What is Story Structure Anyway?

Every article, short story, novel or nonfiction book has underlying structure. Your writing is the canvas of a tent and the structure—regardless of your form or genre—are the pegs and stakes that hold it up.

The idea of fitting our creative writing into a set structure doesn’t send warm fuzzies. In fact, many writers will rebel against the idea.

“I write outside the box.”

“Who wants to read formulaic stories?”

“This is speculative fiction. There are no rules.”

In every case, an editor or a publisher will shoot down your conception that every story doesn’t have structure—of a sort.

Three Act Structure

As a fiction author, I’m quite familiar with three act story structure.

But it can also be referred to as two act and four act structure, the Hero’s Journey and even plot point outlining.

All those different names for basically the same thing? Confusing. And often misleading.

But also a testament to the veracity that the same idea can be packaged with different terminology and from a unique perspective and still sell. That encouragement is for the writer who said she heard a pod cast and the featured author talked about her book which covered many of the same points that writer made in the book she was writing.

Case in point: Many years ago, a writer I worked with recommended SAVE THE CAT as her favorite treatise on story structure. I admired this writer and most of her advice helped me.

But not that book. It didn’t resonate with me.

Later, she recommended the book PLOT & STRUCTURE. It covered the SAME form of structure using different language and expounding on it in a different way. That book is still what I consider my structure and revision bible.

A year later, I attended a writer’s conference and sat in a class about structure by Larry Brooks. I purchased his book STORY ENGINEERING. He taught the same three act structure but explained some points in different ways which helped me understand them—and be able to teach them to other writers—more clearly and completely.

The basics of three act structure which can be traced back to classical Greek literature is:

  • The first act is the set-up of the story. Includes the hook and inciting incident
  • The first act ends with a Door of No Return: when the character decides to act to solve the story problem
  • The second act steadily increases tension. At first, the main character might be reacting to events
  • At the midpoint of the story, the main character catches a glimpse of what could be if they change. After that, they are proactive toward their goal.
  • Act two ends with the dark night of the soul (75% mark of story). This is the worst possible thing happens and the main character must change if they are going to solve the story problem.
  • Act three includes the climax and resolution.
    • Climax = main character defeats the antagonist
    • Resolution= a glimpse of life after the change, the new character and tying up loose story ends

That’s the structure explained in a nutshell. For more information and explanation, refer to the books mentioned above.

Twelve Chapter Outline

If you write nonfiction, there is no main character or character journey. The exception here is that memoir follows roughly the same story arc as fiction.

A course I took on creating a nonfiction book proposal taught that every nonfiction book could fit into a twelve chapter outline.

It went as follows:

  • Chapter 1: Big Promise
  • Chapter 2: Why the reader is falling short
  • Chapter 3: Author’s winning example of going from falling short to success
  • Chapters 4-11: How to get from failure to success
  • Chapter 12: Encouragement to empower reader’s success

Maybe you think your book can’t fit into that mold. And that might be true if it is a devotional (which is organized by time or subject) or another linear subject matter.

However, going in a straight line from start to finish IS a form of structure.

Remember that Story Graph?

Do you recall completing one of these graphs in language arts class back in middle school or high school?

I remember teaching it to my students.

And this structure will help you craft an excellent short story or piece of flash fiction.

Every story, no matter the length, needs a beginning that introduces the character and problem and sets the stage. There need to be stakes attached to the character’s goal and some form of obstacle that gets in the way to an easy solution.

At the highest point, the conflict is the sharpest. In a short story, this is often when the twist or surprise is revealed. Then the character falls back toward normal life but leaves the story changed in some way.

Beginning, middle and end. Every story needs these pieces of the puzzle.

What are you writing? Which form of structure are you using?

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.