You’ve created an imaginary world and populated it with well-rounded characters. You’ve pinpointed the conflict and dreamed up a gratifying conclusion.
But how do you knit it all together into a satisfying story?
Narrative structure is the scaffolding that holds your story together. Think of it as a wire form over which you can papier-mâché the beautiful details that make your story special: plot, setting, and characters.
There are several well-known narrative structures to choose from, some of which have been around for thousands of years. Below are six common structures that have different effects on a reader’s experience.
Read on and find out which one is best for your story, or jump to a specific one using the links below.
Three Act Structure
You may remember the three act structure from high school English when you used it to outline Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays. It is still a popular structure for modern novels and movies.
Act One takes up approximately the first quarter of the story, introducing your characters and your world. At some point during this section, the “Inciting Incident” occurs, drawing your main character into the action. This Act establishes the main question of the story: Will the heroine defeat the villain? Will the man find love? Will the lawyer win the case?
Act Two, which comprises the majority of the story, is mostly “rising action.” The main character tries to solve a problem, but often ends up in a worse situation. They must develop skills (here’s your character arc!) in order to overcome the obstacles before them.
Act Three occurs in the last quarter of the story. It contains the climax as well as the denouement, or descending action, that wraps up loose ends and draws the story to its conclusion.
The Fichtean Curve begins immediately with rising action, which peaks at a mini crisis, followed by brief falling action. This cycle repeats, resulting in a series of crises that all lead to the main climax around two-thirds of the way through the book.
This structure leads to an action-packed story that keeps readers turning pages.
In Media Res
Writers may be familiar with this Latin phrase for “in the middle of things.” Scenes often start in media res, but the term also refers to a plot structure in which the story as a whole starts in the middle of things. Looking at the Three Act Structure above, a story that uses In Media Res as a narrative structure would begin at the midpoint of Act Two, during the middle crisis.
This throws the reader directly into the action. The story basically follows the rest of the Three Act Structure, with rising action, climax, and falling action, while also cluing the reader in to how the conflict all began.
Thrillers or mysteries often use this structure to start with high tension that only increases as the story progresses.
A story within a story within a story (within a story)…
A Frame Narrative, which embeds one story (or more) within another, has been popular for centuries, even dating back to ancient Egypt and India. Perhaps the most well-known modern examples are the movies The Titanic (wherein Rose tells the story of her experience aboard the ship) and Inception (which has dreams embedded within other dreams). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and One Thousand and One Arabian Nights also use this structure.
The Hero’s Journey
One of the most popular structures for fantasy and science fiction, the Hero’s Journey, is circular, rather than linear. Outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it is another ancient story structure in which a character leaves home, faces obstacles, and returns triumphant.
This story begins when the hero’s life is interrupted by a call to leave home and go on a journey or quest (Call to Adventure); occasionally, he initially refuses. He meets a guide who gives him the tools needed to embark on his journey (Supernatural Aid). A minor obstacle marks the departure from the known world into the unknown (Threshold Guardian) and the hero begins his adventure (Threshold). Along the way, he gets aid from friends (Helper, Mentor) and faces challenges and temptations that attempt to lead him astray. He confronts the villain and fails (Abyss). All seems lost. The hero must turn inward, think differently, or draw on power he didn’t know he had in order to move forward (Transformation). Finally, the hero can achieve his goals and defeat the villain (Atonement). Victorious, he returns to the same place he began, but he is different; he has grown, and things can never quite be the same again (Return). The Lord of the Rings is a classic example of this structure.
The Heroine’s Journey
In a counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey more specifically addresses the modern female (or non-male) experience. Outlined by Maureen Murdock in her book The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, the Heroine’s Journey is also circular, but with different plot beats.
The story begins when the heroine rejects her feminine side to achieve success in a patriarchal culture (Separation from the Feminine). She then chooses a masculine social role or identity, allying herself with powerful males (Identification with the Masculine). She experiences obstacles (Road of Trials) and eventually overcomes them (Boon of Success). Her success, though, comes at a price; her new life is shallow and she has had to betray herself in the process (Awakening of Feelings). She suffers an internal crisis. She meets a goddess figure, who inspires her return to femininity (Initiation and Descent to Goddess). However, the heroine can’t simply return to her old life (Urgent Yearning to Reconnect). First, she must reclaim the feminine values she initially scorned (Healing the Mother/Daughter Split) and come to terms with the masculine within (Healing the Wounded Masculine). Finally, she integrates the two aspects of herself, keeping a balance between both sides (Integration of Masculine and Feminine).
Which Narrative Structure Should I Use for My Story?
Whether you’re a “pantser” or a “plotter,” thinking about the structure of your story before you start writing can create a smooth narrative and a gratifying ending for your reader. But how do you know which framework is the best for your purposes?
If you already have most of your story planned, see if the plot beats line up with one of the structures above. If you haven’t quite gotten that far, you can pick one and craft your outline around the one that speaks to you.
The Three Act Structure is one of the most common frameworks used in modern storytelling. It would work well for most types of stories and would be a good starting place for most writers.
The Fichtean Curve is very similar to the three act structure, although it starts into the action immediately and keeps up a quicker pace throughout. Movies use this method to keep audience members at the edge of their seats.
In Media Res is most often used for mysteries and thrillers because it keeps the audience guessing as to how the situation began.
A Frame Narrative works best in combination with another type of structure. In One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the overarching story of Scheherazade could have been its own novel, while each of the tales she tells has a beginning, middle, and end.
The Hero’s Journey has long been a favorite of fantasy and sci-fi writers because the main character travels from the known to the unknown (e.g. a magical world). The key to this structure is that the hero ends up back where they started.
In the Heroine’s Journey, the protagonist also ends up where they started, though this framework is more specifically geared towards the female/non-male experience in navigating a patriarchal culture.
There are more varieties of narrative structure than are listed here, though these are some of the most common and some I find most interesting. No one narrative structure is “right,” but it helps to understand these frameworks when crafting your own story. Try them out and feel free to adjust and combine as you see fit.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Now Novel, “Three act structure: How to write a satisfyingly structured novel”
Go Teen Writers, “Story Brainstorming Sheets for Download”
well-storied, “3 Awesome Plot Structures for Building Bestsellers”
Writer’s Edit, “Literary Devices: How to Master Structure”
Reedsy Blog, “Story Structure: Three Models for Your Book”
Wikipedia, “Frame Story”
KU: Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, “Science Fiction Writers Workshop: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey”
Wikipedia, “Hero’s Journey”
Reedsy Blog, “Hero’s Journey 101: Definition and Step-by-Step Guide (With Checklist!)”
Masterclass, “Writing 101: What is the Hero’s Journey? 2 Hero’s Journey Examples in Film”
Maureen Murdock, “Articles: The Heroine’s Journey”
The Heroine Journeys Project, “Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey Arc”
Wikipedia, “Heroine’s Journey”