How to Figure Out the Shape of Your Story
How do you organize your ideas so that you can write a story that works?
What if you’re just starting out and your idea hasn’t quite taken it’s full shape yet?
There’s a lot of advice out there when it comes to starting a story the “right way.” You can find a ton of articles that tell you what to include on the first page. Or what you need in the first chapter. Or even all the milestones you need to hit in act one. But what if you’re just not there yet?
Part of my goal as a developmental editor and book coach is to make this whole “writing a book” thing less overwhelming and more approachable. The main way I do that is by breaking down the complex novel-writing process into smaller, more manageable chunks.
In today's post, I’m going to show you how to start building out the shape of your story so that you can see the arc of change from beginning to end.
When you know what happens at the beginning and end of your story, it becomes SO much easier to figure out everything that happens in between. But before we dive in, I want to go over some key points.
Every story asks a central question.
No matter how many ideas you have for your story there's always going to be one main plot thread that takes precedence over the others.
This plot thread is what connects the beginning of your story to the end of your story. And it does so by raising a question in the beginning and answering it by the story’s end.
From the beginning of a story, the reader tracks this question and wants to know what the answer is. It's what gives a story narrative drive, and what makes the reader turn page after page to find out what’s going to happen next.
Each genre asks a specific central question:
- Action - Will the protagonist survive and defeat the antagonist?
- Horror - Will the protagonist survive and defeat the monster?
- Romance - Will these two individuals get together and live happily ever after?
- Morality - Will the protagonist do “the right thing” or “the wrong thing?”
- Mystery - Will the protagonist identify the criminal and bring him to justice?
- Performance - Will the protagonist win or lose?
- Society - Will the protagonist succeed in their revolution?
- Status - Will the protagonist stay true to their values or sell out to gain status?
- Thrillers - Will the protagonist stop the antagonist before they commit more crimes?
- War - Will this group of soldiers complete their mission and survive?
- Westerns - Will this protagonist “clean up the town” and bring the bad guy to justice?
- Worldview - Will the protagonist change their worldview or stay stuck in an outdated way of thinking?
Now, all of this might sound good and make sense to you on the surface, but how does this actually help you write a story?
If you can figure out the question your story is asking, and the answer to that question, you’ll be able to craft a framework for the rest of your story.
These two key “ask and answer” moments are the Inciting Incident and the Climax of your global story.
The Inciting Incident asks the main story question.
The Inciting Incident is an event that gets the ball rolling in your story and raises the central question in your reader’s mind. It takes place around the 12% mark of a story. Without the Inciting Incident to ask the story question, readers will likely lose interest in the story.
The starting points listed below are typically the Inciting Incident of the global story. That means there can (and probably will be) scenes that take place before this scene, but not many.
For example, in a romance novel, there are usually a few scenes before the “lovers meet” scene. Why? Because the author needs to introduce the characters, their goals, and the world they live in before the reader can feel properly invested.
The Climax answers the main story question.
The Climax of your story is an event that answers the question raised by the Inciting Incident. It takes place around the 88% mark of a story. Without answering this question, your story won’t work.
The ending points listed below are typically the Climax of the global story. That means there can (and probably will be) scenes that take place after this scene, but not many.
For example, in a romance novel, there are usually a few scenes after the “lovers reunite” scene. Why? Because the author needs to give readers a glimpse of what life’s like now that the characters are living "happily ever after" (or not).
So, now let’s take a look at the typical Inciting Incidents and Climax moments by genre along with some examples. If you haven’t chosen a global genre for your story, I suggest checking out this article: Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories.
Where should your story start and end?
- Start with some kind of attack by the antagonist
- End with the protagonist defeating the antagonist (or not)
Example: In The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss on the day of the reaping. Prim’s is chosen as District 12’s female tribute (attack by the antagonist) and Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Hunger Games. This raises the question -- Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? At the end of the story, both Katniss and Peeta “win” the Hunger Games and return to District 12.
- Start with some kind of attack by the monster
- End with the protagonist defeating the monster (or not)
Example: In Halloween, Michael escapes from the asylum and steals his psychiatrist’s car (attack by the monster) with a plan to return to his hometown. This raises the question -- Who else will Michael kill? Will he kill Laurie and her friends? At the end of the story, Laurie and Dr. Loomis confront and defeat Michael (for now).
- Start with the meeting of two separate individuals
- End with the two individuals getting together in a romantic relationship (or not)
Example: In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy and instantly dislikes him (meeting of two individuals). This raises the question -- Will Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get together in a romantic relationship or not? At the end of the story, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are happy and in a committed, romantic relationship.
- Start with a positive or negative shock that upsets the protagonist's inner moral code
- End with the protagonist rediscovering or recommitting to their inner moral code (or not)
Example: In Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler’s brother dies and Lee is named the legal guardian of his nephew, Patrick (shock that upsets his moral code). This raises the question -- Will Lee accept the guardianship of Patrick or not? At the end of the story, Lee makes arrangements with his family friends to adopt Patrick so that he can stay in Manchester, while Lee moves back to Boston. He’s done the “right thing” by both Patrick, and himself.
