Story Structure is a Thing We All Wrestle With


My next class is live and it’s on the beast we all struggle with, both fiction and nonfiction writers: story structure. There are lots of people out there peddling complex, intricate techniques for writing a hit novel or screenplay. Honestly, I get a little overwhelmed by all that stuff. So I made a class about the methods I actually use when I write my own books. I encourage you to try these out, see if they work, and try some other approaches if they don’t! I include a resource list for further study at the end.

I’ve loved teaching these classes and I especially appreciate your comments, projects, questions, and reviews.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

You might also like Build Great Writing Habits and Start Your Book Today.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled Shape Your Story with these two other writing classes, to create a package designed to get you on the road to writing your book. Go here to check that out.


Start Your Book Today!

When I’m on book tour, the question I hear most often from aspiring writers is: “I have an idea for a book, but where do I begin?”

I get it! Starting a new book is daunting for all of us. In this class, I’m going to walk you through the three steps I take to start a first draft. I promise it’ll be easy, fun, and low-pressure.

–You’ll get to hang out at your favorite bookstore or library.

–You’ll get to tear open a fresh new package of index cards.

–Best of all, you’ll start filling a notebook (or a computer screen!) with pages.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I want to help you get started on your journey! Think of this class as the headlights that will guide you down that first mile.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

You might also like Build Great Writing Habits and Shape Your Story.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled Start Your Book with these two other writing classes, to create a package designed to get you on the road to writing your book. Go here to check that out.

A Totally True Fact About Writing I Just Made Up

Here it is:

A two-hour writing session (I mean a serious session, no goofing around on the internet, but two hours of straight concentration and actual work) is as mentally taxing as taking a standardized test for two hours.

It’s as taxing as doing your taxes for two hours.

Meaning: after two hours, you are mentally drained.

Weirdly, I do not find this to be the case for other kinds of art. I can paint for two hours and I feel fine. I don’t think musicians are totally drained after two hours of playing the guitar.

Maybe two hours of trying to learn something NEW at the easel, or at the keyboard, would be exhausting. But the daily habit of making art? In my life, only writing takes such a toll.

The good news about this is that, after twenty years as a professional writer, I have figured this out about myself and I STOP after a couple of hours. I give it all my attention, all my focus, all my effort. I lock the door, I stay off the internet, I do the work. I write my pages.

But–when those couple of hours are over (or, more accurately, when those 1000 words are written, it just happens to take a couple of hours, more or less), I’m done. I don’t have another hour in me, so there’s no point in staring at the screen and trying to make it happen.

Now I plan my day around this. I give my writing the best few hours of the day (which, for me, is in the afternoon, after lunch) and for the rest of the day, I live my life. I go to the gym, I paint, I take care of some business-y tasks, maybe I do some research–but I don’t feel guilty about not putting in more time.

It helps that I don’t think of this as MY limit. I think of it as THE limit. It’s just a fact. Two hours = standardized test = you’re done for the day.



How I Start a Book


I just sent my editor a very early version of Book 6. While she’s reading it and making her notes, I thought I’d start to mull over Book 7.

This is just one of many methods I might use to start a novel. I didn’t invent it–I believe this is actually a screenwriting technique. Here’s how it works:

Start with one index card. Write the premise of the novel in just one line. It might be something like, “An ordinary boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school.” (If you’re not sure how to sum up your story in one line, read the one-liners in the New York Times bestseller list for examples.)

Then take that idea and break it down into three ideas. That might be:

  1. An ordinary boy with a terrible aunt and uncle receives an acceptance letter to a school for wizards.
  2. He goes off to wizarding school, where he makes new friends and learns how to be a wizard.
  3. He faces off against an enemy and learns some secrets from his parents’ past.

OK, that may not be a perfect three-line summary of the first Harry Potter–it’s been a while since I read it. But you get the idea. You can think of it more or less as Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.

Or: the beginning the middle, and the end.

Or:  Before, During, and After.

Then you take those three cards, and you write three cards about each of them, for a total of nine cards.

