How to Structure a Story: The Fundamentals of Narrative - article

As children, we learned stories begin with "once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after." While this may be the most simplistic view of a story, it offers storytellers advice on a narrative structure that stands the test of time.

A good book has a beginning, middle, and end—but a good storyteller knows it’s not always that simple. Getting from beginning to end requires you to follow a certain structure in order to create an engaging and exciting experience for the reader.

 

What is Narrative Structure?

Narrative structure, also referred to as a storyline or plotline, describes the framework of how one tells a story. It's how a book is organized and how the plot is unveiled to the reader.

Most stories revolve around a single question that represent the core of the story. Will Harry potter defeat Voldemort? Will Romeo and Juliet end up together? Will Frodo destroy the Ring?

The series of events that follow in an attempt to answer this defining question is what creates your narrative structure.

Various components work together to build a narrative structure, but it’s mostly centered around the development of your plot and your main character(s).

 

Types of Narrative Structure

Linear/Chronological: When the author tells a story in chronological order. This structure can include flashbacks, but the majority of the narrative is told in the order that it occurs. Most books tend to fall under this narrative structure.

Nonlinear/Fractured: A nonlinear structure tells the story out of chronological order, jumping disjointedly through the timeline. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an example of this narrative structure, as it switches between multiple characters at different points in time.

Circular: In a circular narrative, the story ends where it began. Although the starting and ending points are the same, the character(s) undergo a transformation, affected by the story's events. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is an example of circular narrative structure.

Parallel: In parallel structure, the story follows multiple storylines, which are tied together through an event, character, or theme. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or the movie Finding Nemo are both examples of this structure.

Interactive: The reader makes choices throughout the interactive narrative, leading to new options and alternate endings. These stories are most prominent as "choose your own adventure" books.

 

Types of Narrative Arcs for Plot Development

Regardless which narrative structure you choose, one of the biggest components to creating a great storyline or narrative structure is developing your plot. These are all the actions that will take place in the book, culminating in an interesting and satisfying ending.

These structures are often considered “arcs” because of the way a story rises and falls, creating an arc shape. The most fundamental narrative arc includes the following five plot stages:

Exposition: This is your introduction, where you introduce the characters, establish the setting, and present the primary conflict.

Rising action: This second stage is where you introduce the primary conflict and set the story in motion. Each succeeding event should be more complicated than the previous, creating tension and excitement as the story builds.

Climax: This is the turning point in the story—the point of the highest tension and conflict. This is the moment that should leave the reader wondering what’s next.

Falling action: In this stage, the story begins to calm down and work toward a satisfying ending. Loose ends are tied up, explanations are revealed, and the reader learns more about how the conflict is resolved.

Resolution: The main conflict gets resolved and the story ends.

This narrative arc is the most basic framework for developing a book’s plot. Although you can vary it slightly, your story should follow this basic structure.

However, more comprehensive frameworks exist if you need extra help developing a plot.

The 3 Act, 8 Sequence structure is used by both authors and screenwriters alike to develop an engaging storyline.

Act 1 – The Beginning

Sequence 1 – Status Quo and Inciting Incident: Established the main character in his/her normal life, ending with a point that sets the story into motion.

Sequence 2 – Predicament and Lock-In: Sets up the central conflict of the story and the main character accepts the call to action.

Act 2 – The Middle

Sequence 3 – First Obstacle: The character faces the first obstacles toward reaching their goal, building the tension and putting them at a point of no return.

Sequence 4 – Midpoint: A decisive moment where the main character faces the central conflict in some way, usually realizing something that changes him/her.

Sequence 5 – Rising Action: Continue to raise the stakes for your main character, usually with a subplot of some sort that builds up to the main conflict.

Sequence 6 –Biggest Obstacle: The main conflict or the highest point of tension in your story. This should be the most difficult moment for your character, so make it count.

Act 3 – The End

Sequence 7 – Twist: Here, your character deals with the remnants of the main conflict or realized a new goal they have to achieve.

