Story structure can sometimes be difficult to wrap our minds around; there are so many different structures, all with different terminology and slightly different meanings. But today I’m going to hopefully simplify things by covering how I view story structure—in under 900 words. So let’s get straight to it.
(Prologue):Not every story needs a prologue, but some do, and others work either way. I personally believe that prologues are largely misunderstood (and therefore, writers are often misguided on how to do them), but if you look at all successful prologues, their primary function is to make promises to the audience.
Hook: The opening of the story should have a hook (or really, several). Hooks work by getting the audience to look forward to a later part of the story. Sometimes the later part is the next sentence. Other times it’s chapters away. Often this is done, though, by getting the audience to hope or fear something specific could happen.
Setup: This is the part of the story that grounds the audience in the here and now. Who is this story about? When does it take place? Where does it take place? It usually establishes a sense of normalcy. It may introduce themes and character arcs as well. Often, the protagonist is alone or alienated in some way.
Note: In some stories, these three elements may largely overlap, and that’s fine.
Plot Point One: This is sometimes called the “inciting incident.” At plot point one, something happens in the story that critically changes the protagonist’s direction and disrupts the established normal. Peter Parker gets bit by a spider. Harry finds out he’s a wizard. Alice goes to Wonderland. The protagonist will reactto that change all the way until the midpoint.
Pinch Point One: Between plot point one and the midpoint, when your character is reacting, there will typically be a pinch point. A pinch point is a moment that shows the antagonist as a truly formidable foe—someone or somethingthat the audience realizes will be very difficult for the protagonist to defeat. Worth noting is that if the antagonist hasn’t yet been introduced, this is the introduction. This moment will escalate the stakes.
Midpoint:At the midpoint, new information enters the story that changes the context. It moves the protagonist from reactionto action. He stops being a wanderer and turns into a warrior, trying to fight back and attack, usually with a clearer goal or a more refined strategy. In other words, he is now more empowered than before.
Pinch Point Two: Between the midpoint and plot point two, there will be another pinch point. This is simply a moment or a scene in the story that shows that the antagonist is even more formidable, and that he, she, or it will be even more difficult to defeat than we’d thought.
Plot Point Two: Plot point two is typically made up of two parts: The “all is lost” lull and the “final piece to the puzzle” epiphany. There will likely be a moment where it appears to the protagonist that “all is lost” and they can’t defeat the antagonist. But they’ll have an epiphany (often related to character arc and theme) that leads them to the “final chase.” In some stories, this may seem to happen during the climax itself.
Climax: In the climax, the protagonist faces the antagonistic forces head-on, ready for the final battle that determines who (or what) wins the established conflicts. This part of the story will test, prove, and resolve conflicts, stakes, arcs, and themes. Anything in the climax should be foreshadowed beforehand at least in some way. Expectations need to be met (or exceeded). Often for maximum impact, the biggest conflicts cross paths with the most personal conflicts.
Denouement: Denouements are also often misunderstood. We tend to think the point is to hurry and end the story. In reality, the denouement is meant to validateall the changes and establish a new normal. Did someone confess her love? We need to see her officially together with her partner. Did anyone die? We may need to attend a funeral. Was the antagonist really defeated? We need to see that their power is gone from this world. If there are any loose ends or unresolved conflicts, they will typically be addressed and handled in the denouement.
(Epilogue): Like the prologue, your story may or may not need an epilogue. Epilogues function in two different ways: they provide additional closure, or they add more loose ends. If there are no more installments after this story, the epilogue will probably tie up anything that didn’t fit into the denouement. If there is another installment, the epilogue will probably tease the audience by adding loose threads . . . so they have to buy the next installment.
And that is story structure in a flash. Do you have to always adhere to allthese things? Probably not. But, these elements do make a great story. And most successful stories fit this structure in some way.
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Visit her at SeptemberCFawkes.com for more writing tips, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.