Story Structures: The Fundamentals You Need to Know
What is a story structure? Just as a house has a wooden frame to guide its construction, a story structure is the framework that guides the scenes, narrative, and overall plot of your story.
Without a structure, your novel could meander and lose the interest of your readers. A lack of structure might also ruin the tension and pace of your story. Worse, not following a defined structure could ultimately disappoint your readers. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, all stories must follow one type of story structure in order to be cohesive and logical to the reader.
What is a story structure?
A story structure, at its most basic, is the skeleton of your story. It describes when certain events happen and how they are related, giving you a big-picture view of your book. Also known as narrative structures (thankfully, otherwise you’d be reading “story structure” one million times in this article), this framework of your book helps you to weave together your plot and other elements—characters, setting, history, notable events, etc.—to create a comprehensive story.
A story structure is not the same as a character arc. Your character arcs will be tied into your overall narrative structure, but character arcs are about the development of individual characters.
Instead, the framework set up by a story structure guides your conflict, climax, and resolution. There are a few more pieces to it than that, though, and even the most basic of structures take multiple elements into account.
Key story structure elements
We all know that stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, right? But the things that happen within those chunks are known as your story elements. Most story structures share these common elements, either transforming them a little or adding to them. These elements are:
- The opening/exposition
- The inciting incident
- Rising action/crises
- The climax
- Falling action/the denouement
- The resolution
Let’s look at what each of these elements are so you know what we’re talking about in the rest of this article.
This is the beginning of your story where a lot of details (a.k.a. exposition) is included for us. There isn’t a lot of conflict going on, but you are feeding the reader some introductory information. This is the foundation for the rest of your story.
The inciting incident
Once you’ve drip-fed enough exposition, it’s time for the inciting incident. Sometimes this is a cataclysmic event, other times it’s as simple as receiving a handwritten note from an estranged aunt. Whatever it is, the inciting incident marks a permanent, irrevocable change. It’s a point of no return; nothing will be the same again after the inciting incident, and conflict is sure to follow.
Once your inciting incident has occurred, the following events continue to increase the tension throughout the story. Through these events, your world and characters will be fleshed out, heart rates will rise, tears will be shed, and more. You’re building up the tension through multiple events or crises in order to lead to…
The payoff. The big event. The part we’ve all been waiting for.The climax is what your book has been building up to this entire time. It’s the final battle or the lover running through the airport to stop someone from boarding a plane. It is cracking the Illuminati’s secret code to save the world. It’s whatever will make your readers go “dang” when it happens.
Falling action/the denouement
Once the climax has happened, we need to lower our heart rates a little. What’s the fallout of the climax? How do we start to shift back to normal again?
This is where you wrap up your story with a neat and tidy bow (or a not-so-neat one if there’s a sequel). The story is over, there isn’t more action (usually), no new loose ends that need tying except for cliffhangers. It’s the end of the book!
Different types of story structures
As artists, us writers don’t often like to stick to formats. You might have thought story structure was just a fancy term for boring, cookie-cutter tales.
That’s why we’ve collectively created a whole bunch of different narrative structures that, while sharing some traits, are each fairly unique.
To understand which structure is best for you, your style, and your story, we’re going to cover the most common—and some uncommon—types of story structures. The structures we’re going to cover are:
- The Classic Story Structure
- The Hero’s Journey
- The Seven-Point Structure
- The Three-Act Structure
- The Snowflake Method
- A Disturbance and Two Doors
- The Story Circle
- Freytag’s Pyramid
- Fichtean Curve
These are some tools to add to your writing arsenal that will improve your book!
Read on to add story structures to your writing toolkit![/caption]
Classic Story Structure
Bestselling suspense author Dean Koontz really boils stories down to the most basics with his Classic Story Structure. If you’re a pantser, you’ll probably love this.
Ultimately, the Classic Story Structure consists of three main points:
- Make your readers care about your characters and then plunge them into “terrible trouble” as quickly as possible. What terrible trouble means is genre- and story-specific. It might mean the housing market bursts or that a horde of ravenous zombies shambles into L.A. But start by making your characters likeable or relatable, then throw a life-changing problem at them (sounds like the inciting incident, right?). And do it A.S.A.P.
- Make everything they try to do actually make things worse. Here’s your rising action but with a purpose. No matter what your protagonist tries, their actions work against them. Be sure to make this believable though; your reader will grow tired of unrealistic coincidences very quickly. This will culminate in an event that seems impossible for them to overcome.
- Then, in the face of overwhelming odds, our protagonist succeeds. Here’s your climax, what we’ve all been hoping for but has seemed impossible. This should only be surmountable because of the lessons learned along the way, otherwise your arc will be flat. You can also subvert expectations by having your character fail, but be careful how your readers will respond to something like a Thanos snap (but don’t ever do this in romance novels!).
