If you’ve ever tried to write a story, you may have found that getting started with your idea was pretty easy—until you suddenly hit a wall.
That wall might not be writer’s block, but rather a lack of decent planning.
Sometimes, taking a great idea and just running with it can work out pretty well. More often than not, though, you’ll find yourself questioning just where the whole thing is headed halfway through the first act.
That’s why taking the time to plan your story’s structure can be extremely beneficial and save you a lot of time in the long run.
What Is Story Structure?
Story structure, also known as narrative structure, is the underlying framework that determines how and in what order a story will be presented.
You can think of story structure as the bones of your story. Once you have the skeleton, you can give it all the flesh you want and really bring your story to life.
But there are four key elements you should know about your story before you even touch a pen.
- Setting: Where will your story take place?
- Characters: Who are your players?
- Event(s): What is going to happen? What is your story about?
- Controlling idea: What message do you want to convey? Why are you writing this?
Once you have these basic ideas clear, you can start developing your plot.
Story Structure Fundamentals
Let’s examine the basic three-act structure to understand the essential structural points. (There are other types of structures, like the hero’s journey, but they all tend to include the same key concepts.)
The First Act should establish the story’s setting, main character(s), and at least hint at some of the events to come.
It’s here that we’ll see our protagonist’s “normal” life become disrupted by some significant event, also known as the inciting incident.
The inciting incident is the primary reason your story is happening. It’s the event that pushes the protagonist into action by presenting him with a challenge.
This kicks off the series of events that will eventually bring us to the story’s climax as our protagonist works toward his goal.
The inciting incident is also a good place to start revealing parts of the character, like how they react to the event.
Examples of inciting events:
- Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love. (Romeo and Juliet)
- Dorothy is picked up by a tornado. (The Wizard of Oz)
- Katniss Everdeen’s sister’s name is called to participate in the Hunger Games. (The Hunger Games)
First Turning Point
The first turning point occurs when the protagonist makes a conscious decision to take action in order to achieve his or her goal. (This also marks the end of the First Act.)
Using an example from above, the first turning point in The Hunger Games comes when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.
Besides the climax, the first turning point is often one of the most exciting parts of a story.
The Second Act focuses on the series of escalating events (including both successes and failures) that occur as the protagonist works toward their goal.
While the protagonist overcomes most of the obstacles set up by the antagonistic force, the stakes will gradually rise and the protagonist will have to push harder or risk more in order to progress.
About halfway through the Second Act, our protagonist will cross a midpoint. This is sometimes known as the “point of no return,” since it reaffirms their commitment to their goal.
Once he crosses the midpoint, the protagonist is no longer just reacting to the series of events happening to him—he finally starts to actively take charge against the antagonistic force.
Much like the first turning point, the midpoint again changes the character’s direction.
It should feel like a natural progression from the events that have come before, but also different from anything else that has happened.
- Scarlett decides she will do whatever it takes to preserve and rebuild Tara. (Gone With the Wind)
- Nick must take action to save himself after Amy’s friend accuses him of killing Amy (Gone Girl).
- After his confrontation with Ilsa, Rick realizes he needs to put away his bitterness and fight for a bigger cause. (Casablanca)
Second Turning Point
To conclude Act 2, the worst must happen to our protagonist. At the second turning point, it seems almost certain that the protagonist is going to fail.
Yet, despite some major blows, the character learns a critical lesson and comes up with a new solution.
This sets the stage for the final fight in Act 3.
- Quint destroys the boat’s radio, leaving the three-man crew without backup as the shark devours their boat. (Jaws)
- Sonny is murdered, leaving a vacuum that forces Michael to take over the family business. (The Godfather)
The Third Act hosts the final showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. It’s here that we find the story’s climax and resolution.
The climax represents the final moments of the main, overarching conflict.
There might also be a “pre-climax,” where it seems impending doom is headed for out protagonist. We should feel at least some doubt that the protagonist will actually succeed.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is captured and the Wicked Witch tells her that she will die when the hourglass runs out.
But this moment is not the actual climax—that arrives when the protagonist finally puts the conflict to rest, and achieves his goal (although, rarely, the opposite may happen).
- Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch, melting her into a puddle. (The Wizard of Oz)
- Frodo drops the ring into Mount Doom. (Lord of the Rings)
- Marlowe boards his steam boat to visit Kurtz, and sees, with horror, that he has abandoned all norms of civilization. (Heart of Darkness)
The resolution—also known as the denouement—is where the dust finally settles.
Not all stories have happy endings (take Romeo and Juliet)—but they still have resolutions, where the reader will learn the final outcome of the story.
Any significant loose ends should also be tied up here, and the tension that was built up until the climax should be mostly released.
- Lord Capulet and Lord Montague agree to end their feud after their children commit suicide. (Romeo and Juliet)
Most importantly, the resolution should signal to your readers that your story is coming to a close.
Plan Your Narrative
Thinking through your story’s structure before you get started is a great idea if you want to avoid getting stuck halfway through.
However, every writer is different, so if you have a process that works best for you, keep it up!
Do you have any helpful tips for plotting a story? Feel free to share in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- 3 Killer Plot Twists in Fiction: And How They Blow Our Minds
- Exploring the Monomyth: 6 Lessons from Joseph Campbell’s Theory of “The Hero’s Journey”
- How to Organize Your Writing Life: How I Learned to Plot My Writing More Effectively Without Losing the Magic
- Writing Quiz: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?