Monday, October 31, 2011

Story Pillars by Amy Deardon

Happy Halloween everyone! I'm about to drop my daughter off at preschool. She's dressed as a "beautiful pink butterfly" and yes, I will torture you with pictures of her and Connor - a darling monkey - later this week.

Today, Amy Deardon is here!

In her own words, Amy is a scientist and skeptic who came to faith under protest through studying the historic circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus. Having written research articles, newspaper columns, and other nonfiction, when she decided to write a novel she was surprised by how difficult it was to get the words down. She undertook a detailed study to understand how story works, and developed an algorithm that is published in THE STORY TEMPLATE: CONQUER WRITER’S BLOCK USING THE UNIVERSAL STRUCTURE OF STORY.

Lovely woman that she is, Amy has offered to give away either a paperback version or an ebook version of The Story Template to one lucky commenter. To get yourself entered, leave either a question for Amy or tell us which of the four story pillars comes most naturally to you as a writer. Contest ends Monday, November 7th, one entry per person por favor, and this is open to all peeps, not just US residents.

I don't know why I just wrote "peeps." I don't even like that word much. Nor do I like "pics."

Moving on:

The Four Story Pillars:
Some Structural Elements That You Need to Determine Before Starting Your Novel or Screenplay

Even if you’re an SOTP (seat of the pants) writer, a little planning can make writing your story easier. This article reviews a few foundational elements you should know about your story before you start.

The Four Story Pillars

A story (novel or screenplay) is often thought of as having two arms: outer and inner. The outer story covers the external plot: what your friend will summarize when you ask what a story is about. In contrast, the inner story describes the emotional journey of one or more characters. Different types or genres of stories tend to emphasize different arms – for example, a romance or literary work often focuses on inner story, while a mystery or action-adventure usually emphasizes outer story. 

But how else might story be described? If you think about it, a story can also be considered as having two tiers of construction: concrete and abstract. The concrete tier describes the actual events and characters in the story, whereas the abstract tier comments on the broader applications of your story: why it may give insight into society, relationships, or life.

Using these two types of categories, I like to think of the story as having four story pillars. The PLOT is the actual story line with the story goal and external obstacles. The CHARACTER describes the inner emotional journeys of one or more characters. The STORY WORLD describes the specific environment and milieu in which the story takes place. The MORAL describes the theme or the ultimate take-home message that the story conveys.

You can put these four pillars into context, like this:

Story World

The STORY PREMISE, which is the fundamental concept that drives the story, comes from just one of these four pillars. For example:
Plot Pillar – Iron Man, Jaws
Character Pillar – Forest Gump, Rocky
Moral Pillar – Facing the Giants, Ender’s Game
Story World Pillar – Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter

Although the story centers around one pillar, the other pillars are developed to a greater or lesser extent, even for very unidimensional stories. For example, in the summer 2009 film G.I. Joe, the emphasis is on the OUTER STORY, both the action plot and the cool techno-weapons story world. However, even in such an over-the-top action movie, there is also a rudimentary inner love story of loss and redemption hiding between the bombs and outrageous conspiracy theories.

The more you can develop all four of these pillars, the more resonant and gripping your story will become. Some questions you might ask for each pillar:

PLOT: What is your story question? What is your story goal? What are the stakes of your story (the bad things that will happen if your protagonist doesn’t achieve his goal)? What is the main obstacle (usually the antagonist) blocking your protagonist from reaching his goal? What are some other obstacles?

CHARACTER: Who is your protagonist? What does he want in the story? Does he have a secondary protagonist? (The secondary protagonist works with the protagonist as a team to achieve the story goal, and is often a love interest). What is your protagonist’s “hidden” (emotional) need that will be fixed in the story? Who (or what) is the antagonist? What goals are your protagonist and antagonist competing for?

STORY WORLD: What is the time and place of your story? What are common social customs? What do buildings and structures look like? What do your characters eat, wear, and use? What is the weather like?

MORAL: What is the ONE universal principal that you want to explore in your story? Some examples of moral might be:
Romeo and Juliet: Great Love Defies Death.
Forest Gump: Unconditional Love Redeems the Rebel.
Fellowship of the Ring: Willingness to Relinquish Absolute Power Leads to Preservation.
The Godfather: Family Ties Overcome Individual Virtue.
Rocky: Courage and Persistence Lead to Significance.
The Incredibles: Working Together Allows Each Individual to Shine.
By developing all four of these story pillars, you will establish a strong base for your story to resonate with the reader or viewer.