That’s as far as I got yesterday. But what comes next is–you guessed it–take those nine cards, and write three cards about each of them, for a total of 27 cards.

Now, I will warn you that at this point it gets a little weird. You might not have three ideas for each of your nine cards. You might find yourself getting a little too detailed in some cards, and staying pretty vague in others. The fact is that most three-act stories aren’t evenly divided into thirds. The first third and the last third are generally much shorter.

But don’t worry about that! These are only index cards! They’re ideas. I’ve filled hundreds of index cards with bad, unworkable ideas. If you have an idea, but you think it won’t work, write it down anyway! It’s just a little card.

Now it’s time for the final step, which is to take all 27 cards and to write three cards about each one. This will give you 81 cards. And you know what 81 cards is?

81 cards is 81 scenes.

81 scenes is a book. Or a screenplay.

Generally speaking, of course! Your mileage may vary. But I promise you that if you can come up with 81 somewhat interconnected ideas for what might happen in your book, then you are on your way.

It’s not the only way to start. It’s not foolproof. Remember–a lot of those cards will have weird, wrong ideas on them! But now you have something tangible that you can mess around with.

Believe it or not, this idea is also super helpful later in the process, when your manuscript is a mess and you’re not sure how to fix it. Take that big pile of pages you’ve written, and translate it back into index cards–starting with just one line, then three, then nine…

You will find the holes in your story! You will have new ideas. You will start to move those cards around, and it will show you how you can move pages around.

At the very least, you’ll feel super-productive. It’s better than staring at a blank screen.


It Doesn’t Matter How Good You Get

So I’ve persuaded you to let go of this idea of talent, and child prodigies, and to put down the neuroscience and back away slowly.

Maybe I’ve convinced you that you—yes, you—could, even with your meager, talentless, non-optimized brain, learn to play the piano or draw a picture.

But! You might argue now. I can’t spend twenty years on this! I didn’t go to art school, and now I can’t. It’s too late. I’m too old. I can’t afford it. I don’t have time.

I took art classes once a week, on Wednesday nights, except when I was out of town, which was often. The classes cost $25. Some weeks I practiced outside of class, and some weeks I didn’t. Then I took some online classes that cost about $30 for several hours of instruction. I took those classes at home, in spare minutes, instead of looking at Facebook.

You probably have twenty-five bucks and a couple hours a week.

Now, I did that for fifteen years. Ah-ha! you might say. There it is. I don’t have fifteen years. I’m sixty already. If I started now, I’d be seventy-five by the time I got to that point.

But guess what? You’re going to be seventy-five anyway. (At least, I hope you will.) The only question is whether you’ll be a skilled artist at the age of seventy-five or not. Which would you prefer?

I thought so. Go ahead and start.

A very nice woman in her early seventies sat down next to me on a bench in Oxford, MS a few months ago while I was doing this not terribly sophisticated drawing. She said what people always say: “Oh, you’re so talented, I wish I could do that, I’ve always wanted to, can I just watch you draw, can I take a picture….”

And I said yes, and she sat where while I drew and we talked. She’d had a tough couple of years, with some health problems and having to move to a small town to take care of her ninety-something year-old mother. Her husband hadn’t yet retired. Everything was kind of rough.

“But someday!” she said. “Maybe in a few years I’ll try something like that.”

This woman is in her seventies, y’all! And I’m not saying that life ends at 70, but…if you’re still postponing things in your seventies? Get going!

And if you’re postponing things in your forties or fifties or sixties, let me warn you…this will be you, in your seventies! Still putting it off! Because that’s what you got used to doing.

“Oh no,” I said. “Not someday. Now. I keep all these art supplies in a bag by the front door. I can walk out the door and be back in half an hour. These are not great works of art that take hours and hours to finish. But I can fill a book with them.”


OK, sure, you might be thinking. Maybe I can take a lesson. Maybe I can keep some art supplies sitting out and pick them up for thirty minutes here and there. Maybe anyone can be taught the technical skills. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not enough to know how to draw. You have to know WHAT to draw. Where to place it on the page. How to set the mood. That can’t be taught.

