What is story structure? An introduction

Whether you are a plotter, a pantser, or a plantser, a basic understanding of story structure is important.

Just like you shouldn’t start the construction of a house without a basic understanding of the required components (foundation, sub-floor, walls, electrical and plumbing systems, roof, exterior siding, etc.), you shouldn’t begin the construction of your novel without some base knowledge.

Just as a properly completed house begins with a blueprint, so does your story. Your home’s blueprint is not your home. Neither is your story structure your novel. This assumes you want to do more than simply string together scene after scene separated by two paltry words, “and then.”

So, what is story structure? In short, it is a framework for telling your story. The definition of ‘frame’ I like best for our context is, “a structure supporting or containing something.” Thus, story structure is the structure used to contain your story.

Famed author Jerry Jenkins says, “structure is to a story what the skeleton is to the human body.” Sounds important, right?

Like a human, a story has a framework.

This analogy doesn’t say it is impossible for a human body to exist without a skeleton, but for sure, this human would be unique, to the point one might wonder whether ‘it’ was a human at all. Structure gives story life, without it, we as readers might easily grow disinterested, bored, confused, and, sooner than later, throw the book in the trash.

Before I go any further, I propose a disclaimer. In this blog post you will learn only a tiny fraction about this almost limitless subject. Why? Because there’s no one answer; there’s many well developed structures for you to adopt to ‘contain’ your story. Here’s a few: Dean Koontz’s classic story structure, Freytag’s pyramid, In Medias Res, the hero’s journey, the 7-point story structure, Dan Harmon’s story circle, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method, the Fichtean curve, James Scott Bell’s a disturbance and two doorways, and Save the Cat beat sheet. The list, and the names, are mind-boggling.

I’ve intentionally left out the Three Act Structure because it’s the one I use and am more familiar with. Until I was researching for this blog post, I had never heard of several from the above list, including Freytag’s pyramid, and the Fichtean curve.

Allegedly, Aristotle originated the three act structure. In his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” Although here, he was referring to a play, the same principle applies to storytelling no matter the form.

“In the first act you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.”

George Abbott, American theater producer and director

Here is a list of the key components for each Act. Note, the percentages. These represent the portion of the story each Act contains.

Act I—The beginning (the setup); 25%
The hook;
The inciting incident;
The key event;
The first plot Point.

Act II—The middle (the confrontation); 50%
Since this Act contains half of the story, its broken into two parts (three, if you count the Midpoint).
Act IIA (reaction)

Midpoint (second plot Point)

Act IIB (action)
Third plot Point at end.

Act III—The ending (Resolution); 25%
Resolution (also called the Denouement)

“The beginning isn’t simply the first in a series of events, but the originating event of all that follows. The middle isn’t just the next event, but the story’s central struggle. And the ending isn’t just the last event, but the culminating event.”

Steven James, author and writer

You can see, there’s a lot here. In fact, many articles, even entire books, have been written on each of these components. So, there’s too much to cover today. However, I intend to address each of these in future posts.

Before I close, let’s try to apply the three act structure to our own lives. I’ll assume an average life expectancy of 80 years. It seems reasonable to break our lives into the following three stages (Acts?):

I. Youth (age 0 to age 20)
II. Adult (age 21 to age 60)
III. Senior (age 61 to age 80).

Youth is the setup. We are in our ordinary world before our journey begins. Something happens, let’s say around age 10, that significantly affects our lives. It could be a disease diagnosis (of us or a loved one). It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a disaster: the family farm went bankrupt; a school shooter permanently disables our sister in a school shooting. This is the inciting incident; it causes you or me to become a doctor, a soldier, a politician. This choice is the first plot Point and comes at the end of our youth.

The Adult stage is the longest of the three. It’s our forty years of confrontation. In effect, the first twenty years is a reaction to our choice to become, for example, a doctor. Then comes the Midpoint. We might label it more colloquially, the midlife crisis. For me, it was my ‘need’ to go to law school. This changed the trajectory of my life.

In the second half of the Adult stage, confrontation continues, with new obstacles and antagonists alongside some of the old ones. Then, a moment of victory, before the bottom falls out, mentally or physically. This is the lowest point of your life, when all seems hopeless. One writer calls it “the trough of hell.” I’ll leave this event or experience to your own imagination.

The Adult stage is over. We are now into the last quarter of our lives. You, me, and our fictional protagonist somehow bounces back. At least enough to battle our number one enemy, which can be internal or external. This is the climax and there’s no guarantee we will win. Some will, some won’t. As in fiction, we may or may not have a positive character arc (over the story/throughout life, you, me, and our protagonist are transformed into something better, say, a kinder, more loving person). As in story, sometimes we fail, our enemy defeats us, we become jaded, cynical, mean; thus, our character arc is negative.

Finally, there’s the end, our return to the ordinary world from which we began, although it’s never as we recall. Now, friends and family, those who remain, either love or loath, more or less. With our non-fictional story, like our fictional characters, we have created our own resolution. Our last days are great or greatly grievous.

I will refrain, but we could apply the three act structure more particularly. For example, doesn’t every adventure we’ve taken contain a beginning, a middle, and an end? If the barbecue restaurant adventure (or, the rental property adventure, or the short-sale of Apple stock adventure, or the bi-vocational preaching adventure, or the you-name-it adventure) hasn’t yet ended, will it? And, when? Or, are you only in the Youth stage?

Choosing the right structure to contain our stories is imperative. If we don’t, our stories will suffer. If we don’t, our stories will still ‘live’ in their own container, albeit, unstructured ones.

In my next post, we will look at ‘the hook.’

Sign up for my Myths, Mysteries & Murders readers’ group and receive a FREE digital copy of The Boaz Scorekeeper: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/i9qbcspivt.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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