The beauty of plot structure

I’ve been reading Larry Brooks‘ ebook Story Engineering and I find it to be incredibly enlightening. Basically what Larry does is dissect stories down into a predictable formula that can be followed and duplicated. 

He breaks down a story line in to manageable bites consisting of plot points, pinch points, and mid points. This, he then layers on top of the main charter arc where in roughly the first half of the book the main character is an orphan/wanderer from which he becomes a warrior/martyr in the second half of the story. (Think of Harry Potter – the ultimate orphan).

The tech writer in me adores this structure. Tell me what to write where and I’ll get it to you. So when I saw this layout, I actually rejoiced. Formulas make so much sense, formulas I can live with.

But I wasn’t completely convinced that this represented “true” writing. I mean a good story comes from the heart and passion of a writer, doesn’t it? If someone is paying attention to a formula and not the story, is it really any good?

The answer is yes. Not only are these stories good but more importantly they are marketable. They give the readers what they want at exactly the point when they expect to get it.

Case in point, last weekend I read the YA book Cloaked by Alex Flinn. Before I read the first chapter, I predicted based on Larry’s formula where the first plot point was (the first plot point is the action or device that forever changes your main character). As I was reading the book, there were a few things that could have been plot points but none of them really seemed to change the main character.

Until I got to the point where the main character accepted a quest. Yup that was it. I looked down at the page number, it was right at the 25% mark.

And here’s the kicker, the very next sentence beginning the next chapter started with “Because it was real, it changed everything.” Couldn’t be more obvious could it?

I’m not going to give the story away but take it from me that every other major plot milestone fell exactly where it should have according to Larry’s design. Hmmm, maybe there is something to this thing called plot structure after all.

I’ve already talked to a few people who balk at this concept of following a plot structure, it’s too contrived they groan. And yet, I can see the beauty of this, how after you’ve figured out the plot structure it frees you to add the wonderful details of how you got from here to there.

What about you? Any of your use plot structure when planning a story or do you prefer to write your stories as they come?


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons. Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).

6 thoughts on “The beauty of plot structure

  1. Thanks, Wendy. This affirms my belief that there are really only a few plots in the world. What makes them interesting is the characters who navigate them. That’s my take.

    • Absolutely, you can hand this formula to a million different writers and you’d get a million different stories all based on the characters that live inside us.


  2. I can’t wrap my mind around a writing via formula. Being organized, methodical is necessary to keep chaotic writing to a minimum, but creativity begins with a spark of spontaneity, giving birth to ideas which sometimes have been developing within our minds and often, our souls, in an unconscious manner. I don’t know a formulaic style of writing would enhance or inhibit as it would greatly depending on your style of working.

    • Laura,

      I don’t know. I think that stories can be highly creative and still follow a template of sorts. I see this formula as not constricting but instead as freeing you, the writer up. If you know that a plot point should be coming up, you can guide your characters to that place so they will be ready.

      Trust me, a while back I would have fought this approach (it’s not “real” writing) but for some reason these days, placing a sense of order underneath my story is really making sense.

      I still have tremendous respect for any and all successful writers who can just wing it and pump out a good story, perhaps its just that I’m at the point in my life where I am recognizing that my stories (like a petulant child) need a few more boundaries.


  3. Wendy,
    You already know I’m a fan of Larry’s work. I couldn’t agree more with you that his forumla provides the perfect roadmap for any writer to create any story. As Larry says, stories written according to a specific structure are no more identical than the billions of people who are built around the same “human being” structure – two eyes, two arms, two legs, etc – and yet manage to each be completely unique … even in the case of twins.

    I like to think of the structure as the story’s skeleton. It may be the same for all stories, but once the writer is done adding muscle, sinews, blood, veins, skin, hair, clothes, accessories … well – suddenly your story is its own creature. You can’t very well see that skeleton anymore, but you sure as hell know you need it if the person is going to stand up.

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