People have said that to me, and pointed to my drawings as evidence. You chose to draw that clock tower against the sky, they say. I would’ve walked by and never noticed it. That’s your talent.

I have even more bad news: All of that is teachable, too. How to choose a subject is a topic in any drawing course, and, for that matter, in any writing course. How to find a focal point is a topic, in both drawing and writing. Composition—where to place the elements of your drawing so they are arranged pleasingly on the page—that’s a teachable topic (as is story structure, the literary version of composition). How to convey mood through the use of perspective, close-ups, values (light and dark), and color—that’s a teachable topic.

But I’ll never be any good, you’re now protesting, weakly.

I think we finally got to the heart of it, didn’t we?

Here’s a promise: You’ll be as good as the instruction you receive. You’ll be as good as the practice you put in. You’ll be as good as the curiosity and engagement you bring to it.

But—wait. You know what? It doesn’t matter how good you get.

All that matters is whether you enjoy it.

Because when people stop to watch me draw, and say, “I wish I could do that,” the word that matters is DO. They don’t really want to have produced that particular drawing. What they really want is the pleasure of sitting under a tree with a watercolor set, creating some passable facsimile of the scene in front of them. It’s the activity that looks so pleasurable to people.

And anyone can learn to make a passable drawing of a landscape, and enjoy doing it.

Anyone can learn to play three chords on the guitar, which will allow you to play a recognizable version of almost every popular song written since 1950.

The question isn’t how good you’ll get. I’m willing to bet that your wish to paint, or draw, or write poetry, isn’t born out of a desire to make art that other people will universally regard as brilliant. You’re probably not longing to play the piano because you want to hear other people praising you.

You probably just really want to do that thing, and to do it well enough that you don’t give up in frustration after five minutes. You want to be able to play a song all the way through to the end. You want to be able to fill a sketchbook with memories of your trip. You want to write a story about that thing that happened to you.

Guess what? You can. The Talent Fairy did not pass you by. The truth is that the Talent Fairy was a figment of your imagination.

Now that she’s out of the way, go sign up for a class. Make something, and enjoy doing it.

This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them:

“Did You Always Know…” Here’s What’s Weird About that Childhood Question

Your Sister Didn’t Take Art Away From You.

I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent

It Doesn’t Matter How Good You Get

I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent


By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28963831

I can hear your objections already.

But…child prodigies!

I don’t know why some people are child prodigies and I don’t care. Child prodigies exist on one extreme end of a spectrum of what children are capable of doing. I wasn’t a child prodigy and neither were you, so let’s stop involving them in this conversation.


I know. I get it. You have a vague idea that Science Says that some people’s brains are just wired for music or painting or writing or dancing. You have definitely read this somewhere. Surely Georgia O’Keeffe’s brain was wired for color and abstraction. Surely Miles Davis’ brain was wired for jazz. Surely e.e. cumming’s brain was wired for groundbreaking free verse.

You know this because you have a nephew who can play anything. Just give him a musical instrument and a couple hours, and he’ll have it figured out. You have a neighbor who speaks five languages and can get by in a dozen more. You have a cousin who’s some kind of math genius, you don’t even understand it, but what she can do is really special.

And that’s because of their brains. It’s because of neuroscience. It has to be.

Because if it wasn’t their very special brains, where does that leave us?

It leaves us with the possibility that if someone carries out their craft with a basic amount of skill, it’s because they took classes and practiced. If they do it exceptionally well, it might be that they studied with some very good teachers and practiced with particular focus over a long period of time.

It leaves us with the possibility that any one of us could do the same.

That’s terrifying, so let’s retreat back to this idea of talent for a minute. I got curious about when we invented the word talent, and what it originally meant. When did we first develop this idea that talent was an inborn trait?

