What is Story Structure?
Story structure is a framework for your story. It’s like a pattern for writing stories that keep moving at a good pace and come to a satisfying climax.
You could also think of it as a map for your story. It tells you the points in your story when significant events should happen.
Benefits of Story Structure
Good story structure provides good pacing and escalating tension, culminating in a climax that satisfies readers. It helps the writer satisfy readers’ expectations for rising tension and a great conclusion. It provides patterns that help writers organize story events, keep a story on track, and keep a story coherent. It’s also helpful for integrating external action with your main character’s internal growth.
How Story Structure Works
There are several systems of story structure. While they vary in details, but all place a significant event in the beginning and the most significant event at the end.
The first big event, often called the first plot point, is what really gets things moving in the story. This must happen fairly early. Some systems of story structure recommend placing this event one-fourth of the way through the story. Other systems place it earlier.
The final big event, the climax, is the part where the main character has his final triumph (or defeat, if the story is a tragedy). This is the moment where the bad guys are defeated, the crook gets caught, or the lovers finally get together. It’s the moment readers and characters have been waiting for.
Some systems of story structure are more complex. For some writers, more complex story structures are an advantage because they make it easier to figure out what should happen betweent the first plot point and the climax.
Jerry Jenkins provides a good overview of seven major systems of story structure.
I don’t claim to have all the good story structure resources here–these are just some useful ones that I’ve found.
Stories are often divided into three acts. Act One gets the story started. The first big event takes the story into Act Two. If there’s a midpoint, it takes place in the middle of Act Two. Act Two ends in a disaster. Then, in Act Three, the main character rises from that disaster to triumph in the climax.
Perhaps the most dramatic difference is that some systems also have a significant moment in the middle, known as the midpoint, while others do not. A midpoint can serve as an important turning point or a moment of revelation. While not all stories need a midpoint, including one can be a good way to keep things interesting in the middle.
Story Structure without a Midpoint
Steve Alcorn has a story structure system with no midpoint. It’s divided into three acts. You can explore his system with the Novel Writing Workshop course at his Writing Academy. This course also focuses on character development and theme.
Story Structure with a Midpoint
A midpoint is a dramatic plot turn or an important revelation in or near the middle of the story. A midpoint can help to maintain pacing and reader interest through the long second act.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody adapts Blake Snyder’s famous Save the Cat screenwriting system for novelists. This book highlights fifteen “beats” or things that need to happen in your story. Some of these beats will happen quickly, while others will take several chapters. The beats take your story through the three acts.
This book also highlights ten different genres for stories. These are not the same genres used in book marketing, such as romance, mystery, or fantasy. Instead, they’re different types of plots, such as “Dude with a Problem,” in which an ordinary person faces an extraordinary problem, or “Golden Fleece” which is a quest for something. The book has a discussion of each of these genres and an analysis of a popular novel in each genre, so you can really see examples of how the system works. It shows how each of these novels follows the basic story structure in its genre. It’s possible for a story to have aspects of more than one genre.
The name Save the Cat! comes from Blake Snyder’s advice on how to get your audience to sympathize with a hero who is not exactly likeable when the story starts. Have him do a good deed, like saving a cat. Then, the audience will see that there is some good in him and find it easier to root for him.
A seven-point structure is a complex plot that works well for stories with strong character arcs.
- 1st plot point
- 1st pinch point
- Midpoint. (or 2cd Plot Point)
- 2cd Pinch point
- 3rd Plot Point
K.M. Weiland provides a wealth of resources on how to use this structure. Her blog has many informative articles on story structure and character arcs.
She also has a number of books on story structure. Each of the following links will take you to a page with links to buy the book from four online marketplaces.
Full disclosure: I was provided with free copies of these e-books in exchange for honest reviews.
Hero’s Journey Story Structure
The Hero’s Journey is a structure built on countless myths and legends in which a hero goes on a journey, defeats evil, and comes back changed.
The journey starts with a call to adventure, which the hero may resist at first. After he starts the journey, the hero goes through a series of tests, and finds allies and enemies along the way. He then goes through an ordeal in which he acquires a weapon or knowledge he needs to defeat his enemy. After defeating the enemy, he returns to his former world with new understanding.
David Lee Martin has a course on using the Hero’s journey structure in short stories.
This course shows how you can use the Hero’s Journey for a seemingly mundane story.
How to Use Story Structure
Some writers fear that using story structure will make their stories formulaic and predictable. This can happen when story structure is used incorrectly.
It’s helpful to think of story structure as the framework for a house. Two houses might have the same framework, but be decorated very differently. These house will feel very different and appeal to very different people.
Likewise, many stories can share the same structural framework. However, they can be in different genres and in very different writing styles. The characters can be very different. That’s one fun thing about stories. Story structure offers endless room for variations. That’s how a story can feel fresh, yet familiar.
Organic Growth of the Plot
Plot points don’t just happen. They happen because of your protagonist’s actions, which are based in his flaws and his attempts to overcome them. They also happen because of actions of the antagonist.
A story is like a vine. It grows, but tends to grow in a disorderly sprawling fashion. Story structure is like a trellis. But even a vine on a trellis grows organically.
For me, at least, it doesn’t work to plan out the main plot points first thing. I need to plan out the characters, so I know how they will act.
As you plan your story, your plot points can change. For example, in one of my stories, I originally planned to have a character make a major discovery for the first plot point. This discovery would be a big shock that would get the story moving. However, I later decided another event should be the first plot point, and the big discovery would make a good midpoint revelatory moment.
Which Structure Should You Use?
Answer: The one that fits your story best. Some stories really need that big turn at the midpoint. Others don’t.
Don’t pick a story structure system at random and try to force your story into it.
Try writing down the events you’d like to have happen, and see which structure fits those events best.
You may find that one type of story structure works best for you. If you’re a pantser, you may prefer looser systemes. If you’re a plotter, you’re likely to prefer detailed structures.
You might also find that one system works well for one of your stories and another system works well for another one of your stories.
Story structure is a framework, not a rigid set of rules. Once you understand how story structure works, you can bend these rules if necessary. If you need to tweak story structure a bit for the sake of your story, go ahead.
Have fun exploring different systems of story structure and trying them out!