We are authors, we are writers and when it comes to writing a great story, understanding the concept of story structure is essential. The best ideas are nothing if not implemented in a way that works for the reader. Story Structures Theories and Tools gives us the ability to implement our ideas in a way that readers will be familiar with. Story structure refers to the way a narrative is organised and the sequence in which events unfold. It provides a framework for writers to effectively convey their ideas and engage readers. In this article, we will explore the different theories and tools related to story structure and how they can be applied to create compelling stories.
What is Story Structure?
Like most stories, not all stories! We will start at the beginning. Story structure is the underlying framework of a narrative that helps to shape the plot, pacing, action, twists, character development and more. It provides a roadmap for the writer to follow and ensures that the story flows smoothly and effectively. Understanding the basics of story structure is crucial for any writer looking to create a well-crafted and engaging story.
Understanding the Basics of story structure
At its core, story structure is all about the organisation and flow of a story. In its simplest form this is a beginning, a middle and an end, but will mos likely include elements such as the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, twist and resolution. These components work together to create a cohesive and satisfying (familiar) narrative for the reader.
The Importance of Plot Structure
Plot structure is an integral part of story structure. It refers to the sequence of events that unfold in a story and how they are organized. A well-structured plot ensures that the story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with each event building upon the previous one to create tension, suspense, and resolution.
Exploring Different Narrative Structures
There are various narrative structures that writers can employ to tell their stories. Some common examples include the Fichtean Curve, the Three Act Structure, and the Hero’s Journey. Each of these structures offers a unique approach to storytelling and can be used to effectively convey different types of stories and themes. Below we explore in detail the most common story structures, understanding these is every authors duty.
Why is Story Structure Important?
Story theory and story structure plays a crucial role in creating effective story arcs that captivate readers from start to finish. As mentioned writing a novel is more than just having great ideas, a novel has so many elements, pacing, characters, editing, spelling, grammar, structure! Every story you have read that was any good, employed some form of popular story structure, guaranteed. It helps writers and authors to organise their ideas, develop compelling characters, develop a compelling and coherent series of events and build suspense and tension throughout the narrative. In short it helps us tell a story worthy of a reader’s time.
Creating Effective Story Arcs
A story arc refers to the overall progression and development of a story. It encompasses the beginning, middle, and end, and includes key plot points and character arcs. By following a well-defined story structure, writers can create engaging story arcs that keep readers hooked and invested in the narrative.
The Role of Character Arcs
Character arcs are an essential component of story structure. They refer to the transformation and growth of a character throughout the story. A well-developed character arc adds depth and complexity to the narrative, making it more relatable and emotionally resonant.
The Power of a Compelling Narrative
A strong story structure is crucial for creating a compelling narrative that keeps readers engaged. It ensures that the story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with each section building upon the previous one to create a cohesive and satisfying reading experience.
Tools and Techniques for Building Story Structure
There are several tools and techniques that writers can utilise to build and enhance story structure.
The Nine Most Common Story Structures
There are several common story structures that writers can utilise to craft their narratives. These structures provide a framework for organising a story and ensuring that it flows smoothly and effectively.
The Three Act Structure
The Three Act Structure is one of the most commonly used story structures in literature and film. It divides a story into three main parts: setup, confrontation, and resolution. This structure provides a clear framework for organising the plot and character development.
Here is an explanation of the three act structure with examples:
Act 1 – The Setup
This is where the main characters, setting, and central conflict are introduced. The inciting incident occurs which kicks the plot into motion.
Example: In the Harry Potter books, Act 1 introduces us to Harry, the Dursleys, and Hogwarts. We learn about the conflict between the wizarding world and Voldemort. The inciting incident is when Hagrid tells Harry he is a wizard and invites him to attend Hogwarts.
Act 2 – The Confrontation
The characters encounter obstacles, complications arise, we learn more background information. The conflict intensifies as the protagonist pursues their goal.
