Novel writing is an adventure; it can be both terrifying and exciting.
You have a story in your head but it’s hard to know how to begin. You want the narrative to be meaningful, captivating, and unforgettable, but you’re not how to create the story arcs that will make it so!
I know that when I first started writing fiction, I didn’t even finish a book until my third try! All these years later, those first few ideas I had are still sitting there as half-finished books. Each time, I lost my way and couldn’t finish the novel. So frustrating!
What might have helped me back then? Knowing more about story structure and how important it is! Understanding narrative structures can help you craft the perfect tale.
In this article, we’ll go through different types of stories and the structures that will work best for them. You’ll learn how to successfully structure a story, no matter what genre or style you are working with. Plus, we’ll look at some real-life examples so that you can see these concepts in action.
Don’t let the story in your head stay in your head – let’s bring it to life!
What Is Story Structure?
A story structure, also known as a plot structure or a narrative structure, is the framework of your story. Because every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, the story structure will determine how the story, plot, characters, settings, and other elements will unfold.
It’s important to note that story structures are different from character arcs. The story structure refers to the entire story and involves all characters. The term “character arcs” refers to individual character development, which would connect with the overall story structure.
Common Elements in Most Narrative Structures
Every story has something in common: a beginning, middle, and ending. However, there are crucial elements in all basic story structures that make them worth reading.
- The Exposition: The story begins, providing a foundation for the narrative structure.
- The Inciting Incident: A devastating event occurs, leading to the point of no return. This point of no return is closely followed by a conflict.
- Rising Action: A series of events play out, creating tension.
- Climax: It’s the peak of the story, the “wow” moment the audience has been waiting for.
- Falling Action: After the climax, tension reduces, and normalcy returns gradually.
- Resolution: Loose ends are tied, and the story ends.
9 Common Story Structures That All Writers Should Understand
Let’s look at some common story structures to help you get started.
Created by Gustav Freytag, a novelist, and playwright, Freytag’s pyramid has remained a compelling narrative structure since the 19th century. In literature, you’ll find Freytag’s pyramid used in depressing tales, such as the classic Greek tragedy. Shakespeare and Euripides were known playwrights who used this basic story structure.
Below are the five elements of Freytag’s pyramid.
- Introduction: Start with an ordinary world, establish the status quo, then introduce the events that lead to the inciting incident.
- Rising Action: The main character pursues their goal, and the stakes become increasingly difficult.
- Climax: It’s the middle of the story and the point of greatest action or tension, and the major character can’t return to the status quo.
- Falling Action: The protagonist faces the consequences of all their decisions so far, tension builds up, and the events become uncontrollable.
- Catastrophe: The tension subsides, and the protagonist comes to their lowest point in a tragedy, which might be murder, heartbreak, or anything sad.
Because most main characters are designed to overcome obstacles, you’ll hardly find a story structure that incorporates tragedy these days. However, you can adopt Freytag’s pyramid when writing a tragedy or story inspired by classical works of art.
A great example of this classic story structure is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
We’re introduced to the divided setting of the Montagues and Capulets, followed by the inciting incident of Romeo’s chance meeting with Juliet.
This leads to the rising action as the young lovers meet secretly, profess their love, and marry, culminating in a climactic and deadly fight between Romeo and Tybalt.
The falling action occurs after that as Romeo learns of Juliet’s apparent death and his plan to kill himself as a result of her death.
This leads to the catastrophe wherein both young lovers kill themselves and the family feud finally ends.
The Fichtean Curve
Like Freytag’s pyramid, the Fichtean curve takes the main character through a series of obstacles or crises, creates tension, and motivates readers to get to the climax. John Gardner developed the story structure, bypassing the exposition stage and starting immediately with the inciting incident.
Here’s what to expect from the Fichtean curve:
Like a wavy ocean, a major portion of the story structure is filled with one crisis after another, each one increasing the stakes and progressing the plot. Each experience builds upon the other while giving readers information about the ordinary world that was missing from the onset.
The tension gets to its peak and happens towards the end of the story.
This part is brief; none or a few loose ends are tied, leaving readers to figure out what should happen.
