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.


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.


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.