When people discuss story structure, they’re often talking about the different frameworks we use to analyze stories. When you boil them all down, all stories have certain shared elements.
Highs and Lows: Narrative Blueprints for Writers
Whether it’s a wheel, a pyramid or waves, your story needs to resemble real life, which means your characters will experience highs and lows.
- The status quo. The protagonist is living some kind of ‘normal life’ but has a greater desire or goal. This is usually the first part of the story — but not always.
- An inciting incident. Sometimes called a catalyst, this is an event that sets the story in motion, forcing the protagonist out of their comfort zone.
- Rising action. The protagonist pursues their goal and is tested along the way.
- An all-is-lost moment. The protagonist believes they have failed.
- A resolution. The protagonist a) gets what they want, b) doesn’t get what they want, or c) doesn’t get what they want, but realizes that they have something that’s more important.
These are all common ‘beats’ to most stories. It can be easier to see these moments in genres with higher stakes (such as a military thriller), but you’ll find them in almost any type of story.
Seven story structures every writer should know
Storytelling is an ancient and cherished art form that captivates audiences across cultures and time. But what most people don’t think about is that behind every captivating narrative lies a carefully constructed story structure. The backbone that guides the journey of characters and the development of plots. In this article, we will delve into seven iconic narrative types used by writers to create compelling stories, each with its unique elements and storytelling techniques.
Now that we’ve established the most essential components of story, let’s look at seven of the most popular story structures used by writers — and how they deploy these components.
- Freytag’s Pyramid
- The Hero’s Journey
- Three Act Structure
- Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
- Fichtean Curve
- Save the Cat Beat Sheet
- Seven-Point Story Structure
One of the earliest and most influential story structures is Freytag’s Pyramid, devised by Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright. This five-act structure consists of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
- Exposition: Introduce the setting, characters, and background information.
- Rising Action: Build tension and present conflicts, challenges, and obstacles.
- Climax: Reach the highest point of tension, where the main conflict is confronted.
- Falling Action: Unravel the consequences of the climax and tie up loose ends.
- Denouement: Provide closure and resolution for the story, giving a sense of completion.
It charts the gradual build-up of tension leading to the peak of the story and the subsequent resolution. Freytag’s Pyramid remains a fundamental model for classic dramatic narratives.
This structural model is less frequently used in modern storytelling, partly due to readers’ limited appetite for tragic narratives (although you can still spot a few tragic heroes in popular literature today).
Related: Fictional Characters
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is an archetypal story structure that follows the hero’s transformational journey from the ordinary world to the extraordinary realm and back. The narrative consists of several stages, including the call to adventure, meeting mentors, facing challenges, and returning home changed. This universal narrative type resonates across cultures and time, found in epics like “The Odyssey” and modern classics like “Harry Potter.”
- Call to Adventure: The hero is summoned to embark on a transformative journey.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a wise mentor who provides guidance and assistance.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world and enters the extraordinary realm.
- Ordeal: The hero faces a significant challenge or crisis, marking a critical turning point.
- Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world, having undergone transformation, and brings back a valuable gift or lesson.
To make The Hero’s Journey more accessible, Disney executive Christopher Vogler created a simplified version that has become popular amongst mainstream storytellers.
Three Act Structure
The Three Act Structure is a widely adopted story format that divides the narrative into three parts: Act 1 – Setup, Act 2 – Confrontation, and Act 3 – Resolution. It creates a clear progression of the story, with Act 1 establishing the characters and setting, Act 2 introducing conflict and complications, and Act 3 providing a satisfying conclusion. This structure is popular in film and novels alike.
- Act 1 – Setup: Introduce characters, setting, and central conflict.
- Act 2 – Confrontation: Present rising tension and a series of obstacles for the protagonist.
- Act 3 – Resolution: Reach the climax, resolve the main conflict, and provide a sense of closure.
When we speak about a confrontation with an antagonist, this doesn’t always mean a fight to the death. In some cases, the antagonist might be a love rival, a business competitor, or merely an internal or environmental conflict that our protagonist has been struggling with the entire story.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
The Story Circle, popularized by Dan Harmon, creator of “Community” and “Rick and Morty,” is a modified version of the Hero’s Journey. It emphasizes the cyclical nature of storytelling, where the hero returns to their starting point but has undergone transformational growth. Harmon’s Story Circle consists of eight stages, from the hero’s comfort zone to a state of change and back again, infused with unique character development.
- You: Establish the ordinary world and the protagonist’s comfort zone.
- Need: Present a desire or need that prompts the protagonist’s journey.
- Go: The protagonist ventures into the unknown and faces challenges.
- Search: The protagonist seeks solutions or answers to the main conflict.
- Find: The protagonist discovers the solution or understanding they were seeking.
- Take: The protagonist takes action based on their newfound knowledge.
- Return: The protagonist returns to their familiar world, having undergone transformation.
Created by a writer whose chosen medium is the 30-minute sitcom, this structure is worded in a way that sidesteps the need for a protagonist to undergo life-changing transformations with each story.
The Fichtean Curve, developed by German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, represents a continuous rise in tension and conflict throughout the narrative, culminating in a single intense moment. Unlike other structures, the Fichtean Curve focuses on the progressive build-up of suspense rather than dividing the story into distinct acts.
- Continuous Build-up: Gradually increase tension and conflict throughout the narrative.
- Climax: Reach the peak of tension with a single intense moment.
- Resolution: Provide a quick resolution or aftermath after the climax.
Save the Cat Beat Sheet
Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” beat sheet is a popular tool for screenwriters. It consists of fifteen essential story beats, including the opening image, catalyst, midpoint, and dark night of the soul. This structured framework provides writers with a roadmap for developing engaging screenplays that resonate with audiences.
- Opening Image: Set the tone and introduce the protagonist’s ordinary world.
- Catalyst: Present a disruptive event that propels the protagonist into action.
- Midpoint: A major revelation or event that changes the course of the story.
- Dark Night of the Soul: The protagonist faces their lowest point and must confront their inner demons.
- Climax: The final confrontation with the main conflict.
- Realization: The protagonist gains insight or clarity about themselves or the situation.
- Aftermath: Show the consequences of the climax and provide closure.
Seven-Point Story Structure
The Seven-Point Story Structure is a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey, comprising seven key stages: hook, plot turn 1, midpoint, plot turn 2, climax, realization, and aftermath. This streamlined structure allows writers to focus on crucial story elements, making it a valuable tool for crafting concise and impactful narratives.
- Hook: Capture the audience’s attention and establish the central conflict.
- Plot Turn 1: Introduce a significant event or twist that changes the direction of the story.
- Midpoint: A pivotal moment that alters the protagonist’s journey.
- Plot Turn 2: Another major event that propels the story towards the climax.
- Climax: Reach the highest point of tension and the final confrontation.
- Realization: The protagonist gains new understanding or insight.
- Aftermath: Provide closure and resolution for the story.
In conclusion, story structure is an indispensable tool in the hands of writers, helping them shape characters, develop plots, and engage audiences. From the classic Freytag’s Pyramid to the transformative Hero’s Journey and innovative Story Circle, each narrative type offers a unique approach to storytelling. As writers embark on their creative journeys, exploring these seven narrative types can inspire them to craft powerful and unforgettable stories that stand the test of time.
Here are some exercises and techniques that writers can use to find the perfect structure for their story:
Start by doing some free writing exercises to explore different ideas, plotlines, and character arcs. Write without any specific structure in mind, allowing your creativity to flow freely. This can help you uncover unexpected elements that may inspire the structure of your story.
Create a storyboard or visual representation of your story’s major events and turning points. Use index cards, sticky notes, or a digital tool to arrange and rearrange scenes until you find a sequence that feels cohesive and compelling.
Develop multiple outlines using different story structures, such as the Three Act Structure, Hero’s Journey, or Save the Cat Beat Sheet. This will give you a clear roadmap for each potential structure and help you visualize how your story would unfold under each approach.
Conduct interviews with your main characters to understand their motivations, desires, and conflicts. This deeper understanding of your characters can guide you in choosing a structure that best suits their development.
Use mind mapping techniques to brainstorm ideas and connections between plot points, themes, and characters. This visual representation can spark new insights and help you identify the most suitable structure for your story.
Write a Short Story
Experiment with writing a short story version of your larger narrative using different structures. This allows you to test the pacing, character arcs, and plot points within a smaller framework, helping you assess which structure works best.
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Seek Inspiration from Other Stories
Read books, watch films, or analyze TV shows with different narrative structures. Pay attention to how the structure influences the overall impact of the story. Take notes on what elements resonate with you and consider how they might apply to your own work.
Collaborate with Other Writers
Join writing groups or workshops where you can share your ideas with other writers. Engaging in discussions and receiving feedback from peers can offer fresh perspectives and help you discover the most fitting structure for your story.
Use Writing Prompts
Experiment with writing prompts that challenge you to explore your story from different angles or through different structures. This can lead to surprising discoveries and new ways of framing your narrative.
Let Your Story Breathe
Sometimes, the perfect structure may not reveal itself immediately. Allow yourself time to let your story breathe and evolve naturally. Inspiration may strike when you least expect it.
Remember, finding the perfect structure for your story is a creative journey, and it may involve some trial and error. Embrace the process, stay open to experimentation, and trust your instincts as a writer. The most important aspect is discovering a structure that best serves your narrative and allows your story to shine.