If you have read books on writing or attended very many lectures, you have probably learned a few writing rules, along with several different terms for describing the elements of good storytelling. As I note on page 12 in the book, I have only two rules for writing: 1) Never allow anyone to convince you to cut something from your story that your gut tells you belongs—at least until you know why you wrote it in this story; and 2) If you want to be a writer, you have to keep writing. Using the elements of good storytelling are not rules, they are time-tested components of structure for telling a better story. In The Writer’s Compass I am going to show you the simplest way to approach structure and help you make sense of the terminology so that you can easily map your ideas to tell a compelling story.
One of the frustrations I had in studying writing, besides all the differing terminology, was working with teachers who insisted on outlines. I never quite understood what an outline should look like: whether it should be tiered, how detailed it should be, or whether the details should be in sentences or phrases. I could never figure out what was missing from the events or ideas I outlined. It especially annoyed me because an outline seemed to impede my writing flow and kept the story from taking off in its own direction as I wrote it. An outline is supposed to tell (better if it shows) what happens next, but the strengths or the weaknesses in the story or what you are missing are not always obvious in an outline. A story map, on the other hand, tells you exactly that. In a way, it is a type of outline written horizontally instead of vertically. It is more visual and does not need to be written in some sort of chronological flow. Nor does the story map need to be as detailed as an outline, and it has to contain only the essential elements good stories need. If you like outlines, you can still use one to write out the details of your story, but the story map will help you see the strengths and weaknesses in your outline more clearly.
Let’s start with the basic three-act structure diagram that has been used for teaching writing for years. This will be the foundation for drawing our map. Remember, our goal is to build on Aristotle’s and Freytag’s processes and to make sense of all those successful writing methods that use different terminology, but say the same things.
First of all, note that the acts are changed from first, second, and third to Beginning, Middle, and End. One of the reasons for this change is that there are some stories, especially plays or short films, which are considered to structurally have only one act or like television scripts have several acts, and so it is a misnomer to number the sections. However, all stories, whatever the structure, still have a beginning, middle, and end. The change in terminology also allows for the writing to feel more fluid and organic and not confined to the boundaries of acts. Sometimes the elements of good storytelling occur simultaneously and are not easily separated into act, There are no fixed number of pages or a set point for each section or where each element should be placed. Sometimes the “first turning point” will be earlier in the story; sometimes it will be the beginning of the Middle.
Above is a diagram with the beginning development of a structure chart. There are additional explanations and examples applied as you read through The Writer’s Compass about the structure map, creating story maps and the 7-Stage process. The story map takes the structure map to the next level and overlays your ideas onto the diagram. Below is a story map example of my short story “The Bus Boy.
More extensive explanations of the structure chart and story map along with detailed diagrams can be found in Chapter 3 of The Writer’s Compass.