Which of the four story pillars comes most naturally to you as a writer?


  1. The moral, hands down, is what comes most naturally to me. It's generally what begins my story idea. I come up with something I want to communicate.

    Then come the characters, which are eventually followed by the story world. Trailing way behind is the plot. Which is why my first book is boring with no plot arc.

    Fortunately, I learned from that experince and i worked hard at developing a plot for my current story.


  2. I would have to say that the character pillar comes most naturally to me. I tend to focus a lot on inner struggles. Unfortunately, because the plot is usually my weakest point, I spend most of my time developing that, and my stronger point, character development, gets put to the wayside a lot. I have a question for Miss Deardon. How do you know when you have enough of each?

  3. Very helpful post, Miss Deardon!
    "The more you can develop all four of these pillars, the more resonant and gripping your story will become." So true!! Just thinking about my favorite books, I can see how well they developed all four pillars. That's what made them such great stories.

    What comes most easily to me is definitely the character pillar. I spend most of my time on my characters, and I sometimes have trouble with the story world. I think I could be much more descriptive with my story world, but I don't focus on it enough. Thanks for the reminder that all four pillars are important! :)

  4. Characters are easiest for me to develop, probably because characters are what draw me to stories in the first place. Writing pointed morals is probably my hardest thing -- I don't mind morals, but I like them to be hinted at more than anything else, so I can draw my own lines. I hate it when morals swamp the rest of the story, though.

  5. It seems characters are the easiest pillar, since that's my strongest point too. Creating the story world is probably my weakest pillar, though I struggle with moral on occasion, too. To echo Becki Badger, how do you know when you have the right balance? Is it a matter of what feels best to you as the author?

  6. Moral has to be the easiest for me. When I write I don't think "Oh, a story set here would be great." or "A person like that would make a great main character" I determine in my mind what I want people to get out of my story. I find out exactly what I want people to learn or understand after they read it. I am still struggling to make it clear enough, but I am getting better.

  7. Thank you so much for both you insightful post and also your giveaway.
    How do you know what pillar should be more in center? I also want to ask the same question as some of the others. How do you know and find the right balance? And when you find it, how do you accomplish it?

  8. My characters come easy to me as a writer but mostly I try to focus on the plot to get my character to where she (my current project is a female protagonist) needs to end up. The other's I haven't given much thought to.

  9. For me it's the story world and Characters that come the easiest. They often go hand in hand for me. The hardest is the plot and moral. I generally don't focus on the moral too much. I find it bogs down my writing.

    I've read that writing with a message in mind is a "bad" way to write. Do you agree with this?

  10. Hey Amy,
    For me it's the story world. I like to write NZ colloquial stories, so my story settings are always taken from this beautiful country I get to live in. As a local the setting and customs are easy to know and put on paper. I start with my setting which inspires characters, who inspire plot, which inspires a moral.
    Thanks for coming on GTW Amy, and sharing your insightful analysis. :)

  11. I think that I have two main pillars: characters and plot. Sometimes I have some great characters I need a story for, and other times I have a great idea for a story that I need characters for. At the moment I've got both characters and plot going at the same time.

  12. I think that plot is my main pillar, but characters might be a close second. The two might be switched, but I generally think of a plot first, then find the characters. Of course, I also like characters with big personalities, so that often drives the plot. Sometimes it gets frustrating when your characters won't behave with your intended plot...

    I also have very clear pictures in my head for worldbuilding, but I have a difficult time translating that to the page. However, I think morals is definitely my weakest pillar. I sometimes ignore that portion of the story...

    I'll have to check out this book no matter what, though! I also consider myself a scientist, so this sounds like it might very well feed into my desire for the concrete.

    fortheloveofnarwhals at gmail dot com

  13. Plot comes most easily to me. I've always loved stories of any kind, ever since I was a baby. As I got older, I sort of "ran out" of stories. So, of course, I started making my own. Often - too often, maybe - I come up with a back-story or side plot that I regretfully leave out of my main story, simply because it has nothing to do with my original plot line. For instance, just two days ago I was working on some of my characters and decided to make one of them the child of a half-mermaid. All of a sudden, an entire story for how half-mermaids came about flashed into my head, fully-formed and completely plausible. However, it really doesn't have anything to do with my main story, so I know that it won't get into my final draft.

    Examples aside, I also feel that once you've got a plot, the rest just seems to fall into place. When you know what needs to happen, characters appear to do it. A world takes shape to hold them. And when everything's come together to form the story, a moral emerges, bright and glorious. But for me, the plot always comes first.

