Story structure is the bones of your story, it forms and informs the way in which you tell your story. There are currently five major theories on story structure and how a story should be shaped:
- The Pyramid
- The Three Act
- The Hero’s Journey
- The Virgin’s Promise
Your story can follow any one of these and can also be a hybrid of any combination of them. It is up to you how to use these tools to build your story. However, you should be familiar with and know how to use each of the tools in your toolbox so we will discuss in four parts each of the story structures at your disposal. We will start with the Pyramid, a structure you are likely most familiar with but one which we will not go into depth on.
German theater critic Gustav Freytag devised a pyramid to represent the plot of a dramatic work in 1863. It’s built like a pyramid and is a fairly simple schemata. It begins with the exposition, where the author introduces the characters, the setting and the basic situation in which everyone is involved. Next comes the rising action, wherein complications develop, crises occur, conflict is introduced, and suspense is built. This all culminates in the climax, where the tension being built peaks. This is followed by the falling action, where the intensity of everything subsides and winds down into a resolution, or denouement, where all loose ends are tied up and the story ends.
The Three Act Story Structure
Even earlier than this, Aristotle first analyzed story telling through three parts, which we will refer to as Three Act Story Structure. It is an older and more nuanced version of the simplified pyramid. Act 1 consists of the Setup, the exposition, the inciting incident, and the first plot point. Act II contains the confrontation, where the rising action happens, a midpoint is reached, and a second plot point is introduced. Act III is called the resolution, where there’s a pre-climax, the actual climax, and then the denouement. Aristotle believed that each act should be a chain of cause-and-effect points, wherein each scene leads into what happens in the next and there are no stand alone points or ‘episodes.’
Act One: The Set-Up
The exposition sets the stage of the story, providing an idea of the setting and introducing who the protagonist is. It should express the protagonists challenges and their desire to overcome them (this will inform the overall character arc and goals).
This incident acts as a catalyst that begins the story and without which there would be no adventure for your protagonist to go on. This catalyst proposes the journey – physical or emotional – that your protagonist will go on that causes them to change their situation that was delineated in the exposition and helps them achieve their goal. It is what pushes your protagonist out of their comfort zone.
First Plot Point
This is where your character makes the decision to engage with the inciting incident and commits to the journey ahead. Often enough, the inciting incident and first plot point happen in the same scene. To properly use the first plot point, think of it as the springboard that launches your character into Act 2.
Act 2: Confrontation
This is where the tension of your story is built. It is the part during the journey where the pursuit of their goal begins to take shape and they begin to encounter their first road blocks. During this section of the story, the protagonist begins to explore their new environment as changed by the inciting incident. They also get to know and understand what challenges lay ahead of them. This is also usually a good time to introduce your full cast of characters, good guys and bad guys, especially the primary antagonist. It is where you will fully elaborate the story’s overarching conflict. During all of this, you protagonist will learn from their experiences. They will begin to adapt and change to meet the rising circumstances in pursuit of their goal.
This is where you generally reach the middle of your story. It’s where you insert a significant event into the story that threatens the goal of the protagonist or otherwise causes something to go wrong for them. Whatever you do, it should make the protagonist even more aware of the stakes.
Second Plot Point
This is the protagonist’s reaction to the significant event you created as the midpoint of the story. It is the aftermath where your protagonist will reflect on what has happened. Ultimately this reflection will lead them to decide to stop being a passive person on the journey and to be a proactive force the world must reckon with. It is the point of no return for the character where they commit whole heartedly to achieving their goal, with a vengeance.
Act 3: Resolution
This usually begins with a final clash between the protagonist and the main antagonist. This is where we learn that while we’ve been following the growth and increasing strength of the protagonist, the antagonist has gone on their own journey and come back stronger as well. It is the first glimpse of the true power of the antagonist and it usually takes the protagonist by surprise. This is where you build in some doubt as to whether or not the hero will truly win the day.
This signifies the final moments of conflict. You give time for your protagonist to lick their wounds and regroup. Then, they find themselves prepared to face off with the main antagonist one more time and lay the conflict to a final rest. Often enough, while the pre-climax usually takes several chapters to build and play out, the actual climax is as short as one chapter or even one scene.
This is where the protagonist’s ultimate goal should be reached if it wasn’t reached as part of the climax. This is where you will also need to be careful to make sure you fulfill all the promises you made to your reader, tie up all your loose ends, and release all the tension that you’ve built.
The Three Act Story Structure is a way to help ensure the purpose and direction of your story. It is, however, only one of the tools in your toolbox. Keep an eye out for Part Two of this series where we will take a closer look at the 12 part structure of the Hero’s Journey.
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