Story Structure: 7 Narrative Structures All Writers Should Know
Nothing makes the challenging task of writing a novel feel more attainable than adopting a story structure to help you plot your narrative.
While using a pre-existing blueprint might make you worry about ending up with a formulaic, predictable story, you can probably analyze most of your favorite books using various narrative structures that writers have been using for decades (if not centuries)!
This post will reveal seven distinct story structures that any writer can use to build a compelling narrative. But first…
What is narrative structure?
Narrative structure (also known as story structure) is the order in which elements of a narrative are presented to the reader or audience. It is composed of two things:
- Plot — the chain of events that occur in the book; and
- Story elements — the underlying factors that drive the narrative action: protagonists, conflicts, setting, etc.
By weaving together a plot and its driving forces, a storyteller can draw connections between ‘things that happen’ and ‘things that matter.’ A tale about two vastly different people falling in love can also be about the value of compromise. An account of two brothers who rob a bank can become an examination of greed, loyalty, or the failure of the American Dream.
Good narrative structure is about presenting the plot and story elements to allow readers to understand what is happening and what it all means. It unravels the plot in a way that doesn’t accidentally confuse the reader while also pushing along the characters’ development and the central conflicts. Structure helps the storyteller deliver a satisfying narrative experience — whether it’s meant to be happy, hilarious, or tragic.
Writers can turn to story theory and narrative structure whenever their story just isn’t working; when they feel that their writing is awkward, aimless, or — worst of all — boring. Writing is an art, but if there’s one part of the craft that’s closer to science, this would be it. Become a master of story structure, and you will have the world at your feet.
Basic story structure
When people discuss different story structures, they’re often talking about the different frameworks used to analyze stories. When you boil them all down, all stories have certain shared elements.
- The status quo. The protagonist is living some kind of ‘normal life’ but has a greater desire or goal. This is usually the first part of the story — but not always.
- An inciting incident. Sometimes called a catalyst, this is an event that sets the story in motion, forcing the protagonist out of their comfort zone.
- Rising action. The protagonist pursues their goal and is tested along the way.
- An all-is-lost moment. The protagonist believes they have failed.
- A resolution. The protagonist a) gets what they want, b) doesn’t get what they want, or c) doesn’t get what they want, but realizes that they have something that’s more important.
These are all common ‘beats’ to most stories. It can be easier to see these moments in genres with higher stakes (such as a military thriller), but you’ll find them in almost any type of story.
Even in something as seemingly mild as a rural romance, there will be rising action as our heroes tentatively fall in love and an all-is-lost moment where it seems like they will never get together (before they inevitably do). Without these steps, there is no conflict and, therefore, no story — merely a series of events that will struggle to keep a reader interested.
Seven story structures every writer should know
Now that we’ve established the most essential components of story, let’s look at seven of the most popular story structures used by writers — and how they deploy these components.
- Freytag’s Pyramid
- The Hero’s Journey
- Three Act Structure
- Fichtean Curve
- In medias res
- Seven-Point Story Structure
- Save the Cat
1. Freytag’s Pyramid
Named after a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, Freytag’s Pyramid is a five-point dramatic structure that’s based on the classical Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripedes.
- Introduction. The status quo is established; an inciting incident occurs.
- Rise, or rising action. The protagonist actively pursues their goal. The stakes heighten.
- Climax. A point of no return, from which the protagonist can no longer go back to the status quo.
- Return, or fall. In the aftermath of the climax, tension builds, and the story heads inevitably towards...
- Catastrophe. The protagonist is brought to their lowest point. Their greatest fears have come true.
This structural model is less frequently used in modern storytelling, partly due to readers’ limited appetite for tragic narratives. By and large, commercial fiction, films, and television will see a protagonist overcome their obstacles to find some small measure of success. That said, it’s still useful to understand the Pyramid as a foundational structure in Western literature — and you will still see it occasionally in the most depressing contemporary tales.
To learn more, read our full guide on Freytag’s Pyramid.