Example: In Harry Potter, Act 2 shows Harry navigating his classes at Hogwarts, building friendships, and uncovering more secrets about Voldemort. The challenges and stakes are steadily increasing.
Act 3 – The Resolution
This act contains the climax where the major conflict comes to a head. Questions are answered, loose ends are tied up, and the protagonist must confront the main conflict/villain. There is a sense of finality and closure at the end.
Example: In Harry Potter, Act 3 has the climax where Harry finally confronts Voldemort. The major mysteries and questions are resolved. Harry’s character arc comes full circle as he accepts his role and destiny. The story ends with a definite sense of closure.
So in summary, the three acts move from exposition, to rising action, to climax and denouement. This structure allows for a satisfying story arc.
Kishōtenketsu: Exploring The Four-Act Structure
Here is an explanation of the four-act Kishōtenketsu structure with examples:
Ki – Introduction
The characters and setting are established. The protagonist’s world before the conflict arises is shown.
Example: In Spirited Away, the first act introduces Chihiro and her parents driving to their new home. We see Chihiro’s boredom and reluctance about the move.
Shō – Development
The conflict starts to develop. The protagonist encounters a problem that leads to events unfolding. There may be a journey or quest beginning.
Example: In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s parents are turned to pigs. Chihiro enters the spirit world and starts working to try and save her parents.
Ten – Twist
An unexpected development occurs. New information or a revelation occurs that changes the protagonist’s goal or the stakes involved.
Example: In Spirited Away, Chihiro remembers the witch Yubaba controls people by taking their names. Chihiro realizes she has to reclaim her real name to free herself and her parents.
Ketsu – Conclusion
The conflict reaches a climax and is resolved. Loose ends are tied up and equilibrium is restored, although the protagonist is changed.
Example: In Spirited Away, Chihiro remembers her name and challenges Yubaba. She passes the final test and frees herself and her parents from the spirit world. Order is restored but Chihiro is wiser now.
So in summary, the four acts move from introduction, to development, twist, and resolution. The twist creates complexity before the satisfying conclusion. This structure has influenced manga, anime, and cinema.
The Five-Act Structure
The narrative structure known as the Five-Act Structure is commonly employed in various stories to effectively arrange significant events throughout your manuscript. It is also highly suitable for visual storytellers such as photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators aiming to create a publication.
As a hybrid between the Three-Act Structure, Seven-Point Structures, the five acts include:
Here is an explanation of the five-act story structure with examples:
Act 1 – The Exposition
The setting, main characters, and conflict are introduced. The inciting incident occurs that launches the story.
Example: In The Wizard of Oz, we meet Dorothy on her farm in Kansas. The inciting incident is the tornado that sends her to Oz.
Act 2 – The Rising Action
Complications arise and the conflict is intensified as the protagonist pursues their goal. Obstacles mount as the stakes increase.
Example: In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets her companions and begins the journey on the yellow brick road to the Emerald City. The Wicked Witch threatens them repeatedly.
Act 3 – The Climax
The major conflict comes to a head. This is the moment of greatest tension before the resolution.
Example: In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy finally makes it to Oz and confronts the Wizard, only to realize he is a fraud.
Act 4 – The Falling Action
The conflict begins to unravel, questions are answered, and we see the protagonist’s reaction to the climax events.
Example: In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy exposes the Wizard and starts her journey back home after saying goodbye to her friends.
Act 5 – The Resolution
The story ends, wrapping up any loose ends. The protagonist demonstrates how they have changed.
Example: In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wakes up back home in Kansas, appreciating her family and home more after her journey.
So in summary, the five acts move from exposition, to rising action, climax, falling action, and finally resolution. This creates a complete story arc with a satisfying conclusion for the protagonist.
The Seven Point Story Structure
The Seven Point Story Structure is a tool developed by Elizabeth Davis that outlines seven key plot points in a story. These points include the hook, plot point 1, midpoint, plot point 2, climax, escalation, and resolution. This structure allows writers to create a compelling and well-paced narrative.