The Fichtean curve is a basic structure that you can use in any story. It utilizes multiple conflicts to drive the story forward, and because it tends to rely heavily on flashbacks, it’s quite common in theatrical plays.
A solid example of this story structure is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which forgoes Dorothy’s life on the farm and immediately begins with the cyclone carrying her to Oz.
Once her house lands, she is confronted by a series of increasingly difficult crises (rising action):
- starting with a confrontation with the Wicked Witch of the West for crushing her sister
- having to find the Wizard
- having to find brains, heart, and courage for her companions
- another confrontation with the Witch
- the Wizard tasking her to get the Witch’s broom
- being attacked by flying monkeys and captured by the Witch
These crises lead to the final and most exciting crisis or climax, wherein Dorothy defeats the Witch.
A quick period of falling action follows, where she meets the Wizard, her friends get their wishes, and she goes home thanks to her magic shoes.
The Hero’s Journey
Following an in-depth analysis of legends and myths, Joseph Campbell invented the hero’s journey. The story structure became popular when he published The Hero With a Thousand Faces, featuring a three-act structure:
- Departure: The main character moves away from the known to the unknown world in search of an item.
- Initiation: The character crosses several hurdles and is successful.
- Return: When the item is found, the main character returns victoriously to the known world.
In this original story structure, Campbell used plot points such as The Magic Flight and Belly of the Whale to demonstrate traditional tales of courage and victory. However, in 2007, Christopher Vogler, a Disney executive and screenwriter, introduced a simplified version of the Hero’s journey in his book, The Writer’s Journey.
Christopher’s version has the plot points occurring in 12 steps. Let’s take a quick look at them.
- The Ordinary World: The main character is at the status quo, and the readers see how their real life progresses before the action begins.
- The Adventure Call: Something happens, and the main character needs to go on a journey to find a solution, but they’re not comfortable with the idea.
- Refusal: The character is reluctant or rejects the call outright.
- Meeting a Mentor: A wise character appears and encourages the main character to accept the adventure call to save a community and become a hero. The mentor could be a wizard, fortifying the hero for the journey ahead.
- Crossing a Threshold: The hero’s journey begins as the main character moves to the unknown world and tries to make sense of it.
- Enemies, Allies, and Tests: In the new world, a series of events take place, forcing the hero to adapt and make new friends who will assist in fighting the enemies.
- Approaching the Inmost Cave: The hero is close to attaining their goal, but there’s so much suspense for the readers. Will the enemies show up from nowhere and attack the hero? Or will this mark the end of the hero’s journey?
- The Ordeal: The hero faces the most challenging situation towards the middle of the story. It could be a near-death experience or an actual death, but there’ll be a transformation or a rebirth that shows the continuity of the hero’s journey.
- The Reward: The hero finally gets what they were looking for, but it’s not the end. The item might get stolen if they’re not careful.
- The Journey Back Home: It’s time for the hero to return home and to their normal life, but it doesn’t come on a platter of gold. In fact, the reward may have made things worse because they now have to contend with stronger forces.
- The Resurrection: This is the final challenge and climax of the story structure. The hero faces another near-death situation and must prove that they’re worthy of being called a hero. At this point, they bring forward the skills and knowledge gained through the journey to achieve victory.
- Return with the Elixir: Victory at last, and the hero is back to where they started. But they’re not the same person they were before because of the experiences they’ve gained so far.
The hero’s journey works for a travel quest or an epic superhero story, where the main character goes on a hero’s journey, crosses several hurdles, and returns home transformed. You can also use it in science fiction and fantasy since every protagonist is a hero.
A classic example of this narrative structure is Star Wars: A New Hope.
Luke Skywalker lives on Tatooine with his Aunt and Uncle, dreaming of a better life (ordinary world). R2D2 arrives on a mission to find Obi-Wan (adventure call).
Luke refuses, so R2D2 leaves, forcing Luke to find Obi-Wan as a result (meeting mentor). Luke’s Aunt and Uncle are killed, and Luke leaves with Obi-Wan (threshold).