This narrative structure clearly works, since Koontz is one of the most successful authors in the world, and is great for making gripping, suspenseful stories filled with twists and turns. Even if that sounds like it will only work in mysteries and thrillers, it can work in almost any genre.
The Hero's Journey
Created by Joseph Campbell after researching and analyzing myths and legends, the Hero’s Journey is a story structure best represented through Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
This structure is broken up into a bunch of steps, but the overall premise can be simplified: a normal, everyday person is called to action but is reluctant to leave what they know and are comfortable with. They say ‘no’, but are eventually convinced of the importance of their role, and their journey into the unknown transforms them into someone completely different. Once transformed—usually more confident, skilled, probably better looking too, let’s be real—they return back to their normal life, albeit a changed person.
Adapted in 2007 by Christopher Vogler, here are the twelve steps of the Hero’s Journey in a bit more detail.
- The Ordinary World: Our protagonist is living the life they’ve always known and are usually pretty content with it. This is your classic Everyperson archetype.
- Call to Adventure: Something (a person, message, event, sign, etc.) calls them to a task. This task could be sneaking into a dragon’s lair to steal a relic, for example.
- Refusal: Not happening. Why would I get myself roasted alive when I can be comfy here? Whether it’s a lack of confidence, fear of the dangers, or just leaving the comfort of home, the protagonist refuses to go forward.
- Mentor/Helper: Someone, like a wizard or a significant other, encourages the soon-to-be hero into changing their mind.
- Crossing the Threshold: The protagonist, their mind now changed, takes the farthest step from the Shire (or their home) and goes past a point of no return. Whether physically or metaphorically, they are out of their comfort zone and on their way to adventure.
- Test, Allies, and Enemies: A series of events pushes our new adventurer to their limits, forces them to adapt, joins them up with new friends, and makes them some enemies. This is your rising action.
- Approach: We’ve been building up to a big event, and our heroes are now preparing themselves for what’s to come.
- The Ordeal: This actually happens near the middle of the story, but it is where the hero faces a near-death (or sometimes actual death) experience, conquers their greatest fears, and prepares to be reborn as someone very different from the person who started this journey. This should be the greatest challenge so far. Again, this rebirth can be literal or a transformation because of the experience.
- The Reward: Out of the Ordeal, our hero gets the treasure. There might be some pause for celebration, but there will also be a risk that the treasure will be stolen or lost.
- The Road Back: It’s time for the hero to take their treasure back home. This involves leaving the world of adventure and heroism behind, but it doesn’t come so easily. There can be a chase or threat that pursues them out of this new world.
- The Resurrection: This is the climax of the book. The hero has been transformed, but they must prove their worth and new skills in a final test. Slay that dragon.
- Return with the Elixir: No, they don’t really need to bring a potion back (though there may be celebratory elixirs consumed, if you catch my drift). The hero either returns to their home or sets up for a continuation of the journey as a bigger threat has unfolded. Either way, they have some of the treasure and the skills they gained throughout the book.
Want to learn more about the Hero's Journey? Check out our deep dive here.
The Seven-Point Structure
Sort of like a condensed Hero’s Journey, the Seven-Point Structure was developed by author Dan Wells as a way to highlight the tension and excitement of a story.In this framework, you start with the end in mind: what is that climax that you really want to achieve? Then you work backwards from seven to one to create your story. This narrative structure is the same one that J.K. Rowling used in Harry Potter.
Here are the seven points:
- The Hook: Where our protagonist starts. Give us the details about how their life goes and who they are (or think they are).
- Plot Point One: The protagonist is introduced to some sort of conflict, and that acts as a call to action/adventure. This sets the rest of the story in motion.
- Pinch Point One: Uh-oh! Not-so-shockingly, stories are only captivating if there is conflict. Our first pinch point introduces a barrier or some sort of pressure our protagonist must overcome to continue moving towards their goal.
- Midpoint: After that pressure, our protagonist now decides to take the fight to the antagonist. They respond to what’s happening rather than just react to it, thus pushing them even further.
- Pinch Point Two: Another obstacle to overcome—this one having more of an impact than the first pinch. This should have a tangible impact on our main character rather than just being there for the sake of being there. Maybe their friend is killed. Maybe their mom is taken hostage by the villain. Whatever it is, the stakes are high.
- Plot Point Two: Your hero learns they had the power to accomplish their goals all along, or at least they learn that the power is now theirs after the different trials they went through. Whichever you go with, the protagonist knows they are the solution to the bigger problem they’ve been chasing.
