Story Structure

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Somebody gets in trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.” Kurt Vonnegut

Structure is the bones of the story. It takes the form of the plot arc, or external events of the story. There may also be an internal structure, running parallel to the main plot and lagging behind it slightly. This is the character arc, the turning points for decisions made by the character which cause him to change over the course of the story.

Structure occurs at all levels:

  • The shape of the overall story
  • The escalating tension within a scene
  •  The motivation-reaction units (MRUs) within a paragraph or block of dialogue

This pattern isn’t limited to storytelling, it can be found in a story, a passage of music, or a well-told joke. In all of those, the basic structure is the same. Tension builds, and is released.

Stories work well if they’re structured to one of the two most common structures, the three act play and the hero’s Journey which focus on the external and internal story arcs, respectively.

The Three Act Play

The three act play, a dramatic structure attributed to Aristotle, has become the basis of most stories and nearly every screenplay written. The structure consists of a series of plot points, spaced at precise intervals:

Incident > Stakes Raised > Despair > Resolve > Climax

Readers seem to find the three act play structure inherently satisfying, sort of like the golden ratio in architecture.

There was some discussion in my writing group about whether a preference for the golden ratio was hardwired into our brains or just something in our culture. Nobody knew, but either way, it doesn’t matter. If an artist paints on a canvas that’s 1.6 times as wide as it is tall, people will like his painting better. It’s the same with the three act play. You don’t have to use it, but if you do, it’s what people are used to, and they’ll like your story better.

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This template gives form to a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. The character is trying to do something, obstacles impede his path, and at one point he almost gives up, but decides to press on and fight to the end.

Major Plot Points of the Three Act Play

The three act play consists of half a dozen plot points which must occur in a specified order. This creates a story structure that almost all readers will like.

3 Act Play - complex

Inciting Incident The incident in the middle of the first act that first makes the character aware of the main story problem. He hesitates; sometimes he is scolded by a mentor.

Kickoff A second incident at the end of the first act that jolts the character out of his ordinary life.

Pinch Point 1 The appearance of adversarial forces in the form of obstacles and conflicts. Often the character is helped by friends.

Midpoint In the exact middle of the story, the stakes are raised and the clock starts ticking. This is the point at which the character fully commits to the story conflict, and begins to look forward rather than back.

Pinch Point 2 The return of adversarial forces, bigger and stronger than before, and with more knowledge about the character’s defenses. Often the character is alone when they find him.

Crisis A false defeat late in the third quarter, and the belief that all hope is lost.

Whiff of Death A moment of despair at the end of the second act which fuels the resolve to confront the adversary and settle things once and for all.

Climax The final confrontation with the chief adversary in the middle of the third act. It follows a run-up through minions and lieutenants. Everything is resolved, and all loose ends are tied up.

Dénouement Life returns to normal, or possibly to the new normal. In a character-driven story, it’s here that the character demonstrates that the changes he’s made are permanent.

I never look at my watch in the movies anymore because I’ve learned to keep time by the plot points. ‘Clock running’ means we’re half-way through, just as ‘whiff of death’ comes at the three quarter point.

The Hero’s Journey

Another story structure is the Hero’s Journey, described by Joseph Campbell. Homer’s The Odyssey is a classic example of the hero’s journey. The main difference from the three act play is that the emphasis is placed on the character, and the turning points that cause the character to make hard decisions and to be changed by them.

When I surveyed writers, I’d expected the three act play to be the tool of the Planners and the Hero’s Journey to belong to the Pantsers, but when the survey results came back, it appeared that both structures were used almost exclusively by Planners.



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