Structure, Outlines and Formulas


As I learn more about writing, I have tried to develop my own approach. In this post I will try to organize my thoughts.

Many writers disdain “formula” writing. I am not one of those. I look to formulas as a tool to help me write. I think that all writers use formulas, but great writers develop a new formula for each story.


In movie making the most common structure is three acts. When I’ve tried to use this, I find it doesn’t help me with the second act, which usually makes up 70% to 90% of the movie.

I found an approach that I find  works better for me through a study of the writers Lester  Dent and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lester Dent’s article on his formula was particularly useful. (see: )

Dent formula is for a 6,000 word action story, but I have used it for other types of stories. I want to write stories  that are longer than 6,000 words. Since he divides a story into four parts, I developed a multilevel structure based on the four parts. My structure has three levels.

  • Acts – The top level I think of as parts, but they could be called acts. The story has four acts.
  • Sequences – The second level I call sequences. Most movie writers think of sequences as a series of scenes that build upon each other. This is how I use it in my formula. Each act has four sequences.
  • Scenes – The third level are scenes. By this I mean what most people think of a scene. Each scene will tell a little story that moves the main story along. In my way of looking at it, several scenes can happen at the same location and time. Each sequence has four scenes.

The final structure will have four acts, sixteen sequences and sixty-four scenes. This structure is used for planning the story. As you work through the story, you can add or eliminate scenes sequences and event acts as needed to make the story work.

Purpose of Each of Part

I deviate from Dent’s approach in how I see the purpose of each of the four parts of the structure. The different parts are:

  • Realization – where the protagonist realizes that he faces a barrier. Initially the protagonist doesn’t want to deal with the barrier, but then realises that they need to.
  • Weak Response – where the protagonist makes an initial attempt to over come the barrier. In general this attempt will fail. In cases where it succeeds, it will turn out that he has only succeeded with part of the barrier.
  • Distraction – where the protagonist is distracted from the goal to get past the barrier. This is a special kind of barrier, in that it is not directly related to the primary barrier, it only distracts them from their efforts to over come the primary barrier.
  • Strong Response – where the protagonist makes a more concerted effort to get past the barrier. This may, or may not succeed.

These four parts are repeated at each level. The four acts will be realisation, weak response, distraction and strong response. The four sequences within each act will have the same structure, as will the four scenes within each sequence.

The mistake I have often made in the past is to put too much effort into subplots. This structure forces me to concentrate on the main story. Any subplots would only show up in the distraction step.


Each of the acts, sequences and scenes involves the protagonist meeting a barrier and either overcoming it, or failing to over come it. I start by brainstorming a collection of barriers and ways of overcoming them. We would need a total of 84 barriers for  the complete outline. However, it is wise to generate far more than that. Many ideas just won’t fit into the story when you need them.

My next step is to start identifying at which level a barrier is used. A locked door could be a barrier in a scene, or in a sequence or in an act. It might even be that the goal of the whole story is to open the door. The various barriers can then be slotted into a scene, sequence or act. I would start with the acts and then move to sequences and finally scenes.


I haven’t really put much thought into characters. Usually I focus on the plot and the character develops from that. Some times I come up with lines that I want the character to say, and then use them to define the character. This may not be a good way to do it, but I do find that characters will often begin to take on a life of their own.


As I said above, I see this formula as a way to get started with a story. When it comes time to write, I don’t want to be trapped by the outline. It needs to stay flexible. I often find it hard to rewrite because I have become attached to the story the way it is. Even when I am not happy with the story, I find it difficult to break out of the structure.


I see the creation of the outline (formula, structure, whatever) as the bulk of the work of writing. The actually writing of the story is much easier after a good outline has been done. That said, I still have difficulty with the actual writing of the story. In part this may reflect that I think like a movie maker, and the script is really just an outline you fill in with the help of others.

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