how to put heart & soul into your story structure




There are few things more intellectually beautiful, to me, than a well-crafted story structure. To quote Hannibal from the 80’s show THE A-TEAM – not exactly a literary figure, I know, but bear with me – “I love it when a plan comes together.”

When you can’t put the book down. When different storythreads weave through each other then come together in the end in a way that seems inevitable yet you also didn’t see coming. When the conclusion rounds off the story even as it opens up the story so that everything is illuminated. When you put the book aside with a pang of regret, maybe, but also a sense of…fullness.

When – as a writing instructor once put it – “everything hangs together.”

Fiction takes the crazed random tumble of life and shapes it – some of it – with order and meaning.

Structure is form. Structure holds everything together: it’s like the vase you pour the story into. But the danger of form is turning it into formula: the difference between handcrafting something exquisite and churning out factory-made items.

I believe in the hero’s journey, three-act structures, plot points and midpoints and all of that (and the blog Storyfix by Larry Brooks is an awesome place to learn about these things).

But it’s possible to follow these principles and produce a well-crafted, well-written story that nonetheless fails to excite and engage the reader. It also might be difficult to explain why (especially when the agent or editor rejects it with a bland, “I just didn’t fall in love with it”). You could say the story lacks soul or originality, which I’ve posted about before (see this piece about writing soulful fiction).

But I think what explanations of story structure often fail to get at is the story beneath the story, which is also its emotional heart. And its guts and brains and soul. This is where the story works out its overall meaning, and it’s the difference between something that feels slick and shallow and familiar, and something that gets under your skin and lives there for a very long time.

Kate Wright calls this the story spine. She puts it forth as this: one set of ideas wrestling with an opposing set of ideas as made manifest through the characters. The story spine, in short, is a continuing conflict of ideas, growing and deepening until there is some kind of resolution.

Some kind of synthesis.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about abstract ideas pretending to be characters but real flesh-and-blood people who populate your novel and fight with one another and fall in love with one another and go on quests and have sex and regress and make wrong choices and also the right choices and confront their inner demons and so on and so forth. It’s difficult to get people emotionally involved with an abstraction. Whatever ideas are battling it out in your novel, you need to anchor them in your captivating and complicated characters. You take a wandering generality and turn it into a meaningful specific. It’s not just about true love; it’s about Romeo and Juliet. You get the idea.

But your protagonist – and everything that supports her — represents your main idea, your thesis.

Your antagonist – and everything that supports her — represents your opposing idea, your antithesis.

Your story – your plot points and act breaks – describe how these forces clash and impact each other until eventually they knit together into something new. Your synthesis. Your ultimate conclusion. Which is also the ultimate meaning of the novel. The story underneath the story – the story spine — is the dialogue these different ideas keep having with each other.

If you’re blocked – or if you’ve outlined your story structure and technically know what happens next but feel flat and uninspired – take a fresh look at your characters, then look through your characters to the ideas they represent. What are those ideas? How can those ideas come into conflict with each other, whether it’s a dialogue between a boyfriend and girlfriend in a coffee shop or a death-defying chase along the edge of [insert name of impressively tall famous building here]?

Make your characters stand for something, and your story will stand on its own.

image by Anna Karwowska

Nov 29, 2010

10 comments · Add Yours

Another great post, Justine … and one that is particularly relevant to me as I’m in the outlining/planning/musing stage.

What I’ve found so far (Note: unless I count the 50,146-word, piece-of-crap, NaNo09 “novel” (and I use the term ever so loosely), I’ve never attempted to write anything close to an actual book) is that every element of my story is simply a metaphor for an idea that I want to express. Characters, settings, conflicts … each of these pieces of my tale are physical, concrete stand-ins for the ideas I want to share. Instead of writing a sermon, a diatribe, or a manifesto, I am creating a story that will “show not tell” and make my point in a much more memorable and relatable (and therefore more powerful) way.

And isn’t that the point of any story … to take a little part of what it means to be alive and give the reader a way to grasp that bit of How Things Are in a way that can be applied to our daily lives? I am learning so much with this process, and feel like I’ve won the lottery each time a piece of the puzzle falls into place.


I was trying to rush my nearest-dearest fictional seed into NaNoWriMo but I had to give up because I was short-changing the characters just to say I had finished it. I had the ideas in place, but I wasn’t working hard enough to turn those ideas into real characters and my finished product was going to be a sermon on my pet issues. With werewolves.


Hmm… there are 2 stories that are captivating me lately. Scott Pilgrim and the Temeraire series, for all the reasons you mentioned.


Jamie & Chase — don’t underestimate the power of a shitty first draft! That’s what first drafts are supposed to be! You can *always* go back and revise, rework, tease out the deeper meaning, whatever. But you can’t work with something that doesn’t even exist yet. Nanowrimo takes some flak for producing so much bad fiction and inflicting it on hapless agents, but that’s not Nanowrimo’s fault. The most common mistake beginning (& more experienced) writers make is submitting their work way too soon. Which doesn’t mean that the work itself doesn’t have a lot of value, you just need to understand what it is and where it fits in the process.

Having said that — Chase, I can relate — I don’t like racing to finish a draft, I like (and know myself well enough now to make sure to do this) to schedule in the dreamtime, the mulling-over time, to let the story simmer, the flavors deepen. (Note to self: watching The Millionaire Matchmaker DOES NOT QUALIFY AS THIS.)


Also — Jamie — I’m glad you mentioned that, because I’m at a similar place in my own novel-in-progress (planning & musing out the next section) and this is what I found helpful to think about. My general blogging philosophy is that if it’s interesting or useful to me, then hopefully it’s of interest to others. (Which means, I suppose, that in many ways I am my own ideal reader. So if you are also my ideal readers, then I am you and you are me. Which gets confusing.)

Not to mention — you’re the Jamie who just friended me on Facebook? I was glad to see you & kind of surprised that we weren’t facebook friends already. :)


Adam — Scott Pilgrim, that was the graphic novel that inspired the movie that just came out about the guy and all the ex-boyfriends? Or am I thinking of something else? (I heard it was good.)


@Justine, yes! It was a series of 6 graphic novels–done in a sort of “manga” style (Japanese, black and white comic), though the creator is Canadian (Brian Lee O’Malley). They sort of condensed the story to fit into one movie. Very hilarious and fun–it motivated me to buy the books–but the original comic series is so much better. It blew my mind.


Thanks, Justine – this is a great perspective, and one I will now be taking with me into my current round of revisions as my story moves towards its climax. A story, btw, that started out as a “shitty” NaNoWriMo draft and has taken me four years to get under the skin of – but with gratifying (i.e. saleable) results :)


@Adam — I heard that the movie was really good (but bombed at the box office because the powers-that-be didn’t really know what it was — which means they also wouldn’t know who the audience was likely to be — or how to promote it.

There isn’t enough manga in my life! Especially created by Canadians! I will check them out.


Boy this post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m on the third attempt to get my new WIP on its feet. Each time I was close, I had the form, but I couldn’t put my finger on the heart and soul of it. The writing was good but not alive. Thanks for expressing the situation so eloquently!


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