Sequence 8 – Resolution: Where you’ll give the answer to your story’s main question, thus resolving the conflict and bringing your story to a satisfying close (or a cliffhanger, if you’re writing a series).

As you can see, this narrative structure follows a very similar pattern as the basic five-element framework, but it can provide you with a little more information and guidance as you work to build out your plot.

 

Types of Emotional Arcs for Character Development

The second component to creating a narrative structure is the process of how your main character will develop and change from the beginning to the end of your story.

While a good story will have both a plot and character arc, most are driven primarily by one or the other.

If your story’s question revolves around a physical or external goal, such as Harry Potter defeating Voldemort, then that story will be mostly plot-driven.

On the other hand, character-driven stories will feature more emotional arcs. These stories aim to answer an internal question, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which deals with the main character, Holden Caulfield, going through the loss of childhood innocence.  

But things aren’t always so black and white. Many stories that seem plot-driven on the surface have very strong character arcs running through them.

That’s because every good story has a protagonist and an antagonist with strong goals, and whether or not they achieve those goal plays a large part in the narrative structure.

As long as your character has a strong desire or motivation to drive them, and that motivation plays a role in the plot, you have a character arc.

Ultimately, character-driven narrative structures fall into three categories: positive, negative, and static.

Positive or Growth Character Arcs

Positive narrative arcs are when throughout the story, the main character overcomes a flaw, fear, or false belief and ultimately becomes a better person by the end.

Let’s take a look at this character arc within the framework of the 8-sequence narrative structure.

  • Sequence 1 – Status Quo and Inciting Incident: Shows the character in their normal world until something shakes it up, causing a desire to emerge
  • Sequence 2 – Predicament and Lock-In: The character realizes he/she must change to reach their goal
  • Sequence 3 – First Obstacle: He/she faces a conflict that challenges his/her belief
  • Sequence 4 – Midpoint: The main character begins to take initiative to confront their flaws and fears
  • Sequence 5 – Rising Action: Realizing something from their past or a secret, the reader gets a glimpse into why the main character holds this false belief, but the main character isn’t quite ready to fix it yet
  • Sequence 6 –Biggest Obstacle: Something causes the protagonist to realize the truth, giving them the advantage to overcome the antagonist and fight the problem head-on
  • Sequence 7/8 – Twist/Resolution: The main character has officially changed for the better

Elizabeth Bennett’s character Pride and Prejudice and Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby are some examples of the growth character arc.

Negative or Tragic Character Arcs

Negative narrative arcs occur when the main character holds some sort of flaw, desire, or false belief that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Let’s take a look at this character arc within the framework of the 8 sequence structure.

  • Sequence 1 – Status Quo and Inciting Incident: Shows the character in their normal world until something shakes it up, causing them either to eagerly pursue a desire or forced into a circumstance
  • Sequence 2 – Predicament and Lock-In: The character takes an action that seems promising, but will ultimately cause a negative change within them
  • Sequence 3 – First Obstacle: Their beliefs are rattled, but they manage to cling to their false desire
  • Sequence 4 – Midpoint: The character is confronted with an undeniable reality…
  • Sequence 5 – Rising Action: …but chooses instead to fling themselves further into their desire regardless of knowing better
  • Sequence 6 –Biggest Obstacle: Your character reaches a breaking point, but chooses instead to pursue their false desire with reckless abandon
  • Sequence 7/8 – Twist/Resolution: The character either achieves a goal (twist) or fails to achieve anything, resulting in a tragic ending, which is often death

Gatsby’s character from The Great Gatsby, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Darth Vader from Star Wars are all examples of the tragic character arc.

Static Character Arcs

Static narrative arcs are when the main character’s morals and beliefs are challenged, but they ultimately hold true to themselves through the end.

Let’s take a look at this character arc within the framework of the 8 sequence structure.

