Is Story Structure Your Enemy?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Structuring before writing or anywhere in the beginning of the process hobbles the Muse and creativity stops and progress bogs down.  This can make it appear as if story structure is your enemy.

But, if you apply structure at the right point in the process, story structure can be your greatest ally.

To turn structure from foe to friend, follow these four steps:

First Step

Create your story world: What are all the elements you would like in your story?  Don’t force creativity – just make a list of all things you want in your story – the people, events, messages, and moods you’d like to explore.

If you have specific ideas for a battle, a line of dialog, a clever plot twist – anything that you want in your story – jot it down.  Then, develop those ideas into the world in which your characters live an in which your plot will take place.

For some tips on how to develop your story world, click here.

Once you feel you have the basic outline of your story in focus, write a synopsis of your story.  A synopsis talks about what’s in your story – not so much the order of events.  It is intended as a conversational description of what your story is about, as if someone asked you, “I hear you are writing a novel (or screenplay).  What’s it about?”

If you answered that question, you wouldn’t answer by telling them the order in which things occur.  You would tell them about all the major concepts, interesting moments, and principal characters.  You would describe your story world so they get an idea of what the finished story will be like.  That, is your synopsis.

Second Step

Create a pathway through those elements – your story’s spine or timeline, including quest, characters and plot.

Your story’s timeline (often though of as your plot-line, though it also includes your character arcs and the development of your story’s message) is like a journey through the story world you created in the first step.

Imagine that your story world is a map of the terrain you wish to cover in your story.  Then the timeline is a journey across that terrain – the sequential order in which you visit each of the interesting concepts you’ve developed.

It can be difficult to turn a list of ideas into a pathway, however, but if you run into trouble, click here for a method of generating your timeline from your story world.

One you have your timeline, imagine that the person who asked what your story was about in the first step responded with, “Cool!  I like it!  How does it unfold?

Your answer would be a conversational recounting of the key events or happenings in your story in sequential order – not too much detail, just the essentials.  If you write that down, it becomes what is called a story treatment.

Essentially, a treatment is a description of how your story will unwind, minus any dialog unless it is absolutely essential to understanding a particular event.

Third Step

Once you have your treatment, add in structural story points. I’m not talking about building your story’s complete narrative structure – not yet.  For this step, you just want to make sure all the critical structure story points are all in there, such as Goal, Requirements, thematic conflict, a main character, and whether that main character ends up changing their nature (like Scrooge) or holding on to their point of view (like James Bond).

You see, structure is composed of two parts – the essential story points and the dramatics that hold them together.  Every story has the same points, but it is the way they are connected to one another that creates your story’s unique narrative structure.

We’ll worry bout those connections in the next step.  Here, just make sure all the most important story points are in your story, and if not, put them in so they fit with what you’ve already developed.

For a list of the twelve most important story points you really need, click here.

Fourth Step

Create a narrative structure for your story.  To do this, you will want to look at all your story points and then determine how they hang together.  This can be done by intuition and experience, but it is always a little “iffy” if you rely on that alone.

That’s why we created a software program that can do it much more precisely.  You can use it for free to work out the narrative structure in  your story.  But, the software is not the point.  The point is to create a template for your story that would show you what a perfect structure would look like.

Now, nobody reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a great structure.  Rather, we are drawn to stories to have our passions ignited.  Still, there are some essential structural components that can scuttle the best-told and most exciting story every conceived.

So how can you reconcile structure with your Muse?  Simple.  Don’t try to make your story’s structure perfect, just better.  Use your structural template as a guide – like a blueprint.

Writing is a strange endeavor, as it is best done when you build the house first, and then determine the perfect blue print for it later.  Then, you lay that template over your story and see where you can bring your story into better alignment with it, without destroying all the design concepts and decorations you already have in place.

In the real world of story development, perfect structure is a myth.  Trying to make a story structure perfect will drain the life out of it. And trying to create a structure first and then write from it will create a “paint by numbers” picture.

But if you use structure only at the end (after completing your first draft is ideal), then you can hone your story as closely as possible to the most solid structure, without undermining your passionate expression.

Now I said you could use our story structuring software free, and here’s how.  We created a product called Dramatica, based on our concepts of narrative structure.  It contains a Story Engine that uses those concepts to help you build a structure that best represents your story.  The demo version is fully functional, including the Story Engine!  So, you can use it to structure your story and you don’t have to spend a dollar.

You can download the demo version for Windows or for Mac here.

You’ll find the demo has complete instructions and even a path for beginners called the StoryGuide that will walk you through the story structuring process step by step.

