Like a solidly built house, every good story has a framework. The most basic framework is three-part with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets up the characters, while the middle confronts the characters, and the ending resolves the conflict. But, as brilliant as the basic story structure is, many other storytelling frameworks or templates exist.
Your best template will depend on various factors, including your book's genre, target audience, and personal storytelling preferences.
But what if you're just stuck with the same framework because you didn’t know there were others you could use? And what if the framework you're using isn't the best way to structure your stories?
We've written this guide to rescue you from succumbing to the potential tragedy of choosing the wrong method to tell your story. In this guide, we'll go over the most popular storytelling frameworks to help you analyze the benefits of each. By the end of this guide, you'll ideally have a broad understanding of the different story structures commonly used in literature. The goal is to identify the one to help you tell the story perfectly.
Let’s get started.
What is a Story Structure?
A story structure is a framework you use to organize your narrative. You can build a story in any way you choose; start with the beginning or the ending. Alternatively, you can jump into the action immediately and follow it up with the back story. You can follow one character or multiple characters. You can obey a linear timeline or jump around to maximize your pacing and tension.
There are so many different ways to attack a story. Before we break down the different types of story structures, it's best to define what a story is in the first place.
A story is a narrative that recounts a series of events. Each contains the following elements:
A Plot - I'm intentionally leaving this section brief because the structure of your plot will vary depending on your overall story framework. However, the primary thing to remember about your plot is this: It is what happens in the story. It's the sequence of events that develops the story.
Characters - A story will be determined by the characters who drive the actions and build the events. Without characters, you're dead in the water. You don't have any agent who will create or respond to the events you’ve made. Characters can be humans, aliens, animals, or other entities. But all valid characters must have unique motivations that cause them to act and respond to an action. The best characters are well-defined and have personalities and backstories to which the reader can relate. They have desires that cause them to act in ways that either serve their best interest or harm them.
Conflict - A conflict is a problem within your story. You'll likely have one major but multiple minor conflicts, and the central conflict will be the most significant event in your plot. It will include how the characters respond to and then resolve (if possible) the problem. However, you will also have smaller subplots that can resolve before and after the main plot. These can be internal conflicts, such as a character's inner struggle with fear or reluctance to act. The best stories lean into these conflicts. They explore what could be lost if the dispute is unresolved. By examining the crisis, the reader will feel more invested in how you resolve these conflicts (or, heaven forbid, leave them unresolved).
Setting - The setting is the when and where of your story. It's the environment where your characters live and interact. When well-developed, the setting becomes its own character in your story. It has a personality, and the characters create and react to it. The setting is the physical location of the events, but you can also use it to construct the story's atmosphere or general mood. It can also contribute to the conflict in your story. For example, a hostile environment can introduce another source of tension for your characters. A peaceful environment can also build a source of stress, where the character tries desperately to protect that space from potential devastation.
Now that we've looked at the main elements that make up a story let's take a step back and discuss story structure from a big-picture point of view.
Your chosen story structure will help you tell a series of events carried by a string of characters in the best way possible to meet your goal.
Every author has a purpose in storytelling. This goal is the main takeaway you want your reader to have when they finish your story.
Your goal will come packaged as the "theme" of your story. A story's theme is its meaning or message. It's the purpose you have in telling the story. Of course, all accounts should aim to be entertaining. But, they also have reasons for being. Why tell this story? What should the reader understand about life or the human condition? Identifying your goal in telling a specific story is the first step to choosing the best structure. Once you identify the message you want to impart, you can better decide which story structure will make the most sense for delivering that message.
So, without further ado, let's dive into the different story structures.
The Three-Act Structure
The three-act story structure is perhaps the most famous structure on this list. And that’s for a good reason. It’s clean and easy to apply to most stories. In this structure, the story splits into three parts:
- Act 1, or the setup - The reader meets the main characters, their world, and the tone of the story
- Act 2, or the confrontation - The main character(s) encounter a conflict that they must respond to
- Act 3, or the resolution - The conflicts resolve, but not always happily
You can find one such example of the three-act story structure in the novel The Hunger Games. In Act 1, we meet Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the main characters who will create a series of events to make up the story. We’re also introduced to the setting of the dystopian world that these characters find themselves in. In Act 2, we encounter the conflict, the competition (the central conflict), and the many other external and internal conflicts that each character has along the way. In Act 3, the conflict resolves, and we see how the characters respond to this resolution.
The Hero's Journey
The hero's journey structure is one of the most popular narrative structures. Joseph Campbell is the first recorded instance of this structure, also known as the monomyth. In this structure, the reader follows a hero (or protagonist) through a series of events. From the initial call to adventure through the inevitable conflict confronting the hero along the way, the reader experiences the journey with the characters. This structure is so widespread because it requires self-reflection and discovery. It asks the hero to overcome obstacles along their path to a great adventure. Readers can easily empathize with heroes as they see themselves as heroes in their own stories.
Hero story structures are everywhere, but one of the most famous examples is Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The reader follows Frodo as he makes the harrowing quest to Mordor.
The Circular Structure
This structure is a circle, not a straight line. In this structure, the story ends and begins in the same place. But that doesn't mean that the story hasn't taken us anywhere. An example of this story structure is The Odyssey which begins and ends with Odysseus at home in Ithaca. However, the story takes us on an epic journey focusing on Odysseus' search for his sense of self.
You can use the circular story structure to highlight life as cyclical and its lessons repetitive. It can demonstrate how often we grow within the cycles of life. There is a definite sense of balance and completeness in this story structure.
The Frame Story Structure
In the frame story structure, you tell a story within the context of another, broader story. It’s a story within a story.
An example of this structure is the story One Thousand and One Nights. In this story, the Persian queen Scheherazade tells one story a night to her husband, the king, to delay her execution. The collection of stories that she tells (which are in the frame) includes Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba.
The frame story structure can be the perfect framework for telling your story if you want to add a greater sense of depth to context to the main story. You can use the stories within the frame to provide an enhanced perspective on the message you’re hoping to share.
These are the most common story structures available. In the coming posts, we’ll explore more story structures, such as linear, non-linear, and multiple plotlines. However, as you can see from the above, you’re not stuck in one framework; there are several.
Which story structure should you use? Challenge yourself by trying a different story structure. Pick one from the above list and see if it works. It’s a good exercise in creative thinking. There’s no perfect structure, just the one right for you.
Now that we’ve come to the end of this guide, do you have a greater understanding of the different story frameworks most commonly used in literature? And which frameworks are your favorite?