How to Structure a Novel: Six Types of Narrative Structure and Which is Best for Your Story

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
Fichtean Curve
In Media Res
Frame Narrative
The Hero’s Journey
The Heroine’s Journey

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.

Fichtean Curve

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.

Frame Narrative

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”

On My Bookshelf: The Overstory by Richard Powers

Title: The Overstory
Author: Richard Powers
Genre: Literary, Magical Realism, Trees, Ecology
My Rating: 4/5

Broken down into four parts (Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds), this is a difficult book to describe. Roots is basically a collection of short stories about people whose lives have been impacted by trees. In the rest of the book, which has elements of magical realism, the characters are drawn together by trees, which are semi-sentient beings and a silent character in their own right. The bulk of the story follows a group that gets involved in environmental activism and, depending on how you look at it, eco-terrorism.

This book dragged at times and gripped me at others. Every paragraph was so full of meaning and information, that it took me longer to read than usual. I wouldn’t call this a bedtime read; I definitely needed to focus to get the most out of this book. The story was hopeful and heartbreaking and it brought me to tears multiple times. The genius of The Overstory is that it holds a mirror up to humanity and it’s both a beautiful and horrifying picture. Powers captures the capacity of humans for great altruism and love–and terrible violence and destruction. The ending was bittersweet. If Powers is right, the outlook for us humans doesn’t look great. But the trees will still be there, long, long after we’re gone. 

“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .”

The Overstory, Richard Powers

Writing Prompt of the Week

Picture prompt!

[Image description: exterior photograph of a sunny day. A tree branch with yellow leaves dangles in the foreground. The background, which is slightly blurry, depicts the ground covered in yellow / orange leaves and a handful of other trees.]

If you’re up for a challenge, try to write a complete story in 500 words or less.

On My Bookshelf: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half a King
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Genre: Fantasy, Vikings, Revenge
My Rating: 3/5

Prince Yarvi, born with only one hand, is studying to be a royal adviser when his brother and father are murdered. Yarvi is forced to take the throne, but is promptly betrayed. Thought to be dead, Yarvi is captured and sold into slavery as an oarsman on a trading ship. He must use his education and his wits to escape slavery, return to his homeland, and revenge himself in order to take his rightful place as king.

I picked this up as a Valentine’s Day “blind date” from my public library. I wasn’t thrilled when I opened the packaging. It looked like one of those royal court dramas that have been popular since Game of Thrones. However, I was moderately interested when I started reading. The Viking-esque world was neat, and the characters were different, though I never really connected with them. I generally don’t care for betrayal-and-revenge plots, but this one was enough to keep me mildly entertained throughout. The ending was where the book soured for me. The big twist made sense from a plot and character development standpoint, but Yarvi was completely out of character for a good chunk of the ending. He spends most of the book being horrified by violence and hating that he has to be king. At the end, Yarvi is suddenly unmoved by violence and is determined to commit horrific murders to take the throne. It was way too sudden to be a real character development arc. Overall, the book fell flat. I wasn’t excited about it at any point.

“You may need two hands to fight someone, but only one to stab them in the back.”

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie