by Doug Landsborough
Writing is a creative endeavor and, as creative people, we like to think of our craft as ethereal, almost transcendent of our everyday routines. So when we hear that our stories follow a structure, it can almost feel like an insult.
But wait, my creative friends, and don’t click away just yet.
What if I told you that these story structures strengthen your writing while giving you as much room as you could ever ask for to express your creativity? And what if I told you that you’re already writing within a structure, even if you don’t know it?
That might sound preposterous, but I’m telling the truth. In this article, I’m going to show you:
What a story structure is
Why you need one
The story structures every writer should know
And once we’re done, you’ll have a better understanding of both your story and your writing skills.
What is a story structure?
How about a metaphor to get things going? If your story is a sandcastle you’re building, then the story structure is the sandbox you’re building it in. You can build whatever you want in the sandbox, but your castle—no matter how ornate, action-packed, descriptive, or poetic—works within the boundaries of the sandbox.
In the same way, a story structure is the framework that guides the construction of your story. It doesn’t limit the creativity of what is built inside the framework but gives you the space to build whatever you want.
Also known as narrative structures, these frameworks guide your story through elements that not only strengthen what you’re writing but help meet the expectations that every reader fundamentally has.
Luckily, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all story structure; there are a handful of different options you can choose from to make your story better.
Why does your story need a structure?
It’s not that every story needs a structure so much as it already has one. Even if you haven’t consciously chosen a structure to follow from the list later in this article, story structures are based on our natural storytelling patterns. You use them, to some degree, without even thinking about them.
So if that’s the case, why even bother learning more about them?
Because there are two sides to storytelling: the storyteller and the audience. Since stories are in basically everything we do—books we read, movies we watch, our dinner table conversations about our days, how we prepare for a weekend getaway, etc.—your readers are expecting a story to follow some sort of recognizable pattern.
A beginning, middle, and end.
A transformative journey.
A devastating tragedy.
And that’s just a few of them.
If you write a story that doesn’t have a structure, your reader will feel confused and likely end up adding your book to their Did Not Finish pile. This is what you can avoid when you work with The Book Clinic to help perfect your book.
But being able to understand the structures that you use lets you embrace the sandbox you are building in and create a story that can be both new and recognizable.
The story structures you should know
There are a lot of story structures and a nearly unending amount of variations of each. We’re going to cover nine of the most common story structures to help you become a better writer.
The Three-Act Structure
With origins in ancient Greek plays, the Three-Act Structure is one of the foundational story structures that every writer really should know. You can see it in most stories, especially in Hollywood movies.
Basically, the three acts of this structure are the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Within those acts, important elements of your story take place.
Beginning: Exposition, inciting incident, and the first plot point (where the hero decides to take up the challenge)
Middle: Rising action, the midpoint, and the second plot point (a massive challenge the hero doesn’t overcome)
End: Pre-climax, climax, and denouement
These three acts are also called the Set-Up, Confrontation, and Resolution. Whatever you call them, the Three-Act Structure is the basis of most storytelling.
Image Caption: The Three-Act Structure in Dabble’s Plot Grid
Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
Created by bestselling author Dean Koontz, the Classic Story Structure eliminates all of the frills of other story structures. It is best used in thrillers and mysteries but can be applied to most genres.
The Classic Story Structure goes like this:
Plunge your characters into “terrible trouble” as quickly as possible
Have them try to fix the problem but continue to make everything worse
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, they succeed
The rest of the story is up to you to fill in between these three key pieces.
While Freytag’s Pyramid might look similar to the Three-Act Structure, it serves a different purpose. Developed by 19th-century novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag, this story structure is designed for tragedies and dramatic plays.
The story starts out similarly with an introduction followed by rising action. This results in a climax that, unlike most story climaxes, occurs near the middle of the book or play. This climax is less of a big event and more of a point of no return.
Following the climax, things get progressively worse during the return, culminating in the catastrophe. The catastrophe is an incredibly devastating ending for the main character, something that they will never recover from.
Image Caption: Applying Freytag’s Pyramid to King Kong in Dabble’s Plot Grid.
The Fichtean Curve
If you skew the Three-Act Structure a little and add a whole lot of intense pacing, you get the Fichtean Curve. This story structure is notable for its immediate jump into action; there is hardly any exposition or introduction before the inciting incident.
After that, the main characters face a series of escalating crises until they reach the climax. The climax is the biggest hurdle yet for our heroes, and it’s only through the lessons they’ve learned through the preceding crises that they can overcome it.
After the climax comes the falling action or the denouement, which gives you a chance to wrap up loose ends and neatly (or not-so-neatly) wrap up your story.
A Disturbance and Two Doors
Just as Dean Koontz boiled things down for the Classic Story Structure, author James Bell did the same with his story structure, a Disturbance and Two Doors. In this framework, there are only three key elements you need to be aware of.
The disturbance is an event that changes the status quo permanently. This is the inciting incident. Things will never be the same after this.
The first doorway is an event that pushes the characters forward, often bridging acts one and two. This event marks a point of no return, so the stakes immediately begin to rise once the main characters are through this doorway.
The second doorway is yet another point of no return. Instead of marking a journey into the unknown, this doorway is the threshold between the heroes and their biggest challenge yet (aka the climax). In many stories, this doorway is a major setback that forces the main characters to correct what has happened.
The Hero’s Journey
Not all stories are linear (or triangle-shaped). In the Hero’s Journey, one of the most tried-and-true story structures, the story is part of a cycle of growth.
Famously used in stories like The Hobbit, the Hero’s Journey consists of twelve steps or more, depending on how detailed you want to be.
The hero starts in the Ordinary World, which is a place of familiarity. A Call to Adventure asks them to leave this familiar place to accomplish a task. They Refuse the call, content where they are or too scared to leave. Then a Mentor/Helper, like a wizard perhaps, encourages them to change their mind, and the hero Crosses the Threshold, leaving their Ordinary World and venturing into the unknown.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies help the hero grow and transform, until they Approach their goal. The Ordeal is the ultimate test so far, the biggest hurdle the hero and their friends must overcome before they acquire the Reward. This is the thing they originally set out to find.
It’s not that easy, though. On the Road Back, something will chase after them or threatens to take the Reward. The Resurrection is the climax of the book. This is where the hero has fully transformed and, only through their growth in the story, can they overcome this final hurdle. Finally, they Return with the Elixir. They are back home, much different from the person who left, and settles back into a new normal or sets off on another adventure.
The Story Circle
The Story Circle is a modernized, condensed version of the Hero’s Journey. Developed by Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick and Morty, the Story Circle is more about the character than their actions.
Luckily, this framework is only eight steps long.
You: The main character and their normal world are established.
Need: Despite their normal world, they want something they don’t have.
Go: They cross the threshold and pursue what they want.
Search: Outside of their home is strange, so they must adapt to their new surroundings. They make new friends, enemies, encounter challenges, etc.
Find: They find the thing they wanted.
Take: They take it, but it comes at a steep price. This price is more costly than the benefit of acquiring the thing, so it creates a moral problem.
Return: The main character takes their new thing back home but is inevitably faced with that moral dilemma.
Change: Having grown along the way, the character uses their new skills and wisdom to make a decision and lives with the consequences, good or bad.
Check out Harmon breaking down his Story Circle here.
The Seven-Point Structure
By focusing on tension and excitement, author Dan Wells developed the Seven-Point Structure. In this framework, you actually start your planning at the end, with the climax, and work your way backwards.
I’m listing them in their chronological order, but keep in mind that the Seven-Point Structure works best when thinking from the end.
The Hook: Introduce our main character and their normal life.
Plot Point One: The inciting incident that acts as a call to action.
Pinch Point One: Conflict comes to the main character. They must overcome this to move towards their goal.
The Midpoint: Rather than being reactionary, our protagonist decides to take the fight to the antagonist.
Pinch Point Two: A high-stakes obstacle that has very real consequences for our main character (a friend dying, the nuclear codes stolen, etc.)
Plot Point Two: Your hero realizes that they are capable of reaching their ultimate goal, likely thanks to their growth throughout the story.
Resolution: The climax of the story and everything that follows. This is the big event and how you wrap up everything that comes after.
Image Caption: Applying the Seven-Point Structure to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in Dabble’s Plot Grid.
The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method is less of a story structure than the others we have covered in this article and more of a very thorough way to plan your novel. Developed by author Randy Ingermanson, the entire process takes at least a month to complete, not including writing your first draft, and is divided into ten steps.
Write a one-sentence summary of your story.
Expand that sentence into a complete paragraph.
Create a one-pager for each of your characters, outlining their traits, goals, conflicts, etc.
Expand your paragraph from Step Two. Each sentence should be turned into a detailed paragraph of its own.
Write a one-page synopsis of your story from the point of view of each character in the story (half of a page is okay for minor characters).
Expand each paragraph summary from Step Four into a full page for each paragraph.
Revisit your character profiles and add even more detail, so much that you know them better than your immediate family.
Make a list of every single scene in your book (spreadsheet software is great for this), including a one-sentence description of each, which characters are in it, and the POV.
Write a few paragraphs for each scene listed in the previous step. Include as much detail as you can.
Write your first draft.
It’s a ton of work to use the Snowflake Method, but the payoff comes in the form of writing a very strong story with well-developed characters, virtually no plot holes, and doing it all much more quickly than writing without such a detailed outline.
Which story structure works for you?
Like I said, there are many more story structures out there, but you can already see how some of these ones we covered overlap with one another. With such a diverse set of frameworks, you’re bound to find the one that works best for your story and your writing style.
If you’re a plotter, perhaps the Snowflake Method or the Hero’s Journey is right for you. If you’re a pantser, maybe a Disturbance and Two Doors story is more up your alley.
Whichever you choose, remember that story structures don’t limit your creativity—they reinforce it. So choose a structure that works well for you and get writing! If you find that you’re struggling to finish your book or just need a helping hand, click here to see what services The Book Clinic has to help you write your best book.
And if you are tired of your boring, clunky writing software, we’ve partnered with Dabble to take your writing to the next level. You can get all of Dabble’s great features for a 14-day free trial, no credit card required, by clicking here. And be sure to check out their blog for some great writing resources, including deeper dives into the story structures you just read about!