural approaches very illuminating. Others will confirm what you already think.
There will also be approaches you feel are unnecessarily complicated, or you even vehemently disagree with. This is good!
ii) Decide how YOU see structure working
You will notice the books above focus on primarily screenwriting. This is because ‘screenwriting is structure’ (ie. it is plot-led). With this in mind then (and having read a LOT of writing craft books!), I believe screenwriting books to be the most useful sources of information on structure.
I also believe screenwriting and novel writing to be the same at foundation level in terms of actual storytelling … concept, structure, character. I call these the ‘B2W Holy Trinity’.
This means I approach writing my novels in exactly the same way as I write screenplays, or work with screenwriters on their scripts. I didn’t do this by accident. I worked on my craft, identified how I personally saw structure working and developed my structural toolbox accordingly.
iii) Understand the link
Lots of writers argue about whether character or structure is ‘more’ important. This is a pointless debate, because character and structure are a symbiotic relationship.
We don’t read or watch stories ‘about characters’ … We want to read or watch stories ‘about characters who DO something, for SOME REASON.’
By understanding how character and structure are linked, we can ensure every beat in our story reveals character and advances the plot.
iv) Use visuals, outlines, post-its, beat sheets & worksheets
Reading books about structure are a great start, but can be a bit dry. What’s more, theorising on the craft of writing does not always suit everyone. So here’s a few more ideas to add to your structural toolbox …
- Use visual representations to learn about structure. There’s countless diagrams, pictograms and drawings online to illustrate how structure and plotting works. For a collection of them to start you off, CLICK HERE.
- Always outline first. Whether we like outlining or not, facts are facts: outlining means you avoid structural problems. This is why the industry (particularly in TV) will insist on writers outlining first, but even novelists benefit from it. MORE HERE.
- Using Post-It Notes, index cards, whiteboards, beat Sheets. Writing out the ‘beats’ (aka important events/ moments) of your plot really helps you see whether your story is in the ‘right’ order. TV writers’ rooms often use post-it notes on the wall, index cards or white boards to do this. Physically moving these beats around can really aid your plotting, especially if you prefer to work in a more instinctive way. Alternatively, writing a beat sheet or set of bullet points may help.
- Use worksheets. ‘Drawing the story’ can really help, too. There’s lots of FREE worksheets online to do this. I created one for Bang2writers which you can grab too, HERE.
(Another story structure option: One Stop for Writers’ Story Map.)
v) Keep Learning!
The more you read and learn about structure, the more you realise everyone is more or less saying the same thing … just in different ways. By appreciating this, we can develop our own vocabulary to describe how OUR writing works. We can also continuously add to our toolbox in terms of solutions for common structural issues.
This has the added bonus of helping us to protect our work when it’s in development with publishers, producers and others. After all, if we understand exactly WHY a structural rewrite will undermine our protagonist’s worldview and mission, we can avoid this and offer another solution instead. We then don’t end up in what B2W calls ‘The Story Swamp’ or the film industry calls ‘Development Hell’.
Lucy V. Hay
Resident Writing Coach
Lucy is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers at her site, Bang2write.com. To get free stuff for your novel or screenplay, CLICK HERE.
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Tyrean A Martinson says
Yes, we always need to keep learning! Thanks for these tips on structure!
BECCA PUGLISI says
What I love about structure planning is that there are so many options. No matter what kind of author you are and how you plan (or don’t), there are structure tools that can work for you. It’s just a matter of finding the right one(s).
Lucy V says
Absolutely, there’s something for everyone. Structure does NOT have to be a ‘ball and chain’
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Story structure is something I struggled with the longest time. I used to pants a lot and didn’t have the foundational knowledge about story structure that I needed. Once I really started studying it and using it, (moving to the planning side of things), wow, such a difference! I’m glad I challenged myself to figure it out, even though I resisted for the longest time because I felt like I’d never grasp it.
Thanks for the great post and all these resources to follow up on. 😁
Lucy V says
You’re welcome! Glad to help. I love structure, find it absolutely fascinating
Vivienne Sang says
I think I’m at the stage you were, Angela–resisting planning. On paper, at least. I know exactly where things are going, in my head, but something tells me to resist writing it down. I’m unsure exactly why.
Thank you for this post, though. I’ll look into some of the things you suggest and plan my next work on papwe
I outlined the first books I wrote but didn’t use a formal structure. It shows. Then I learned about The Plot Dot and decided to use it for the next book I wrote. What a difference! It was so much easier to stick to the story and keep the scenes moving smoothly forward. It also helps me write faster.
Lucy V says
Yes! The more we think about stuff like Beginnings and Endings or Set Up and Pay Off, the more it becomes second nature and the quicker we get at writing. Total win-win.
Dave Parks says
What is structure, please?
In on sentence near the top.
You seem to assume I know, but I don’t.
Lucy V says
Structure is that framework I reference, but sure – breaking it down even further, it’s:
“Beginning – middle – end (and not necessarily in that order).”
But not everyone agrees with my definition, above. The more you develop your structural toolbox, the more information you will have about structure … Which in turn will help you decide how YOU see it working, which in turn will help inform your writing.