    You can have a story world worthy of Tolkien, but if you haven't got anything going on in it, who will read it? You can have the kind of characters who feel like they could walk right off the pages; but if they aren't doing anything, what's the point? In my opinion, if you've got no plot, then you haven't got a story at all.

  14. Lol, Steph. That made me laugh.
    "I don't know why I just wrote "peeps." I don't even like that word much. Nor do I like "pics.""

    Same with "fav". I realized that when reading some autobiography I'd written in grade three. :P

    So, um, to answer the question. Could be because of lack of sleep or maybe I just don't like columns and can't even read them -- but I'm a tad slow today. Anyway. I think the character pillar comes the most easily to me. It pieces itself together and makes sense and I just get it.

  15. Hi Everyone, Thank you for such thoughtful comments! Story is important, I believe, because it helps fellow human beings grasp complex ideas and lessons in an approachable fashion, and helps them to live better lives. Even Jesus taught in parables.

    Quick background: under a different name I have a Ph.D. in Physiology, and did bench research before quitting to stay home with our kids. While at home I decided to write a novel. Why not?

    After being surprised by how difficult it was to write my first novel by instinct, I decided to study story structure. Story is an art, not a science, and therefore it can be broken down only so far. Even so, as a scientist analyzing story, I found more similarities and “rules,” if you will, for story construction than I ever suspected.

    A big question coming up in these comments is how to balance all four of these pillars? Basically, there are minimal points that need to be included in each pillar. Once you get these, you can add and embellish to your heart’s desire – this is the “art” part of writing. However, these minimal points of the pillars, and especially the plot pillar, form the skeleton or rigid frame upon which everything is built.

    Fortunately, these minimal points aren’t complicated, and they can be sequentially developed. This is what my book, The Story Template, focuses upon. You don’t have to worry, as you’re writing your manuscript, that you’re putting enough of the other stuff in because you do these tasks in steps. You don’t have to do everything at once.

    I need some time to get back to your individual comments – but thanks so much for your interest!

  16. Thank you Miss Deardon, for guest writing on GTW! It's been really helpful, and I will have to check out your book. :)

  17. Wonderful article. I found myself nodding so much!

    "The more you can develop all four of these pillars, the more resonant and gripping your story will become." That absolutely resonated with me!

    I'll be printing this article out and setting to work on these questions. Great story-developers! :)

    Thanks, Miss Deardon!

  18. Oh, and to echo several other people, the character pillar comes most naturally to me. As I was telling a writing buddy the other day, I sometimes find myself at the end of a full page of description/internal monologue and think, "Oops! Nothing's happening!" :)

  19. Back at you, peeps! (waving to Stephanie)

    Jordan (heavenlyprincess): the moral is what makes the story resonate. The plot, interestingly enough, is the most invariable part of the story and relatively easy to master. So never fear.

    Becki, great question (how do you know when you have enough of each pillar?). I’ve found that each pillar has a few minimal points. Boiled down into a paragraph, the plot pillar uses the story template, the character pillar must have a protagonist “hidden need” and a character arc (solution of the need), the moral represents two strong opposing forces and how one wins, and the story world reflects these pillars and provides a context for the story. If you have these points, you have “enough.” How you write and structure these, and the additions you make to the minimum, make your story into art.

    Clarebear, cute name! I love it. I’m like you with having trouble describing the story world – I don’t notice my environment in real life (this is very bad), and therefore don’t imagine place within the story unless it directly impinges upon the action. The trick, for me, is to go over my ms after I’ve written the other elements to insert story world elements –descriptions and character reactions to the environment. I chuckle every time someone tells me how realistically I depicted first century Jerusalem in my novel A LEVER LONG ENOUGH. Sequential additions, baby.

    Jenna, the great movie executive Sam Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” No one likes to be hit over the head with an author’s viewpoint. I found the best morals were only implied, not preached, and sometimes had a changing message (Ender’s Game) or competing related messages (Lord of the Rings). Moral represents a “battle” between two opposing forces. Some examples of good morals: Romeo and Juliet: Great Love Defies Death. Forrest Gump: Unconditional Love Redeems the Rebel. Fellowship of the Ring: Willingness to Relinquish Absolute Power Leads to Preservation. The Godfather: Family Ties Overcome Individual Virtue. Rocky: Courage and Persistence Lead to Significance.