Here is an explanation of the seven point story structure with examples:
Hook – Opening Scene
The opening draws readers in, introducing the conflict, stakes, and tone.
Example: In The Hunger Games, we see the reaping where Katniss volunteers as tribute, showing the dystopian world.
Plot Point 1 – Inciting Incident
The event that disrupts the protagonist’s status quo and launches the journey.
Example: In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is when Prim is chosen at the reaping and Katniss volunteers.
Midpoint – Challenge or Revelation
The protagonist either faces a major challenge or has an epiphany that changes their perspective.
Example: In The Hunger Games, the midpoint is when the Gamemaker changes the rules to allow two tributes from one district to live.
Plot Point 2 – Major Setback
A devastating setback that makes the protagonist’s goal seem impossible. All is lost moment.
Example: In The Hunger Games, plot point 2 is when Cato wounds Peeta and he appears beyond saving.
Climax – Final Conflict
The protagonist faces the antagonist and main conflict for the final time. The peak moment of tension.
Example: In The Hunger Games, the climax is the final fight between Katniss and Cato, where she ultimately defeats him.
Escalation – Rapid Succession of Events
The pacing quickens as final plot threads come together for the resolution.
Example: In The Hunger Games, everything happens quickly between Cato’s death, the rule change being revoked, and Katniss’ final act of defiance with the berries.
Resolution – The Aftermath
The protagonist demonstrates how they’ve changed. Loose ends are tied up.
Example: In The Hunger Games, Katniss returns home a changed person. She continues her acts of quiet defiance against the Capitol.
So in summary, this seven point structure allows for a well-paced, compelling narrative arc. The escalation builds momentum leading to the climax and resolution.
The Fichtean Curve
The Fichtean Curve is a narrative structure that follows a five-act structure. It consists of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This structure allows for a gradual buildup of tension and conflict, leading to a satisfying resolution.
Here is an explanation of the Fichtean Curve structure with examples:
The setting, characters, and status quo are introduced. The tone and conflict are established.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, the exposition introduces the Shire, the hobbits, Gandalf, and the One Ring. We learn about the brewing conflict with Mordor.
The inciting incident launches the quest/journey. Obstacles arise as the conflict intensifies. Questions mount.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits embark on the journey to destroy the One Ring. They face dangerous obstacles like the Black Riders.
The major conflict comes to a head. The protagonist faces the core conflict and stakes at their peak.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, the climax occurs when Frodo finally reaches Mount Doom to destroy the ring.
The conflict unwinds, questions are answered, and tension releases. We see the aftermath of the climax.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s quest is fulfilled, Aragorn claims the throne, and peace is restored to Middle-earth.
Any loose ends are tied up. We see the new status quo and how characters have changed.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves for the Grey Havens after putting Samwise Gamgee in charge of the Shire. The hobbits return home changed.
So in summary, the Fichtean Curve allows for a complete narrative arc – from the status quo, escalation of conflict, climax, falling tension, and a new status quo. The resolution shows the protagonist’s transformation.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure that follows the journey of a protagonist as they face challenges, undergo personal growth, and ultimately achieve a goal. This structure is often used in epic and adventure stories and provides a template for the hero’s transformation.
Here is an explanation of the Hero’s Journey structure with examples:
Act 1 – Departure
Call to Adventure – The hero is presented with a problem or challenge that initiates the journey.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker discovers Leia’s message calling for help from Obi-Wan.
Refusal of the Call – The hero initially hesitates or expresses reluctance before fully committing.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke is hesitant to join Obi-Wan on the quest at first.
Supernatural Aid – The hero gains a mentor, tool, or advice to help overcome the challenge.
Example: In Star Wars, Obi-Wan gives Luke his father’s lightsaber and teaches him about the Force.
