Having a solid story structure is important, but what is story structure? And why does it matter so much? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. We will define ‘story structure’ and go over the basic elements that make it up. I will also give you some professional advice on how to use story structure to improve your stories.
Fire up your laptops, or computers, or ink your quill if you got one, and let’s dive in!
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What is Story Structure?
There are five key elements of story structure and you are most likely using some of them already. Each one serves a purpose in story structure. These five elements are; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
You might know some of these elements by a different name, but for now, let’s stick with the most common names.
First, exposition. Exposition is the introduction to your story. Like most expositions, that is where the most explanation is done, but very little action. The reason that most stories start this way is that you want the reader to understand what kind of story they are in for. That’s really important if you want to capture their attention in the first chapter, which let’s face it, is what we all want to do!
Second, rising action. Straight after the exposition, we have the introduction of the main conflict. It’s here that we establish the main character’s ambition, or goal, for the story. The scene is set, and we met some of the characters, but now what happens? Well, usually the antagonist wrongs the main character in some way and some stories start with the main character already pursuing some goal, such as searching for hidden treasure.
Third, climax. The tension is at its highest, usually, it is the turning point in the story. It can happen at any moment, but usually in the final act. It is the final battle between good and evil, it is the final challenge before uncovering the treasure trove, whatever it may be in your story.
Fourth, falling action. The problem has been resolved. The bad guy is in handcuffs or sleeping with the fish, the treasure is in hand, or the hands of the most deserving. The story is wrapping up, some loose ends are being tied off and the last questions are being answered. The fourth element in your story structure is much like the after-party after the main event.
Fifth and finally, the resolution. Your story has come to an end and needs a fitting conclusion. That is the final element. At this point, the main conflict is fully resolved and all loose ends that needed addressing have been tied up. The main characters speak their last thoughts before the words “The End”.
Now, not all stories use this story structure, and depending on the story, the lengths of each element may differ. Some like to divide the story into three acts to simplify it further.
Most commonly, the exposition is the shortest segment in the story. The rising action is the bulk of the story. The climax is the start of the final segment, or final act, with falling action and resolution making up the chapters that follow that final conflict.
Why does story structure matter?
It is widely believed that story structure plays a key role in the success of a story. A poorly structured story comes off as an incoherent mess of scenes, which often leads the reader to believe the writer has no clue what they are doing as the story progresses.
Story structure helps you convey the themes and messages of the story, it adds that impact to the reader’s experience, it helps maintain that engagement, the pacing, the flow! The feeling of the story can easily be broken by a lack of structure, and the quality of the story can rise and fall, creating clashes in one’s storytelling.
Story structure helps you organize events into a logical and engaging sequence of scenes. And it’s super effective too! It is the reason that most authors and screenplay writers use the three-act or five-element story structure. It is the most effective way to communicate a story to the reader as it is the structure that almost every reader is familiar with!
If pacing and flow are important to you, you can’t go wrong with designing your story around this structure.
The only problem that comes with this story structure is how common it is. Everyone uses it! Professional writers and newbie writers and every writer in between. The basic story structure is so good that it’s hard for many writers to imagine a story flowing any differently. The first part is designed to get the reader's interest, which is great. The next sequence is designed to develop the plot and the character, which is great for getting the reader attached to the characters. The climax, falling action, and resolution is the reward at the end of the novel. A final conflict and an end to the adventure. It’s a simple, effective way to end a story, even if the ending is unsatisfying.
Since it is so common, people often associate basic story structure with linear story structure. The rise and falls are so predictable that it comes off as a straight line. That’s why some writers like to play around with story structure, breaking the timeline or skipping an element. In doing so, a writer can create a more unpredictable story, but that still requires a basic understanding of classic story structure.
Tips for using story structure effectively!
That’s enough explanation, it’s time for some practical tips to help you use story structure effectively!
Start with an outline, a skeleton to work with!
