Your story structure does matter.
Get this right, and your readers will definitely see the difference. If your book doesn’t have a cohesive structure…they may not be back for more.
This guide to story structure covers:
What is story structure?
It’s how the events are laid out with an emphasis on each part furthering the story in an intriguing and cohesive structure.
Structure, suffice it to say, is IMPORTANT. Why?
The structure makes all the difference in creating a compelling narrative structure.
Basic story structure helps you keep track of all the events, characters, character development and story elements.
Keeping track of story elements makes writing a lot easier. Think of it like following a recipe. Stick to the plan, and you’ll avoid a disaster writing a novel or non-fiction book.
These elements also help readers make an emotional attachment. They start to feel anxious if an element they are expecting hasn’t yet occurred, or never occurs.
Depending on the book genre, manipulating these expectations is a part of the style.
Why focus on the structure of a story?
Story structure serves as a map to guide you, the characters, and the reader to an eventual, and hopefully rewarding, destination. It also supports your narrative structure to keep readers engaged.
That’s why we always recommend outlining your book using these methods for planning your novel or non-fiction book.
Story Structure: 3 Templates for Getting it Right
There’s three main types of story structure options to help you plan your book.
Story Structure #1 – Three Act Structure
The 3 act play or three act structure…It’s the most basic of story structures, very popular in Hollywood-style films.
Many world-famous novels use this structure, including:
- Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The three act structure uses five elements which includes the acts, various scenes, and two key transitions, aka “pinches.”
Here is the three-act structure broken down:
Act 1: Setup
We’re introduced to the main players as well as the main conflict. We understand the voice, tone, and direction of the story.
Pinch 1 – This is when the initial conflict arises (sometimes known as the inciting incident).
Act 2: Confrontation
Now we’re faced with difficult (seemingly impossible) odds to overcome.
Pinch 2 – The conflicts addressed in Act 2 come to a head, and decisions need to be made. This is often the moment where all hope is lost for your protagonist.
Act 3: Resolution
Everything boils down to this act. All of the conflict, main plot points, subplots, and challenges arise and the climax kicks off, shortly followed by the resolution of the story.
The Setup: Introduces the main character with some mild character development and sets up the conflict.
Here’s an example: Romeo and Juliet uses a 5-act structure in the play, while the films use a three act structure.
Pinch 1 occurs at the end of the first act, introducing the conflict of the young couples’ love for each other.
The Confrontation: in Romeo and Juliet appears in the second act as the stakes for the lovers is spelled out. They marry in secret and that forms the end of the major plot points, the star-crossed lovers are not just passingly at odds with their society.
Within the three act structure, this is a single plot point. We get that they love each other, and that love means marriage.
Then, the middle act is the apprehension of their actions bringing about unintended, but not unforeseeable consequences.
Act 2 ends shortly after a complication that brings the elements to a head.
The Resolution: Act 3 then begins with the fallout. With Romeo headed to banishment, Juliet seeks a drastic plan to keep him around. She fakes her death to bring out the true feelings of the interested parties. And you know how this tragedy ends.
Story Structure #2 – The Hero’s Journey
When the good guys and bad guys are less black and white, the Hero’s Journey is another proven model that works.
The journey typically consists of 12 steps. It’s the backbone of traditional storytelling.
Here are the 12 steps of the HERO’S JOURNEY:
- The Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusing the Call
- Meeting a Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies
- Approach the Innermost Circle
- The Ordeal
- Seizing the Talisman
- The Road Ahead
- Return with the Elixir
These steps explain, in detail, the trajectory of the story while leaving room to put in differing characters and pursuits of different ideals, compared to the main character.
We’ll use Lord of the Rings as an example of this story structure. While the entire story follows the structure multiple times, we’ll stick to Frodo’s arc.
Step 1 – The Ordinary World:
The Lord of the Rings story begins, rather appropriately, in the most banal land in Middle Earth. The Shire is a pure ordinary world where nothing too much happens, and everyone lives without any idea that better or worse things exist outside its borders.
Step 2 – The Call to Adventure:
It comes when Gandalf shows up in search of the One Ring.
He tells Frodo a quest needs to be taken up but doesn’t give the full details.
Step 3 – Refusing the Call:
This is about seeing what has to be done and deciding there has to be someone else.
Frodo accepts part of the responsibility, without understanding the rest.
Step 4 – Meeting a Mentor:
Though Gandalf served as a Mentor in The Hobbit, Aragorn (as Strider) is the Mentor here, who brings the four hobbits together.
The Mentor often brings insight, training, or purpose to a hero.
Step 5 – Crossing the Threshold:
Reflects the hero facing a challenge and realizing they can make a difference.