It turns out that the word ‘talent’ goes back to the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. It was a unit of measurement—specifically, a measurement of weight. For example, a talent of gold might have been the equivalent of the value of one cow. There’s a parable of talent in the Bible, in which ‘talent’ refers to material possessions—to wealth, to things of value that you own.

OK, I can see a connection to our modern use of the word. But how did we go from seeing talent as a material good to seeing it as a skill?

That change seems to have happened in the fifteenth century, but maybe there’s a clue from ancient Greece, where another definition was applied to the word talent. Instead of a talent of gold being equal to the value of a cow, it was equal to the value of one person’s lifelong labor—which at that time was twenty years.

Wait. A talent equals twenty years of a person’s working life? A working life that was no doubt spent apprenticing and practicing?

In that case, ‘talent’ wasn’t meant to be something you were born with at all. It was something that took you twenty years of effort to acquire. Quite literally, it meant the wages you earned over twenty years—but you might think of it as the accumulation of skill, too.

So let’s get back to you… (stay tuned for the next post)

This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them:

“Did You Always Know…” Here’s What’s Weird About that Childhood Question

Your Sister Didn’t Take Art Away From You.

I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent

It Doesn’t Matter How Good You Get

Your Sister Didn’t Take Art Away From You

A couple months ago, I was sitting on a bench at the Atlanta Botanical Garden drawing pictures. A woman walked by and said, “Look at that! You’re so talented. I wish I could draw like that. I always wanted to.”

“You can,” I said. “All you have to do is take some drawing lessons. That’s what I did.”

“Oh, no,” she insisted. “I can’t. I don’t have the talent. My sister’s the artist.”

I laughed, but I wanted to cry. “You sound just like me. I used to say that. My brother’s the artist. My father’s the musician. Not me.”

She was having none of it. “Oh, but you should see my sister! She’s so good. I just can’t do what she does. So I became a psychologist.”

OK, there’s probably an entire life history in that sentence, but I knew she wouldn’t stick around long enough to unpack all that. Instead I said, “I couldn’t do it, either. I wasn’t born knowing how to draw. Nobody is. And you know what, mostly I learned ink and watercolor in some online classes that don’t cost much, and I did it in the winter when I couldn’t get outside anyway.”

“Really?” she asked. Hesitant. Unsure. Not believing me. “Because there’s good science that shows that some people are naturally more predisposed…”

“It doesn’t matter,” I cut in. “Really. You can do this. You just have to take some classes.”

She was starting to back away. “I don’t know.”

I added, “Your sister didn’t take art away from you.”

Now she laughed, but she looked like she wanted to cry, too. “You mean I have to stop blaming my sister for this?”

“Yes, you do.”

A few minutes later, another woman walked by. Same deal. “Oh, that’s so beautiful. You are so talented. I wish I could do that.”

“You can,” I said, sounding like a broken record. “You just have to take lessons.”

“Oh, no,” she insisted. “I tried. I went to Paint Night here at the garden, and I just couldn’t do it. I don’t have a talent for it.”

“I didn’t have a talent for it either,” I said. “I didn’t used to be able to do this. Then I took come classes. Now I can. It’s something you learn.”

She laughed, nervous. “Oh, I don’t know about that…”

I couldn’t show her any proof, but here is some proof for you. Below is a picture I just found in an old notebook, drawn when I was 30 and thinking about taking an art class. No sane person would claim that I had an ounce of talent for drawing. If you drew this, it would serve as proof to you that you had no talent and should not pursue art.

Now, you’re not required to love the picture below that, and you might question why I haven’t made a little more progress in 19 years. Nonetheless, this is what I do now, after years of art classes. It’s the kind of drawing that leads people to use the word “talent” when they see what I do.

What’s most important is that I’m really happy with it. It’s one of my favorite drawings I did this year.  I was not really happy with that lighthouse drawing.

Drawn when I was 30 and had never taken an art class
Drawn when I was 49 and had taken a bunch of art classes

So here’s the deal. We have this idea that there’s a thing called Talent, and that some people are born with it, and others are not, like blue eyes or curly hair.

