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What are some popular guides regarding structuring a novel, specifically what turning points the story should hit and approximately at what point in the manuscript?

I'm looking for something more detailed than the classic three-act structure. One resource I've found is the Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell, which seems to have enduring appeal.

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There are few guides specifically for novels, but there are numerous books about story structure for screenwriters:

  • The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. This is my favorite of the bunch. He describes 22 steps that successful movies often follow. The steps follow several interweaving arcs, including an outer problem, an inner "what the character has to learn" arc, and subplots in which other characters give feedback to the main character, and otherwise advise or illustrate the wisdom of various strategies.
  • The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. Williams focuses on the "what the character has to learn" story thread, but he also talks about other story elements, and turning points along the way. Despite the title, this isn't about how to be blatantly moralistic. And despite Williams including Ph.D. as part of his byline, it isn't the least bit academic.
  • Inside Story by Dara Marks. Simpler than either Truby or Williams, but also somewhat richer in ways that I can't put into words. Focuses on three storylines: The outer story, the character's inner arc, and a "relationship" story through which the main character learns key lessons to apply to the other two storylines.
  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This is something of a recent classic, though it feels more formulaic than the others, with less depth. Snyder includes a 15-step "beat sheet" that seems more appropriate to (formulatic) movies than to novels, but you can probably find something useful for novels here.
  • Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I found Brooks's tone enormously annoying, and his content mostly short on detail. Still, I did find a few nuggets here. This book focuses more on novels, though many of its examples are from movies.

As I said, most of these are about screenplays and not novels. If you've ever read a great book, then seen the movie, you'll know that advice about screenplays applies to novels only with a good deal of adaptation. But the first three books on this list are quite rich in ideas about the structure of stories, and what makes the structure work. The three authors reach similar conclusions, though they each emphasize different elements of their common ideas. I highly recommend the first three. If you want more, take a peek at the others.

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I know it's frustrating, but in general, I'm not familiar with many resources that go into a lot of detail about abstract plotting and story structure. That's because plot varies so tremendously between stories - the twists and turns of a mystery story are worlds apart from the twists and turns of heroic action, and a romance will be different than both of them. And within any one genre, you can still tell so many unique, individual stories, that it's extremely difficult to give generalizations more significant than "first things start moving, then they get really bad, then everything comes to a compelling conclusion."

What you can do is examine existing story structures - understand how some stories work, so you can do similar things with your own work. That's not "what points the story should hit and when" - but you can find some tried-and-true examples of structures that work. Just as an example, we recently discussed the recurring structure of House episodes.

Two resources on story structuring that I can recommend:

  • Plot, by Ansen Dibell, of Writers' Digest "Elements of Fiction Writing" series. Dibell discusses some great structural tools, including set-piece scenes and mirroring.
  • Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint and his How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy both describe his "MICE Quotient," which is a simple categorization of plots and stories by their central focus (Milieu, Idea, Character, Event); this division makes clear how a different focus leads to a very different plot, structure and story - and can help you fit your story structure to its primary focus.

Hope these are helpful. :)

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