They reach Mos Eisly, where he fights some locals and meets Han and Chewie (enemies, allies, and tests). Attacked by Stormtroopers, they flee under fire (inmost cave).
They are captured by the Death Star, where they free Leia, but Obi-Wan is killed as they escape the battle station (ordeal). As they retreat to safety, Leia reveals that R2D2 carries the Death Star’s plans (reward).
Back at the Rebel Base, they unlock the Death Star’s plans and find a weak spot they can exploit (journey back).
In a final stand, the Rebels attack the Death Star, and by finally embracing the Force, Luke manages to destroy it at the last moment (resurrection). Luke and the rest return to the Rebel Base triumphant (return).
The Three-Act Structure
The three-act structure is among the popular story structures in the literary world, following the notion that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Although most story structures are similar to the three-act structure, the framework is further divided, bringing it to 9 steps.
Also, the three-act structure takes the semblance of the hero’s journey, excluding the numerous adventurous moments. All through the story structure, the tension rises and the stakes heighten.
Act 1: The Setup
The setup of the first act is the story’s foundation. It includes the exposition, inciting incident, and plot point.
- Exposition: The readers get a glimpse of the ordinary world when everything is still normal.
- Inciting Incident: An event is thrown into the picture, and the ball starts rolling.
- First Plot Point: The protagonist decides to take up a challenge. This is similar to the threshold crossing in the hero’s journey.
Act 2: The Confrontation
In the second act, the stakes are getting higher, and the challenge seems more complex than it was originally.
- Rising Action: The protagonist embraces the new world and faces various challenges, which increases the tension. Again, we see the introduction of enemies, friends, and the test in the hero’s journey.
- Midpoint: An event is set to ruin the protagonist’s chance of becoming a true hero.
- Second Plot Point: The protagonist fails a major challenge, placing their capability in doubt. Readers may wonder whether the character has what it takes to get to the journey’s end.
Act 3: The Resolution
The third act is the final act. It includes a pre-climax, the main climax, and a wrap-up of the story structure.
- Pre-climax: Just before the story reaches its climax, the protagonist decides to pick up the pieces of their life and gives the challenge one more shot. It’s either this or they’ve signed up for failure.
- Climax: The protagonist comes head-on with their antagonist, but will they succeed?
- Denouement: The writer ties up loose ends, displaying the outcome of the climax, which leads to the formation of another status quo.
The three-act story structure is suitable for all kinds of stories unless you want to write a tragedy. Also, when it comes to the confrontation rising action, the enemies or antagonist might be a business rival or an internal struggle that the protagonist must defeat before achieving their goal.
An excellent example of this multiple-point plot structure is The Hunger Games by Susan Collins.
The first act introduces Katniss Everdeen and her meager life in District 12 (exposition).
Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the deadly Hunger Games (inciting incident), and we see her struggle to train and gain sponsors with her partner, Peeta (first plot point).
The second act is suspenseful as Katniss enters the Games and finds Peeta allied with the Careers as they hunt down single players (rising action).
She barely survives when Peeta saves her life (midpoint), and is devastated when she loses a close ally in Rue (second plot point).
The third act sees a significant rule change allowing co-winners, which sets up the final fight against the surviving Careers (pre-climax).
This leads to another rule change, and Katniss and Peeta decide they’d rather die together than have one of them win over the other (climax).
The story ends as Katniss and Peeta return home, uncertain of their future (denouement).
The Five-Act Structure
The five-act structure has been in existence for centuries. It was used in Shakespearean plays but still holds a place in modern scriptwriting, for plays and movies, and especially for television shows.
Although the five-act story structure is similar to Freytag’s pyramid – after all, both have five acts and similar beats – there is a marked difference. Whereas the climax in Freytag’s pyramid occurs around the midpoint of the story, it can occur later in a five-act structure.
Therefore, one can say that Freytag’s pyramid is a five-act structure, but a five-act structure is not necessarily a Freytag’s pyramid.
Here’s what this point plot structure looks like:
Act One: Introduction
- Exposition: It introduces the characters and how they exist in their world. The essence is for the audience to get the backstory before the action begins.
