Craft, Thrillerfest, Writing Life

Steve Berry’s Advice on Story Structure

The 6 C’s of Story Structure:

It’s Not Everything – It’s Absolutely Everything

notes from a lecture given by Steve Berry at the 2013 Thrillerfest

July 10, New York City

  • Stories must have structure
  • the number one problem in stories by new writers is that they lack structure
  • 3 parts: Act 1,2,3

He drew three columns on the board and labelled them by Acts.

Act 1 (20%) Act 2 (60%) Act3 (20%)
C = characters -the fewer the better (<5) C– complications C= crisis
C= conflict 1 or 2 subplots C = conclusion
C = crucible
Pace – steadily up (noble plot line) Pace – bumpy Falling action
  • This is “story” at its elemental form
  • Start a book as close to the end as possible (you have to know the end)
  • He likes his stories to take place in 24-48 hour time frames, but has gone up to a 2 week frame
  • Characters: POVs between 2 and 5
  • Conflict – the best is that which touches the human heart because everyone can relate to it (eg., father /daughter conflict)
  • Tries to make the conflict more internal
  • Suggests the following format: (Chapter 1 – Introduce the protagonist, 2- Antagonists, 3 another POV etc. to 5)
  • Have to introduce POV characters immediately
  • Cruciblethe thing that makes the protagonist do something he normally wouldn’t do
  • Must be: Immediate direct and plausible
  • Complications – need a lot
  • Crisis – The subplot resolution must be vital to the resolution of the main plot
  • Everything in your book must do 1 of 4 things: maintain suspense, advance plot, develop character, add comic relief – otherwise it is filler
  • Best to have everything do 2 to 3 of the 4 things
  • Learn to stretch out the subplot
  • Conclusion – Don’t aggravate the reader by not tying things up at the end
  • He experienced 12 years of rejections, 85 in total, for 8 manuscripts
  • It took him 8 years to learn the structure above, but he swears by it.
  • “No one in the world can teach you to write, but there are some who can teach you how to teach yourself how to write.”
  • He only kills people if he has to
  • His editor begins to read his work when he’s half way through writing it
  • You need to start with a good opening sentence (It should never be a weather report or dialogue)
  • Every time you start a new story try something new
  • His process “inventory”: 90% thinking 5% writing
  • he plots 100 pages ahead.

If any of the notes don’t make sense, trust me, it’s my error and not Steve Berry’s. His lecture was clear and concise proving that he’s not only a great writer, but also a a great teacher.

Note: Next Wednesday I’ll share my notes on John Sandford’s Thrillerfest lecture, “Small Things: Techniques and Ideas to Burnish Your Text”

17 thoughts on “Steve Berry’s Advice on Story Structure

  1. Jo-Ann, great post. I really can’t get a story off the ground until I have the right first sentence. When I finally get that right, the story seems to flow better. Eons ago, a college professor impressed on me to “Begin with the end in mind”. She insisted if you didn’t you’d wander around blindfolded throughout your story.

    Thanks for sharing Steve’s method!

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    1. Jerrie
      Thank you. He spoke with passion and conviction. It was really something to be in the room listening to him.
      It takes me a long time to settle into my first sentence, but when I get it right everything feels better. I like your profs line about the end. It makes sense.
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing in the conversation.
      Best
      Jo-Ann

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  2. Jo-Ann, thanks for this update! Very helpful (and scary) Did you enjoy Thrillerfest? Was it worth the money–would you go again?

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    1. Hi
      I loooooved Thrillerfest and am putting my loonies (Canadian dollars) aside to go again. I love the genre and it was a well organized conference. I got to go to craft sessions with the best writers in the world, talk to agents and network with fellow writers. I can’t say enough good things about it. And it was New York.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  3. Thanks for this post. I like the fresh way Steve has explained this method. I also like the last comment about plotting 100 pages ahead. Sometimes I lose a sense of good plotting if I try to plot too much ahead, but I’m also not a true pantser. Looking 100 pages ahead seems realistic.

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    1. Darlene
      Thanks for visiting and adding a comment.
      I have trouble seeing ten pages ahead, lol, but I do notice that the longer I work at my writing the better my vision becomes. I like to plan plot twists and move towards them, but my process is still developing.
      I love Steve Berry’s humility. He wasn’t born knowing how to do this. He learned it. That being said, he also has a whole lot of talent to settle into his structure.
      Nice chatting
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  4. It’s interesting. His story structure made me think of Michael Hauge’s structure -which is quite similar. I think some authors seem to fall into this pattern rather naturally, and for others it seems to take alot of work.
    I enjoyed his honesty about his number of rejections. There are quite a number of folks who are ready to use their rejection letters as wallpaper. It’s a tough biz.

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    1. Hi Jodie
      It fascinates me how some writers have a “sense of story” in their bones. That is they fall into it naturally as you say, while others develop an understanding in a more cerebral analytical way.
      When I taught children, I could spot the naturals a mile away. They were usually the lucky ones who had been read to the most when they were young, the ones who loved books, but not always. They had an instinctual sense of story.
      I think I have some sense of story, but having it explicitly mapped out helps me a great deal. I can look at “the map” and say, “Oh yeah, need to work on that point here.”
      I love rejection stories. They always make me feel better.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  5. Hey, Jo-Ann. Sorry to be so late to comment. Having issues with my other email. As in I can’t access it at all. Hoping the technician coming this afternoon can fix whatever. 🙂
    Nice summary of Barry’s structure. I confess that while I’m a planner, I never use one of these kinds of things. We’ve had Michael Hague at one of our NT conferences before, and I’ve heard some other presentations. Not sure why the process seems so awkward to me, but it really does. I may have to give it a try with the next new book. Maybe it would make the writing go faster. 100 pages ahead is not near enough for me. I plan out most of the events with my internal external conflict chart. Other stuff may happen, but I’ve got the general outline (not in the true sense of the word) for the story.
    I so do not agree with his timing in the book. 24-48 hours! Nah, don’t particularly like to read that and sure don’t write that. But hey who am I anyway? I think what all this demonstrates is that a writer should use whatever works for him/her, but be open to new things. Just as there are different writing styles out there, there are readers who like different things, too. Win-win for everyone. Thanks for the informative post. Look forward to the next one. 🙂

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    1. Hi Marsha
      Sorry to hear about your email trouble.
      I’m reading your new book, Vermont Escape, and thoroughly enjoying it.
      I haven’t heard Michael Hague speak yet. Hope to some day. I love learning about the different approaches to telling stories.
      The short time frame Steve Berry works with fits the thriller genre, IMHO. Not so much for a romance, which can build slowly.
      Are you working on a new book? I’m polishing my last one for submissions, and really looking forward to starting something new. There are so many things I’ve learned from this one that I won’t do in the next one, lol.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and chatting.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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  6. Hi Jo-Ann,

    I’m late to the table, but want to thank you for your excellent post, and for sharing Steve’s spot-on advice. I found your blog while Googling for Berry’s Thrillerfest input– a fellow Critique Circle member commented on how great his presentation was. You and Steve have inspired me to save up and attend the next ThrillerFest!

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    1. Alex
      Hope to see you there. Thrillerfest is expensive but the quality of information available there is outstanding. Check out my other Thrillerfest lecture notes.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Next Wed. I’ll review my top ten ideas from Thrillerfest.
      Best Wishes
      Jo-Ann

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