What it won’t tell you is how to apply that structure to your story without crushing the creativity.

For that, just keep in mind – the structure that Dramatic generates should be treated as a collection of guidelines, not a list of rules.  Use each story point in the structure to gain insight into your story, and then apply it if you can and as best you can to strengthen your structure.

And, of course, your friendly neighborhood story coach is always available, as described below.  Plus, you may also with to try my other software, StoryWeaver, to help you with the creative part of the process as well.

Contact me about narrative analysis for fiction and the real world


Try my StoryWeaver Software for Step By Step Story Development

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Structure Hobbles the Muse

By Melanie Anne Phillips

The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities.

As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at all until a first draft is completely written.

Structure gets in the way, it hobbles the muse.  We all think in narrative anyway, so whatever we create already has a fuzzy structure in it.  The Muse is okay with this.  So let her be; let her range free and roam wild.  And when she is done, spent, and filled with satisfaction, then you bring in structure as a framework upon which to hang what she has created so that it is displayed in the best light.

Now is the time to break free of bonds.  Structure will follow in its own moment in time.

Contact me about narrative analysis for fiction and the real world


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Forget Your Protagonist – Who’s You’re Main Character?

By Melanie Anne Phillips

For just about any story you read, you get a sense of who it revolves around – who is it really about? Who is the character whose shoes we stand in, through whose eyes and heart do we see and feel the story at the most passionate personal level?

In Gone with the Wind, for example, the two most prominent characters are Rhett and Scarlet. We like Rhett, but it is clearly Scarlet’s story – the whole thing revolves around her, what she thinks, what he feels, the plans she makes, her attitudes, and so on. Rhett, as charismatic as he is, does a lot of things, but he even disappears for quite a while at one point in the picture, but that’s okay because Scarlet is the core of the story. So, she’s the Main Character.

In both the book and movie of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus (the Gregory Peck part) is the protagonist. The Story Goal is to try and save the black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the 1930s south. By definition, the Protagonist is the one pushing forward the effort to achieve the goal. So, that is clearly Atticus. And his opponent, the Antagonist, is the father of the offended girl who wants the man lynched. That’s the plot and Protagonist and Antagonist fight for it. But, neither of them is the Main Character, and we can tell this because we don’t stand in either of their shoes – we don’t see the story though either of their sets of eyes. Rather the Main Character is Atticus’ young daughter Scout. She is also the narrator of both the book and movie, but that is not what makes her the Main Character. Rather, it is that we see the story through her eyes – a child’s view of prejudice.

And there is one more character – the one I want you to focus on creating next for your story – the Influence Character! In TKAM, it is Boo Radley – the Boogeyman who lives next door. While the logistic argument of the story is between Atticus and Bob Ewell over the trial and the fate of the defendant, the passionate or philosophic argument is all about Scout’s prejudice against Boo without ever having seen him. And in fact, he turns out to be the one who has been protecting her from Bob Ewell all along. In other words, any time we make judgements about someone without knowing them, that’s what prejudice is all about. That’s the message of the story. And that’s why Atticus is NOT the Main Character. If he was, we’d stand in his shoes, be all righteous defending a black man, and nothing would be learned. But by standing in Scout’s innocent shoes and still finding ourselves to be prejudiced (because we buy into her fear of Boo) the message is made.

Try my StoryWeaver Software for Step By Step Story Development


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The Zen of Narrative

By Melanie Anne Phillips

Think of Dramatica as the Zen of narrative. Every new aspect of it that you learn provides a new angle on the issues you face and opens up new avenues of exploration through which to seek a resolution to your inequities. So, each new step is going to be a zen-like lesson the illuminate another side of how personal narratives can be controlled and altered.

To begin, consider that stories (in general) are about a single narrative growing from a single inequity. They are closed systems in which only those elements that pertain to that exploration of that particular issue are included. But this differs from real life. In our own lives, we weave scores of narratives and participate as minor characters in many others created not by ourselves.

For example, we may have a narrative about our career, a narrative about our self image, a narrative as a member of our family, a narrative in our department at work and another regarding the entire company at the corporate level. We may participate in a narrative in our church, in a club, with our in-laws or in a class we are taking. In fact, whenever we gather in a group, a narrative will form and we will play a role in it.

And so, when dealing with our issues in the real world, there is not one single silver bullet that will solve everything. Rather, we need to identify each of the principal narratives in which we have dissonance so we can then analyze each one to better understand the dynamics at play, and through them discover the kinds of pressure we must bring to bear to eventually resolve the underlying inequity.

