Category Archives: Writing Tips

When to Apply Structure to Your Story

In every developing story there is already a fuzzy proto-narrative forming within your subject matter.

This proto-narrative occurs because though people think ABOUT topics, they think IN narrative form. Narrative is just a map of all the perspectives we have at our disposal with which to explore a problem and look for a solution.

If one way of examining the issues isn’t explored, it leaves a hole that is felt by the readers/audience because we all intuitively look for narrative meaning.

If there is inconsistency in the perspectives so that they keep drifting away from an objective reporting of what the real issues are, then the readers/audience sense a biased presentation and question the whole message, even to the point of rejecting the entire experience.

But you really can’t create by building the narrative structure first because the inventive mind doesn’t work that way. If you try to direct your Muse to focus on logistics, she’ll go on strike. So, you have to let her range free – at least at first. You create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens, and what it means.

And because we think in narrative form, you will automatically have organized your story ideas into a pattern that provides meaning, that generally explores most of the angles and documents most of the stages and steps simply by describing a journey from problem to solution.

Still, because creativity is driven by passion, not logic, the development of your initial story concept usually results in a narrative that is not complete and not completely on course. So, that is when the analytical mind comes into play – to find and refine the narrative structure already forming in your story.

Applying structure to your concept at the right time supports your inspiration, provides your story with a clear and distinct spine, and maximizes your impact.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Characters Who Carry Guilt

In the classes I teach on story structure we often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in “Silence of the Lambs” as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Her silence in response (plus the somber soundtrack music even though this he graduation from the academy) both indicate she is still holding on to that angst.

We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.

But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on.

Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.

It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.

Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way. But then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.

It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flagellation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure. That’s how we think and how we feel.

Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?

The answer is that no one can easily do that – not by ourselves.  We need to be shown the way.  And that is the real purpose and power of stories, to show us the way – either by illustrating how to resolve our angst or by providing an example of what not to do.

And how do stories do this?  And how can we fashion such stories or perhaps even apply what we learn to our own lives?

Here’s a link to a few of my articles on overcoming angst in stories and ourselves:

The Process of Justification

Melanie Anne Phillips

The StoryWeaver Method – Step 1

StoryWeaver is a step by step approach to developing your novel or screenplay.

StoryWeaver will help you create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

In this first step, we look ahead to the process and outline the four stages of development common to all authors.

There are four stages to StoryWeaver’s story creation path:

1.  Inspiration

2.  Development

3.  Exposition

4.  Storytelling

In the Inspiration section, Storyweaver will help you come up with ideas for your Plot, Characters, Theme, and Genre.

In Development, you’ll flesh-out these ideas, adding details and making all the bits and pieces work together in harmony.

Exposition will help you determine how to reveal your story to your readers or audience, story point by story point.

The Storytelling stage is where you will develop a sequential plan for how your story should unfold, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, event by event.

By the end of the path, you’ll have a completed story, fully developed, expertly told.

Continue to next step…


The StoryWeaver method  is taken from the

StoryWeaver Story Development Software

Created by Melanie Anne Phillips


How to Motivate Your Main Character

You know, my partner Chris Huntley oft has said that the best way to rob a main character of motivation is to give him what he wants.  If you fill his need, he has no reason to go off and try to do anything.  Conversely, if you want to motivate a main character, take away something he wants.  Steal his jewels, rip his heart out, put the love his life in danger, violate his morality, end his way of life.  You pick it – you are the Author/God and the actions of your main character are pre-destined by the angst you give him.

Suppose you have a main character who’s problem is that he doesn’t want anything, doesn’t care about anything, and hasn’t had anything taken from him that he really cares about.  This happens to authors far more often than you might imagine.  So how to you solve this problem and get your main character moving?

All you need is one thing – one person or place or way of life that got under his skin, and somebody up and violated it.  And now, though he is still just as cynical and jaded about everything else, he is in a blood rage because of that one thing and will go to the ends of the earth (or beyond, in some cases) to satisfy his lust for revenge or to try and save that which he holds so dear.

For example, Keanu Reeves as John Wick (great movie, by the way) is a retired assassin.  His wife who drew him out of the business dies of natural causes.  Before she died, she ordered a puppy to be sent to him after her death to remind him of her and give him something to love.  And this incredible killing machine of a man, remains retired, and learns to love more deeply – until the son of a Russian Mob big wig kills his dog for the fun of it.  In the end, everybody dies except for Wick who is now back in business.

The options are endless.  Just pick one that is meaningful to you.  Choose a loss or a threat to something loved by your main character that matches one for yourself, and you’ll find you have no trouble conveying why he is motivated to do whatever you want him to do.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver
Co-creator Dramatica

I do personalized story coaching.

Click here for details…

How to Structure Your Story’s Signposts

First let me define what signposts are in stories and then provide a few hints on how to structure them.

Signposts are the markers that separate one act from another.  Think about any well structured story you’ve read or seen on the screen.  There are always several points at which you feel that you’ve moved from one act to another, such as in the plot when the characters have finished preparing for a journey and actually embark or in the character arc where the main character finally realizes he has been held back by his best friends good intentions and decides to go solo for the first time.