Don’t jump straight into chapter summaries just yet. It helps to start with an outline of your story. The best way to do that is to write out your story in a very informal way. For example, the protagonist is introduced, we learn they do this for a living and they want to achieve this goal. The antagonist swoops into this scene and does a bad thing. The protagonist goes after them for revenge. There is this scene, that scene, and the other scene. Big fights, the big reveals, and so on.
You get the idea.
Yours will include a lot more information and a lot more scenes, but you can see that I don’t include a lot of detail at all. Use an outline to organize your ideas, then try to fit them into the structure, assigning each scene to a certain element.
Establish the conflict early on so you don’t bore the reader.
When you introduce conflict early on you let the reader know what the story is about and what they should be invested in. If you plan to publish your work one day, this is essential. Most readers, if they are truly forgiving, will glance at the writing style in the first chapter and the elements you introduce to get a good idea of what they are in for. If they have time, they will even read the first or second chapter, but that also depends on the length.
If the reader starts your book and you don’t introduce your conflict soon, chances are their patience will start to wear thin. The reader wants conflict, they want to know what the story is about, and they want to care about your characters and plot, but they don’t want to sit through chapters of you setting the scene and introducing the characters without the excitement of conflict.
Take advantage of rising action, it emphasizes the climax.
The rising action portion of your story, as I said earlier, makes up the bulk of your story, or is at least the biggest section in your story. Despite that, the most exciting and tense part of the story is the climax and you want to use rising action to build towards it gradually.
You are maintaining reader engagement, getting them excited for the finale, which will make the finale all the more impactful. You do this by developing your characters and plot, properly establishing the stakes, and covering all that the protagonist sacrificed, how hard they worked, or how destined this climax may be.
Use subplots to add depth to your story, making it feel less straightforward.
As for dealing with the biggest problem with classic story structure, you can make your story feel less linear by including subplots. Smaller stories are usually introduced by other characters. The main plot could be the protagonist getting revenge on the antagonist, but a subplot is a side character achieving justice, or finding a fortune, or getting answers to questions that have been bothering them for years.
It’s important to remember that every character has their own motivations. Simple characters are there to help the main characters, but complex characters have more to their personality. These characters have another goal than helping the main character achieve their own. Consider this fact and you will have no problem coming up with subplots that add depth to your novel.
Pay attention to the pacing, it can get away from you!
Pacing is an important aspect of any story.
I have written many stories that are too slow or too fast. I’ve certainly made that mistake with some novels I’ve worked on. I either included too many fast scenes in a row, creating a confusing mess of tense scenes that provide plenty of action but too little story. The same applies to slower scenes, where it seems like I am telling a lot of the story, but the plot barely progresses, if at all.
Pacing is something you need to watch over. Sometimes it is better to take a step back and take a look at your outline and structure. See what scenes need to change, or if you can introduce a scene that helps the pacing. Don’t jeopardize the pacing of your story to fit the structure, because…
…the structure is more of a guideline. Don’t take story structure so seriously, especially if it jeopardizes your story!
The story structure is great, but it isn’t everything. It certainly needs to be ignored at points if it messes with your story. Sometimes, you want to introduce a long sequence of slow or fast scenes because it makes sense in regards to your story, if not the structure.
In those moments, I would happily encourage you to write the story naturally, following your outline before you follow the structure you have set out for yourself.
Story structure has helped me in the middle of writing one of my books. I was writing a second draft, trying to get the story to end, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know when to transition to climax, to the final act. There were so many points I could have done so, but I got lost in a cool story idea, which led to me putting it at risk with poor planning.
Story structure helped me see the bigger picture, find the point where the story needed to end and then I could construct an ending from there. Front here, I would address the other elements, tying up loose ends so my story would have a satisfying end.
Many of us are using story structure unconsciously, but it sometimes helps to consciously address it, especially if you are struggling to construct the next scene.
Of course, I would like to hear your thoughts and experiences on story structure. What tips would you give other writers working with it?
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!