The best way to identify these different narratives in our lives is to see them in terms of our independent areas of relationship. For example, the relationship we have with our boss is not directly connected to the relationship we have with our spouse, though each can affect the other in indirect ways. For example, our spouse may egg us on to ask for a raise we don’t feel comfortable in seeking. But the spouse and boss never are never directly involved with each other, just through us as the hinge, lynch pin, or intermediary.

In the end, we are each the main character in the narratives of our life.

Contact me about narrative analysis for fiction and the real world

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We Think in Narratives

By Melanie Anne Phillips

We think in narratives. Narrative is not an artificial construct imposed on fiction nor on the real world, but it is a description of the ways of the mind beneath the level of subject matter. In a sense, narrative describes the operating system of the mind before a program is loaded.

As an example, consider that we all have certain fundamental human qualities such as a sense of Reason, Conscience, and Skepticism to name a few. When faced with problems or inequities in our own lives, we bring all of these qualities to bear in order to seek a solution to the problem and/or see balance to an inequity.

When we come together in groups around a issue of common interest or a common purpose, we quickly self-organize into specialties so that one of use becomes the Voice of Reason for the group, while another becomes the Conscience of the group and yet another emerges at the Resident Skeptic, for example.

This occurs because the group purpose is best served when one person spends all his or her time delving deep into the issue from the viewpoint of Reason while another focuses solely on examining the issue with Skepticism. Then, we come together to report our findings. In this way, the group sees far deeper into the issue that if we all worked as we do on our own problems, as General Practitioners, each trying to do all the same jobs everyone else is doing.

So something wonderful happened when storytellers sought to understand what goes on in our own hearts and minds and what goes on with our collective interactions. Over hundreds of generations, storytellers were able to document the patterns of group thought and individual thought and embed them in the conventions of story structure.

Narrative then, is not a linear path of logic as in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” but it is fractal in nature. The group mind is identical in components and operation to that of the individual mind, just one fractal dimension larger than that of the individual.

This is why story structure was not previously decipherable – you can’t explain a nonlinear system with a linear paradigm.

The archetypes in stories are derived from these roles we adopt in the group mind which in turn represent our own internal qualities. And so, the group mind provides a visible working model of the mind, just as in my youth the Visible Man model showed our internal organs beneath a transparent plastic “Skin.”

Archetypes, then, represent our fundamental qualities and the group mind is an external fractal projection of the operating system of our own internal minds. The group mind (we call it the Story Mind, hence the name of my web site) is not Jung’s collective unconscious, though it is similar in that it the systemic functioning of our minds that we all shared in identically as human beings. And archetypes are not mythological, as in Campbell, but are personifications of our internal attributes as expressed through the avatar roles we adopt when we organize as specialists within a group.

Suffice it to say that through narrative, we are able to look into the structure and dynamics of the group mind and see those within ourselves. And, as a result, narrative holds the key to understanding why we think and feel as we do, and provides the methods and techniques that can solve both our external problems and internal inequities.

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Write a Log Line for Your Story

A log line is just a one sentence description of the core of what your story is about.

You probably have a lot of ideas developed and even a potential structure.

That’s great, but it also can become a bit amorphous – all dealing with the same subject matter but perhaps not fully centered on a single concept.

Writing a log line is like dropping a string in a bowl of sugar water – by morning, there will be sugar crystals on the string. A log line performs the same function for your story concepts: It pulls them out of the subject matter and crystalizes them into characters, plot, theme and genre – the foundational elements of structure. I call it a “narrative attractor.”

So, to help your subject matter congeal around a central core, describe what your story is about in just one sentence!

Learn how to use log lines in my StoryWeaver software that guides you step by step through the entire story development process – from concept to completion.

It’s just $29.95 and you can try it risk free at

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Narrative for Movies and Television – Part 1 of 3

As promised to the attendees, here is the first of three parts of the outline for the seminar I presented to the Director’s Guild of Canada last Sunday in Vancouver.  Parts 2 and 3 will be posted tomorrow and the next day.

It was a spectacular session with a packed house of really eager creative industry people, looking for ways to break through creative block, inject life into their stories, and find and fix elusive narrative problems.

Judging by the response, they found what they were looking for.

Thanks again to the DGC for their invitation, to Roy Hayter who initiated the concept and sheparded it through, and to Barbara Anne Schoemaker (BA) who anticipated and handled every detail to not only make the seminar a huge success, but to make my experience both incredible and indelibly memorable.  Good people, one and all!