- Complication: The main character faces a challenge or goes on an adventure. It’s also known as the inciting incident that takes the story to its next level.
Act Two: The Rising Action
Act Two makes up about 45% of the story structure. It adds more flesh to the complication introduced in Act One. As a result, there’ll be more character development and plot twists.
Also, before the end of the second act, the audience should see all the characters involved in the entire story. It sets the stage for the climax.
Act Three: The Midpoint
The midpoint happens in the middle, and it’s the point of no return in the story. This third act takes up about 5% of the narrative structure, and only one scene is involved. At this point, the protagonist decides on a course of action, whether good or evil, after reflecting on their choices so far.
Act Four: Crisis
The crisis consists of 35% of the story and happens before the final act. If the narrative structure is adopted for a comedy, the ill fate of the protagonist will turn around for good. But if it’s a tragedy, the plot point spirals into a catastrophe, with the characters at rock bottom.
Additionally, Act Four features the final suspense in the story, leaving the audience to wonder what could happen next.
Act Five: Catastrophe
Everything comes together in Act Five. If it’s a comedy, the protagonist goes on to live a happy life; but in a tragedy, the catastrophe marks the deaths of the main characters. The final act structure is about 5%, which is between 1 to 3 scenes.
Like Freytag’s pyramid, you can use the five-act structure for stories inspired by classical literature, like Shakespeare.
An example of this classic story structure is The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
The story begins with a family wedding, establishing the world of the Corleone crime family, and the youngest son, Michael’s return (introduction).
Following an attempt on his father’s life, Michael and his brother Sonny formulate a plan to get revenge (rising action).
Michael kills two of the people responsible, thereby turning his back on his crime-free life thus far (midpoint).
Sonny and Michael’s wife are murdered, and his father dies, forcing Michael to take the reins of the crime family as their enemies close in (crisis).
Michael exacts revenge on the other crime families, wiping out all competition and securing his place as the head of the Corleone crime family (catastrophe).
The Seven-Point Structure
The seven-point story structure is the brainchild of Dan Wells, encouraging writers to begin their story from the end and then work back to the beginning. This ensures that the plot and the main character start in a way that contrasts the final act.
The plot structure is similar to the hero’s journey but with fewer details.
- The Hook: This represents the starting point plot structure where the protagonist is introduced. It should contain something striking and interesting that keeps the audience glued to the story.
- First Plot Point: An unexpected event that changes the character’s status quo should occur. It’s similar to the Adventure Call in the hero’s journey.
- First Pinch Point: Throw in a conflict between the main character and the antagonist or some kind of barrier or pressure that attempts to stop the protagonist from achieving their goal.
- Midpoint: This is the turning point in the plot structure, where the main character decides to face the conflict head-on. They stop reacting or playing passively and start becoming active.
- Second Pinch Point: Introduce a bigger conflict than the previous one. The stakes should be high such that the protagonist feels the impact. It could be the death of a loved one or their child being held hostage by the villain.
- Second Plot Point: When all hope seems lost, the character realizes that they have the power to resolve the conflict.
- Resolution: Resolve the primary conflict so the audience can see how the protagonist has transformed from what they were initially. For instance, if they started weak, they’re now powerful. Also, the resolution is an excellent place to showcase the impact of the protagonist’s victory on the world.
The seven point story structure is ideal if your story showcases parallels, but you don’t want the plot points to play out in chronological order. Also, it offers a set of clear milestones to give you a head start on each act and scene.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an ideal example of the seven point story structure.
We start with a glimpse into Harry’s sad and boring life with the Dursleys and a taste of something unusual about the boy (hook).
Harry Potter discovers he’s actually a wizard and sets off for Hogwarts to study his newfound craft (first plot point).
Once at school, Harry and his friends fight off a marauding troll (first pinch point). Harry uncovers Voldemort in the forest and vows to find and keep the Philosopher’s Stone safe as a result (midpoint).
In chasing down the Stone, Harry loses his friends in the dungeon and is forced to carry on alone (second pinch point).
