How to Structure a Story
Structure is so important not only from a storytelling perspective, but also if you want to sell your work. It is cynical, but the fact is, if you want to make money you should adhere to commercial structures and watch/ read loads of stories in your chosen genre and look at the key beats and tropes they all have in common.
Structure has been there since the days of Shakespeare and it will be there when robots are programmed to write better stories than all of us. If you dislike the thought of shaping your art to fit into imposed structures, then at least learn about structure so you can break the rules and hopefully become the exception.
I think structure is a beautiful thing and one of my favourite things about the challenge of writing. It can help you identify when your story needs a change of direction, and studying it can help you to tell your story with extra confidence and flair. Writers I've spoken to all struggle with one aspect of it. For me it's act 2, often flabby and a bit flat, and normally the reason is that there aren't enough obstacles for the protagonist to overcome and the threat doesn't increase enough.
Here are my main structure points you need to hit in any good story to maximise emotional engagement with your audience. That's what it's about - challenging your characters, creating conflict, and engaging your audience. Stories are emotional experiences, and these structural points will assist you in delivering the best one you can.
Stasis, the normal life - Give us an opening image and an insight into where your character's life is now. We need to see them in their daily life, that snapshot of the norm, the day to day. It helps us to build a contrast with what is to come later, which will increase our engagement with your character. This is either:
- The positive life they will sacrifice for a nobler cause or have disrupted by an unpredictable event
- The negative life they will do their best to break free from, but at a potential emotional or spiritual cost
The inciting incident, trigger, or my favourite expression of it, The Stranger Comes to Town - It's the thing that disrupts the character's life. It could be a knock at the door from a long lost family member or lover, a life-threatening disease, a will reading, being fired, or in Three Men and a Baby, a baby at the doorstep. Whatever it is, it has to disrupt the daily norm. More importantly, it has to call out to a Want in your character which pushes them into...
Debate - Should I do this thing that could have a positive or negative impact on my life? What do I do with this new piece of information I've been given? Your character will decide whether to risk their life, job, relationship, normal life... and it should be a hard choice, hence naming it debate. In a fantasy it could be that the stranger coming to town is an invader, and the only hope of saving the people is for the hero to escape the now occupied kingdom and find an item, or get help from an army that they severed ties with long ago. It's a treacherous, lonely journey ahead, probably with a 1% chance of success, but they make the choice to do it, to save people they care about, and it makes us connect with them. It needs to be a hard choice and most often, one they can't go back on without serious consequences.
The Quest - This is the change of direction into Act 2 in the 3 act structure, and this takes place in the other world. The one the character hasn't explored. That could be an entirely different environment, which again in fantasy is relevant. Frodo leaving the Shire and seeing the places alien to him. Or, it can be a different exploration of the current world they live in. During the quest there must be progress. We want to see the hero have successes, like meeting allies, finding some bravery within themselves, taking some chances that pay off.
Your character shouldn't always get beaten down, but when there are victories there needs to be an undercurrent of threat. While they're succeeding, whatever threatens them is growing. Failure can never be too far from success. Death must always be stalking life, otherwise the story is boring. Make your audience ask questions and want to stick around for the answers, and to feel the tension.
Progressive Complications - Throughout Act 2, things need to get more challenging and the threat needs to grow. A good way to have complications is to have time stakes, so the clock really is ticking. It can be an actual time limit before a wedding, execution, or even something like an illness. The reason I say progressive complications is because it can't just be a series of similar obstacles, or ones that hit the same beat. They have to have consequences. They have to escalate while danger approaches, and we have to feel the grip of evil tightening to get us to the...
Crisis, the setback, the loss... Your character is defeated at this stage, and it leaves them with a choice, and it's all or nothing. They have lost something, for example, Morpheus being captured in The Matrix. It leaves everything hanging in the balance. It is when the character feels some kind of loss or death. They are low. The kind of low you feel when you get excited to open a biscuit tin and there are none inside. A soul crushing low. With this loss is a loss of hope, and it's also a good place to see the world at its worst.
This is where you get an image of what will happen if the hero doesn't get their act together and succeed. The hero has to make an all or nothing decision, and their decision to fight pushes us into the final act in the three act structure.
The climax/ finale - This is the final showdown. The emotional lesson the hero has learned needs to come into play. Their pursuit of the tangible goal saw them fail, but through their journey and that moment, the emotional Need has been fulfilled, and it is that which pushes them to victory. This part normally follows its own mini structure which is interpreted in many ways in different texts.
- The preparation for the battle
- The attack/ confrontation
- It's going well, but then something goes wrong
- It's the all or nothing moment in the all or nothing showdown
- From the depths of despair, victory is achieved
The resolution/ aftermath/ final image - This is where we feel the emotion. The end of the journey, and this is the winding down, processing of emotions, answering the unanswered, and the take home from our experience. In some stories it isn't that long, like Rocky when he celebrates in the ring. Stories are about character change and transformation, and this is where we see it realised.
Ultimately, a solid structure is comprised of the normal life, the inciting incident, the quest, the progress and progressive complications, the crisis and climax, and a resolution, but all come from a character wanting something tangible yet needing something emotional. It's all about transformation, change, high stakes and difficult choices.
If you hate the thought of all of the above, then take away these two things about storytelling - Stories are about characters who irreversible decisions that progressively complicate their lives in pursuit of a greater emotional goal. On top of that, conflict. The second your scene lacks conflict, it is flat and dull.
A good way to practice structure is with outlining. I'll have a basic outline structure you can use in the coming weeks. But like all things, it's good to know these elements of story so you can twist them and use them to your advantage. As long as there is conflict and truthful character, you'll have a great story, because all story comes from character.
For more reading around structure try one of these books.