Frodo faces the barrow wraiths and rescues his friends. Later he survives the orc attack in Moria. Both thresholds show the power of gifts he received from Biblo but also hint at how friendship will play a role in his other tests.
Step 6 – Tests, Allies, and Enemies:
This is a larger middle section of the Hero’s Journey which winds through other elements.
This step might not necessarily be a solid, definable moment, but rather something that has been happening throughout the story until this point.
Step 7 – Approach the Innermost Circle:
Is a great danger, if not the greatest danger, a hero faces.
This moment in your story should be high tension (Frodo attempts to leaves the group), with consequences that impact the overall plot points.
Step 8 – The Ordeal:
The Ordeal is what takes place inside the Innermost Circle.
In the wastes of Mordor, Frodo must hold out against the weight of the One Ring. It is a prolonged Ordeal but well within the idea of the step.
Step 9 – Seizing the Talisman:
Seizing the Talisman is about gaining an object of power that will turn the tide for the hero.
For Frodo, the specifics of the talisman are in his pity on Gollum. But this can come in other forms for your main character and other players in your story.
Step 10 – The Road Ahead:
The Road Ahead takes the hero from the talisman to a final conflict.
In this case, Frodo is betrayed by Gollum and nearly killed by Shelob, saved only by the friendship with Samwise.
The consequences of Seizing the Talisman are usually a downward turn, comparable with Pinch 2 from the three act structure.
Step 11 – Resurrection:
Resurrection often involves a person, or entity returning after being thought dead.
Gandalf becomes the white, Luke comes back with a mechanical hand, Frodo fails to discard the ring and has to be attacked by Gollum.
Frodo’s resurrection is being saved at the last moment by his previous good decisions, often a resurrection succeeds because of past decisions by a hero and rarely the actions they take in that moment.
Step 12 – Return with the Elixir:
Finally, the hero must return taking everything they have learned and accomplished back to the Ordinary World they once inhabited.
This is often the last chapter, showing your main character returning to their life or beginning to create their new life.
Story Structure #3 – The Five Milestones
This structure focuses on five plot points, usually one or two scenes each, that create the scaffold of the story. These Milestones have to go in order, but the space between them can be adjusted quite a lot.
Here are the 5 MILESTONES for this story structure:
- Inciting Incident
- 1st Slap
- 2nd Slap
We’ll use the Hunger Games to rundown this structure.
The Setup: The story begins explaining the reasons for the districts, why the Games exist, and introduces Katniss as the protagonist.
We know, rather quickly, that the world is dystopian and unfair, and we know the main character has the skills to make an impact.
The Inciting Incident: It’s the kickoff to the main plot and conflict in your novel.
In this case, Katniss’ own sister is chosen to take part in the Games. A task she is not ready for and will likely not survive.
That specific moment is the inciting incident because it leads to Katniss’s next decision. She volunteers to be the tribute.
This sets the rest of the plot in motion while also anchoring the reader to the motives of the hero.
The 1st Slap: sets the stakes and introduces the larger plot.
The 1st Slap is usually external, a factor within the world that must be overcome.
The opening of the Games sets the stakes and shows the danger Katniss will face.
The 1st Slap also makes good on the promise of adventure by putting the hero into the middle of a peril that they must escape. There is no turning back, only moving forward.
The 2nd Slap: This takes us into the 2nd Slap. Here, we see things get worse, but we see the hope on the horizon.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss works out a plan to fake a relationship with Peta to get support from the outside; a means of survival.
It’s a huge risk, but it offers hope. She must take the chance. Things go badly, of course, and the hope teeters her on ruin.
The Climax: All of this creates the landscape for the final Milestone: The Climax.
With the Games coming down to just Peta or Katniss, we go back to the events of the Inciting Incident and loop that motivation into how the hero wins.
Frodo helped Gollum, who saves him in return (not out of good intent, but it gets us there). Katniss has a need to protect others, all her actions follow that desire.
She sees a way to save Peta by threatening herself. This kind of character-driven resolution makes for a rewarding story and makes it easy to weave the details of your final victory throughout.
Your readers stay looped into the triumph because they root for the character because they like them, not because the plot says that they win.
The secret to making a story kickass is to make it come from within. A good reader can smell a set up a mile away. A good reader also loves to see a Milestone achieved.
Final thoughts on how to structure a story
There you have it, three different types of story structures to get a story from ‘In the Beginning’ to ‘The End’ that will keep you focused and organized. The reader will know what you’re doing, following along through the peaks and valleys, the twists and turns, confident that your roadmap will lead somewhere promising.