- Resolution: This is the climax and following scenes. Start with the conflict that we’ve all been waiting for. Your character has earned their shot at this moment. Then wrap up how they have transformed since the beginning, what impact their actions have had on the world, etc.
The Three-Act Structure
Probably the most popular narrative structure in Hollywood, the Three-Act Structure dates back to antiquity and the Ancient Greeks. The Three-Act Structure is pretty much as simple as these frameworks go, breaking the story up into the beginning, middle, and end.
Within each of these acts, there are a few key elements to cover. Throughout the entire structure, it is important to note that the tension and stakes are continually rising.
Act One: The Set-Up
This is where you lay the foundation of your story. Act One includes exposition, the inciting incident, and the first plot point where the protagonist decides to take up the challenge—essentially crossing the threshold from the Hero’s Journey.
Act Two: The Confrontation
As the stakes become higher, the original problem becomes more complicated than it first appeared. Rising action increases the pace, introduces friends and enemies, and drives the story towards the midpoint, which is a turning point for the protagonist. Act Two ends with the second plot point; the biggest challenge so far which the protagonist fails to overcome.
Act Three: The Resolution
This final act includes the pre-climax—the calm before the storm—and the exciting climax you have built up to throughout the entire book. Once the climax has been overcome, the denouement wraps up loose ends and establishes what life is like after the climatic finale.
Want to learn more about the Three-Act Structure? Check out our deep dive here.
The Snowflake Method
Developed by author Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is a planner’s dream. Sorry, pantsers.
The premise of the Snowflake Method is to start with a small idea or theme and build out around it, making it bigger and more detailed until you have a full story. This story structure even has a timeline associated with the different steps, which will either make you swoon or puke.
- Write a one-sentence summary of the story. Don’t include character names and keep it on the shorter side. Then workshop that sentence until it’s perfect. (One hour)
- Expand your sentence into a complete paragraph that also includes the details of major events and crises in your story. You can reference the Three-Act Structure for ideas about major events. (One hour)
- Create a one-pager for each of your characters. A story is nothing without its characters, so take the time needed to include: their name; a one-sentence summary of their arc; their motivation, goals, and conflicts; what they learn throughout the book; and an expanded one-paragraph summary of their arc. (One hour per character)
- Revisit the paragraph you wrote for step two. Now you’re going to take each individual sentence and make it into a paragraph of its own, expanding the scope and detail. Each of these sentences should end in a setback or failure up until the final paragraph, which outlines the end of the book. (An hour per paragraph)
- Now get into each character’s head and write a one-page summary of the entire story but from their specific point of view. Do this for each major character, and feel free to only do a half-page for minor characters. (Up to two days)
- Go back to step four with all the knowledge and storylines you’ve generated up until now and expand each of those paragraphs into a full page of their own. This is where you get into the nitty-gritty of your scenes and events, coming up with the best details and ironing out any issues that you have thought of through the process. (One week)
- Revisit step three and expand your characters even further. Establish the basics—height, ethnicity, sexuality, age, birthday, education, family, goals, etc.—but also dive deeper than that. Flesh them out as much as possible, and be sure to include where they are starting, how they change, and where they end up by the time the book is over. (One week)
- Take the expanded summaries from step six and use them to list every single scene in your book. Some authors use a spreadsheet in a program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets for this. Include a one-line description of the scene, which characters are in it, which point-of-view it’s told from. The more details the better. (No timeline)
- Take your list of scenes and write a few paragraphs describing each one. Throw in anything you want to include in the actual scene: setting, characters, dialogue, action, twists, etc. (No timeline, but budget at least a week for this)
- Write your first draft. All of your planning up until now should make those words fly, and you’ll have the first version of your book in no time.
Want to learn more about the Snowflake Method? Check out our deep dive here.
A Disturbance and Two Doorways
Almost like an add-on to the Three-Act Structure, James Bell’s Disturbance and Two Doorways refers to three key points throughout the book.
The disturbance is an event that changes the lives of the main characters and propels them towards something new. This could be the death of a loved one, an invading army, losing a scholarship, etc.
The first doorway is the transition between act one and two. It is a point of no return that pushes the characters forward, and this door closes behind them. Most of the action in the book takes place after the characters pass through this doorway.
The second doorway is similarly a point of no return, but this one inevitably leads to the final conflict and what falls out from that conflict. This doorway is often a big setback or failure that then pushes the characters to right the wrong.
The Story Circle
Fans of TV’s Rick and Morty might recognize the name of co-creator Dan Harmon. Harmon took the Hero’s Journey and brought it to his writing laboratory, changing the steps to be more character-centric. Here’s what he came up with.
- You: The character is in a zone of comfort. Just like the Hero’s Journey, our protagonist starts in a place of normalcy.
- Need: But they want something. They become discontent with the status quo and want to acquire something—money, power, an item, vengeance, to right a wrong, etc.