Crossing the Threshold – The hero fully commits to the adventure, leaving the known world.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke decides to join the rebels and leave Tatooine.
Act 2 – Initiation
Tests, Allies, Enemies – The hero faces trial, meets friends and foes, and begins learning the skills needed.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke trains with Obi-Wan, meets Han Solo and fights the Empire.
Approach to the Innermost Cave – The hero finalizes preparations before the central crisis.
Example: In Star Wars, the rebels analyze the Death Star plans to find its weakness.
Ordeal – The hero faces their greatest challenge yet and experiences “death and rebirth” of some kind. Their resolve is fully tested.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke participates in the rebel attack on the Death Star trench.
Act 3 – Return
Reward – After surviving the ordeal, the hero seizes their reward.
Example: In Star Wars, the Death Star is destroyed and Luke becomes a hero.
The Road Back – The hero begins the journey back home but still faces challenges.
Example: In Star Wars, the Empire pursues the rebels.
Resurrection – The hero faces a final test where everything learned is applied.
Example: In Star Wars, Luke lets the Force guide him to destroy the Death Star.
Return with Elixir – The hero returns with something to improve the world, bringing closure.
Example: In Star Wars, the Death Star plans bring new hope for the Rebellion.
So in summary, the Hero’s Journey allows the hero to be transformed through their adventures and return with something to save their world. This structure resonates with archetypal themes.
The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method is a technique developed by Randy Ingermanson that helps writers to start with a simple premise and gradually expand upon it. It involves creating a one-sentence summary of the story, expanding it into a paragraph, and then further expanding it into a full-page synopsis. This method allows writers to develop a solid foundation for their story structure.
Here is an explanation of the Snowflake Method structure with examples:
One Sentence Summary
Summarize the core conflict, characters, and events in a single sentence.
Example: “An orphaned boy enrolls in a magic school and must stop an evil sorcerer from obtaining immortality and immense power.”
One Paragraph Summary
Expand that summary into a paragraph, adding more detail about the characters, stakes, and story world.
Example: “Harry Potter, an orphaned boy raised by his cruel aunt and uncle, discovers on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard. As he attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he learns that an evil wizard named Voldemort killed his parents and still seeks power. Harry must stop Voldemort from obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone which would grant him immortality.”
One Page Synopsis
Expand the paragraph into a full page, including a summary of beginning, middle, and end. Add more character motivations, plot points, and stakes.
Example: The page synopsis would summarize Harry’s call to adventure, his experiences at Hogwarts, the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort, and the resolution.
By starting small and gradually expanding, the Snowflake Method allows writers to develop a solid story structure and outline for their novel before writing a draft. The synopsis serves as a blueprint.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a storytelling technique that breaks down a story into eight narrative beats. These beats include the setup, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and return. This circular structure provides a comprehensive framework for building a well-rounded story.
Here is an explanation of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle structure:
1. Setup – Introduce the character and their status quo. Set the tone and world.
Example: In Toy Story, we meet Woody as Andy’s favorite toy and leader of the toys.
2. Inciting Incident – An event that disrupts the status quo and initiates the story.
Example: In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear arrives and becomes Andy’s new favorite toy.
3. Rising Action – The character pursues their goal facing complications and obstacles. Conflict escalates.
Example: In Toy Story, Woody tries to get rid of Buzz out of jealousy but gets lost with him instead.
4. Climax – The seminal event where conflict reaches its peak and the goal is achieved or lost.
Example: In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz face Sid’s evil toys and Woody saves Buzz’s life.
5. Falling Action – Conflict resolves, questions are answered, crisis winds down.
Example: In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz try to catch up with the moving truck.
6. Resolution – The protagonist adapts to their new status quo having grown/changed.
Example: In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz become friends and Woody accepts his new position.
7. Return – The character returns to their familiar status quo world.
Example: In Toy Story, Woody goes back to being Andy’s favorite toy.