- Start with the discovery of a murder or a crime
- End with the murder or criminal being brought to justice (or not)
Example: In Murder on the Orient Express, a passenger is killed (discovery of the murder) and the conductor asks Hercule Poirot to find the killer. This raises the question -- Will Hercule Poirot figure out “whodunnit” and bring the criminal to justice? At the end of the story, Hercule Poirot reveals the identity of the murderer to the train conductor and lets the conductor decide what to do about it. This is an interesting ending. Daisy Armstrong's murderer (Ratchet) is brought to justice, but Ratchet’s murderer (the other passengers) are not.
- Start with an opportunity or challenge to perform
- End with the “big event” where the protagonist triumphs (or not)
Example: In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi convinces Daniel to enter a karate competition where he’ll be able to compete with Johnny on equal terms (opportunity to perform). This raises the question -- Will Daniel beat Johnny in the tournament? Will he gain the respect of the Cobra Kai students? At the end of the story, despite being super injured, Daniel beats Johnny and wins the tournament.
- Start with a threat to the reigning power
- End with a revolution where the protagonist is successful in taking power (or not).
Example: In Animal Farm, Old Major organizes a meeting and calls for the overthrow of the humans (threat to reigning power). This raises the question -- Will the animals succeed in taking over and running this farm on their own? At the end of the story, the animals are technically running the farm, but not in the way they originally intended. Napoleon has become so human-like that the “normal” animals have a hard time distinguishing between who is a pig and who is a man.
- Start with an opportunity for the protagonist to change their status
- End with the protagonist either doing whatever’s necessary to attain status (or not)
Example: In Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius offers Maximus the chance to be regent (opportunity to change status). Shortly after, Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius and assumes the role of Emperor. This raises the question -- What will Maximus do? Will he accept his role as regent and make Commodus fall in line? At the end of the story, both Commodus and Maximus die at each other's hands. But before Maximus dies, he puts in place a few things that will allow Marcus Aurelius’ vision for Rome to come to fruition.
- Start with a crime or an attack that's indicative of a master antagonist
- Ends with the protagonist overcoming the antagonist (or not)
Example: In The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill abducts the Senator's daughter (crime indicative of a master antagonist). This raises the question -- Will Clarice and the FBI catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine Martin? At the end of the story, Clarice tracks down and kills Buffalo Bill in his basement.
- Start with an attack by the opposing side, and sometimes, a new mission
- End with a battle where the protagonist (or his side) is victorious (or not)
Example: In The Hurt Locker, the leader of the Bravo Company is killed by an insurgent’s bomb (attack by opposing side). The team must come to terms with their new leader, Sgt William James. This raises the question -- Will Sgt. James and the Bravo company survive this war? At the end of the story, Sgt. James (and some of his crew) technically survive the war, but Sgt. James can’t cope in society so he re-enlists for another year.
- Start with an attack by the antagonist (or antagonistic force)
- End with the protagonist defeating the antagonist (or not)
Example: In True Grit, Tom Chaney killed Mattie Ross’ father (attack by the antagonist). Mattie hires a man named Rooster to help her capture Chaney and bring him to justice. This raises the question -- Will Mattie find and bring down Chaney? Will she get justice for her father? At the end of the story, Mattie shoots (and kills) Chaney.
Worldview (Coming of Age) Stories:
- Start with a challenge to the protagonist’s worldview
- End with the protagonist losing some of their innocence but developing a deeper understanding of the world and their place in it.
Example: In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie becomes friends with Sam and Patrick (challenge to his worldview). He has a deeply held belief that people won’t like him once they get to know him (except for his Aunt Helen who was the only one to ever understand him). This raises the question -- Will Charlie stay friends with Sam and Patrick? Or is he correct in thinking that nobody will really like him once they get to know him? At the end of the story, Charlie has to face the truth about his Aunt Helen and ends up in the hospital. Sam, Patrick, and Charlie’s family learn the truth, too, but still remain supportive and stay by his side.
Write a 2-3 sentence summary of the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Think about the central question your story’s asking and make sure you both ask and answer it in your summary. When you’re done, you can use this 2-3 sentence summary as a “big-picture” roadmap of your story. This will help keep you on track as you get into the weeds of your story.
Hopefully, you now have a pretty good idea of where your story starts and ends. And hopefully, you can start to see the overarching shape of your entire story!
What’s really fun about this -- or maybe just fun to me -- is that you can start to get clever about how you use these key “ask and answer” moments.
For example, say you’re writing a story with both an external and an internal genre. You can identify these key moments and then weave them together to create a larger impact and a more cohesive whole.
One final note... If you haven’t picked a global genre for your story, check out this article: Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories. Once you choose a global genre for your story, everything else will start to fall into place!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Did the information in this article help you determine the beginning and end of your story? Can you see your story starting to take shape now? What was your biggest takeaway from this post?