You may have a great story but no idea where to start. Whether an Outliner or a Pantser, you need an idea of where you’re going.
- Where do you begin?
- What’s the middle supposed to look like?
- How do you craft a resounding ending?
You need a basic story structure, and the good news is that there are many to choose from.
But what works for me might not work for you. So peruse these and try a few on for size. Something is bound to make sense and give you a leg up on crafting your novel.
Table of Contents
- What is Story Structure?
- Story Structure Elements
- 7 Story Structures
What Is Story Structure?
Structure is to a story what the skeleton is to the human body.
The structure you choose for your story should help you align and sequence:
- The Conflict
- The Climax
- And the Resolution
The order in which you tell your story determines how effectively you create drama, intrigue, and tension, all designed to grab readers from the start and keep them to the end.
Story Structure Elements
You’ll find varying labels for various fiction elements, but really they’re largely similar. All stories include some version of:
1. An Opener
Start with who your story is about and establish the problem, challenge, quest, journey, or dilemma he* faces — and it must carry stakes dire enough to justify an entire book about it. Your goal here is to get your reader invested in the main character and what he must accomplish.
*I use the masculine pronoun inclusively to mean male or female characters.
2. An Inciting Incident that Changes Everything
It’s one thing to render a character frustrated by the status quo or angry at some annoying opponent. But get to the catalyst that forces him to act. The consequences for failing must be dire — way more than frustration or embarrassment. Think of the worst possible result and have your lead character spend the rest of the story battling to prevent it.
3. A Series of Crises that Build Tension
These should be logical—not the result of chance or coincidence—and they should grow progressively worse. In the process of trying to fix things, your protagonist will be building new muscles and gaining skills that will serve him in the end.
4. A Climax
Don’t mistake the Climax for the End. This is where your character appears to have fatally failed and everything appears hopeless.
5. An End
The resolution concludes your story. Your main character must succeed or fail, based on what he’s learned from the crises throughout. This is also where you tie up loose ends and satisfy your reader, while at the same time leaving him wanting more.
7 Story Structures
1. Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
This is the structure that changed the path of my career as a writer.
It catapulted me from a mid-list genre novelist to a 21-Time New York Times bestselling author.
I’m a Pantser, not an Outliner, but even I need some basic structure to know where I’m going, I love that Koontz’s structure is so simple. It consists only of these four steps:
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. Naturally that trouble depends on your genre, but in short, it’s the worst possible dilemma you can think of for your main character. For a thriller, it might be a life or death situation. In a romance novel, it could mean a young woman must decide between two equally qualified suitors—and then her choice is revealed a disaster.
And again, this trouble must bear stakes dire high enough to carry the entire novel.
One caveat: whatever the dilemma, it will mean little to readers if they don’t first find reasons to care about your character.
2. Everything your character does to get out of the terrible trouble makes things only worse. Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist. Every complication must proceed logically from the one before it, and things must grow progressively worse until….
3. The situation appears hopeless. Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this.
Your predicament is so hopeless that your lead must use every new muscle and technique gained from facing a book full of obstacles to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.
4. Finally, your hero succeeds (or fails*) against all odds. Reward readers with the payoff they expected by keeping your hero on stage, taking action.
*Occasionally sad endings resonate with readers.
2. In Medias Res
This is Latin for “in the midst of things,” in other words, start with something happening. It doesn’t have to be slam-bang action, unless that fits your genre. The important thing is that the reader gets the sense he’s in the middle of something.
That means not wasting two or three pages on backstory or setting or description. These can all be layered in as the story progresses. Beginning a novel In Medias Res means cutting the fluff and jumping straight into the story.
Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise begins “They shoot the white girl first.”—the epitome of starting in medias res.
What makes In Medias Res work?
It’s all in the hook.
In Medias Res should invest your reader in your story from the get-go, virtually forcing him to keep reading.
The rest of the In Media Res structure consists of:
- Rising Action
- Explanation (backstory)
- Falling Action
3. The Hero’s Journey
Made famous by educator and widely published author Joseph Campbell, it’s often used to structure fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels.
J.R.R. Tolkien used The Hero’s Journey structure for The Hobbit.
- Step 1: Bilbo Baggins leaves his ordinary world
Baggins is happy with his life in the Shire and initially refuses a call to adventure, preferring to stay home.
The wizard Gandalf (soon to be his mentor) pushes him to accept the call.
Baggins leaves the comfort of his Hobbit life and embarks on a perilous quest across Middle Earth, getting into all kinds of trouble along the way.
- Step 2: Baggins experiences various trials and challenges
Bilbo builds a team, pairing with dwarves and elves to defeat enemies like dragons and orcs.
