Dean Koontz's Classic Story Structure

A powerful way to keep your plot fresh and interesting.

Do you struggle to maintain tension? Do you have trouble pacing your stories? Let me introduce Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure, a powerful way to keep your plot fresh and interesting.

I made a lovely infographic for you to download and print. You can find it at the bottom of this email. But first, let’s jump in!

In 1981, best-selling author Dean Koontz wrote a book titled How to Write Best Selling Fiction. In this book, Koontz outlined the four steps he uses to tell great stories.

Unlike other story structures like the Hero’s Journey or Save The Cat, Koontz’s plot structure focuses on the protagonist’s troubles. The gist of this method is: something else always goes wrong.

Step 1: Trouble

Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.

Forget the setup, forget the worldbuilding, forget the backstory. Get your character into terrible trouble on the first page. That way, readers don’t have to guess what your story is about.

“Terrible trouble” depends on your story and genre. It can be anything: a breakup, an accident, a murder, an accusation, an alien invasion, or a vengeful ghost.

The only rule is that the trouble must be genuine, urgent, and life-changing. Otherwise, your story will suffer from low stakes.

Step 2: Plans Backfire

Your main character actively tries to get out of trouble. Everything he does makes things worse for him.

Your character’s attempts to get out of trouble only create new trouble. Avoid coincidences, even if these coincidences cause more problems for the protagonist. He needs to dig his own hole.

Think of it this way: character does X, therefore Y happens, therefore Z goes wrong. Repeat until everything seems hopeless.

Also, resist the urge to get your character out of trouble too early. More trouble means more engaged readers, higher stakes, and a better story.

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Step 3: Everything Seems Hopeless

The troubles add up to the bleakest moment. Defeat appears inevitable.

All doors to victory have slammed shut. Enemies surround your protagonist, and he has no more tricks up his sleeve. This moment should be so bad that you, the writer, wonder how to pull your protagonist out of his hole.

This is the lowest point in the protagonist’s journey — the moment when he is the furthest away from his goal.

Step 4: Victory Against All Odds

The main character rises to the occasion in one final hurrah (and either succeeds or fails).

You spent your whole story throwing obstacles at your protagonist. Readers love him for his tenacity and character. They root for him to succeed. Now, in his darkest moment, they want to see him do the impossible.

The protagonist must use what he has learned to earn his victory. Sometimes this step is a final battle, sometimes a well-executed plan. Whatever it is, you must show the protagonist using the lessons from his past failures to confront the forces that wish to bring him down.

Success often follows Step 4, but sometimes, the story demands that the protagonist must fail. That is fine too.


When using Dean Koontz’s story structure, remember:

  1. Something important must always be at risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (Read more)

  2. You can use coincidences to get characters into the first wave trouble. Coincidences to get them out of trouble are cheating. (Read more)

  3. Set pacing expectations by delivering twists and turns early. Don’t wait until the end.

  4. Readers want your characters to feel real. Make sure your protagonist’s attempts to get out of trouble are realistic and emotionally genuine. (Read more)

That’s it. You can find the infographic at the bottom of this article. Happy writing!

Infographic: Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure

Download it, print it, or share it with your friends. It’s yours to keep. ❤️ 


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