We intuitively know that a major turning point has been reached and that things will no longer go on as they have and that a whole new direction will reveal itself as the story unfolds.

Now all of that is just felt, but it actually comes from something very solid in story structure: the signpost.

Signposts are like road markers that tell you when you need to turn off the highway you are on and take a side road in order to get to where you’re headed.  These signposts are just at the juncture points, yet in between them, you have a lot of ground to cover that is part of your journey.

In a standard three-act structure, there are four signposts.  To see this more clearly, hold up four fingers on one hand as in the illustration below:

If each finger is a signposts, then you can see three journeys between them.

Readers or audiences feel the journeys because that is the flow of the unfolding of a story over time.  But the four fingers define the direction of each of the journeys.  So, the first signpost marks the point of departure of the story.  The last signpost identifies the destination.  the other two signposts in the middle describe the two major turning points in the story when the set up is complete at the end of the first act, and when the climb to the climax begins at the end of the second.

That’s fine conceptually, but how does it play out in actual story development?  As it turns out, all four signposts belong a family which is what gives a story a consistent identity as it plays out.

One such family, as an example, consists of the signposts of Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining.  So, in such a structure, the story begins with a general sense that Learning is the undercurrent of what everyone is engaged in.  It is the overall background for all that happens.  And while not every event or character conjecture has to pertain directly to Learning, there is that feel that establishes that Learning is what the first act is all about.

In practice, the characters in such a story will begin with Learning this or that (the first signpost) and then the act (the first journey) will follow the characters as they learn more and more until they arrive at an Understanding (the second signpost).  That’s where we feel an act break as the story changes course from exploring learning to exploring understanding.

In the second act (journey), the characters will progressively grow in their understandings until they are finally able to start Doing (the third signpost).  Again, we feel an act break as the internal quest from understanding shifts to the external quest of doing things.

Now the characters do more and bigger things until they are finally able to arrive at their designation, the fourth signpost of Obtaining.  End of narrative.  End of story.

There are a several families of signposts depending on the kind of story you are telling.  And, the signposts don’t always have to be in the same order.  In one story, for example, the characters may obtain something that allows them to do something that causes them to learn which leads to an understanding – a complete different order than our first example.

In real storytelling, this second example might be that some kids steal a car (obtaining) and are then able to do (take a road trip across the country), and en route they encounter many people with issues (learning) and eventually arrive home with an understanding about the importance of respecting the property rights of others.  Lame, to be sure, but fine as an example of how the signpost order is not locked.

Now as I promised at the beginning, I have now defined what a signpost is.  But I still need to explain how to structure them.

To do this, I’m going to share a letter I just wrote to one of my story consulting clients.  (Yes, I make my living as a story consultant.  Click here to learn more…)

This particular client was taking the precise nature of each signposts way too closely to heart.  They were trying to make every single story point in each act tie directly into each signpost, not taking into account that each signpost is just the county you are traveling through and the events in the journey are flavored by that, but not defined by it.

So, here’s the note to my client with some tips for structuring signposts:

Structure should not be applied as rules but as guidelines.  Structure gives you the sense of where the meaning is – where the center of the message is.

So in regard to the four signposts, they are like real signposts: they tell you when you have crossed the border from one kind of conjecture to another.

Stories are all about exploration in order to find the narrative because the narrative will provide the understanding of how all the pieces fit together, and therefore what one needs to do to get things to end up in the best possible arrangement.

If a story travels through learning, understanding, doing, and obtaining in that order, it means the story begins with learning.  That is the first signpost – the point of departure on their journey.  And from there, it starts off on its exploration to learn more and more until it arrives at an understanding (the second signpost).  From that point forward, learning is behind and the characters grow more and more in their understanding of what they already learned until they have understood so much that they are finally able to start Doing something about it – the third signpost.  From there, learning and understanding are pretty much behind them and their focus is to do more and more until they are finally able to Obtain when they reach the fourth and final signpost: their destination.

As you can see, signposts just mark the dividing lines when the story shifts its focus from one kine of endeavor or outlook to another.  You can also think of the four signposts as four rooms in a house.  You begin by exploring the first room in which you learn a lot.  When you have learned all you can, you move on to the next room where you put all that learning together to arrive at an understanding.  When you finally understand all you can, you move on to the next room and begin doing until you have done all you can, and then you move onto the last room to Obtain what you want by taking what you learned, organized into your understanding, turned into the action of doing that results in Obtaining.

Again, in terms of rules vs. guidelines, the signposts give you a general sense of what is going on in each act – what’s the focus or the area of interest.   But, that’s not the only thing going on in each act – just the overall background against which everything happens.

Don’t feel that everything that occurs in an act has to somehow connect to the signpost.  The signpost is just like the broth in a soup into which all the other stuff is cooked.  It gives each act an identifiable flavor but can be filled with all kinds of individual tastes that have nothing to do directly with the flavor of the broth.

Now, looking at your recent work, that is actually WAY too detailed and WAY too focused on each signpost.  It is good to have so many opportunities to relate to the signpost – that shows great consistency in your thinking about that act.  But, you don’t need nearly a tenth of that many references to the signpost as you have there to convey the overall perspective in that act – you only need enough to clearly establish in the mind of your reader the general background of the kind of exploration that is going on in that act – the kind of activity, interest, or concern.

In other words, don’t try to tie everything that happens in your first act into Learning – that would be forcing the structure and taking structure way too literally.  Rather, find as many opportunities as you can in your existing story material for each signpost in each throughline that already is tied into that signpost without forcing it.

W all think in narrative patterns.  Our interests are the topics we explore, but we organize the way we appreciate a topic in narrative, which is nothing more than a framework of meaning that ensures we’ve looked at all the meaningful parts of a topic from all the pertinent points of view.

And so, when we write, as with all authors, we automatically organize our story elements into narrative patterns so they make the most meaningful sense.  But, we do this by intuition so the perspective is often a bit fuzzy and sometime a little off-true.  Structure allows us to focus that already-existing proto-narrative so that each signpost becomes a little more clear as the overall flavor of the background so that all that happens can be seen through that filter before moving on to the next.  Like Red, Blue, Green and Brightness, each signpost provides part of the picture through a different filter until we get the full-color version after the last scene at the end.

My advice:

Don’t put so much effort into each signpost.  Just find the elements of your story that already point at each signpost and then polish them up a bit so they better reflect it.  Let your remaining story elements play against that without trying to force them to direct connect.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver
Co-creator Dramatica

Do You Want to Write a Tale or a Story?

The difference between a tale and a story is that a tale is just a linear step by step progression through plot events and character growth in which the next step can be anything at all, as long it makes logical sense, within the logic of the tale’s “universe that you establish as an author.

But a story is more like a mosaic. As with a tale, it progresses step by step. But in a story, each dramatic moment, each next step, is like a mosaic piece. So, as the story unfolds, as each mosaic piece is laid down, a bigger picture emerges – a message or moral – the story’s meaning, and the underlying “argument” made by the author in the story’s structure to convince the reader of the author’s professed moral conclusion about the proper way to think or feel in regard to the core issue of the story (the message issue).

As an example, you can look to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in which all the events that happen are part of the effort of the ghosts (and others) to convince Scrooge that his point of view is flawed and he should learn to embrace love, and joy, to be generous toward others, and to keep Christmas in his heart. If that message were not argued, scene by scene and act by act, Christmas Carol would be a simple tale of a mean old man who comes to care about others and finds joy. But the message – the structure that compels the readers to embrace that moral and make it a cornerstone of their own life, would be missing without the complete story argument.

I assume you might like to transcend writing a simple tale or series of events and instead create a story in which all the parts eventually work together to a greater purpose. If that is the case, I can guide you to organizing your story elements in a structural way that is consistent with the timeline you have presented but simultaneously fashions that “bigger picture” that can move your readers to change their own lives.

Here’s how we begin.

The single most important dramatic in a story (that is not needed in a tale) is the “message argument” between the main character (who begins with one world view, attitude, or philosophy) and an influence character who represents the opposing moral or philosophic view. The moral argument between them runs from the beginning of the story to the climax at which the main character either sticks with his original perspective or decides to change his mind/heart and adopt the alternative view of the influence character.

To help you get a good sense of this relationship, here’s a link to a short article I wrote about these two characters that includes a video clip showing these two character as they appear in several different well-known stories.

Here’s the article with the clip, and after you view it, read on for the first step in creating structure for your story:

Your Story Will Fail (if you don’t do this…)

Now that you have seen the clip, you can easily recognize the main character who begins with one outlook, and the influence character who pressures him or her to change – either by direct pressure or by influence alone.

The entire message of your story will hinge on whether or not the main character changes, and whether or not that was a good or bad choice. (Sometimes it is better not to change and to stick with our beliefs; other times it is better to abandoned our long-held beliefs, update how we see the world, and try a different tack.)

Not having a clear message issue and/or not having an influence character is the biggest source of structural failure in a story because it leaves the story without a passionate throughline and without real human meaning in the end.

So, your first step in creating a sound story structure after you have your main character is to specify your message issue and identify your influence character who has a moral or philosophical belief system in direct opposition to that of your main character.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator Dramatica

Learn more about the main and influence characters

Contact me about my story consultation services

Story Structure with the Muse in Mind

Story Structure can be a straight-jacket for your Muse. On the one hand, structure is necessary for a story to have a point or even just to make sense!  But on the other hand, structure tends to channel ideas down predictable paths and to rob a story of serendipity.

In my twenty-five years as a teacher of creative writing and story structure, I’ve developed a number of techniques to help you find your perfect balance between the rigors of structure and the free-wheeling flow of inspiration.

Here’s the short list:

Structure Hobbles the Muse

The Muse explodes outward into a world of passion and possibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for twenty-five years, my experiences with many types of writers tell me that one should never consider structure at … Continue reading

Let your Muse run wild

Let your Muse run wild The easiest way to give yourself writer’s block is to bridle your Muse by trying to come up with ideas. Your Muse is always coming up with ideas – just not the ones you want. … Continue reading