Harry discovers the location of the Stone thanks to a magic mirror (second plot point), and fends off Voldemort in a final confrontation to ensure the Stone’s safety (resolution).
The Snowflake Method
Randy Ingermanson developed the snowflake method on the premise that a story should start with a small theme or idea and then progress gradually until it becomes more detailed. What makes this story structure interesting is the timeline allocated to the different steps.
- Step One: Write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Exclude the names of characters or locations, then work on the sentence summary until it portrays the final image you’ve got in your mind’s eye. This step should last for one hour.
- Step Two: Expand the product of the first step into a one-paragraph summary. You can include major events or use the three-act structure to craft the introduction, conflict, and resolution. Randy suggests crafting 3 challenges that the character will undergo. This should take another hour.
- Step Three: Since you now have an idea of your plot, you should create a one-page summary for the main characters. It should include the characters’ descriptions, names, conflicts, motivations, and lessons they’ll learn in the end. The time allotted to writing each summary is one hour.
- Step Four: Revisit the summary in step two and expand each sentence into individual paragraphs. This should give you an outline of the complete story; start with challenges and end with the final victory. You should spend one hour on each paragraph.
- Step Five: Now you’ve got an in-depth idea of your story, it’s time to develop the characters further. You can review the character descriptions until they’re perfect for the story. This step should take up to two days to conclude.
- Step Six: Take the next week to revisit the storyline you generated in step four. Expand each paragraph into pages so you can craft the scenes.
- Step Seven: Go back to step three and add more details to the characters. You can include information about their height, complexion, family, occupation, goals, and so on. Also, include details about their starting point, transformation, and what they’ll look like at the end of the story. This should take another week to complete.
- Step Eight: Revisit step six and make a list of the scenes in your story. Ensure to include a description, names of characters, and any information related to each scene. You can use a tool like Google Sheets to keep things organized. There’s no timeframe for this activity.
- Step Nine: Describe the scenes in two or more paragraphs, including the setting, twists, and dialogue. It’s also a good time to combine scenes to form chapters for your novel. Again, there’s no timeframe for this step.
- Step Ten: It’s time to get the first draft of the story. Since you already have a template of your characters, scenes, and chapters, your book or script should be ready in no time.
Although the snowflake method seems like a pathway for creating your entire story, it’s an effective solution for writers who need help knowing where to begin.
As you pen down even the smallest idea, you’ll get the big picture with time. Also, you’ll be able to add precise details to your characters and the plot within a specific time frame.
The snowflake method is a great method for outlining your story, starting with basic ideas and key points, and then building on them with more detail until you are ready to begin writing your first draft. Give it a try!
The Story Circle
The Story Circle was developed by Dan Harmon, a screenwriter and co-creator of Rick and Morty. He tweaked the hero’s journey, focusing more on the character arc.
Dan Harmon’s story circle is also known as the plot embryo and has become familiar because of its simplicity. Here’s the result of his plotting technique:
- You: The protagonist is at status quo, a world that’s familiar, safe, and comfortable.
- Need: They’re no longer satisfied with the norm; they want something more powerful or unique. It could be money, fame, or even revenge.
- Go: They have to step into an unknown world to get what they want.
- Search: The protagonist tries to adapt to the new world. They face challenges, make new friends, learn new skills, and so on.
- Find: Success at last! They get what they’ve been looking for.
- Take: There’s always a price to be paid; this time, it’s bigger than the reward. It throws the protagonist into a dilemma, making them feel that the struggle wasn’t worth it.
- Return: The protagonist makes their way back to the familiar world with their new achievement.
- Change: The protagonist transforms based on the choices they’ve made and the new skills they’ve acquired.
Dan Harmon’s story circle is suitable for every story, whether a fantasy epic novel or a personal essay. The story structure emphasizes character development, allowing you to build an experience that appeals to human instinct.
Unlike the hero’s journey, Dan Harmon’s story circle isn’t about victory but what the protagonist does with it. If this idea resonates with your writing spirit, you should give it a try.
Let’s look at an example using this method with James Cameron’s The Terminator.
Sarah Connor is a young waitress putting herself through college (you). Alone and regularly mistreated at work, she yearns for a better life (need).
