News for Authors

Tips for Effective Story Structure

by Phil Stamper-Halpin|September, 2016

Some writers outline their stories heavily, while others let the words and ideas flow as they come to them. In the end, there is no one-size-fits-all way to plot a story. Read on for some tips and tricks from our editors about structuring your next book.


Read Widely, In and Out of Your Genre

Reading widely is one of the best ways you can learn how to piece together the structure of your own writing. Dissect a favorite book: When does it first introduce conflict? How far into the book is the climax, and how long does the author take to get to the resolution? How does she weave exposition into her narrative while keeping the tension high? Take notes, and think about how you can use these lessons in your own writing.

Reading in your genre is important, but you can also learn a lot from reading outside your genre. If you want to increase the tension in your book, read a thriller. If you want to ramp up a love story, read a romance. As you write your sophomore novel and beyond, you can gain valuable insights from authors both inside and outside your genre.


Take a Page from Screenwriters

Screenwriters often use beat sheets to outline screenplays through their beats and plot points. (Beats, in this context, refer to major events or decisions that affect the main character throughout the story.)

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method is a popular resource for screenwriters that is also frequently used by novelists. To better understand the method, click here to see how Save the Cat can be applied to a variety of recent films.

A beat sheet can be a useful tool for both heavy outliners and those who simply put pen to paper and let the story flow. In this way, authors can define specific plot points, or beats, of their story to give it more structure as they write.


Using Pitch Points to Add Tension

Similar to beat sheets, pitch points provide a way to outline that focuses on the conflict in your story. Between major plot points, pitch points are inserted to help propel the story as readers approach the next major point.

As Writers to Authors explains, pitch points are often obstacles for the main character(s) that ramp up the conflict in their story, such as main characters being attacked, or a character coming up against financial troubles. Conflict comes in many forms, but this type of (often external) conflict will hold the pieces of your story together by building tension.


Use Apps to Organize Your Story

There are many apps out there that can help you organize your story before you even start writing. Scrivener is a content-generation tool for writers (available on PC, Mac, and iPhone/iPad) that goes beyond the page to help you visualize scenes and plot points with storyboards and the ability to drag-and-drop scenes for quick restructuring of your narrative. It also allows you to easily store all the research that’s gone into your draft.

Apps like Trello and Evernote can help you manage your story like a project and keep track of your structure as you write. And Scapple and Index Card are storyboard apps that make it easy for plotters to visualize their stories.


Regardless of your genre or category, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to structure your story. If you’re not completely satisfied with your current process, consider trying the above tips and seeing what works best for you. While one book might require one technique, your next might require a different approach. As always, you should defer to your editor for guidance on this process.


Phil Stamper-Halpin is Manager, Publishing Development and Author Platforms for Penguin Random House.