The structure of a story


One thing I’ve been noticing in my reading recently has been how different stories are structured. The classic Three Act structure is broken up rather simply:

  • Act 1 – Setup – Introduce the characters and their “normal” situation, and then inject the Initiating Event (aka Plot Point 1) which disrupts “normal” and thrusts them into the action of the story.
  • Act 2 – Conflict – Move the characters through a series of obstacles and minor crises as they work towards the goal of the story (whatever that may be for each character). Keep building the tension up to the ultimate Crisis (aka Plot Point 2) which is also the end of Act 2.
  • Act 3 – Denouement/Resolution – After the Crisis is over and as the tension drains away show how everything is resolved. Keep it short.

Now compare that to the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV: A New Hope as it is now known). Act 1 is all that text scrolling across the screen at the beginning. The movie itself kicks off with the Initiating Event (the fleeing ship, “Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope!”, etc.) and is in effect all Act 2 up until the Death Star blow up. Act 3 goes from “Let’s go home.” through the silly medal ceremony to the final credits. Setup for individual characters was mostly done through dialog discussing their backstories.

Randy Ingermanson suggests a slightly different structure: “Three disasters plus an ending”. The first disaster is effectively Plot Point 1, the third disaster is the Climax (Plot point 2), and the ending is Act 3 from above. His point about the disasters is that each one doesn’t turn out the way the protagonist thought it would, so the protagonist is forced to repair the damages. After the final disaster (the Climax) the protagonist is changed in some unexpected way, which is why it’s a disaster even if the protagonist wins in the end.

Detective novels either start with a murder (it seems like it’s always a murder!) if the protagonist is a cop, or a client walking into the protagonist’s office if he’s a Private Eye. The stories are so formulaic that next to no backstory (other than the victim/client’s) is needed, and the Climax is generally the point at which the mystery is solved. Almost no resolution is needed, either.

Then there’s the Quest. I’m thinking in particular of The Hobbit and similar stories, all based on Homer’s Odyssey. From a plot standpoint a Quest is a series of crises, obstacles that must be overcome, but that don’t necessarily build to a Climax. The goal is usually for the protagonist to find some object and bring it home, so I guess you could have Climax #1 be when the object is located, and Climax #2 be when the protagonist returns home. I mention the second climax because frequently there’s another conflict once the hero returns that must be dealt with.

In my last post I mentioned a software tool I’m working on that helps you structure your writing. I’ve based it on the “three disasters and an ending” model, although my specific structure is Setup, Action 1, Action 2, Action 3, Conclusion.” There are suggestions for what to place in each section, but you can type in whatever you want, or even leave a section empty if you choose.

What is your favorite story structure? I know I’m missing stuff, what am I missing?

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About Kurt Schweitzer

A former vampire logistics facilitator, past purveyor of Italian-style transportation, and Y2K disaster preventer, I'm currently creating websites, novels and other fictions while reinventing myself. Again.
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