Nanowrimo Prep – narrative structure cheat sheet


by Alexandra Sokoloff

There really is something about fall for me, this huge jolt of energy.   Thank God, because I have a lot to do.   This week I did my taxes and a book proposal at the same time, two activities that should never be performed simultaneously.  (At some point the brain does explode, doesn’t it?)  This week I have to write another book proposal while doing edits for another book, and go to Houston to teach a workshop. 

In the middle of all of this there is another book that I am dying, just dying to get done.  This is why I’m a big fan of Nanowrimo. Even though, truthfully, like every full-time writer I have a Nano-like writing schedule most of the time, there’s something about having a designated month where all kinds of people are putting in this kind of insane writing time with the insane goal of having some rough approximation of a book at the end of it that makes it all feel okay, somehow, even doable.

For the last couple of years I’ve been doing a Nano Prep series on my blog   in October,  because I reel in horror at the idea of people just sitting down on Day 1 and starting to write to see what comes out.  The chances of getting a viable book out of that process seem – slim.

I may finally have gone to the opposite extreme, though.  The more I analyze structure, the more it seems to me that every story has the same underlying structure.   In previous years I’ve come up with a checklist of story elements, and last year I really expanded on that one.  But in the last month of some short workshops and my Nano Prep, I’ve actually tried to put the most important of those story elements into an almost narrative, a cheat sheet for story development.

So I’m running it by you all today, to see if it makes sense to anyone but me.


Narrative Structure Cheat Sheet

Act I:

We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.  

S/he has:

   —  a Ghost or Wound

   —  a strong Desire

   —  Special Skills

And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants

She gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life.

That impulse may be blocked by a

    —  Threshold Guardian

    —   And/or the Opponent

    —   And/or she is herself reluctant to take the journey.

But she overcomes whatever opposition,

   — Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

    — Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.

Act II:1

The hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN

The opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants

The hero/ine may now:

     — Gather a Team

     — Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

     — Investigate the situation.

     — Pass numerous Tests

All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise – magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

We also enjoy the hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love

And usually in this Act the hero/ine is Winning.

Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss or Win that is a Game-Changer.


Act II:2


The hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint.

And formulate a New Plan

Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

Therefore they Make Mistakes

And often Cross a Moral Line

And Lose Allies

And the hero/ine, or if not the hero/ine, at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that the hero/ine might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine

That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.



The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

Possibly briefly Trains again

Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

     — Skills are tested.

     — Subplots are resolved,

     — and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist.  Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.



Let me know if this makes sense, or is at all helpful, and otherwise, who else is doing Nano?  And for the happy, sane, non-writers, do you get that Back to School feeling about fall, too?  What are you doing with that burst of energy?


44 thoughts on “Nanowrimo Prep – narrative structure cheat sheet

  1. Tammy Cravit

    Love this. Saved the post to Evernote for future reference. As a dyed-in-the-wool pantser, I don't generally outline all this stuff before I start writing, but since I started reading your writing ebooks, I've been noticing how my stories instinctively seem to follow this arc and hit almost all of those milestones. Your outline will be a huge help for those mid-course corrections – thank you so much!

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Brilliant stuff, as always, Alex.

    I worry about your workload, though, girl. You need to be gentle with yourself sometimes. There's only so much elasticity in the body's ability to absorb stress. Too much and it snaps, and then somehow it's never quite as stretchy ever again …

    Take care – be well!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    VP and Tammy, I'm breathing a sigh of relief. This is exactly why I wanted to bash it out this way and post it. It's so easy to jump in there with a first act and everything's shiny and new and it's exciting to set it all up, but ALL of us get bogged down in that endless second act, and just having something to remind you of the emotional shape of MOST stories I think will be a godsend.

    Stories DO instinctively hit those milestones, but I forget what I'm doing even as I'm doing it.

  4. Sarah W

    These posts are always so fascinating!

    One of your previous articles made me realize that there *is* a guardian in my WIP . . . and now you've got me thinking that a secondary character is also following this structure pretty closely in her subplot — her darkest moment is also the female MCs darkest moment. I'm going to have to examine the male MC's structure (no pun intended).

    Thanks, Alexandra!

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    LOL, Sarah – make sure you give us an update on your male MC's structure.

    I find the threshold guardian character is a hard concept for some people to grasp until they realize it doesn't have to be a separate character – an ally or relative can act as the threshold guardian, or the opponent or a secondary opponent, or the mentor, or literally anyone who is standing in the way of the main character or warning them at that threshold into the special world.

  6. David Corbett

    If there was a point when the head really does explode, Alex, I think you would have reached it at, I dunno, age five? I always feel like such a slacker after I read your posts.

    I normally tell my students that this sort of guideline is best used after you've done some thrashing around with your characters and story, searching for the unique scenes and problems your characters possess. Otherwise, you can invite cliche by just banging out something that conforms to your preconceived idea of what the story needs to be, instead of what it uniquely is.

    Also, you have to be open to letting the elements be in play, not straightjacket you.

    In CHINATOWN, for example, we don't learn of Jake's ghost/wound until the midpoint, when Noah Cross tells Jake he thinks he knows what he's dealing with, but doesn't, and Jake admits that that is what the DA in Chinatown always told him. (And it gets echoes in his subequent love scene with Evelyn.) It's hinted at in his first meeting with Escobar (when they discover Mulwray's body), but it's not revealed meaningfully until much later.

    Also, in stories where the conscious desire and the unconscious desire clash (e.g., MIDNIGHT COWBOY), the "gathering of allies" and such often is not deliberate.

    And in narratively ambitious or multiple storyline tales, such as the films of Tarantino and Iñárritu, the individual pieces may conform to this structure, but everything else is much more fluid — in particular, chronology.

    That said, this is always a good thing to think about after you go back over your story elements to make sure you haven't left a gaping hole, or have allowed yourself to meander in Act 2.

    Good luck with all your projects, Alex, and knock 'em dead in Houston — as I am sure you will.

  7. Jonathan Hayes

    Great stuff – thanks, Alex!

    I agree that this sort of clean look at infrastructure is particularly helpful once you're well into the book – or even finished it. Going back over something and axing yourself if your narrative is hitting those key transition moments is a really fantastic exercise.

    Also: mad props to Corbett for his flowery diacritical precision with "Iñárritu"!

  8. Alaina

    I think I agree. I'm at a bit of a loss, though; in my just-finished story, there is no antagonist for most of it. The heroine is on a journey to prove she's worthy of rising in her order and learning the most guarded secrets… and, entirely because of the journey, she rejects the secrets and makes an enemy of the most powerful woman (possibly the most powerful person) alive.

    Though, since the actual point where she learns the secrets of her order and rejects them, and that person, is the midpoint, it may still qualify.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is a new one – I keep getting an error message that says "Unable to post."

    Now logged in and trying again.

    Alaina, just because your protagonist is unaware of her antagonist doesn't mean there isn't one – it sounds to me as if you've got a doozy of one and your protagonist is on a collision course with her from the beginning, just unaware of it. There's usually not just one antagonist, though, but rather FORCES of antagonism, and I may be wrong, but the guarders of the secrets in her order sound like the initial forces which coalesce into this one character.

  10. Lisa Alber

    I've studied THE WRITER'S JOURNEY backwards and forwards, and I like your concise, narrative take on the structure. Prefer it really. A mini-refresher course!

    I've never used the structure consciously while writing a first draft, but I can see how it would be handy during a massive effort like NaNoWriMo, and especially handy for analyzing the manuscript for revision afterwards!

    You almost got me wanting to participate in NaNoWriMo!

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, I've said it before, but my problem with the way Vogler lays out the Hero's Journey is that all the steps he outlines fall in the first and third acts, except for one: Tests, Allies and Enemies. That's not a lot to go on to develop the second act. I understand why he cut out so many of Campbell's steps (too obscure for most film execs) but what's left doesn't give anyone much guidance for working through the middle of the story.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually I had other problems at five, David!

    I hope it didn't sound like I'm advocating STARTING with this template. I'm a big fan of free-form brainstorming on index cards and any assorted scraps of paper first. I forget what I've posted when.

  13. Lisa Alber

    Thanks, Alexandra. Your comment clarifies it even more for me. After reading your post I dug out a diagram in which I was trying to understand the structure for myself, and there I see it — a bunch of question marks in the Act II range. Hah! Never got the "inmost cave" business…

    On an instinctive level, maybe this is why I like your version better.

    David talked about structure at the Book Passage conference. That was an eye-opening discussion too.

  14. Allison Davis

    I hate structure and I love structure. I've done Nanowrimo twice (with our friend Larry Gasper from Saskatoon). The first time I had a good structure and a character and got the 50,000 words done but it didn't have enough life in it. It was an historical novel and maybe I got bogged down in the research but I wasn't feeling the protoganist (and other characters I liked better kept creeping in). The second time I had a photo from the NYT and an idea and I went to town. I loved the chaos of plunging in and saying every night, "well for the next 1672 words you're going to write so tell me a story…." That is the work in progress now and if I didn't have a full time job, and didn't have to postpone my sabbatical until next year, it would have been done. I'm not sure I want to get off track of this book to go back to Nanowrimo, but for me, it's a slide into a swimming pool of fun and ideas. I loved the nanowrimo experience because I like writing that first draft.

    But the forays are unstructured and sometimes I lose my way and when I do, I go back to your website and previous posts, and now this one, as a map to find my way back. Thanks so much.