  • Sequence 1 – Status Quo and Inciting Incident: The main character is his/her normal world
  • Sequence 2 – Predicament and Lock-In: The main character’s world is turned upside down
  • Sequence 3 – First Obstacle: They are forced into a new journey with unavoidable conflicts
  • Sequence 4 – Midpoint: The character gains some skill he/she needs to change the stakes, and now they begin actively engaging in conflict to defeat the antagonist
  • Sequence 5 – Rising Action: The main character suffers a major defeat or breaking point, but they manage to find a spark of hope or opportunity
  • Sequence 6 –Biggest Obstacle: The final showdown between the protagonist and antagonist
  • Sequence 7/8 – Twist/Resolution: The antagonist is defeated and the main character stands firm in his/her truth

Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, and Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit are all examples of a static character arc.

 

Building a Narrative Structure

As you can see, these character arcs easily fall in-line with the plot narrative structure. Some books even tend to have multiple characters experiencing different character arcs on top of the plot structure.

It may take some time to work everything out, but taking the time to work through your plot and character arcs will go a long way to ensure you’re writing an engaging and exciting story.

First, try to decide if your story will be mostly plot-driven or character-driven. If you feel stuck, use these questions to help you figure it out:

  • What is your protagonist’s goal? Is it external, like defeating a villain? Or is it internal, like overcoming a deeply-held belief?
  • How about your antagonist?
  • Will your story be centered around specific events of conflict that move your story forward? Or are they more focused on the personal, internal struggle of your character(s)?
  • When you set out to write a story, what comes to mind first, a riveting plot or a cast of compelling characters?

This exercise is merely to help you understand which of the two takes precedence in your story—not which one you follow and which one you ignore.

Often, the decision between a plot-driven or character-driven story will come down to personal preference. Which is most appealing to you? Then, the one you don’t choose will just become secondary.

Plot-Driven Narratives

When your focus is on plot, you should pay special attention to the events that will occur in your story.

Plot-driven narratives are exciting, action-packed, and fast-paced. They compel the reader to keep reading just to find out what will happen next.

When writing a plot-driven story, make sure all your plot points tie together seamlessly to create a full narrative structure. As you focus on events, it’s easy to forget about the characters and their motivations.

Remember: your story isn’t about things that are happening to the character, it’s about how your character is reacting to and participating in these events.

While many of these events may be out of your character’s control, they should still have an active role within them.

In every scene, you should be asking yourself these questions:

  • What is my character’s motivation?
  • Why is he/she making this decision and not another one?
  • What in the character’s background led them to make this decision?

As a result, your characters will tie into your plot arc.

Character-Driven Narratives

When your story’s focus is on characters, you should explore how a character arrives at a particular choice.

Character-driven narratives tend to focus more on internal conflicts than external ones, such as the internal or interpersonal struggle of the character(s).

When writing a character-driven story, make sure you’re putting extra attention toward developing interesting, realistic, and charismatic characters. The true test of a good character-driven story is one where the reader feels a deep, emotional connection to your characters.

Your plot may be simple—used less to create action and more to further develop the character’s arc—but you still need to make sure your characters are actually doing something.

The main character should interact with others and their environment, and these things should shape your character in some way.

Put your character in situations that show the reader who they truly are. Test them. Make things difficult.

In every scene, you should be asking yourself these questions:

  • What’s the worst thing that can happen to my character right now?
  • If I throw it at them, how would they respond?

As a result, your plot will tie in to your character’s narrative arc.

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  • Very nice insight,  and very interesting. I'm currently writing my second book. , Now let me forewarn you,  I've never studied literature or even delved in to the art of story writing. My story came to me as in a dream and from there i started writing, not having a clue as to what I was doing, To be honest. I don't know what I'm doing. you could say. however reading your article I discovered that in my book are contained   Icarus, Oedipus and man in the hole. my book is more about a woman's trials and tribulations. .And it just happened they are in that same order. except that my character will rise at the end. Thank you for sharing such valuable information. Now I know that despite needing much help i am at least following some order that I hadn't even known existed. Again thank you.