2. The Hero’s Journey
Inspired by Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth — a storytelling pattern that recurs in mythology all over the world — The Hero’s Journey is today’s best-known story structure. Some attribute its popularity to George Lucas, whose Star Wars was heavily influenced by Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Campbell’s original structure uses terminology that lends itself well to epic tales of bravery and triumph — with plot points like “Belly of the Whale,” “Woman as the Temptress,” and “The Magic Flight.” To make The Hero’s Journey more accessible, Disney executive Christopher Vogler created a simplified version that has become popular amongst mainstream storytellers.
Here, we’ll look at Vogler’s streamlined, 12-step version of The Hero’s Journey.
- The Ordinary World. The hero’s everyday life is established.
- The Call of Adventure. Otherwise known as the inciting incident.
- Refusal of the Call. For a moment, the hero is reluctant to take on the challenge.
- Meeting the Mentor. Our hero meets someone who prepares them for what lies ahead — perhaps a parental figure, a teacher, a wizard, or a wise hermit.
- Crossing the First Threshold. The hero steps out of their comfort zone and enters a ‘new world.’
- Tests, Allies, Enemies. Our protagonist faces new challenges — and maybe picks up some new friends. Think of Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave. The hero gets close to their goal. Luke Skywalker reaches the Death Star.
- The Ordeal. The hero meets (and overcomes) their greatest challenge yet.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword). The hero obtains something important they were after, and victory is in sight.
- The Road Back. The hero realizes that achieving their goal is not the final hurdle. In fact, ‘seizing the sword’ may have made things worse for them.
- Resurrection. The hero faces their final challenge — a climactic test that hinges on everything they’ve learned over their journey.
- Return with the Elixir. Having triumphed, our protagonist returns to their old life. Dorothy returns to Kansas; Iron Man holds a press conference to blow his own trumpet.
While Vogler’s simplified steps still retain some of Campbell’s mythological language with its references to swords and elixirs, the framework can be applied to almost any genre of fiction. To see how a ‘realistic’ story can adhere to this structure, check out our guide to the hero’s journey in which we analyze Rocky through this very lens.
For another variation on Campbell’s monomyth structure, you can take a look at The Story Circle, developed by Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon.
3. Three Act Structure
Following the old adage that “every story has a beginning, middle, and end,” this popular structure splits a story’s components into three distinct acts: Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution. In many ways, the three-act structure reworks The Hero’s Journey, with slightly less exciting labels.
Act 1: Setup
- Exposition. The status quo or ‘ordinary world’ is established.
- Inciting Incident. An event that sets the story in motion.
- Plot Point One. The protagonist decides to tackle the challenge head-on. She ‘crosses the threshold,’ and the story is now truly moving.
Act 2: Confrontation
- Rising Action. The story's true stakes become clear; our hero grows familiar with her ‘new world’ and has her first encounters with some enemies and allies. (see Tests, Allies, Enemies)
- Midpoint. An event that upends the protagonist’s mission. (Similar to the climax in Freytag’s pyramid)
- Plot Point Two. In the wake of the disorienting midpoint, the protagonist is tested — and fails. Her ability to succeed is now in doubt.
Act 3: Resolution
- Pre Climax. The night is darkest before dawn. The protagonist must pull herself together and choose between decisive action and failure.
- Climax. She off against her antagonist one last time. Will she prevail?
- Denouement. All loose ends are tied up. The reader discovers the consequences of the climax. A new status quo is established.
When we speak about a confrontation with an antagonist, this doesn’t always mean a fight to the death. In some cases, the antagonist might be a love rival, a business competitor, or merely an internal or environmental conflict that our protagonist has been struggling with the entire story.
If you’re interested in using this model to plot your own story, read our guide to the three-act structure, and download the free template.
4. Fichtean Curve
Fleshed out in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, the Fichtean Curve is a narrative structure that puts our main characters through a series of many obstacles on their way to achieving their overarching goals. Resembling Freytag’s Pyramid, it encourages authors to write narratives packed with tension and mini-crises that keep readers eager to reach the climax.
Bypassing the “ordinary world” setup of many other structures, the Fichtean Curve starts with the inciting incident and goes straight into the rising action. Multiple crises occur, each of which contributes to the readers’ overall understanding of the narrative — replacing the need for the initial exposition.
