Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Circus tents and story structure

Larry Brooks
Larry Brooks

The snapshot of my “treadmill” journal in my previous post has a reference to “circus tent plots.” That’s worth explaining.

I took a Writer’s Digest webinar in March led by Larry Brooks. The webinar focused on making sure you have a compelling premise for your book, but Brooks also talked briefly about a novel’s structure being like a circus tent. I went to his website later and found a series of posts under the category of Story Structure. I was blown away by the level of detail he offers.

In a nutshell, Brooks says a novel should have:

Four parts [with] four unique contexts and missions for the scenes in them. Two major plot points and a midpoint. Call them plots twists if you want to…. A compelling hero’s need and quest. Formidable obstacles. A couple of pinch points. A character who learns and grows, someone we can empathize with and root for. Scenes that comprise connective tissue between them all.

Beyond the function of each of the four parts, he tells you roughly how many pages and scenes each part should be. Once you figure out what your “milestone” scenes are, “you will, at any given moment in the process, be writing toward them and/or from them, setting them up and then being propelled forward because of them.”

A glimpse of Larry Brooks’ four-act novel structure
A glimpse of Larry Brooks’ four-act novel structure

To say I have been craving that sort of direction would be an understatement. It is liberating and energizing to have such a clear, practical insight into structure. Maybe other writers come to it intuitively, but I definitely needed help.

Brooks emphasizes that he’s not saying that you have to outline your book. Instead, he is offering guidelines and principles for making your story as compelling as possible. In a passage aimed at writers who prefer to figure out their novel’s story by writing multiple drafts, he wrote:

If you’re a drafter instead of a blueprinter…the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages again does that to a writer.

That hit me right between the eyes.

Check out his website at If you’re looking for help with structure, you won’t be disappointed.

You can also click here for a PDF of the full circus tent poster referenced in the image above.

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