8. Immergence – We see hints of how another journey may begin, bringing us full circle.
Example: In Toy Story, the door is left open for Woody and Buzz’s future adventures.
This circular narrative maps a complete transformation for the protagonist from status quo to resolution and back again.
Story Structure And Archetypes
Here we will list the two main theories
The 7 Basic Plots or 7 Story Archetypes
Overcoming the Monster
This is an underdog story where the main character sets out to destroy a greater evil of some kind. Examples include Beowulf, Jaws, and David & Goliath.
Rags to Riches
In this classic plot line, the primary character begins in a situation of poverty or despair and rises to a higher status of wealth and success. You’ll recognize it from Jane Eyre, The Ugly Duckling, and Cinderella., Aladin, Ratatouille
A story archetype that takes many shapes, The Quest is a plot where a hero embarks on a journey to discover something and eventually finds success through trials and tribulations. Find it in classics like The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter and the more recent Finding Nemo.
Voyage and Return
In this definitive story type, a protagonist starts on a journey into foreign territory and encounters adversity before eventually returning home. Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia are beloved examples.
Contrary to what we might typically view as humor, the comedy story archetype is a plot in which destiny brings the protagonist and love interest together, but conflicting forces keep them apart. Find it in Pride & Prejudice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Carry on Jeeves.
In this story type, the protagonist has a major flaw or makes a huge mistake—this leads to their inevitable undoing. During the story, we watch as they unravel and fall. You’ll see it show up well in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anna Karenina, and Macbeth.
Here the protagonist falls under the spell or hypnosis of darkness and eventually redeems themself as the story unfolds. A Christmas Carol, Beauty & The Beast, and The Secret Garden are ideal examples.
Vladimir Propp 31 basic structural elements
From Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Propp
After the initial situation is depicted, any wonder tale will be composed of a selection of the following 31 functions, in a fixed, consecutive order:
1. ABSENTATION: A member of the hero’s community or family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero themselves, or some other relation that the hero must later rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. This may serve as the hero’s introduction, typically portraying them as an ordinary person.
2. INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is passed upon the hero (‘don’t go there’, ‘don’t do this’). The hero is warned against some action.
3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The prior rule is violated. Therefore, the hero did not listen to the command or forbidding edict. Whether committed by the Hero by accident or temper, a third party or a foe, this generally leads to negative consequences. The villain enters the story via this event, although not necessarily confronting the hero. They may be a lurking and manipulative presence, or might act against the hero’s family in his absence.
4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfill their plot. Disguises are often invoked as the villain actively probes for information, perhaps for a valuable item or to abduct someone. They may speak with a family member who innocently divulges a crucial insight. The villain may also seek out the hero in their reconnaissance, perhaps to gauge their strengths in response to learning of their special nature.
5. DELIVERY: The villain succeeds at recon and gains a lead on their intended victim. A map is often involved in some level of the event.
6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain makes little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.
7. COMPLICITY: The victim is fooled or forced to concede and unwittingly or unwillingly helps the villain, who is now free to access somewhere previously off-limits, like the privacy of the hero’s home or a treasure vault, acting without restraint in their ploy.
8. VILLAINY or LACKING: The villain harms a family member, including but not limited to abduction, theft, spoiling crops, plundering, banishment or expulsion of one or more protagonists, murder, threatening a forced marriage, inflicting nightly torments and so on. Simultaneously or alternatively, a protagonist finds they desire or require something lacking from the home environment (potion, artifact, etc.). The villain may still be indirectly involved, perhaps fooling the family member into believing they need such an item.
9. MEDIATION: One or more of the negative factors covered above comes to the attention of the Hero, who uncovers the deceit/perceives the lacking/learns of the villainous acts that have transpired.
10. BEGINNING COUNTERACTION: The hero considers ways to resolve the issues, by seeking a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise thwarting the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero, one that shapes their further actions and marks the point when they begin to fit their noble mantle.
