Walking Through A Developing Story Structure

Walking Through A Developing Story Structure

It all begins in your head

by Jan Fields

August 27, 2020
It all begins in your head
Those of us who tend to plan our stories extensively before we write don't pull that plan from our heads in a complete, coherent form. Just as with the more organic writer, we begin with what we know will happen and then create. Often I do not know a lot at the beginning. Still, it's fairly rare that a story will come out particularly well if I have zero idea what will happen. Even writers who focus more on characters than on action or plot generally preplan something that's going to happen. The real difference is that I build structure in my head as I tell myself the story before writing it, and this, in turn, helps me create a plan for the story.

Baby Steps
For example, I recently decided I wanted to write a scary story with a young main character, someone under ten. I began by thinking of things that creeped me out as a child. One thing that is always frightening is to be in what you consider a safe, familiar space and discover something that flatly does not belong there and couldn’t possibly have gotten there (as far as you know). The more the thing doesn't belong and the more you cannot explain how it got there, the more frightening the thing will become, even if the object itself seems innocuous. I wanted to do that kind of story. I didn't want to take my character to a wildly unfamiliar location. Instead, I wanted to make a safe place scary. So I needed the character to discover something that did not belong. And I wanted it to be something that isn't scary when found in a setting where it does belong. So the object couldn't be inherently frightening, only frightening in context. I also decided to choose something that is often used in very positive, adventurous ways in other stories.

Thus I decided my character would discover a door that only exists on the wall in certain circumstances. Magical doors are often portals to all kinds of fun, so I needed to hint at this being different right away. Thus, the circumstances in which this door appears is not fun. The door only appears in darkness. You therefore won't see this door well. In fact, you may see it so poorly that others may try to convince you that it's your imagination. But it's not. So now I have my first elements of structure. It will have a young protagonist. It will take place in the child's home. It will involve a door that appears when the lights are out. And no one will believe in this door. Beyond that, I didn't know much. So I keep asking myself questions and telling myself a story.

Building One Thing On Another

Since I intended to have a door appear, I needed to decide where it would appear. It couldn't be the child's room, because bedrooms are often dark. Plus, it would make it very easy for the child to show his mom the door and then he wouldn't be alone in dealing with it. At bedtime, he'd simply turn out the light as his mom was telling him goodnight and then point at the door. So it needed to be in a room that might normally be lit even after he goes to bed. It could be the living room, but maybe you sometimes turn out that light to watch movies and the door would pop up. So where?

I decided on the kitchen. In an apartment, it's not unusual for the kitchen to be fairly well lit all the time. If it's an open floorplan (or even semi-open) the kitchen may be lit by light coming from other rooms pretty much all the time unless everyone is in bed. I know in my small house, the kitchen is only dark if the entire front of the house is dark. As a young child, my daughter could possibly have never seen the kitchen dark. So this was a perfect room for the door. Thus, a second part of my story structure clicked into place.

Picking Up Speed

And as soon as I knew who my main character was and what scary thing he would discover, and where he would discover it, I was off to the races on the story. Other questions opened up before me. Would he open the door and find something awful on the other side? I considered and dismissed many possibilities here. He could open it to discover a mirror house. One exactly like his own but not. A Coraline kind of house. But then, Coraline had done that and done it really well. So I discarded the idea. Maybe he just opens the door and a monster jumps out. I do like a good scary monster. But isn't that obvious as well? What if he never opens it? What if he's the kind of kid who reads the scary stories and suspects a closed door is safer than an open one. What if he's the kind of kid who knows an open door might be a kind of invitation, and he's not intending to invite anything in? That felt right and another plank of my story structure was laid. He is not opening that door.

So what does he do? What would I have done? I decided this was a kid who thinks things through. He looks before he leaps. I could relate to that kid, but I knew there is an element of caution that feels (to a kid) like cowardice. So a cautious kid often wants to be a brave kid who saves the day. I decided I wanted that in my kid. With each decision, the structure of my story begins to form. The kid doesn't just want to go hide from the door, even though part of him is screaming to do just that. He wants to know more about it so he's better able to save the day. Saving the day through science! So he decides to run some experiments. One involves a flashlight to see how much light is needed to make the door disappear. And the other involves touching the door, but even though the kid decides on this second experiment, he wants to do it safely. So he covers his bare skin with an oven mitt. And this choice actually helped me decide exactly what this door was and what it was up to. And that meant I knew part of the end of the story. Building to an end you know is always structurally easier than just building and hoping you end up someplace that works.

The Opening Scene

Once I've finished telling myself the story in my head, and nailed down the major points, I'll also know the major action steps that need to happen. After that, I have to decide on the exact moment to begin the story. I could begin on the day they moved into this new place. I could begin with the moment the main character discovered the door. Because I was writing a short story, I began in the hallway as the main character was creeping down the hall with a flashlight in his hand, ready to run an experiment on this door. It allowed me skip a bunch of backstory that would overload the word count, and put me right into a fairly scary setting––creeping through the dark. My decision on openings is often made by balancing the two needs of an opening: grabbing reader interest, and best utilizing word count.

Time to Write
At this point, I've begun the writing and I know where I'm going. That doesn't mean I'm rigidly contained. Sure, I've told myself this story in my head, but sometimes as I begin fleshing out the barebones telling I did ahead, I find the character in action and the circumstances begin to nudge the story in a new direction. My view on that is try it. Even though I love preplanning, I'm never going to ignore my gut when it's trying to push me in a different direction. Structure isn't story, it's simply framework and when the framework conflicts with the strong storytelling needs, the framework will bend or even break and be rebuilt. Story is still the ruling force.

The thing about coming up with a structure before you write is often about confidence and speed. Writing can be a painfully slow process filled with second guessing and moments when you question your ability. Having a story structure in mind, helps you avoid being completely halted by all those doubts. Fear tends to stifle creativity, so when you're writing and you start second guessing and fretting, you will often collapse, unsure where the story is supposed to go. Many stories go unfinished as a result. But when you have this story structure in mind, you can push through some of the panic knowing that you do have somewhere this is all going. You can remind yourself that once you work the plan, you'll just clean up any messes along the way. This can be a terrific work-around for the stifling effects of panic and avoid the writing slow-downs that such panic can cause.

Keep in mind that the planning doesn't take the story out of your control. It's still yours and you can still follow fresh ideas and fresh inspiration. If the new ideas take you somewhere wonderful, great. If they eventually bog down and collapse, you can always go back to the moment when you were "on plan" and try moving from there again. There's something very comforting in that safety net. So don't be afraid of structure and planning. It's not about slipping into a straight-jacket. It's really more about slipping your fears and self-doubts into one. And the story will be better off for it.

Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.

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Jan Fields
September 2, 2020

Awe, Carol, that's so kind. You'll find all the instructors at the Institute are pretty amazing. One of the cool things about writing these posts is that it makes me constantly look at how we do what we do from new angles, which teaches me as much as it teaches anyone else. I've always said that if you want to learn something really, really well, you need to try explaining it to someone else. Each time you do, you'll learn more.

Carol Brodtrick
August 30, 2020

I want Jan for my instructor, editor, guru at large. Everytime she puts words on a page I learn something.

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