Along the way he faces a series of tests that push his courage and abilities beyond what he thought possible.
Eventually, against all odds, Bilbo reaches the inmost cave, the lair of the fearsome dragon, Smaug where the ultimate goal of his quest is located. Bilbo needs to steal the dwarves’ treasure back from Smaug.
Bilbo soon finds he needs to push past his greatest fear to survive.
- Step 3: Bilbo tries to returns to his life in The Shire
Smaug may have been defeated, but the dwarves face another battle against others and an orc army.
Near the end of the novel, Bilbo is hit on the head during the final battle and presumed dead.
But he lives and gets to return to the Shire, no longer the same Hobbit who hated adventure.
4. The 7-Point Story Structure
Advocates of this approach advise starting with your resolution and working backwards.
This ensures a dramatic character arc for your hero.
J.K. Rowling used the 7-Point Structure for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Seven Points
- Hook: your protagonist’s starting point
In Philosopher’s Stone, this is when we meet Harry living under the stairs.
- Plot turn 1: introduces the conflict that moves the story to its midpoint.
Harry finds out he is a wizard.
- Pinch point 1: applies pressure to your protagonist in the process of achieving his goal, usually facing an antagonist.
When the trolls attacks, Harry and his friends realize they are the only ones who can save the day.
- Midpoint: your character responds to conflict with action.
Harry and his friends learn of the Philosopher’s Stone and determine to find it before Voldemort does.
- Pinch point 2: More pressure makes it harder for your character to achieve his goal.
Harry has to face the villain alone after losing Ron and Hermione during their quest to find the stone.
- Plot turn 2: Moves the story from the midpoint to the resolution. Your protagonist has everything he needs to achieve the goal.
When the mirror reveals Harry Potter’s intentions are pure, he is given the Philosopher’s Stone.
- Resolution: The climax. Everything in your story leads to this moment, a direct contrast to how your character began his journey.
Harry defeats Voldemort.
5. Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method
If you like outlining your story, you’ll love The Snowflake Method.
But if you’re a Panster like me (someone who prefers to write by process of discovery), a story structure like Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure or In Medias Res might feel more natural.
The 10-step Snowflake Method
Start with one central idea and systematically add more ideas to create your plot.
- Write a one-sentence summary of your novel (1 hour)
- Expand this into a full paragraph summary, detailing major events (1 hour)
- Write a one-page summary for each character (1 hour each)
- Expand each sentence in #2 into a paragraph summary (several hours)
- Write a one-page account of the story from the perspective of each major character (1-2 days)
- Expand each paragraph you wrote for #4 into a full-page synopsis (1 week)
- Expand your character descriptions into full character charts (1 week)
- Using the summary from #6, list every scene you’ll need to finish the novel
- Write a multi-paragraph description for each scene
- Write your first draft
6. The Three-Act Structure
This formula was used by ancient Greeks, and it’s one of Hollywood’s favorite ways to tell a story.
It’s about as simple as you can get.
Act I: The Set-Up
Introduce your main characters and establish the setting.
Brandon Sanderson, a popular fantasy writer, calls this the “inciting incident”— a problem that yanks the protagonist out of his comfort zone and establishes the direction of the story.
Act II: The Confrontation
Create a problem that appears small on the surface but becomes more complex. The more your protagonist tries to get what he wants, the more impossible it seems to solve the problem.
Act III: The Resolution
A good ending has:
- High stakes: your reader must feel that one more mistake will result in disaster for the protagonist.
- Challenges and growth: By the end, the protagonist needs to have grown as a person by overcoming myriad obstacles.
- A solution: All the trials and lessons your character has endured help him solve the problem.
Suzanne Collins’s bestselling young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, uses the three-act structure.
7. James Scott Bell’s A Disturbance and Two Doorways
In his popular book Plot and Structure, Bell introduces this concept.
- A Disturbance early in the story upsets the status quo—anything that threatens the protagonist’s ordinary life.
- Doorway 1 propels your character to the middle of the story. Once he goes through this door, there’s no turning back.
- Doorway 2 leads to the final battle. It’s another door of no return but usually leads to disaster.
The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way uses this story structure.
Upon hearing that their adoptive father has passed away (the disturbance), six siblings return to their childhood home.
Here they learn the world will end in a few days (Doorway 1). While the siblings try everything in their power to stop the potential global apocalypse, they unwittingly create another threat amongst themselves.
This leads to a final battle (Doorway 2).
More in-depth Story Structure plotting resources:
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
- The Secrets of Story Structure by K. M. Weiland
- Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method