Story Structure: "How Am I Supposed to Do This?"
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
Setting up the structure of a project, particularly something big like a novel, can feel like an intimidating task. There are so many recommendations and resources out there, but it can start to get confusing when different words are used to refer to the same things or the same words are used to refer to different things. On top of that, with all of the different but similar opinions out there, how are you supposed to know what's actually going to work the best?
Because there are many options that have all been used effectively, and because supposedly different structures are applied to the same books and movies as proof of their usefulness, I think we can safely say that there isn't one right approach to thinking about structure. This means that you get to think about and use structure in the way that feels to most natural, makes the most sense, or feels the least intimidating to you.
So that you can make your own best decision, I've created an overview of a few common structural approaches. I've included links to books on each where possible. (The links are affiliate links, which means that if you decide one of these books is for you and then further decide to use the link to purchase it, I will get a teeny tiny part of the proceeds at no additional cost to you.)
You'll notice that at the root of all of these examples is the inherent nature of stories to be composed of a beginning, a middle, and an end. A character has something they want, they encounter obstacles as they try to get it, and there is some sort of resolution. Usually, the character changes as a result of their journey. Beyond that, some have noted that there are particular points within a story that readers or viewers tend to expect and which keep readers and viewers interested and satisfied.
Let's take a look.
1. Three-Act Structure as Described by Syd Fields
This is the way of thinking about structure that you'll see used most frequently when screenwriting is discussed, although it's also applied to novels and other types of stories.
The Three-Act Structure (or Dramatic Structure), as Fields explains, is composed of Setup (Act I), Confrontation (Act II), and Resolution (Act III). Separating the first and second acts is the first "plot point" and separating the second and third acts is the second plot point, each a place where the story takes a turn. Within the first act, you also have the "inciting incident," an event that sets the story in motion, and the "key incident," which reveals what the story is about.
Something that stands out about this structure is that it leaves a lot of "empty" space for the writer to navigate, particularly in Act II, which is expected to be the length of the first and third acts put together.
(The book is Screenplay: The foundations of Screenwriting.)
The Three-Act Structure has been expanded upon or made more detailed by other writers and academics, many of whom break the long Act II into halves with a defined "midpoint." Randy Ingermanson in his Snowflake Method refers to three relatively equally spaced plot points (Field's first and second plot points plus a midpoint) as three "disasters." (The book is How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.)
I've recently become quite enamored of the way K.M. Weiland breaks down the structure a bit further and really clarifies the purpose behind each of these plot points and incidents. Her book is called Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.
2. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet
This is another very popular take on the three-act structure that is used by screenwriters and novelists alike. It breaks a story into fifteen descriptive pieces: six sections and nine moments. These are:
Break Into Two
Fun and Games
Bad Guys Close In
All Is Lost
Dark Night of the Soul
Break Into Three
Snyder gives page numbers or percentages (different between screenplays and novels) for when in the plot these transitions are meant to happen.
This isn't my favorite way of thinking of structure--it doesn't work for my brain--but I know writers for whom it's been extraordinarily helpful.
3. The Hero's Journey
This is really one of the heavy hitters here. It's based on Joseph Campbell's analysis of mythic structure as found throughout history. The hero's structure follows the protagonist as they transform through the following series of steps:
The Ordinary World
The Call of Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Tests, Alles, Enemies
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Seizing the Sword
The Road Back
Return with the Elixir
Within this paradigm, the hero journeys from the known ordinary world to the unknown special world and back, now changed, to the ordinary world. This journey is generally pictured as a circle.
The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler is the much-beloved guide to the Hero's Journey.
4. Dan Harmon's Story Circle
This is a much less complicated version of the Hero's Journey, and it's what Harmon uses for plotting out each episode of the fantastic animated series, Rick and Morty. The steps are as follows:
A character is comfortable,
But then they see something want.
They go into the unknown to get it,
But they have to change for success to be possible.
They get it,
But they have to pay a price.
They return to their original situation,
Having now changed.
5. The Fichtean Curve
The Fichtean Curve describes a plot that gets immediately to the inciting incident and progresses in rising action through multiple crises that lead all the way up to a climax. There is then a quick drop off or "falling action" to close the story. In other words, things ramp up quickly and keep ramping up until the climax, after which the story wraps up quickly.
6. Freytag's pyramid
Freytag's pyramid feels a bit like the opposite of the Fichtean curve. In this model, we're given ample time for exposition at the start of the story and denouement at the end of the story. With relatively equal rising and falling action, unlike in the Fichtean curve, we find the climax in the very middle of our plot.
This is not a commonly used model, but some people will point out that the film The Wizard of Oz (a rather old movie at this point) does basically fit this structure.
These are, of course, not all of the structural models out there. The truth is that as we continue to analyze stories, the number of structural models will grow. As I said at the outset, these models are more about understanding stories than they are about anything else.
In case you're interested in any of the books mentioned (and want to purchase through one of my affiliate links), I'm including them again below.
Three-Act Structure as described by Syd Fields - Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
Snowflake Method (also an outlining process) - How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
The Hero's Journey - The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
I'd love to hear about the role structure has played in your journey as a writer. What have you found works best for you?