If you have Talent, you can play an instrument or sing a song or paint a painting or write a book.

If you don’t have Talent, you can’t do any of those things. Need proof? Try it once, with no training or instruction, and show the world how you failed at it.

There. You’d like to do it, but you don’t have Talent. Your one failed attempt is proof of that.

Your sister has Talent. There was only one Talent, and your parents had to decide which kid to give it to, so they gave it to your sister.

Or maybe nobody in your family has Talent. There. See? We don’t have it in our family. And if we did have it, we’d have to argue over which one of us gets to keep it, so it’s just as well we don’t have a single one.

So I’m here today to call bullshit on the very idea of Talent as an inborn trait, something that you either have or don’t have as a result of your birth.

This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them:

“Did You Always Know…” Here’s What’s Weird About that Childhood Question

Your Sister Didn’t Take Art Away From You.

I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent

It Doesn’t Matter How Good You Get


“Did You Always Know…?” Here’s What’s Weird About That Childhood Question

I get asked some version of this question a lot: “Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer, even when you were a little girl?”

When I wrote a book about plants or bugs, it would be: “Did you love bugs or flowers or gardening when you were a child?”

“Have you always loved to read?”

“Did you draw and paint when you were little?”

I’ve always thought this was a strange question. What does it matter whether a person did a thing when they were a child or not? The world would be a very strange place if we all pursued our childhood interests. We’d have a lot of ballerinas and astronauts, but who would do our taxes?

And anyway, what’s wrong with picking up an interest in something when you’re thirty, or fifty, or eighty?

We like to hear that people who make art must have been born that way. We want a story about how those seeds were planted early.

But I’m delighted to say that it doesn’t work that way at all! Whatever your interest, whatever your pursuit, you can start at any time.

I was at an event recently in which every author was asked to speak about how they got started. Everyone’s talk started with “When I was five…” or “My earliest memory…”

I looked out at the audience, mostly women, all adults, many retired, and thought, “Well, this would be dispiriting for anyone who has a longing to start writing.”

So I said something different. You can watch it here:


This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them:

“Did You Always Know…” Here’s What’s Weird About that Childhood Question

Your Sister Didn’t Take Art Away From You.

I’m Calling Bullshit on the Whole Idea of Talent

It Doesn’t Matter How Good You Get

The Bling Layer: Try This When You’re Revising Your Novel.

In a painting workshop with Carol Marine I learned this trick: At the very end of a painting, add the bling. The bling is that tiny, bright detail that makes a painting come to life. It’s the highlight on the rim of a coffee cup, the dark shadow under the tires of a car, the traffic light way down at the end of the block, glowing green. You can’t paint these details earlier in the process, because you’ll obliterate them with the broad brush strokes that have to come first.

Here’s a video of Carol painting apples. Watch her drop in the bling layer at the end. See how the painting pops right at the end?

After the workshop, I started to do this with my writing, too. At the very end of the process, right before I send the manuscript to my editor, I print out the entire novel and scramble the pages so they’re out of order. (Or, if I don’t want to print it out, I make a list of page numbers, pick pages at random, edit on the computer, and cross out page numbers as I go.) It’s important to read the manuscript out of order, so that I don’t get distracted by larger story questions. This revision is all about language.

This legal pad is on my desk right now, as I do my bling layer revision for the fifth Kopp Sisters novel. I pick a page at random, read it aloud (this part’s important–you must read your books aloud, because you’ll find every awkward, inauthentic bit of writing), and I look for the most drab, clunky, clichéd, boring bit of language on that page–and I turn it into the best piece of writing on that page.

Maybe it’s just a matter of swapping out a single flat, unimaginative word for something unexpected and beautiful (or horrifying).

Maybe a predictable line of dialogue can become something much more specific and true to the character.

Maybe an easy, obvious description can be changed so it tells us something we don’t already know.

The bling layer is all about adding delight, honesty, specificity, and surprise. You’re dropping in treasures for your readers to find. It’s not just line editing, although I do that, too.  This pass is very much about adding something wonderful.

