Great novels are built with great structure. So are great acts. And so are great scenes.
Luckily, structuring your acts and scenes is simple when you have a story structure framework that works at all levels of story.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about story structure. Specifically, I’ve been talking about my favorite approach to story structure: the six elements of story.
First, I shared what the six elements of story are and how they work.
And this week, I’m going to keep talking about this story structure. There’s a lot to say!
And in this article, I want to get practical again. Let’s talk about how to apply this structure to your stories.
If you haven’t seen the previous two articles in this series, that’s okay. I’m going to start off with a recap of the six elements of story.
Honestly, even if you have read those articles and this is old hat to you, I still think this recap is helpful. The more you encounter this structure, the more familiar it will become and the easier it will be to apply it to your stories.
And once we’ve finished the recap, I’ll share three ways you can apply this structure to your stories.
The 6 Elements of Story
Recap first! What are the six elements?
The six elements of story form one arc of change. Things start one way, and they end another way. In order to change, they go through the following six steps:
- The inciting incident: Something disrupts the character’s “normal” and kicks off the action of the scene.
- Progressive complications: The conflict escalates as more complications happen. These events might make things better or worse, but they certainly make things more complicated.
- The turning point: The largest, most problematic progressive complication, which forces the protagonist to respond in some way.
- The crisis: In order to respond to the turning point, the protagonist must make a difficult choice. This is a choice between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods).
- The climax: The moment when the protagonist takes action on the crisis choice and experiences the consequences.
- The resolution: The “new normal” after the climax. Something has changed since the scene began with the inciting incident, and readers want to see what the world looks like now.
And there you go: the six elements of story. One arc of change.
Want to apply them to your own story? I have a free worksheet you can download. It’s called the Scene Analysis Worksheet, and you can get it at the form below:
The cool part is, it applies to more than just scenes—as you’ll see very soon.
Where to Use the 6 Elements of Story
Now, in last week’s article, I shared why I love this approach to story structure so much. And there are a few reasons, but here’s the big one:
This structure is recursive. You can use it at every level of story.
Zoom out and look at an entire novel, and you can find the six elements. Zoom in, and you can find them within every act, within every scene, and more.
This structure scales up and it scales down. Which means that you can learn this one approach to story structure and apply it all over your story.
Which begs the question: where should you apply the six elements of story?
The simple answer is, everywhere!
That said, I do have three core places I recommend you try it out. Here are the key places where I use the six elements of story most often, and where I recommend you try them, too.
1. The novel as a whole
The first level I recommend you look for the six elements of story is on the scale of your novel as a whole.
Can you find the six elements in your whole novel?
Now, when you look for the six elements in an entire novel, you’ll find that a lot of the story is the progressive complications. You don’t have to list every single progressive complication here—at that point, you’d just be listing everything that happens in the story.
At this scale, I particularly like to look for:
- What’s the inciting incident? What kicks off the story?
- What hard choice does your protagonist have to make about three-fourths of the way through the story?
- What’s the climax? What’s the big event your story is building up to?
Even with just those three things, you’ll be able to tell a lot about your story.
2. Each act of your novel
The second level I recommend you apply the six elements is within each act of your novel.
I like to think of novels in terms of four acts: a four-part progression from the beginning to the end.
You can learn more about how four-act structure works and how to apply it in this article: 4-Act Structure: The Simple Structure to Edit Your Novel (And Why 3 Acts Aren’t Enough).
The thing about acts is, each act is its own arc of change. You can actually identify a value shift within each act: a starting state at the beginning of the act and an ending state at the end of the act.
And every time you have an arc of change, you can use the six elements of story to map it.
That means each act starts with its own inciting incident. Each act progressively builds to a turning point. Each act forces the protagonist to face a crisis choice and take action on it in the climax. Each act has a resolution that’s different from how it began.
Outline the six elements of all four acts, and you’ve got yourself a robust outline for a story in just 24 sentences.
3. Each scene of your novel
And the third level I recommend you apply the six elements is on the scene level.
The scene is my favorite unit of story. It’s usually somewhere between 1000 and 3000 words, although it can be shorter or longer.
I have a full article on how the six elements apply on the scene level, which you can find at What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes.
But the idea here is that when you zoom in to the bite-sized level of story, the piece of story that we consume in just a few minutes, you still want to craft an arc of change that moves us from one event in the story to the next.
And this level is my favorite largely because it’s the perfect place to practice your storytelling skills.
Scenes are short. They’re quick to write, to edit, and to read.
(At least, they’re quick in comparison to writing, editing, and reading a full novel—it’s still going to take you a lot longer to write a scene than to read one.)
And because they’re short, you can see all six elements at play at once on a small scale. You can practice how these pieces of story play together, impact each other, and build an interesting story.
Stories that work are made of scenes that work. So make sure all the six elements are working in your scenes!
2 Bonus Levels of Story
The entire novel, the act, and the scene are the three levels of story I work with most often. But you can also subdivide those into even more levels of story.
Now, when I first started practicing using the six elements and editing stories, I found it tricky to see the divisions between each part of story.
Where does a scene start and end? Where does an act start and end? If you’re not used to thinking of stories in terms of these divisions yet, it can be hard to tell.
And the two bonus levels I’m about to share are even more divisions of story. Which means they’re even more levels where you can debate about where different parts of story start and end.
So I don’t recommend that you start with these bonus levels. First, get comfortable editing your acts and scenes.
Then, once you’re confident there, you can explore these bonus levels for even more useful ways of thinking about your story arc.
Bonus #1: Sequences
The first bonus level is sequences. Sequences are smaller than an act, but larger than a scene. They’re a set of a few scenes within an act that all work together to form their own arc.
For instance, maybe within an act, a few kids decide to put on a play.
There’s a scene where they decide to put on the play and choose their script. There’s a scene where they gather their props and rehearse. And there’s a scene where they perform the play.
That’s three scenes that work together to form this arc. The act is longer; this is just a part of it, one sequence within it.
And within that arc of three scenes, that sequence, you’ll have the six elements of story again, inciting incident through resolution.
Bonus #2: Beats
The second bonus level is the beat level. Beats are smaller than scenes. One beat is one moment within a scene, and a scene is made of many beats.
Here’s an example of how I edit beats:
A lot of times, I’ll be working with a scene that’s maybe 2000 or so words long. It includes all the six elements: at the beginning there’s the inciting incident, then there are a few progressive complications, the turning point will happen somewhere in the middle of those 2000 words, and then there’s the crisis and the climax and the resolution.
It’s a full arc of change.
And the resolution will be, say, 600 words long. Maybe it’s a conversation between a couple of characters that sort of rounds out everything that’s happened in the scene.
That conversation is one beat—one mini-event happening within the scene.
And I’ll think, hmm, this conversation is fine. But it could be way more interesting.
So I’ll pull out the six elements to study those 600 words. And I’ll see that within this beat, this little segment of story, we have the opportunity to craft another arc of change.
That conversation between a couple characters becomes even more interesting when we identify the value that’s changing here and craft a mini-turning point, crisis, and climax within this little interaction.
Remember, the scene already had the six elements all present and working in it. So if we didn’t change the 600 words of resolution at all, the scene would still work.
But when you zoom in to look at beats, you can make even the smallest parts of your story even more interesting and make them contribute to the story even more.
Now, I do not think you need to edit every single beat of your novel like this. When it comes to subdividing your story into editable parts, there’s definitely a point of diminishing returns.
Your story will contain hundreds, possibly thousands of beats. And if you enter a draft thinking, “I’m going to edit my way through this manuscript beat by beat,” you are setting yourself up for enormous detail-oriented overwhelm and frustration.
I prefer to keep the beat level in my back pocket when I’m editing scenes.
If I see a section of a scene where we have a few hundred words of story and not much momentum, or an interaction between characters where nothing changes, I’ll zoom in and study it on the beat level. I’ll look for hidden opportunities to apply the six elements and make that slower beat more punchy and exciting.
6 Elements, 5 Levels of Story
And there you have it: a total of five levels where you can apply the six elements of story to edit your novel.
The three levels I focus on most, and where I recommend you focus too, are:
- The novel as a whole
- Each act
- Each scene
And the two bonus levels that you can explore when they’re useful to you are:
Your Turn: Apply the 6 Elements to Your Story
So now it’s your turn. Can you find the six elements in your story?
Here’s what I encourage you to do now.
First, download my worksheet with all six elements:
And now you know the secret: this works at every level of story, not just scenes.
Next, choose a level of story: the novel as a whole, the act level, or the scene level.
Then, pick up your manuscript and take a close look at that level. Think of your entire story, or one act, or one scene.
And look for the six elements there. Can you find them?
If so, congratulations! You’ve likely crafted a story that works and practiced with this approach to structure enough that you can spot it in your story.
If not, don’t worry. Look for what you can find, and see what parts are difficult to spot.
Now, you have clues about what to focus on in your editing process.
And remember, writing and editing a novel is a craft. It’s a skill that you develop with practice.
The same goes for using the six elements of story. If they’re a little tricky to apply at first, don’t worry. Keep following this blog, and I’ll keep sharing more tools, tips and examples to help you master them.
Until next week, happy editing!