Your story structure does matter.
Not only was Rome not built in a day, but it also wasn’t built without a plan. London was built without a plan.
Hit some Google maps and look at an aerial view of both cities. You will see the difference.
And your readers will definitely see the difference if your book doesn’t have a cohesive structure…and they will not be back for more.
The three main types of story structure we’ll cover are:
- 3 Act Structure
- Hero’s Journey
- The 5 Milestones
What is story structure?
There are a few main types of story structure but overall, the structure of your story is how the events are laid out with an emphasis on using each part to further the story in an intriguing and cohesive structure.
Structure, suffice it to say, is important. The structure makes all the difference in creating a narrative that is poignant and satisfying.
More importantly, structure helps you, as the writer, keep track of all the events so that characters and story elements don’t fall through the cracks.
Keeping track of story elements makes writing a lot easier. Like following a recipe, it keeps you from leaving out important bits or putting in too much of others. Even simple stories contain numerous smaller nuances that, when forgotten, lead to disaster.
Watch any B movie from the 80s and you can see places where the editor, the script, and the director all lost the plot…don’t allow that when writing a novel yourself.
Furthermore, readers expect certain structures within story. They have an emotional attachment to certain pacing. They start to feel anxious if an element they are expecting hasn’t yet occurred, or never occurs.
Depending on the book genre, manipulating these expectations is a part of the style.
If you want to keep track of all of this, we’ve put together all three of these methods into story structure templates for you.
Why focus on the structure of a story?
Much like the streets of Rome, you want your story to get somewhere.
You might enjoy meandering through London’s sprawling game trails turned roadways, but you want to get somewhere eventually.
That is why a story structure serves as a map to guide you, the characters, and the reader to an eventual, and hopefully rewarding, destination.
Some of the most famous stories out there have a very specific, replicable story structure that has served them well.
That’s why we always recommend outlining your book using these methods for planning your novel.
Story Structure: 3 Templates for Getting it Right
Now that we’ve stressed the need for a story structure its time to learn about your options. Story structures don’t have to be confining, rigid, things.
They work best when used as signposts and tentpoles, holding up the scaffolding and guiding you on your way.
Note that a story structure is somewhat different than a story shape. The shape is more about the feel and thrust of a story over its arrangement.
Story Structure #1 – The 3 Act Play
The most basic of story structures, very popular in Hollywood style films, is the 3 Act Play.
Many world-famous novels use this structure, including:
- Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This structure relies on a total of five elements which includes the acts themselves, composed of various scenes, and two key transitions, referred to as “pinches” here.
Here is the three-act structure broken down:
- Act 1: Setup – We’re introduced to the main players as well as the main conflict. We understand the voice, tone, and direction of the story.
- Pinch 1 – This is when the initial conflict arises (sometimes known as the inciting incident).
- Act 2: Confrontation – We’re in the thick of the main conflict here, along with some secondary conflicts. We’re faced with difficult (seemingly impossible) odds to overcome.
- Pinch 2 – The conflicts addressed in Act 2 come to a head, and decisions need to be made. This is often the moment where all hope is lost for your protagonist.
- Act 3: Resolution – Everything boils down to this act. All of the conflict, subplots, and challenges arise and the climax kicks off, shortly followed by the resolution of the story.
In the past, plays were structured with five acts, with two of the acts serving as long-form versions of the modern transitional elements of Pinch 1 and 2.
These have faded, partially because audiences have adapted to storytelling tropes and don’t need them spelled out. Also, stage tech, at least in plays, has advanced, requiring less busy work on the fringes to enact scenery changes for the more crucial acts.
Act 1 – The Setup
The first act introduces the characters with some mild character development and sets up the conflict. Take Romeo and Juliet (a fine example because we can discuss both the play’s 5 act structure and the films 3 act version).
The major players are all introduced in the first act and then attend a party. This gives us further information about each character in how they rep and participate in the party. We also see their conflicting social dynamics.
We set up an additional set of character dynamics between Romeo vs Paris as parties interested in Juliet and Mercutio and Tybalt as loyal but antagonistic figures.
Pinch 1 occurs at the end of the first act, introducing the conflict of the young couples’ love for each other.
Act 2 – The Confrontation
In the play this is developed through the second act as the stakes for the lovers is spelled out. They marry in secret and that forms the end of the major plot point, the star-crossed lovers are not just passingly at odds with their society.
Within the 3 act structure, this is a single plot point. We get that they love each other, and that love means marriage.
Then, the middle act is the apprehension of their actions bringing about unintended, but not unforeseeable consequences.
The second act is often the longest as it is the place where elements move and forces muster. Everyone has to get into further trouble, further develop their roles, and gain power toward a resolution.
Act 2 ends shortly after a complication that brings the elements to a head. No longer able to maintain the secret, Romeo is confronted with a duel and his actions result in the death of his friend which then results in his banishment once he kills Tybalt.
Act 3 – The Resolution
Act 3 then begins with the fallout of these actions.
With Romeo headed to banishment, Juliet seeks a drastic plan to keep him around. She fakes her death to bring out the true feelings of the interested parties.
Since it is a tragedy, Romeo to get the clever reveal of the ruse and kills himself rather than being alone, though your story structure doesn’t have to follow this specific tragic ending.
Juliet then has to kill herself in turn and we end up with a high body count to bring the story to a close.
Story Structure #2 – Hero’s Journey
While the 3 Act structure works well for simple, straightforward stories, it doesn’t have the necessary oomph to underpin more nuanced tales.
When the good guys and bad guys are less black and white, you need to reach for the ancient wheel that is the Hero’s Journey.
The journey typically consists of 12 steps. It is the backbone of traditional storytelling, except it works and is a joy to take part in.
Older versions of the structure had more steps, the Tarot stemmed from an early understanding of this story structure starting with the fool (our hero) and ending with the world (resolution or complete understanding).
Here are the 12 steps of the hero’s journey:
- The Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusing the Call
- Meeting a Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies
- Approach the Innermost Circle
- The Ordeal
- Seizing the Talisman
- The Road Ahead
- Return with the Elixir
These steps explain, in detail, the trajectory of the story while leaving room to put in differing characters and pursuits of different ideals. While many contemporary stories still follow this structure, it is easiest to see it in the light of an epic.
We’ll use Lord of the Rings as an example of this story structure. While the entire story follows the structure multiple times, we’ll stick to Frodo’s arc.
Step 1 – The Ordinary World
The Lord of the Rings story begins, rather appropriately, in the most banal land in Middle Earth. The Shire is a pure ordinary world where nothing too much happens, and everyone lives without any idea that better or worse things exist outside its borders. (Well, they have some idea, but go the cognitive dissonance route to ignore it.)
Step 2 – The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure comes when Gandalf shows up in search of the One Ring.
He tells Frodo a quest needs to be taken up but doesn’t give the full details. This bleeds into Refusing the Call as Frodo accepts part of the responsibility, without understanding the rest.
Step 3 – Refusing the Call
Refusing the Call is about seeing what has to be done and deciding there has to be someone else.
A good hero, like a proper Platonic philosopher-king, needs to reject the call first to be more worthy of it. Frodo will finish Refusing the Call later in Rivendell as he tries to bargain that others are more capable.
Step 4 – Meeting a Mentor
Though Gandalf served as a Mentor in The Hobbit, Aragorn (as Strider) is the Mentor here.
Meeting him gets the four hobbits along the correct path and out of the shying away into the real journey. The Mentor often brings insight, training, or purpose to a hero.
Step 5 – Crossing the Threshold
Crossing the Threshold reflects the hero facing a challenge and realizing they can make a difference.
For Frodo, this occurs twice, the first time as he faces the barrow wraiths and rescues his friends, the second is surviving the orc attack in Moria. Both thresholds show the power of gifts he received from Biblo but also hint at how friendship will play a role in his other tests.
Step 6 – Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Tests, Allies, and Enemies is a larger middle section of the Hero’s Journey which winds through other elements.
The gathering of the fellowship is a gaining of allies, their journey is a test, the fellowship mirrors the numbers of the enemy Ring Wraiths.
This step might not necessarily be a solid, definable moment, but rather something that has been happening throughout the story until this point.
Step 7 – Approach the Innermost Circle
Approach the Innermost Circle is a great danger, if not the greatest danger, a hero faces.
Within Frodo’s journey, this is when he attempts to leave the rest of the group behind, going alone on the river because he fears what will happen if he keeps with the group.
This moment in your story should be high tension, with consequences that impact the overall plot.
Step 8 – The Ordeal
The Ordeal is what takes place inside the Innermost Circle.
In the wastes of Mordor, Frodo must hold out against the weight of the One Ring. It is a prolonged Ordeal but well within the idea of the step.
This is another step that can fall within a previous step.
Step 9 – Seizing the Talisman
Seizing the Talisman is about gaining an object of power that will turn the tide for the hero.
Tolkien has many of these for other characters, usually in the form of legendary or magical weapons they acquire. For Frodo, the specifics of the talisman are in his pity on Gollum.
Step 10 – The Road Ahead
The Road Ahead takes the hero from the talisman to a final conflict.
In this case, Frodo is betrayed by Gollum and nearly killed by Shelob, saved only by the friendship with Samwise.
The consequences of Seizing the Talisman are usually a downward turn, comparable with Pinch 2 from the 3 Act structure.
Step 11 – Resurrection
Resurrection often involves a person, or entity returning after being thought dead.
Gandalf becomes the white, Luke comes back with a mechanical hand, Frodo fails to discard the ring and has to be attacked by Gollum.
Frodo’s resurrection is being saved at the last moment by his previous good decisions, often a resurrection succeeds because of past decisions by a hero and rarely the actions they take in that moment.
Step 12 – Return with the Elixir
Finally, the hero must Return with the Elixir, taking everything they have learned and accomplished back to the Ordinary World they once inhabited.
Frodo and Sam arrive to take on Saruman, showing their knowledge and skill acquired through the Journey to return the land to peace.
This is often the last chapter, showing your character/s returning to their life or beginning to create their new life.
Story Structure #3 – The 5 Milestones
If the previous two structures seemed restrictive or overly elaborate (the Hero’s Journey is 12 freaken steps, after all) then the 5 Milestones structure is for you.
This structure keeps it simple by focusing on five plot points, usually one or two scenes each, that create the scaffold of the story. These Milestones have to go in order, but the space between them can be adjusted quite a lot.
Here are the 5 Milestones for this story structure:
- Inciting Incident
- 1st Slap
- 2nd Slap
We’ll use the Hunger Games to rundown this structure.
Milestone 1 – The Setup
The first Milestone works just like the 3 Act and the Ordinary World. It shouldn’t be surprising as beginnings all need to do the same thing.
Collins sets her premise up by explaining the reason there are districts, why the Games exist, and introducing Katniss as the protagonist.
We know, rather quickly, that the world is dystopian and unfair, and we know the main character has the skills to make an impact.
Milestone 2 – The Inciting Incident
This leads to the Inciting Incident, the kickoff to the main plot and conflict in your novel.
In this case, Katniss’ own sister is chosen to take part in the Games. A task she is not ready for and will likely not survive. Not only that, it will spell disaster for the rest of the District if or when she fails.
That specific moment is the inciting incident because it leads to Katniss’s next decision, which kicks off the entire point of the book: Katniss volunteers to be the tribute.
This sets the rest of the plot in motion while also anchoring the reader to the motives of the hero.
Milestone 3 – The 1st Slap
The 1st Slap, much like Pinch 1, sets the stakes and introduces the larger plot.
The Inciting Incident is often character motivating and motivated. The 1st Slap is usually external, a factor within the world that must be overcome.
The opening of the Games sets the stakes and shows the danger Katniss will face. This parallels Crossing the Threshold in the Hero’s Journey story structure, where first blood is drawn and the hero, as well as the reader, see the reality of the dangers.
Rather than simply being told “there be dragons”, they see one firsthand.
The 1st Slap also makes good on the promise of adventure by putting the hero into the middle of a peril that they must escape. There is no turning back, only moving forward.
Milestone 4 – The 2nd Slap
This takes us into the 2nd Slap. Here, we see things get worse like a Pinch 2, but we see the hope on the horizon.
We know the Talisman, as seen in the Hero’s Journey story structure, is out there to be seized.
In The Hunger Games, this is seen by Katniss working out a plan to fake a relationship with Peta to get support from the outside; a means of survival.
She needs to keep him alive for his sake, and for hers. He is dying from an infection and she is told there will be an item she needs at the feast.
The feast is a huge risk, but it offers hope. She must take the chance. Things go badly, of course, and the hope teeters her on ruin.
Milestone 5 – The Climax
All of this creates the landscape for the final Milestone: The Climax.
With the Games coming down to just Peta or Katniss, we go back to the events of the Inciting Incident and loop that motivation into how the hero wins.
Frodo helped Gollum, who saves him in return (not out of good intent, but it gets us there). Katniss has a need to protect others, all her actions follow that desire.
She sees a way to save Peta by threatening herself. This kind of character-driven resolution makes for a rewarding story and makes it easy to weave the details of your final victory throughout.
Your readers stay looped into the triumph because they root for the character because they like them, not because the plot says that they win.
The secret to making a story kickass is to make it come from within. A good reader can smell a set up a mile away. A good reader also loves to see a Milestone achieved.
There you have it, three ways to get a story from ‘In the Beginning’ to ‘The End’ that will keep you focused and organized. The reader will know what you’re doing, following along through the peaks and valleys, the twists and turns, confident that your roadmap will lead somewhere promising.