    Eldra, see above on incorporating story world, and having “enough” with the pillars. I found when writing a story that the difficulty lay in coordinating disparate elements that weren’t clearly articulated. I’ve tried to clarify basics and interactions in my own studies.
    Alyson (princess): I’m with you – the purpose of story, or any sort of art, I believe is to edify. It’s so helpful to be able to clarify what you want to say rather than search around during the first draft to figure it out. The other stuff, again, you just add sequentially.
    4readin: thank you for your nice comments! For which pillar should be center… I think the first thing most of us think of for a story is the plot pillar: what is the story about? We’ve all seen movies where this one (plus the story world) is all that’s going on. These stories evaporate. Characters such as Indiana Jones or Scarlett O’Hara add depth. The abstract pillars, especially the moral, are not “essential” but they are what elevate the story to a resonant level – the book that you repeatedly read, and ponder, because it challenges you.

    Alana, understanding the beginning and end of each scene, or story, is essential! Otherwise there is no sense that the story is progressing. Others call this lack of tension.
    Joshua, I absolutely agree that writing with an explicit message that is preached by every single character is “bad writing” and unpersuasive. The moral (story theme) resonates when you challenge and test it to learn just how strongly it will stand. The best stories have a single, focused theme that is reflected throughout, argued in interactions between character, plot, and story world.

    Bex, NZ must be beautiful. Are you in the city, or country? I think of pastures and mountains and breathtaking natural formations. What are some interesting customs?

  20. Imogen, the plot and characters are the concrete pillars and the easiest to think about. You probably add the story world and moral pillar elements to your stories as well, although you may not be concentrating on them.

    Rin, we scientists have to stick together. Yes, I tried to make this book concrete to help someone through a confusing and frustrating task. Honestly I have not found another book like this one. The books I found while desperately searching for help with my own novel explored small areas of story or techniques, but didn’t explain how they fitted or how to structure components.

    Lindsey, Jeff Gerke says that writers are generally either plot-builders or character-builders. I’m also a plot person. The plot forms the skeleton of the story, the structure upon which all other elements are built. Amen to your statement – without the plot, there is no reason to keep reading.

    Emil, do characters come to live with you, or do you create them at will? Do they interact with each other in your head? That is so cool!

    Becki, back to you! Thanks for stopping by.

    Rachelle, I'm so glad this is helpful. Let me know how things go. And BTW, tension... so great you're recognizing its lack. Your characters always need a goal, even a small one.

    Everyone, I'm so curious now wondering what you're working on! Let me know if you'd like :-)

  21. Great post, I really like th way you describe things!
    Characters and their inner struggles come most natural to me. Making the stakes high enough seems hard

    I'm working on a story where my MC's best friend/crush starts dating her enemy and she trying to figure out how to deal with that BUT some things aren't always what they seem. And that's where I'm stuck, I know there are some secrets but finding good enough secrets? That's not easy. I keep trying though!

  22. I think Plot (usually mingled with the Story World, since it affects my plots so greatly) is what comes firstly when I'm thinking of a story to write. Usually it's the events, entwined with an over-all concept.

    Character, usually of the secondary characters, come next though. The things that really make a story rich--I love dealing with character motivations and reactions. Seeing a plot through a certain characters eyes makes it all a lot of fun, but I usually have the most fun with secondary characters (or other main characters.) You aren't sure unless they say so why they act a certain way.

    That book sounds extrmely interesting and helpful, and I think I'll probably buy it (if I don't win it, LOL.) Maybe I'll put it on my Christmas list!

  23. I think the moral pillar is the closest to me. The first thing I think about while writing a story: What do I want to say? Mosly it takes some time to know who my characters are, and how they are. Plot and Story World pillars are hard. Often when I scroll back, I think: Oké, and what happened? Just nothing... Where does it take place? No idea... And then it doesn't work to go further, so I save the stories and sometimes I read them again, but I can't write more, for I've no 'storyfood' left...

  24. The great thing about writing a novel or screenplay is that you can add each element one at a time. No matter where you are weak, you can concentrate to develop those elements and then blend them into your ms. Trust me, no one will catch this.

    Tonya, stakes are essential. For ideas, do you ever just write ideas to yourself on paper to try to solve the problem? This is helpful to keep focused on the issue, and also you never think of something only to have it slip away, because you've already typed it. Good luck!

    Jessica, subplots are fabulous for mirroring the protagonist's problems, for illustrating or contrasting the theme, and for bringing external helps to the story actions. I love them! They are so enriching to the story.

