Story Structure Can Make or Break It

Ugly looking stories have to be pretty damn good to get read

Photo by Robyn Budlender on Unsplash

There are two elements to every story —

  • How they are told, and
  • What they are about

Good storytellers can make a boring story interesting by how they tell it. Bad storytellers can make interesting stories boring the same way.

If I were to estimate it, I’d guess what makes an average story worth reading is 60% in how it’s told (its structure), and 40% what it’s about (the niche).

There are only four outcomes for any story you write, assuming an average story is more like a bad story than a good one:

  • right audience / good story — home run / goal
  • right audience / bad story — fowl ball / throw-in
  • wrong audience / good story —swing and a miss / penalty kick against
  • wrong audience / bad story — strike out / own goal

Of these, which element is the only one you have 100% control over?

The story. If the story’s bad, you made it bad. You’ve either picked a bad topic, or you’ve structured it poorly.

You can influence the audience, but you will never have 100% control over them, because they just might not be in the mood.

Bad Structure

From my professional work I know a badly structured written document will never make a boss happy.

Knowing this, my first step was to study and learn what the key structural elements were and replicate them. After all, imitation is the best form of flattery.

If I’m right and good stories are 60% structure, I can always get my stories to 60% if I focused on structure. I break structure down into three areas:

  • Compositional flow
  • Ascetics
  • Technical aspects

Compositional flow —

This is how the story is composed and how it flows from one part to the next. Composition plays in into ascetics as well, because if it is composed properly it will feel familiar to the reader and that will comfort them. And comfort is key.

They might not notice they are comfortable, but they’ll definitely notice if the composition makes them uncomfortable, and might stop reading.

Here’s the compositional flow I’ve developed to increase reader comfort from a post’s start to finish —

  • Title — this converts views to reads. It needs to be in title case so it doesn’t look amateurish and it needs to draw reader attention. I’ve only just started focusing on writing titles using coschedule title analyzing tool. I read titles should score 73 or more so that’s what I aim for. I regret not doing this sooner because I’m a terrible title writer. Often settling for a 70, I find trying to get a 73 forces me write better titles.
  • Subtitle in sentence case — always include one because readers expect to see it. Written in sentence case, it entices the reader to read on.
  • Uncommon and attributed picture below subtitle — I once used the perfect picture only to see it again on another piece a few days later. It was disturbing. Now I go ten or twenty pages deep in Unsplash before I start looking or find something using a non-obvious search word related to my story or I make my own on Canva.
  • Personal anecdote intro — when I write the first draft I tell the story from a-z. In the second draft I look for my personal anecdotal sequence, call it the l-m-n-o-psequence from the alphabet song, and move it to the start. That way I put the reader in the middle of the story right way so the only way to resolve what happened is by reading more.
  • What I don’t do is think of the l-m-n-o-p sequence first and then write from there. I find the best way to present the anecdote isn’t always evident when I start writing, so I get the story out, and then move the blocks around.
  • Body links anecdote to subject in title — if my title says a-b-c will be discussed, I write the body to follow the same a-b-c pattern. If my writing turns out c-b-a, I either change the title or the story. What I never do is tell the reader she will see a-b-c then tell her the story starting b-c-a.
  • Take-away for reader — this is where I often fall down. I force myself to think about what the reader is getting from their time with me. What did they learn that they can use? By forcing this into the structure, it forces me to think about it. My take away from this story is that I make $100+ a month doing the things I’ve mentioned here and you might be able to do that too if you follow some of them.
  • The final word — I like a profoundish single line linking back to the title and the take-away. I write it as stand-alone sentence in bold italic at the end. I do that because I want the person to bring their mind back to what they just read and what it means to them.

Ascetic & technical structure

Format and style — Once it’s open, the story needs to ascetically please the eye. If something looks bad it probably is, so I focus on this. I’ve learned to add dialogue and white space to lighten it the text, which is something I’m not used to doing normally. I also avoid too many stand-alone sentence-paragraphs, because it dilutes their impact. I like a three sentence paragraph, but two seems to work as well.

Length — The three-minute read. People get scared off by long articles like this one. Some won’t even bother opening if they see how much time it will take. Three minutes is 800–900 words. Two things can happen by going longer:

  • a wrong audience / good story situation where they see the length and move on if you’ve gotten them used to shorter stories from you. Longer stories need the right audience.
  • an eight-minute story will flop the same way a three-minute story does. In terms of your time investment though the eight-minute flopper takes as much time to write as two or three three-minute floppers. If all your stories flop no matter what you do, go ahead and write a long one. But if 50% of your stories do ok, the time you’ve invested in an eight-minute story has robbed you of the opportunity to have one of two three-minute stories do well.

Editing — I do this in three steps:

  • First — run the final draft through Hemingway to find and fix red/yellow sentences.
  • Second — first I run it through Grammarly Pro. I don’t write with Grammarly on because the constant updating distracts my ADHD brain and annoys me. I also use it after Hemingway, because if I make changes in Hemingway, the story will need to go through Grammarly again anyway, so why not do it once? Then I run it through ProWritingAid, to look for the things Grammarly Pro missed. The one last pass through Grammarly.
  • Third — Finally, I listen to the story and edit as I go. I’ve never found a better syntax or grammar checker than my ear. In university I would read my work to myself, which was ok, but getting Siri to do it is better, because I can focus identifying errors and edit as I go. If I make a change in any sentence, I listen to the section again to make sure it still makes sense — it often doesn’t.

Publishing — I usually submit or put the story up after editing. I know if I let it sit for a week I could make it better, but my ADHD doesn’t give me patience for that. It also helps I edit a niche publication so I have complete control over this.

Editing after publishing — Many people tell you to forget it and move on, so advise against editing after you publish a story. I don’t agree. I correct every error I find no matter how old or who I submitted it to. I figure if people are coming to read my work, they should be reading the best I can give them. It only takes a minute, and sure, I could ignore it, but I can’t for some reason. It’s a good habit for “evergreen” articles, because they stay relevant over time, you’ll want to put your best foot forward to draw people back to you.

What I don’t do is obsess over editing perfection before publishing because I know mistakes are inevitable.


60% of what makes a story good is how it’s told, and 40% is what it’s about. The only thing you have 100% control over is how it’s told though, so make it as good as you can. The other 40% is up to the audience. A story about the night time feeding habits of wombats might not get as many readers as say, one about Kim Kardashian’s boob deflating on live TV, but if you tell it well, people will appreciate you.

If you always deliver on the structure all you’ll need to do if find your audience.

Join my email list ☞ HERE ☜ and get a free pdf copy of my ebook How to Cheat: Field Notes from an Adulteress.

© Teresa J. Conway, 2021

By Teresa J Conway on .

Canonical link

Exported from Medium on April 8, 2021.

Author of How to Cheat: Field Notes from an Adulteress, several short stories, I'm active on Medium @teresajconway where I sometimes share my blog posts.

Leave a Reply

Site Footer

%d bloggers like this: