Story structure, also known as narrative structure, is the way in which a story is laid out and written. Specifically, it is the way in which a story is organized. Story structure generally follows one of the significant structure types, with the three-act structure being the most common. This article will delve into several of the different forms of narrative structure.
The three-act structure is the most common type of story structure in fiction writing. In the first act, the characters are introduced, and the setting and a small amount of character development occur. The first act ends with the first conflict in this basic story structure.
The second act is where much of the rising action builds up, getting the main character ready for the climax. At this point, the reader should be invested in the main character enough to be pulled into the story and care about what happens to the main character. This is one of the easiest story structures to build up tension act by act and continuously develop your main character and plot.
The third act is where the climax occurs, as well as the resolution. We get to the big event, the main struggle, and the major fight, and the protagonist has to deal with it and either win or be conquered. Any loose ends that remain are tied up, and the fallout is handled. The story ends after this point.
The three-act structure includes three parts and five plot points. They are: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. These plot points are essential to the three-act structure, with the story’s turning point being the climax.
An example of this story structure is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which the protagonist is introduced at the starting point of the story. The setting is established as well. The first act ends with the inciting incident of Katniss, the protagonist, volunteering as tribute for the games so that her sister is spared from having to compete.
In the second act, the character faces more turmoil as she makes friends and begins to consider rebellion against the authority that makes the citizens participate in this sort of cruel practice. This act includes rising action and conflict and concludes with what is referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul, which is the lowest point the character could possibly find themselves in. This is the point in the story right before the climax in act three.
Act three is where the central conflict occurs and is resolved. It is typically where the showdown of the good guys vs. the bad guys occurs, and everything comes to a head. All that is left now is falling action and resolution.
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is one of the more involved story structures because although there are three parts to it, twelve steps must be followed, just like in a three-act structure. The story elements that make up this structure are numerous, but you see them regularly in epic novels and tales like Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones.
The first part of the hero’s journey story structure is a call to action. This is when the character is urged or motivated to embark upon the journey. Usually, they are inspired by some inciting incident that affects them directly, their family, or society as a whole.
There is almost resistance to act on the hero’s part, even after the inciting incident until the protagonist meets a guide, mentor, or leader who encourages him to participate in the action. The first part of this story structure ends with the plot point where the hero can either go ahead and embark upon the journey or go back to their ordinary world and attempt to maintain the status quo.
The second part of this story includes the protagonist leaving the ordinary world they felt secure in, being tested (usually several times), looking for answers or legitimacy in the mission, and the climax that has been building since the introduction of the inciting incident.
The third part of the story includes the plot point of resolution, as the hero either completes or fails their mission and must return to the world they came from, but nothing is the same. The character is changed, and the world around them is viewed differently.
Often Found in a Series
This sort of story structure is found most often in a book series. The three examples given above are: The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower, and Game of Thrones. All three of these are collections of books that make up a series that sees a journey carried out and often a “b” story (sometimes several). The story elements remain the same as they do for any of the other story structures. There are just more plot points and small parts.
These are long tales of sometimes unlikely heroes, and the tension is often built up so that readers will keep coming back, book after book, looking for a satisfying conclusion. This was popularized and made mainstream in film with Star Wars and hasn’t left the limelight since.
In the Harry Potter book series, we are introduced to a child who is living a miserable yet fairly normal life. He is presented with a call to adventure when he gets a letter inviting him to attend Hogwarts, a school that teaches children how to develop and grow their powers as wizards and witches. Much like Middle Earth in the Tolkien series, this is a wonderful world of magic, and the first part of the series is mainly Harry growing familiar with his new surroundings.
He gets to know Albus Dumbledore, who becomes his mentor, who helps him to discover the power within himself when he has moments of self-doubt, which is often. Harry makes friends who help him to embark on a journey not only to become a wizard and get through his magical education but to defeat an evil wizard, the antagonist, Lord Voldemort.
The main conflict occurs, and Harry, with the help of his friends and the guidance of his mentor, must face this primary conflict. Once this event has been concluded, loose ends are tied up, such as issues with his friends, teachers, and school enemies.
He returns to the normal world until the following year, where he will follow the same structure repeatedly, while a primary conflict that won’t be fully addressed until the last book of the series quietly brews in the background.
In this sort of story structure, we are often left with a final image of the protagonist. In the case of Potter, after Harry defeats Voldemort, there is a new status quo because Harry knows that he no longer has to go back to the way things were.
He has saved his friends, lost friends, and nothing will ever be the same. He doesn’t have to shudder under the cruel thumb of the Dursleys. This last image of him should be a callback to the reader of the opening image of Harry and how much he has grown throughout the series.
Character Arc Definition
A character arc denotes how a character changes when faced with a series of events in a story. A character with a character arc starts as someone very different from the person they would become at the end of the story. It is important to note that a character arc could entail either a positive or negative transformation for the character. For instance, a character may be a shy person initially but transforms into a confident one by the story’s end. In addition, a sympathetic character may become an apathetic person due to the negative circumstances they have encountered.
Character arcs emphasize the character’s personal growth or transformation. While growth or transformation look different for everyone, character arcs pave the way for the audience or reader to experience what it feels like to witness attitudinal changes and to understand why these changes occur.
The Point of Narrative Structures
When you write your own story, you will have to consider what sort of story structure works best for your idea. You could just write and find out what happens to your main characters, but what if you finish your book and reread it only to realize that your entire story lacks a second plot point? What if there is no character arc? This is why story structure and plot structure are so important.
The narrative structure requires plot structure, so all fiction needs to have these elements to be cohesive and flow. Everything from character descriptions to setting introduction needs to have a plot in mind. For example, when considering the setting for a thriller novel, it is beneficial to develop a setting that will make things more dangerous.
You could have an epic gunfight between a fugitive and a detective take place in a beautiful field of wildflowers, but it’s far more exciting to put them in a dark forest so that they can play off of the setting to guide them through the plot and climax. Sticking to a story structure forces a writer to follow the rules and guidelines of plot points to produce a better story.
Characters in Popular Story Structures
By the time you get to the second act of your story, the reader should be emotionally invested in some capacity to a major character. Character arcs in a story make the story more enticing to readers, and the plot matters more. Story structure revolves around getting the protagonist to the end of the story and having an audience care about what has happened to the said protagonist.
Full Character Charts
Most stories have multiple characters who need fully developed backgrounds, physical descriptions, personalities, mannerisms, speech patterns, flaws, and strengths. A great way to keep track of all of this information and develop these characters appropriately is to have charts and notes made up of all the primary characters, paying special attention to the protagonist and antagonist.
These can be made up by the writer individually or found in books and online in a chart format so that they can be filled out and referred to as often as needed during the writing process.
Snowflake Story Structure
This story structure is based upon building up a story by starting with a single sentence and then building upon it until you have an entire novel. It is one of the more complex sorts of story structure that involves ten steps.
The writer’s journey begins with a single sentence, which is then built up to a paragraph summary of the story the writer has developed. This is further expanded into full-page writing of each character. Then the writer goes back and turns each sentence into a full paragraph, then a page, and so on and so forth, adding important elements as they go.
This story structure works for methodical writers who may need a more involved and in-depth process to flesh out an idea for a story or to keep readers engaged. Because it’s such a back and forth method of writing, things like a plot turn are often easier to add to the story because there are such solid and concrete steps to the writing.
You know that you need to make the climax a direct contrast to what the protagonist was comfortable with within the beginning of the story, so by the time you get to the climax. You should just be able to write it into the appropriate space in writing, and with the previous writing as a reference, craft a climax that checks all of the boxes for what a proper climax should be.
Seven Point Story Structure
This is a seven-step story structure that follows a specific order to build a story that contains all of the critical elements. In the first part, the author introduces the character and setting. The character’s personality and identity are first seen in a familiar situation so that the reader can get a feel for the character is like when there is no pinch point or dramatic action.
Each step of the way introduces alternating pinch points and plot points until the last step (step seven) concludes and wraps up the story. Pinch point, in this case, refers to conflict in which the protagonist or hero faces someone or something because they have no choice but to do so. They are taken out of the situation they felt comfortable in, thrust into an unfamiliar situation, and forced to deal with it.
In the example used throughout this article, Harry finds himself in trouble every single year at Hogwarts, yet each year, the protagonist returns. The writer, J.K. Rowling, continues to build upon Potter’s new life as a wizard discovering himself, and in each novel, he continues to plague this character with pinch points and plot points.
Story Structure for the Fiction Writer
If you are considering writing a fiction novel, you need to use some sort of story structure. If you find that after trying one, you don’t feel comfortable, move on to other forms of story structure. There are many that exist so that each author can find the one that suits them best.
Having a plan and following a path of organization is what will take your story from humdrum to gripping. In other words, don’t wing it. Take the time to invest in your writing enough to have an outline, a process, and a defined story structure.
Any fiction work you have ever read has followed some sort of story structure. When writing a novel, you do more than just tell a story. You are trying to use words to make a reader feel something. You achieve this by putting your protagonist into situations that are uncomfortable, challenging, and dangerous.
This forces your character to react and grow. Having an invested audience who cares about what happens to this character means that you have to do everything within your power to organize your story so that it flows, makes sense, and stays true to the idea you had in mind.
There are many different types of story structures, and each one offers a different method that can give you an end result of a great novel or short story. Trying several different types of story structure not only grows your skillset as a writer. But it will show you what sorts of structure you prefer to use in your writing, which will set a groove for you as a writer that you can adapt to and fall into, making your job of conveying a story to a reader much less stressful.