    Dutch Girl, although I find SOTP writing tempting, it’s almost always easier for me to plan out at least a rough idea of what I want to say. When you’re running out of “storyfood” it sounds like you’re trying to do too much at once. What is the point of the scene you’re writing: why do you want to include it? Sometimes it’s to push the story line, sometimes to show a character reaction. To where is your character heading? What does he/she want? If you can think of a small story goal, plus some good obstacles, often this can get the story moving again from a reaction scene.

  25. Thank you so much! I usually come up wth the main charaters and plot together. As I continue to work it out, I of course have adjust the plot and characters. Sometimes the plot and characters are very different than what I started with.

    Does anyone have a way that you come up with names? Or do they sorta just ' cometo you'?
    I also want to thank you for doing this giveaway. We all really appreciate it.
    {I commented earlier too, but I didn't remember to includemy e-mail. Sorry Stephanie. :( }

  26. Plot and moral come easiest to me - I'm always coming up with crazy storylines and messages to go with them, but I have a lot of trouble coming up with characters and remembering to add details about the story world.

    Thanks for this post - it was very helpful, and I'll definitely be checking into the book.


  27. WOW this was soooooo helpful!:)

    P.S I've never been trick or treating

  28. Plot always comes easiest for me. AlWaYs. Sometimes that drives me crazy, because I end up with fully-planned-out, well-thought-through storylines.... but when I go to write them all my other pillars are missing or very broken down. Character is especially hard for me. I'm not entirely sure why...

  29. I think both plotting the general skeleton of the story and the inner workings (aka the emotions and such) comes pretty easily. Now the detailed outlining, it depends... haha. :)

    How would you recommend getting better in your weak spots Miss Deardon?

  30. Wow, you guys are awesome! I’d love to read your stories – your comments are so insightful.

    4readin, I find that adjusting story/characters is essential. With my students I find that they need to adjust plot pieces and characters to fit their emerging visions, since it’s too much to do “all at once.” There are a few really talented writers (I'm thinking of Stephen King and Dean Koontz who from their bio/instructional books sound like SOTPers) who coordinate from the start, and I just say God bless them. This is too much for most of us mere mortals.

    Naming characters… I’d love to hear what people think of how to do this! If I’m writing within a historical period I research which names are common, but that’s about it.

    Elijah (Saphire), I’m also a plotter. The way to add character is to build in character arcs, and make the solutions of the internal problems critical to the external story line – but even so, either plot or character will probably dominate the story. This is OK; just write.

    For addressing story world, after you’ve written the “story” part go through and add relevant outer detail wherever you can. A resonant trick for this is to DESCRIBE YOUR CHARACTER’S REACTIONS TO THE ENVIRONMENT rather than just giving a laundry list of detail.

    Anonymous, thank you so much :-) Feel free to write to me if you have any questions. (amydeardon at yahoo dot com).

    Jazmine, the detailed outlining is the tough part. When I was struggling with my own novel the structural instructions I found in the literature were vague. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! was the best book I’ve found for this, but sadly wasn’t available when I needed it. After finishing my novel through sheer grit I decided to study story the same way I used to study my experimental results in the lab: coordinating what I knew and what I believed my previous experiments had shown with the new data.

    I found there are pronounced and definite themes throughout the story. Although the triggers are different depending on the type of story (a wedding for a romance, a gunshot for a western), the story bends in the same ways at the same places. I verified this pattern over many stories. I believe it’s possible that story structure may be an inborn human pattern.

    Weak spots… the nice thing about writing is that you don’t have to do it all at once. Speaking scientifically, I like to first articulate what is the problem. If I can understand the elements involved and how they relate, I can then determine how to manipulate or strengthen them. In my expansive literature review, I found that most writers with their “how-to” books promote writing by instinct and/or focusing on an important element but without a comprehensive presentation of the whole. To learn about “how to write” I simply went at the problem from a different perspective: instead of presenting the results of my own trial-and-error writing, I tried to draw general conclusions from many stories. Story is art, of course, not science, but even so there is much to be learned by objective analysis.

    So, that’s a long answer. A practical answer to shore up your weak spots is to be able to clearly articulate WHAT IS THE PROBLEM, and then study how to make it better. With writing you don’t have to do everything at once, so break the story down and develop one element at a time. Combine these elements into little units, then bigger units, and so forth. For THE STORY TEMPLATE I gave a logical progression of tasks that have worked for my own students, but really anything that works to help you envision a complete, compelling story is great!

  31. Congratulations to the winner, Jenna Blake Morris!

    Thanks again, Amy, for being with us!