Journaling and Basic Story Structure


A car whipped by with outdated license tabs. The sheriff’s deputy hit the lights and pulled the little ’90’s-something Toyota Camry over to the shoulder. A young couple sat inside. Teens, early twenties.

The deputy radioed in his stop, then paused before getting out of the patrol car. “See that massive collection of air fresheners hangin’ from the rear-view mirror?”

I nodded.

“They’ve been smokin’ drugs. They’re tryin’ to mask the smell.”

I cocked my head like a dog. He could tell that from air fresheners?

The deputy got out of the car. Glanced at me. Locked the doors.


JournalSounds like an excerpt from my latest novel, right?

Nope. That’s a snippet out of my journal. My first sheriff’s ride-along.

I heard it said once, a long time ago, that good writers should keep a journal. Didn’t have a clue why, but since I was already keeping a journal, I just kept on keeping a journal.

In hindsight, I can now recognize a whole slew of reasons why I’m glad I’ve kept a journal. One of them is that journaling taught me to recognize basic story structure in real-life scenarios and how to use that structure effectively.

So what is basic story structure? It’s really simple. You’ll have this memorized in a heartbeat:

Characters find themselves in a conflict which reaches a climax before arriving at a resolution.

Every story ever told is built on that uber-simple story structure: Characters, conflict, climax, resolution. And interestingly, every event in your life is also built on that same story structure. Whether that event spans an hour or a lifetime.

The beauty of journaling is that you can break out the story structure again and again and again and practice writing it effectively–without having to create a story from scratch every time.

  • The above excerpt from my journal introduces the conflict (and implies the characters): A sheriff’s deputy pulls over a couple of people who may be in possession of controlled substances … and guns.
  • The story built toward the climax as the deputy questioned the driver, then searched the car with his drug dog.
  • The story climaxed when the deputy and his backup uncovered the drugs inside the car.
  • It reached a resolution when they placed the occupants of the car under arrest.

In this real-life scenario, there were no guns, and the suspects gave in pretty easily when the handcuffs came out. In a story context, we may well decide to up the ante. But that doesn’t change my point: The four basic elements of a story were all present and accounted for.

Keep a journal long enough, and you’ll realize that almost every event in life fits into that basic story structure: characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.

Keep a journal long enough, and you’ll get good at writing it, too.

There are numerous other ways in which journaling has benefited me as a writer, but I’ll save that for another time.

Do you keep a journal? Do you think it’s helped you become a better writer? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Clinics in This Series:

Check out the Journaling Book!

Journaling to Become a Better Writer by Danielle Hanna

If you like this blog post series, you might like the book, too. What do your novel-in-progress and your journal have in common? Maybe more than you think. Your life, after all, is a story. The tools you need to take your craft to the next level may be hiding right under your nose.

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