So, here’s part one of the seminar outline for reference, which of course does not contain any of the graphics, animations, numerous video clips or commentary.

Narrative for Movies & Television Seminar

Fix it in the Script – NOT in Post!

Part 1 of 3 – Fixing Character Problems in Existing Scripts


Narrative for Movies & Television

            Fix it in the script – NOT in post



            Seminar Overview

                        Morning Session

                                    Identify common serious narrative flaws

                                    Techniques to repair flawed narratives

                        Afternoon Session

                                    Story Development Techniques

                                    Application of Structure to the Creative Process

What is Narrative?

            Origin of Narrative

            Generations of Storytellers

            Trial And Error

            Conventions of Storytelling

            Patterns of Dramatics

            The Concept of Narrative

Models of Narrative

            Aristotle and the 3 Act structure

            Jung and the collective unconscious

            Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

            Each had exceptions; Each was a formula

            Each showed only a glimpse of the elusive structure

A New Model of Narrative

            Structure is Non-Linear

            The Story Mind


            “You and I are both alike”

What’s Happening!!!

            Narrative is happening

            These are the kinds of dramatic elements that make up narrative.

            If a narrative doesn’t have all the important elements, it will fail

            Let’s learn how to recognize and repair flawed narrative elements…

Narrative Problems with Characters

            The most common narrative missteps regarding characters, and how to fix them.

The Main Characterv& Influence Character

            The passionate core of your story’s message

Main & Influence Characters

            So who ARE these guys?

            Main Character represents a paradigm of belief.

            Influence Character represents an opposing view.

            Between them is your story’s passionate argument.

            The result of this argument is your story’s message.

To Kill A Mockingbird

            4 Principal Characters

                        Main Character

                                    First Person Experience for Audience

                        Influence Character

                                    An alternative life view


                                    Prime mover of the effort to achieve the goal


                                    Diametrically opposed to Protagonist achieving the goal

Head Line & Heart Line

Heroes and Villains

            The Hero


                        Main Character

                        Central Character

                        Good Guy

            The Villain


                        Influence Character

                        Second Most Central Character

                        Bad Guy

            Hero and Villain Swap




                        Head line AND heart line between same characters

                        Power of storytelling masks gaps in arguments

                        Arguments are incomplete

                        Conclusions not supported

            The Dramatic Triangle

                        Can fully separate as in To Kill A Mockingbird

                        Can hinge on one character and split the lines

                        Most common variation (the love interest)

                        Other variations

The Heart Line

            Main Character Resolve

                        The Main Character doesn’t have to change to grow

                        He or she can grow in their resolve

            The influence character pressure the MC to change

                        Key establishing points to reference later.

            Change Characters

                        Establish a belief system

                        Establish illustrations of belief

                        Announce resolve

                        Verify resolve

            Steadfast Characters

                        Establish belief system

                        Establish illustrations of belief

                        Announce resolve

                        Verify resolve

            One Must Change

                        Main or Influence will convince the other to change

                        Change occurs at character climax

                        Success in logistic goal hinges on who changes

                        Message determined by results of change

            A Changing Influence Character

Character Arc

            Character Arc 101

                        The Steady Freddy

                        The Griever

                        The Weaver

                        The Waffler

                        The Exception Maker

                        The Backslider

                        How Change Happens

The Head Line


                        Origins of Archetypes

                        Each of us has the same complement of basic traits

                        We use them to solve our personal problems

                        When we join in a group, we quickly self-organize

                        As specialists, the group gains depth and focus

            The 8 Archetypes

















            External / Internal

















            Star Wars Archetypes


                                    Luke Skywalker


                                    The Empire


                                    Princess Leia




                                    Obi Wan Kenobi


                                    Darth Vader


                                    R2D2 & C3PO


                                    Han Solo

            Oz Archetypes




                        Wicked Witch




                        Tin Man









            Oz vs. Star Wars

                        Leia- Reason



                        Scarecrow- Reason



            Oz vs. Star Wars

                        Chewbacca- Emotion



                        Tin Man- Emotion



            Oz Element Swap

                        Scarecrow (Reason?)



                        Tin Man (Emotion?)



            Complex Characters & Relationships

                        Complex Characters

                                    Structural Relationships

                                    Character Relationships

                        Four-Dimensional Characters





            Summing Up Characters

                        Head Line characters involved in the goal

                        Heart Line characters involved in the message

                        Head Line determines if your story will make sense

                        Heart Line determines if your story will have meaning


Part 2 of the outline will be posted tomorrow and part 3 on the next day

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