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A bare-bones plot formula by a master of suspense

If you’re looking for the simplest method of plotting a page-turning novel then I think I’ve found it. It’s thriller author Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure, as outlined in his book How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.

Mega-popular author Jerry Jenkins credits this method with catapulting him from the mid-list genre doldrums into New York Times bestseller stardom. So if it can work for Dean and Jerry, it can work for us too. In other posts I’ve written about the basic three-act structure that forms the basis of many movie and novel plotting systems (e.g. the Hero’s Journey). Koontz’s system takes this structure and simplifies it, making it ideal for pantsers and other writers with a phobia of detailed plotting schemas.

Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure

Here’s a rough summary of Koontz’s Classic Story Structure (paraphrased for clarity and with some added explanation):

1. Introduce the hero and plunge them into immediate trouble

Don’t waste time with lengthy introductions and backstory – get the trouble going as soon as possible. The type of trouble will differ in intensity depending on your genre (e.g., life-threatening in a thriller, a puzzle in a murder mystery, a chance meeting in a romance). In whatever guise the trouble appears, it must compel the hero to take action (leading to point 2).

2. The hero attempts to solve the problem but only slips deeper into trouble

Make things progressively more difficult for your hero. Every choice they make leads them into further jeopardy. This sequence, sometimes termed the rising action, will be the main body of the story. Tension builds until …

3. The situation appears hopeless and a moment of crisis occurs

The hero has tried every trick in their repertoire and they seem to be on the point of utter defeat. This is the ‘dark night’ that features in many plotting structures. This moment of apparent failure forces the hero to reach deep into themselves to find an unrecognised strength or to overcome the weakness that has held them back all along. To emerge from the dark night, the hero needs to undergo a realisation and transformation, learning a truth about themselves that they have been avoiding (or failing to learn it if the story is headed for a tragic ending).

4. The hero faces the antagonist one last time and succeeds or fails

Armed with the knowledge or power gleaned in the dark night, the hero faces the antagonist one last time. In genre fiction, the audience will be expecting the hero to succeed. In tragedies or more literary works, the final confrontation might end in defeat or ambiguity. Either way, the original trouble is now resolved for good or bad and the story is complete.

Follow the character

The key to working with this formula is to understand that it is a character-driven approach that focuses on what a character does (and learns) in response to a crisis. The character’s development leads the way: As long as they are growing towards some ultimate triumph or failure in response to mounting challenges, the story stays on course. As I see it, all Koontz’s story points will fit into the classic three-act structure (e.g. inciting event, rising action, dark moment, climax, resolution) – it’s just that he eliminates the formal aspects of the structure and focuses on the driving force behind it, namely character, crisis, response and growth.

So if you’re more of a pantser than a plotter, try this approach and see how far it takes you.

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