Story skeleton: a plot primer
How to plot AND feel your way through a novel
By David Griffin Brown
I’ll admit it; I’m a pretty rigid plotter. I like to develop a chapter-by-chapter plan and then more or less stick to it. Some writers take this a step further with a scene-by-scene outline. Off in the other direction are writers who outline meticulously, then throw it all away and feel their way from beginning to end with no promises kept for their master plan. Lastly, there are the true pantsers—those who don’t outline at all and write “by the seat of their pants”. However, it is a common tale that the pantser ends up mired in endless revisions with a story that is more neck than leg.
Pantsers, fear not—you can pour your uninhibited creativity into the outlining stage by free-writing summaries of your overall story as well as your character arcs, chapters, key scenes, etc. An outline is not a vow that stifles creativity and imposes formulaic plot points. At its core, outlining is a tool that helps you get closer to your story and characters.
I recommend that you at least try to approach novel writing with a plan, whether or not you adhere to it in the drafting stage. And if you’re going to plan, it’s a good idea to take the fundamentals of narrative structure—the story’s anatomy—into account.
Fundamentals: guidelines, not rules
Not all stories need to spotlight every conventional plot point and reversal. In fact, the components of narrative structure often turn up as very subtle elements of a story rather than five-alarm checkboxes. However, the fundamentals are just as important in deeply symbolic literary novels as they are in the familiar arcs and tropes of genre fiction. When experimental authors successfully subvert fundamentals, they do so within an understanding of how this will affect the story, and because the telling of that particular story demands it.
Starting small: narrative motivation
A story, in its simplest form, is the movement of a character toward a goal. Your character will meet obstacles. They will struggle. They will make choices and take risks in pursuit of their desire. The choices they make and the actions they take comprise the story’s critical action. This fundamental element of storytelling is the basis for both plot momentum and characterization. Done well, critical action is often subtle and understated.
It is by a character’s actions and interactions that we come to know them as a complex person in the midst of a compelling experience.
The basic skeleton: head, body, and legs
The three-act structure stated simply: beginning, middle, and end.
The five-act structure stated simply: beginning, a “3-quest” middle, and end.
Many early drafts and unplotted manuscripts end up with what is called a sagging middle. This is when the story seems to get lost and a bit dull partway through the second act. Quite often that can be addressed by re-visualizing the narrative in terms of three movements: the disruption, the struggle, and the resolution.
Once upon a time: the disruption
Someone comes into the protagonist’s life, or someone dies, or the protagonist gets fired, or they get sick. The act-one disruption can be subtle or momentous. Many authors prefer to start in media res, or in the thick of things, while others prefer to open with stasis. Either way, stasis is either demonstrated or implied.
Stasis describes the protagonist’s life prior to the disruption, or the time before a significant event. The significant event is the disruption of stasis.
Quite often the disruption is also the inciting incident, although sometimes these two elements are only contextually linked. The inciting incident is whatever triggers the protagonist’s pursuit of a goal.
Bilbo Baggins leads a comfortable life in the Shire until some dwarves show up and invite him on a dangerous quest for a dragon’s treasure.
The point of no return
This part of a story is sometimes called the first turning point or the choice. The protagonist has made a decision that cannot be taken back. For better or worse, they are now committed to the story.
Bilbo packs up and leaves the Shire behind.
Something blindsides the protagonist, taking them in a new direction. They must challenge their initial assumptions and re-evaluate their strategies.
The party is captured by goblins. Bilbo gets lost and finds a magic ring. He is now in a position to help his friends, rather than needing their help.
All is lost
Also known as the dark moment, this is the protagonist’s emotional low point. It seems their hopes are dashed. In many stories, this is when the protagonist’s motivation (overarching desire) collides with their underlying need, demanding a new path forward.
Note that the dark moment is reversed in a tragedy: this is when it seems all will be well, immediately prior to the final downfall.
The dragon Smaug attacks Laketown. Laketown blames the adventurers. The adventures now have an additional adversary.
The helping hand
Following the dark moment, the protagonist often turns to a new person or resource for aid. This assistance sometimes comes in the midst of the climax, or right before it.
Great Eagles swoop in to turn the tide of battle.
The protagonist engages in the final challenge, whatever antagonist or obstacle still stands in their way. The goal is either realized or forfeited, and the protagonist is in some way transformed as a result.
The Battle of the Five Armies commences.
The story has just reached a narrative peak. Now it’s time to wind down—wrap up your subplots, close off relationship arcs, and bring the emotional tone to an appropriate close.
Dwarven grudges are settled. Laketown is safe. Bilbo heads home a richer, wiser, and braver Hobbit.
Finding your skeleton
Storytelling is an odd mix of fundamental narrative elements and unbridled creativity. As Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” In this way, structure is an integral part of the art of storytelling. It is much more than a formula or cookie-cutter guide. Every story will have its own demands. It’s the author’s job to heed the story’s needs and bring that movement to life with a structure that balances themes, pacing, reader immersion, and internal logic.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.