To discuss this unusual structure, it’s perhaps best to see it in use. We’ll use Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You as an example. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
- Inciting incident. The novel begins with the line: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Within the first three paragraphs, Marilyn realizes that her daughter Lydia is missing. Thus, readers are thrown straight into rising action as Marilyn anxiously searches all the usual places Lydia might be found.
- First crisis. Lydia’s family is informed her body was found in a nearby lake. From this first crisis's climax, the narrative flashes back to provide exposition and details of the family’s history.
- Second crisis. In flashbacks, we discover that, 11 years prior, Marilyn abandoned her family to resume her undergraduate studies. In her absence, the family begins to fall apart. Marilyn learns she is pregnant and is forced to return home. Having lost her opportunity for further education, she places the pressure of academic success on her children.
- Third crisis. Back in the present, Lydia’s father, James, is cheating on Marilyn. The police decide to close the investigation, ruling Lydia’s death a suicide. This results in a massive argument between her parents, and James leaves to stay with the “other woman.”
- Fourth crisis. Flashback to the day Lydia died. From her perspective, we see that she’s misunderstood by her parents. She mourns her brother’s impending departure for college, leaving her as the sole focus of her parents’ pressure. Isolated, she tries to seduce a friend — who rejects her advances and explains he’s in love with her brother.
- Lydia takes a boat into the lake in the middle of the night — determined to overcome her fear of water and reclaim control of her life. Lydia jumps off the boat, into the water, and out of this life. As in a classical tragedy, this moment is both devastating and inevitable.
- Some level of resolution is achieved, and readers get to at least glimpse the “new norm” for the characters. Lydia’s family lean on one another in their grief. While they may never be able to make their amends with Lydia, they can learn from her death. Not all of the loose ends are tied off, but readers infer the family is on the long road to recovery.
Note: In the rising action stage, all of the crises should build tension towards — and correspond with — the story’s major climax. Like the three-act narrative structure, the Fichtean Curve’s climax typically occurs two-thirds through the book.
While this structure lends itself well to flashback-heavy novels such Everything I Never Told You, it is also incredibly common in theatre. In stage plays like The Cherry Orchard and A Doll’s House, the action takes place in a fixed time and place, but backstory and character development are revealed through moments of high drama that occur before the audience’s eyes.
5. In medias res
Latin for “in the middle of things,” in medias res is a narrative structure that starts midway through the story. While the Fichtean Curve also begins without exposition, you might think of in medias res as beginning on the third or fourth crisis of a Fichtean Curve. The stakes are already high, and the rest of the rising action is devoted to filling the blanks and explaining to readers why this conflict exists — all while continuing to build tension.
- Middle Crisis. The story starts in the thick of the action — our protagonist may be hitting rock bottom.
- Rising Action. While the beginning of the story introduces us to the conflict at hand, the Rising Action reveals — often through dialogue and flashback — the bigger picture and what led the story to this point. Multiple crises will occur here, building toward the climax.
- Climax. As with typical climaxes, the tension breaks, and there is a turning point in the narrative.
- Falling Action. More exposition often takes place during the Falling Action, further contextualizing the story. We learn more about how the conflict came to be, and the character is given a chance to reflect on the climax.
- Denouement. Loose ends are tied, and lingering questions are resolved.
In this structure, most of the reader’s time will be spent in the Rising Action phase, with the Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement happening in quick succession. A common reason for picking this structure is to ‘get to the good stuff’ as soon as possible — so when the tension is released at the climax, you’ll also want to wrap things up without delay.
6. Seven-Point Story Structure
A slightly less detailed adaptation of The Hero’s Journey, the Seven-Point Story Structure focuses specifically on the highs and lows of a narrative arc.
According to author Dan Wells, who developed the Seven-Point Story Structure, writers are encouraged to start at the end, with the resolution, and work their way back to the starting point: the hook. With the ending in mind, they can have their protagonist and plot begin in a state that best contrasts the finale — since this structure is all about dramatic changes from beginning to end.
- The Hook. Draw readers in by explaining the protagonist’s current situation. Their state of being at the beginning of the novel should be in direct contrast to what it will be at the end of the novel.
