Story Structure

Everystockphoto_188458_mYou're writing a story, be it novel, short story, or memoir, and it needs structure.

"But I want to be creative," you cry.  "And following story structure will make my work formulaic."

Baloney, I say.

Because a piece of creative writing without structure is like bread without yeast.  Or a pen without ink. Or coffee without caffeine in it.

Structure is what makes the writing hold up.  I think of it like this:  Picture a clothesline with the string between the two poles all loose and wavy.  No way you can hang clothes on it. Now think of that same string as pulled taut, and it accepts your shirts and shorts and underwear just fine.

Structure allows your scenes and characters and plot points a place to hang on.  Otherwise, they are just dangling in the wind. I've collected a few basic structures for you to peruse as a starting point below.  Bear in mind that this truly is the briefest of starting points–books galore (especially in the screenwriting world) have been written about structure, and if you consult the Google, you'll find page upon page of information.   

I begin with the structure that I just recently stumbled upon, and am currently in love with:

Dan Harmon's Story Structure

Picture this as a circle with point #1 at the top and then each point follows clockwise.

1. A character is in a zone of comfort

2. But they want something.

3. So they enter into an unfamiliar situation

4. And adapt to it.

5. They get what they wanted!

6. But pay a heavy price.

7. They return to their familiar situation

8. Changed forever.

Brilliant, eh?  I've been so taken with this structure because my novel follows it exactly. (Editorial note: when I refer to my "novel" I mean my WIP, and also I want to make it clear I didn't set out to follow this structure, but was blown away when I discovered how well it suits my current project.)  Dan Harmon is the creator of the TV show, Community, and apparently if you watch episodes of it, you can see this structure in action.

Aristotelian

The plot structure of Aristotle, which was certainly one of the first, if not the first, is like a skewed triangle. There's a long upward slant to the right and then a short slant down. The plot starts with conflict, the uppermost part skews up to the crisis, and then the short side ends in the resolution. This is a time-tested and time-honored way to design a plot.

Screenplay

Screenplays are 120 pages long to coincide with 120 minutes of on-screen time. (Each page is one minute.) Structure is divided into three parts:

Act One –to page 30

Act Two — pages 30-90

Act Three — pages 90-120

Each act is divided by a plot point, some action that makes the action skew in a new and unexpected way.  Some structures designate a mid point at page 60.

This is a surprisingly robust structure for projects other than screenplays, and with other fictional forms you don't need to hew to the page count.

Hero's Journey

This is the mono-myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, who studied myths from all cultures and realized they all followed a common storyline.  We see the hero in his ordinary world and then comes the call to adventure.  There are struggles, and complications ending in a supreme ordeal and final crisis.  Ultimately, the hero returns to the ordinary world with new knowledge to share.

The best source for more information on this structure is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. 

Two Nows

This is a structure I named. It's when you have two concurrent plot lines of different times running concurrently. It's when backstory is very important to the contemporary story. Each story line has its own structure. You can read more about it in an article I wrote here.

These are some structures that should give you a good starting point.  I highly recommend that you read and research them and find one that works for your project. Finding a structure to follow can enhance your writing–you may realize that your book doesn't set up an ordinary world enough before you plunge into adventure, or it may occur to you that you could pump up the part where you character finally gets what she wants.  Tweaking the story in little ways to better conform to story structure can make a big difference.

What a about you?  Do you have a story structure you really like?  Please share!

photo by gracey.

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14 Comments on "Story Structure"

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D young
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D young

In regards to writing something myself….this is excellent.

In regards to realizing this is how my favorite author probably structures her work is like finding out there really is no Santa clause, Easter bunny, tooth fairy…etc.
makes me want to plug my ears and sing “la-la-la”……

J.D.
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J.D.

Good stuff, Charlotte. You say your novel follows this exactly; do you mean Emma Jean or the novel you are currently writing? Sometimes I read short stories by great writers and I have trouble seeing this pattern. Does a short story contain everything on this list? A short story is not an abbreviated version of a novel, is it?

Suzanne Robertson
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Suzanne Robertson

Once again, Charlotte, you have explained things so well. It’s so helpful to see these lined up together! Three days ago I interviewed my parents about some events that I’ve always thought would make a great fictionalized book or movie. I couldn’t get home to my copy of THE WRITER’s JOURNEY fast enough to plot the structure by it. You made me read that book about 10 years ago and it has been extremely helpful. The Two Nows is brilliant, btw. Thanks for all that and this.

Suzanne Robertson
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Suzanne Robertson

D Young, it’s true that once you know these structures it’s hard to be surprised – you end up knowing in most movies and books where the big epiphany/surprise is going to happen by how far in you are. Just think of it as magical powers to see into the future. 🙂

Charlotte Dixon
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Take those hands off your ears right now! I’m dedicated to revealing all those smoke and mirrors, and following story structure is one way!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
I mean the one I’m working on–and I certainly didn’t do it on purpose, which I guess I should have made clear. When I read the structure, I just couldn’t believe how well my WIP novel follows it. I need to look at Emma Jean again and see where she falls. (It is so funny how after you write something you forget the details of it.) Short stories are a different beast all together. I know they don’t follow the other structures, but it would be fun to play with using Dan Harmon’s structure on one. I guess I better… Read more »
Charlotte Dixon
Guest

Aw, thank you. And I love your parents so much! I would love to see you fictionalize a part of their lives. Yes, I did make you read Christopher Vogler all those years ago and I still love that book. I was just thinking that I need to buy the updated edition and re read it. Send me a email about your story idea.

Charlotte Dixon
Guest

This is why all my students are way more brilliant than I–they take the information and process it much better and more thoroughly. Thanks for the perfect explanation!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest

Added an “editorial note” to the post (as if there’s an editor here–ha) to clarify that I’m talking about my WIP. Thanks for the question!

D young
Guest
D young

Well I guess the last thing anyone wants is a good story left dangling in the wind:)

I love the structure outline though. Simple way to stay organized while constructing!

D young
Guest
D young

That looks like a book I need to get my fingers on.

D young
Guest
D young

That helps:) haha thanks for that!

Zan Marie
Guest

Having waded my way through the Hero’s Journey and realized it just doesn’t work for me, I’m thrilled you included Dan Harmon’s story structure. That’s the ticket!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest

Yes, I love this (new to me) structure. It probably doesn’t work for all stories, but it sure works for a lot of women’s fiction!

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