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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Four Story Pillars (guest post)

Jane's note: I'm very excited today to introduce a guest post by Amy Deardon, author of The Story Template. Her work is the result of an intensive study of successful stories, both movies and novels, breaking them down into their most basic structure and character elements. She took each story and categorized the scenes, timed them (or made note of the page length), noted where and when they occurred, and graphed each story's progress. When she found consistent trends in plot progression and character arc through all these stories, and these elements lacking in stories generally regarded as failures, she combined all this knowledge into her book The Story Template. For more information about her book, you can read my review on my own blog. But for now, I'll turn it over to Amy's discussion of a vital part of story development: the four pillars of your story which will hold up everything that happens in your book. Enjoy!


Even if you’re an SOTP (seat of the pants) writer, a little planning before beginning to write can make writing your story easier. I’ll review here 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:
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 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. 


Amy Deardon is a research scientist who had already written articles, newspaper columns, and other nonfiction when she wanted to write a novel. When getting the words down was more difficult than she anticipated, she undertook a detailed study of how story works. The result is an algorithm published in The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using The Universal Structure Of Story (also available in a print edition.) She's the author of A Lever Long Enough, and has documented her experience of overcoming skepticism with both faith and science at her blog.


Rusty Fairbanks said...

Excellent post! Not only helpful but clear. I have printed this out and will use as a guide as I SOTP work through the first draft of my current WIP.

Amy Deardon said...

Rusty, thanks for your kind words :-) Good luck with your ms.

Karen Duvall said...

This was a great summation of story types and very helpful. I love the idea of how each pillar has aspects of some of the others. I'm in a quandary right now with a dystopian romance (adult) novel that has a story world pillar with more of a man against nature plot, and the "villain" is the sun. There's a human antagonist as well, but he's not the primary obstacle. Point is, it's been a tough story to write, but your article helped me clarify some of dilemmas I've had while writing it. Thanks!

Shelley Schanfield said...

Very succinct and useful.