When I moved out of the military barracks, I was introduced to an unexpected horror: Solo cooking.  The guidance was framed from the perspective of family cooking, and implication was, “Get a family.”  Every recipe was made for a family, not an individual. That’s the way it seems for pantsers when it comes to structure.  There are many resources that weave it in with outlining, the implication being, “Do an outline.”  And if you’re like me, you probably can’t.

But a TV series like NCIS is a rich source of structure examples.  In a book, structure can disappear into the story, but in a TV show, the commercial breaks highlight it.

DVD cover for NCIS showing Gibbs in foreground and remaining cast in background.


Structure tells you where all the high points should fall to help build the story’s tension.  When NCIS breaks for a commercial, the end of the act has to be interesting enough to make the viewer come back instead of surfing to find another show.  I didn’t understand the importance of it until I read an indie book without structure.  It bolted from one crisis to another, and by fifty pages, I was drained.


The inciting incident occurs within the first few minutes of the show starting.  Two men are using a satellite to spy on a sunbather when witness a murder of a Navy officer.   It’s an event to put the series characters on the course they will follow over the episode.


Admittedly, the show is formulaic in its structure.  But that makes it’s easy to watch for the patterns.  Pantsers tend to be big picture thinkers, so we can relate to patterns.  Each act ends with a setback, like the prime suspect dying.  Along the way, there are small successes and small failures.  Ducky discovers the cause of death, but it reveals the killer had military experience. Abby tests the bullet but it was destroyed on impact.  This keeps the show balanced so we’re getting more information, and we’re finding out that not everything is as it seems.


By the time we hit the last two acts of the show, the tension has been building up.  Now we’re a crisis, and the agents have to resolve it fast.  This is what structure gives us — when we get to the end of the story, we cannot put it down.

The advantage of using a TV series like NCIS for structure is that, if it’s not in rerun in your area, you can get the DVDs from Netflix or Amazon.  Also very useful is to look at the extras for the behind the scenes information.  Some extras provide insights into how the stories were structured.

For you:  As a pantser, what methods have you used to learn how to do structure?  Post in the comments below.

About the author

Linda Maye Adams Linda Adams has been published in Enchanted Spark and Fabula Argentea and has a non-fiction story in the upcoming Red, White, and True from the University of Nebraska Press. She is a female war veteran from the first Persian Gulf War, and least likely to have been in the army.