If you’re doing a bling layer revision, ration those pages so you don’t run out of juice. You might find that you can only come up with ten brilliant ideas per day. Fine. Do ten pages a day. Put on some music first, dance around the room, take a walk, read a page of Dickens—whatever it takes to get yourself in the right mindset to sprinkle a little magic into your manuscript.

Hate the Idea of Outlines? Try a Thumbnail Sketch Instead.


Most artists begin with some version of a thumbnail sketch. It might look like this one: a tiny, rough drawing, made with the purpose of working out where the big shapes go. Generally there’s some attempt at indicating value (light and dark) as well. You might do four of these before you settle on a composition that works.

When I do an oil painting, I’m generally working from a photograph, so I’ve already messed around with the composition on my computer and cropped it to suit. But I still do something like a thumbnail: I make a rough drawing on the canvas, using just one color of paint, to work out the values and the big shapes.

Same with sketching. I don’t generally make a thumbnail before I start to sketch–after all, the sketches themselves are already small and informal–but I do draw in the major shapes first, very lightly, in pencil. I almost always erase and adjust. Then, when I start to draw in pen, I change the drawing again, because now I’ve been looking more closely, and I can make better observations than I could even a few minutes earlier.

These are very ordinary, everyday techniques for artists. I’ve realized, over time, that the thumbnail sketch doesn’t just help solve problems. It isn’t solely a means of deciding how high or low the horizon should be, or whether the focal point should be to the right or left of center.

It’s also a way of ruminating over a subject before committing to it. It’s a way of making a first pass through your idea, and getting better acquainted with it. It’s a way of connecting your subject to your eye, and your eye to your hand. If you make any kind of art, you know that connection has to be rebuilt every time you pick up your instrument.

So how do writers make a thumbnail sketch?

Lots of writers make outlines. There are as many different types of outlines as there are writers constructing them. Index cards, diagrams, mind maps, character sketches, Scrivener corkboards–people love that stuff. Also, some people hate that stuff. I know plenty of writers who can’t stand the idea of an outline. They have to wade right in.

There are also writers who keep journals (and even bullet journals). They keep track of character development, themes that are emerging, problems to be worked out. They might write as much in their journal as they do in their actual manuscript.

I do something in between. I think of it as a thumbnail sketch for writers.

I started keeping a writing journal a couple years ago, right after the 2016 election, when, like many artists, I was too distraught to work. I just picked up a blank notebook and started writing about how miserable I was and how nothing mattered anymore and how I couldn’t imagine starting another novel.

Then I wrote about how I couldn’t figure out what to write about.

Then I wrote about how I did know what to write about, if I was being honest, but I didn’t know HOW to write about it.

Then I wrote a few paragraphs about that thing I couldn’t figure out how to write, and next thing you know, I’d made a little thumbnail sketch–in words–about the first page of my novel.

Then I wrote the first page of my novel.

That’s more or less how I proceed all the time now. I sit down and write ABOUT what happens next in the book. I write about all the things I haven’t figured out. “This is the scene where she catches the thief,” I write, “but I still don’t know how she catches him. The trouble is that he broke in at midnight, and she doesn’t arrive until the next morning…” and on I go, until I’ve worked out some plausible way for the next scene to proceed.

The problem isn’t always “what happens next?” Sometimes the problem is the tone. “This is supposed to be a funny scene, but I don’t feel funny today. Nothing’s funny.” Then I find myself writing about what MIGHT be funny, if only I could bring myself to consider it, and pretty soon I’m writing my funny scene.

Like a thumbnail sketch, this type of writing lets me work out the big ideas and put them into place. I can’t just think about a thing inside my head and then execute it flawlessly. I need to noodle around with it first, using the same tools I’ll use to make the finished thing, whether that’s a pen, a paintbrush, or a piano keyboard.

That’s how I connect my subject to my brain, and my brain to my hand. Once I do that, I’m off and running.