11. DEPARTURE: The hero leaves the home environment, this time with a sense of purpose. Here begins their adventure.
12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero encounters a magical agent or helper (donor) on their path, and is tested in some manner through interrogation, combat, puzzles or more.
13. HERO’S REACTION: The hero responds to the actions of their future donor; perhaps withstanding the rigours of a test and/or failing in some manner, freeing a captive, reconciles disputing parties or otherwise performing good services. This may also be the first time the hero comes to understand the villain’s skills and powers, and uses them for good.
14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: The hero acquires use of a magical agent as a consequence of their good actions. This may be a directly acquired item, something located after navigating a tough environment, a good purchased or bartered with a hard-earned resource or fashioned from parts and ingredients prepared by the hero, spontaneously summoned from another world, a magical food that is consumed, or even the earned loyalty and aid of another.
15. GUIDANCE: The hero is transferred, delivered or somehow led to a vital location, perhaps related to one of the above functions such as the home of the donor or the location of the magical agent or its parts, or to the villain.
16. STRUGGLE: The hero and villain meet and engage in conflict directly, either in battle or some nature of contest.
17. BRANDING: The hero is marked in some manner, perhaps receiving a distinctive scar or granted a cosmetic item like a ring or scarf.
18. VICTORY: The villain is defeated by the hero – killed in combat, outperformed in a contest, struck when vulnerable, banished, and so on.
19. LIQUIDATION: The earlier misfortunes or issues of the story are resolved; objects of search are distributed, spells broken, captives freed.
20. RETURN: The hero travels back to their home.
21. PURSUIT: The hero is pursued by some threatening adversary, who perhaps seek to capture or eat them.
22. RESCUE: The hero is saved from a chase. Something may act as an obstacle to delay the pursuer, or the hero may find or be shown a way to hide, up to and including transformation unrecognisably. The hero’s life may be saved by another.
23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero arrives, whether in a location along their journey or in their destination, and is unrecognised or unacknowledged.
24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero presents unfounded claims or performs some other form of deceit. This may be the villain, one of the villain’s underlings or an unrelated party. It may even be some form of future donor for the hero, once they’ve faced their actions.
25. DIFFICULT TASK: A trial is proposed to the hero – riddles, test of strength or endurance, acrobatics and other ordeals.
26. SOLUTION: The hero accomplishes a difficult task.
27. RECOGNITION: The hero is given due recognition – usually by means of their prior branding.
28. EXPOSURE: The false hero and/or villain is exposed to all and sundry.
29. TRANSFIGURATION: The hero gains a new appearance. This may reflect aging and/or the benefits of labour and health, or it may constitute a magical remembering after a limb or digit was lost (as a part of the branding or from failing a trial). Regardless, it serves to improve their looks.
30. PUNISHMENT: The villain suffers the consequences of their actions, perhaps at the hands of the hero, the avenged victims, or as a direct result of their own ploy.
31. WEDDING: The hero marries and is rewarded or promoted by the family or community, typically ascending to a throne.
Applying Story Structures in Your Writing
Now that we have explored various story structures and tools, let’s look at how we can apply them in our writing to create compelling stories that captivate readers.
Tips for Choosing the Right Story Structure
When choosing a story structure for your writing, consider the genre, themes, and tone of your story. Different structures work better for different types of stories, so it’s important to choose one that complements your storytelling goals.
Integrating Plot Points and Climaxes
Plot points and climaxes are crucial elements of story structure as they drive the narrative forward and create dramatic tension. Integrate these elements strategically throughout your story to create compelling and engaging plot twists and turns.
In conclusion, story structure is an essential component of storytelling that helps to shape the plot, character development, and overall narrative. By understanding and utilizing different story structures and tools, writers can create compelling stories that captivate readers from start to finish. So, the next time you sit down to write a story, consider the structure and tools that will best serve your storytelling goals and craft a narrative that leaves a lasting impression.