- Plot Point 1. Whether it’s a person, an idea, an inciting incident, or something else — there should be a "Call to Adventure" of sorts that sets the narrative and character development in motion.
- Pinch Point 1. Things can’t be all sunshine and roses for your protagonist. Something should go wrong here that applies pressure to the main character, forcing them to step up and solve the problem.
- Midpoint. A “Turning Point” wherein the main character changes from a passive force to an active force in the story. Whatever the narrative’s main conflict is, the protagonist decides to start meeting it head-on.
- Pinch Point 2. The second pinch point involves another blow to the protagonist — things go even more awry than they did during the first pinch point. This might involve the passing of a mentor, the failure of a plan, the reveal of a traitor, etc.
- Plot Point 2. After the calamity of Pinch Point 2, the protagonist learns that they’ve actually had the key to solving the conflict the whole time.
- Resolution. The story’s primary conflict is resolved — and the character goes through the final bit of development necessary to transform them from who they were at the start of the novel.
7. Save the Cat
Another variation of the three-act structure, this framework created by Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder, has been widely championed by storytellers across many media forms.
Fun fact: Save the Cat is named for a moment in the set up of a story (usually a film) where our hero does something to endear himself to the audience.
While many structures are reluctant to prescribe exactly when in a story the various beats should take place, Snyder and Save the Cat have no such qualms. The number in the square brackets below refers to the page that the beat should take place — assuming you’re writing a 110-page screenplay.
- Opening Image . The first shot of the film. If you’re starting a novel, this would be an opening paragraph or scene that sucks readers into the world of your story.
- Set-up [1-10]. Establishing the ‘ordinary world’ of your protagonist. What does he want? What is he missing out on?
- Theme Stated . During the setup, hint at what your story is really about — the truth that your protagonist will discover by the end.
- Catalyst . The inciting incident!
- Debate [12-25]. The hero refuses the call to adventure. He tries to avoid the conflict before they are forced into action.
- Break into Two . The protagonist makes an active choice and the journey begins in earnest.
- B Story . A subplot kicks in. Often romantic in nature, the protagonist’s subplot should serve to highlight the theme.
- The Promise of the Premise [30-55]. Often called the ‘fun and games’ stage, this is usually a highly entertaining section where the writer delivers the goods. If you promised an exciting detective story, we’d see the detective in action. If you promised a goofy story of people falling in love, let’s go on some charmingly awkward dates.
- Midpoint . A plot twist occurs that ups the stakes and makes the hero’s goal harder to achieve — or makes them focus on a new, more important goal.
- Bad Guys Close In [55-75]. The tension ratchets up. The hero’s obstacles become greater, his plan falls apart, and he is on the back foot.
- All is Lost . The hero hits rock bottom. He loses everything he’s gained so far, and things are looking bleak. The hero is overpowered by the villain; a mentor dies; our lovebirds have an argument and break up.
- Dark Night of the Soul [75-85-ish]. Having just lost everything, the hero shambles around the city in a minor-key musical montage before discovering some “new information” that reveals exactly what he needs to do if he wants to take another crack at success. (This new information is often delivered through the B-Story)
- Break into Three . Armed with this new information, our protagonist decides to try once more!
- Finale [85-110]. The hero confronts the antagonist or whatever the source of the primary conflict is. The truth that eluded him at the start of the story (established in step three and accentuated by the B Story) is now clear, allowing him to resolve their story.
- Final Image . A final moment or scene that crystallizes how the character has changed. It’s a reflection, in some way, of the opening image.
Some writers may find this structure too prescriptive, but it’s incredible to see how many mainstream stories seem to adhere to it — either by design or coincidence. Over on the Save the Cat website, there are countless examples of films and novels analyzed with Snyder’s 15 beats. You’ll be surprised how accurate some of the timings are for each of the beats.
To see how novelists can use this framework, watch this video where Reedsy’s Shaelin plots out a Middle-Grade fantasy novel using Snyder’s beat sheet.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: story structures aren't an exact science, and you should feel welcome to stray from the path they present. They're simply there to help you find your narrative's footing — a blueprint for the world you're about to start building.
[updated: 11/06/2020 UTC]