She is attacked by a Terminator, only to be saved by Kyle Reece (go). On the run, they evade the Terminator and the police, who are both after them (search).
Once safe, Kyle tells her he’s a soldier from a future war, and the man attempting to kill her is actually a cyborg trying to prevent her from giving birth to mankind’s savior (find).
Sarah and Kyle are apprehended by the police, only for the station to be attacked by the Terminator who kills most of the people inside (take).
Sarah and Kyle escape to a final night of safety and comfort in each other’s arms, determined to face the future together (return).
The Terminator finds them, leading to a final chase and confrontation, wherein Kyle sacrifices himself to save Sarah, and she manages to destroy the Terminator at last. Carrying Kyle’s unborn son and the future savior of humanity, she ventures alone into an unknown future (change).
Save the Cat Beat Sheet
Blake Snyder originally developed the Save the Cat beat sheet for screenwriters, but novelists can use the plot structure. It’s a more detailed version of the three-act structure, offering 15 steps and the page numbers for each, which we’ve placed in parenthesis.
- Opening Image (1): This is the opening scene or first paragraph that hooks your audience, giving them a reason to keep watching a film or flip to the next page of a novel.
- Set-up (1 to 10): It establishes the protagonist’s ordinary world and introduces the characters.
- Theme Stated (5): In 5 pages, the audience will get a hint of what the story is about. The protagonist may not fully understand this until toward the end.
- Catalyst (12): The inciting incident occurs, and the action begins.
- Debate (12 to 25): The protagonist hesitates to answer the Adventure Call.
- Break into Two (25): Act Two begins, and the protagonist is actively involved in the quest.
- B Story (30): A subplot emerges, bringing a bit of romance to the plot. For instance, the protagonist may fall in love while trying to save the world.
- Fun and Games (30 to 55): The protagonist gets some breathing space to have fun, go on a date, enjoy their new life, and so on.
- Midpoint (55): There’s a twist to the plot, making the protagonist focus on another important goal.
- Bad Guys Close In (55 to 75): The stakes become higher, conflict increases, and the protagonist’s plans don’t pan out.
- All is Lost (75): The antagonist overpowers the protagonist, or they lose something or someone significant. It could be heartbreak or the loss of a loved one.
- Dark Night of the Soul (75 to 85): The protagonist goes through a phase of depression.
- Break into Three (85): This introduces Act Three, where the protagonist discovers new information that gets them back on their feet.
- Finale (85 to 110): The protagonist picks a hint from the B story, and everything becomes clear. They confront the primary conflict and become successful.
- Final Image (110): It signifies the final moment, showcasing what the protagonist has learned and the changes that have taken place. Also, it should match the opening image.
The Blake Snyder Save the Cat beat sheet is quite detailed, offering an in-depth guide for writers.
A great example of this well-known story point plot structure is Rocky, which is broken down in detail for each beat in my article about the Save The Cat Beat Sheet story structure.
Common Questions About Story Structure
What are the 7 parts of a story structure?
The seven parts of a story structure include:
- Setting: Provides the atmosphere and captivates the readers.
- Themes: Developed to provide a meaningful message behind the words.
- Plot: Holds the reader’s attention throughout the story.
- Characters: Fully-realized and relatable entities that move the plot forward.
- Conflict: Emotional or physical battles faced by characters against opposing forces.
- Point of View: Used by the writer to show what’s happening within the story.
- Climax: Ties all of these story elements together, leaving readers satisfied and eager for more.
What are the 4 structures of a story?
The four components are the setting, idea, characters, and scenes and events. The setting helps define your place in time, while the idea shapes the narrative arc. Character development gives life to each part of the story and a depth of understanding to your readers. When combined with meaningful scenes and events, these four pieces can transform ideas into captivating stories.
Wrap-Up: Story Structure for Writers
Humans are storytellers; we can tell the same story in several unique ways. While there are different story structures, no one is superior to the other. Instead, they offer fascinating ways of telling the same story.
So when you’re set to write a novel, short story, or script, let your creative juices flow with one of the story structures we’ve discussed.
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