- Go: They enter an unfamiliar situation. The thing about wanting something is that you usually have to go and get it. So the protagonist ends up somewhere new and potentially dangerous. This is crossing the threshold.
- Search: Adapt to it. In this unfamiliar place, the protagonist must adapt to find what they’re looking for. Here’s where your character will face conflict, make friends, encounter setbacks, and more.
- Find: Get what they wanted. Success! All that searching and all those trials have paid off. The protagonist gets what they wanted.
- Take: Pay a heavy price. Unfortunately, the second half of the story displays the immense cost of taking what our protagonist wanted. Perhaps it means a town burns down via an angry dragon or someone is bullied at school because of something our main character posted online. The price always outweighs the benefit to put our protagonist in a moral dilemma.
- Return: Then return to the familiar situation. As the protagonist begins to return back home or to a place where they feel comfortable, they are faced with that moral dilemma, leading to…
- Change: Having changed. The transformed version of the protagonist makes a choice based on the price, using the skills and knowledge they’ve gained along the way.
You can see how Harmon uses the Story Circle to map out an episode of Rick and Morty here. And if you want to check out our deep dive into the Story Circle, click here.
Imagine if we took the Three-Act Structure but it always ended in sadness. That’s how Freytag’s Pyramid works.
Created by 19th-century playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag, this narrative structure is based on classic Greek tragedies. Because most of us prefer happy endings these days (especially during and after a pandemic), Freytag’s Pyramid doesn’t see a lot of the limelight. That said, there is still a place for tragedies in writing.
Here are the five elements of Freytag’s Pyramid.
- Introduction. Start with your exposition, your normal world, and introduce the inciting incident.
- Rise. Next is your rising action. Here’s where your protagonist faces their dilemmas at increasing difficulty.
- Climax. Unlike most narrative structures, the climax is in the middle of the story. This is the point of no return in the Pyramid. Once your protagonist experiences the climax, there is no going back to normal.
- Return. Now your character is falling and dealing with the results of the climax. It usually sucks for them, to be honest.
- Catastrophe. All of the tension and tribulations from the Return culminate in this stage, which is your character’s lowest possible point. This might be death, heartbreak, murder, or any number of tragic endings.
Want to learn more about Freytag's Pyramid? Check out our deep dive here.
The Fichtean Curve is all about pushing the story towards the climax at a very tense pace. Developed by John Gardner, this story structure doesn’t even have exposition or an establishment of “ordinary.”
Rather, Fichtean Curve starts you in media res, which means “in the midst of things.” By using this narrative structure, your story begins with the inciting incident. From there, the protagonist experiences crisis after crisis, each building upon one another until you reach the climax.
As each crisis occurs, more and more information is delivered to the reader. Thus, they learn about the former ordinary world as it is torn apart in front of them. This replaces exposition with tension and action.
After the climax, the falling action is normally brief and lets the reader see a little bit of the new normal. Unlike the Hero’s Journey or other structures that establish the new normal (I know we all hate that term, I’m sorry), the Fichtean Curve does not call for all ends to be tied up when the reader can easily infer what will happen. That’s not a free pass to be a lazy writer, though. If arcs and plotlines are left without a clear ending, your reader will be disappointed. Want to learn more about the Fichtean Curve? Check out our deep dive here.
Which story structure is for you?
As you can see, there are a lot of different ways you can structure your book to make it resonate well with readers. Nothing about these frameworks will make your story cookie-cutter, but they will give you the foundation to craft your best novel.
There isn’t a narrative structure that is innately better or worse than others. How you use them is what will shape your book. So when that new story idea pops into your head, choose one of these structures and see if you can use it to strengthen your next novel.
And if you haven’t seen it already, Dabble makes it easy to plot and organize your book, from different plotlines to characters, and anything else you might need. Click here to try Dabble for 14 days and see how much of a difference your writing software can make.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more.
Editing. That tricky little step between drafting and publishing. Okay, maybe it’s not so little. Actually, it’s kind of important. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s actually the most important part. And the limb is very short. But where do you start? You’ve got all these words and now you have to take your messy first draft and make them actually readable. You know editing’s a thing, but you’ve probably heard there is more than one kind of editing. One of the most comprehensive is known as content or development editing. This is often the first kind of editing any book sees and, for new writers, can be a valuable step in honing their craft.
We tend to give a lot of thought to our characters when we’re writing. Their likes and dislikes. Their appearance and disposition. Hopefully their wants, goals, motivations, flaws and all the things that make them feel like real people. But how much thought do you give to actually introducing them to your readers? A strong introduction to a character can help make or break that character and the way your reader perceives them. So what’s in an introduction, anyway?