  15. Debbie

    Hi Alex, yup, I'm saving this one too. Thank you! I hav two questions:

    What about literary fiction…is it different than genre fiction and how do you know how to landmark if there's no genre expectations?

    And the second question: When condensing a rather lengthy MS, would you recommend filling in the above blanks and mostly cutting out the filler within the MS (like Stephen Jay Schwartz' idea of ghosting…it'll remain)?

    BTW, I'm probably the only one here who has never noticed that the word question begins with the word quest…hmm.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Literary fiction is different from genre fiction in that it's usually more boring.

    (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

    The thing is, there are TONS of subgenres in literary fiction, just like there are TONS of subgenres and story types, all with their own structures, within that basic structure I just outlines. If you're writing THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, you're writing a fairy tale just like Sleeping Beauty, for example, with the heroine/princess hidden away in the woods by three fairy godmothers who raise her to be the princess she really is. If you're writing SIDEWAYS, you're writing a road trip. Both of those story types have their own structure, tropes and delights. This is why I drill students on what KIND of story they're writing as well as the genre. You find them in literary fiction just as much as in genre fiction and it really, really helps to know what kind of story YOU'RE writing.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, and yes, that would be a good general strategy for editing, Deb, in that most of the above are beats you HAVE to have for coherence. Try it as an overview and see if it works.

    Another thing I'd say is that you can very, very often condense several scenes into one powerful climactic scene, which is always the best way to go.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, thanks!! I don't get it, though – why do people think they have to start with a fresh book for Nano? Why not just use the energy of Nano to work on the book that's already in progress?

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, that "Inmost Cave" thing makes me crazy, the way it's placed on Vogler's grid. The Inmost Cave is where the final battle is, right? I mean, how can it not be? The basement in Psycho or Silence of the Lambs, that underground chamber in Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone, the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West?

    Am I wrong?

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Jonathan. When I need it most is when I get stuck in the first draft, inevitably the second half. And it always takes me forever to remember to just look at the damn map.

  21. Debbie

    Thanks Alex…two more:
    Let's say the main character is struggling morally and what if, by the narratives' end, there is no resolution? Does it become thought provoking or unresolved and incomplete?
    Would the genre perhaps loosely be romance (the protag courting both sides of his moral dilemma)?

  22. Allison Davis

    I would think it would be cheating not to be uploading everyday so i can see my progress — when I'm starting with 60,000. But you're right, I don't need to upload (I'm such a measurer), I can just measure my own editing and really push on the book. Ok, you've set the challenge. I'm into it.

  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Debbie, I don't see much real moral dilemma in romance. That's not really the point of the genre. But maybe my idea of moral dilemma is just a lot more intense than you get in romance.

    I'm not talking about Jane Eyre, obviously….! But to me that's literary, not romance.

  24. Reine

    It really is brilliant, and I am sure I could never do it. I am so very happy that there are people who can, though!

  25. Reine

    You know what, though, I am a real glutton for punishment and so must try again this November. I will plan and strategize this time. I am sure I can really do better. I don't think I can finish, but I'll plunk with plan. Why is that so damn scary?

  26. Susan Shea

    Timely, thanks, Alexandrea. I'm struggling with the second half of Act 2 in this book for some reason. It's too short and I get to the battle in Act 3 too quickly. Every time I try to fix it, something in me resists. I'm thinking I may just leave it alone, get the thing finished and see if my subconscious has been working hard the while time and it makes sense. You recharged my batteries!

  27. Reine

    Damn, I just reread this with my November project in mind. I mentally set it on top of the outline and saw the format filter up. Before it was more like theory. This is something I can see happening. Schlurp. Thanks, Alex.

  28. Reine

    This is becoming a concern – not the first time my post has been hijacked. Can anyone help with this?

  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, it's just a caution not to take ANY structure method too literally, and that for damn sure includes anything I suggest! You can get all kinds of things from all kinds of method – the best thing to do is to take what appeals to you from ALL of them.

  30. Reine

    Alex — OK — trying this again . . .

    I reread this blog and, because I really want to be able to do NaNo this year – to complete it. I saw something different last night. I don't know how, or what cleared up for me.

    The notes I had in my head looked like they could work with the format you presented. I started to write it out, and it came together. I have always resisted outlines. I took an F once, because I "forgot" to include my outline in a paper for a speech proposal.

    I just want to say thank you, because I never thought this would happen. I believe I will finish NaNoWriMo this year, despite my mouthstick breaking — and my hands not working most of the time — and my voice giving out on Dragon. The simple beauty of the story coming together has a huge ability-factor enhancement.

    I hope this isn't hijacked again, because I want you to know that I get it.


  31. Jenni

    Alex, Thanks for boiling it all down for us. The structure you set out sounds like a good working structure. I've been going through writing up my cards and had just a few scenes in mind so far. This will help a lot!! Thank you once again for being so generous in sharing your thoughts and techniques.

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