For those who like to plot their novel (and even for those who don't), story structure is an integral part of any good narrative. Even when you write from the seat of your pants, you will want to follow some kind of organizing structure, or revise your work after the fact to do so.
But what is story structure, and how do you know if you are using it correctly?
In truth, there are a wide variety of story structures (although most of them are more similar than you might think), and choosing which one works for you is a matter of personal taste.
- What narrative structure is
- 11 different story structures to experiment with
- When to use each story structure
Table of contents
- What Is Story Structure?
- 1. The Fichtean Curve (Basic Story Structure)
- 2. The Three Act Structure
- 3. The Hero's Journey
- 4. Freytag's Pyramid
- 5. The Five Act Structure
- 6. Save the Cat Beats
- 7. The Snowflake Method
- 8. Dan Harmon's Story Circle
- 9. Seven Point Story Structure
- 10. Story Spine
- 11. In Medias Res
- The Best Book Plotting Tool
We also recommend a tool called Plottr that will help you structure your story with each of these methods. Note that some of these links are affiliate links, and we get a small kickback if you choose to purchase Plottr or any other service through one of these links. But doing so costs you nothing extra, and it all goes to our collective coffee fund.
What Is Story Structure?
Story structure (also known as narrative structure or plot structure) is a way of ordering all of the events in your book.
Because every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but there are a million different ways that you can present your events in a story.
Story structure allows you to identify the moments in your story that are most important, so you can focus on that.
It allows you to trim excess “fat” from your novel, elements that are not pertinent to the story, or that slow the story down, do not build character, etc.
Because a novel should not be just a sequence of events, a novel should be a sequence of important events, moments that tie together in a way that is satisfying to the reader.
With that in mind, we have identified 11 of the most important plot structures that you will find. Feel free to experiment with one or more of these:
- The Fichtean Curve
- The Three Act Structure
- The Hero's Journey
- Freytag's Pyramid
- The Five Act Structure
- Save the Cat Beats
- The Snowflake Method
- Dan Harmon's Story Circle
- The Seven Point Story Structure
- The Story Spine
- In Media Res
Let's dive into the each of these one by one…
1. The Fichtean Curve (Basic Story Structure)
The Fichtean Curve is a classic story structure that make up almost every story. It is represented by a skewed triangle, and contains three basic parts: rising action, climax, and falling action.
The 3 Steps of the Fichtean Curve
- Rising action: this is the primary part of your story, and will take up most of your time. Rising action is punctuated by several crises, each of which heighten the stakes, progress your plot, and increased attention. This is why it is called rising action.
- The climax: at the top of your rising action, everything cumulates into a single climax, where every threat of your novel converges. This is near the End of your novel, at the height of tension.
- Falling action: after your climax, you need some time to let the reader relax, and we do this with falling action. This section allows you to tie up any loose ends of your story, and show your characters returning to a state of normalcy.
When to Use the Fichtean Curve
The Fichtean Curve is so basic that it can be used in virtually every story. You will find that nearly every other story structure on our list uses this basic framework of rising action, climax, and falling action.
And so it is necessary for you, the author, to understand these basic principles and make sure they are incorporated into every story you write, because missing these basic elements will not result in a story most people want to read.
2. The Three Act Structure
In today's age, the three act structure has permeated our culture, largely thanks to Hollywood which uses a three act structure in almost every film they produce.
Furthermore, you will notice that many (though not all) of the structures on our list use some variation of the three act structure.
It is another basic framework that we would all benefit from familiarizing ourselves with.
Each act is further broken down into three steps, for a total of nine. Let's take a look at those.
The Nine Steps of the Three Act Structure
Act I: Set up
- Exposition: establish an “ordinary world, or a moment when the status quo is normal
- Inciting incident: throw in an event that starts the flow of the story
- Plot point 1: by now, the protagonist has decided to deal with the conflict. Across the “threshold,” and we move into Act 2.
Act II: Confrontation
- Rising action: the hero is beset with various challenges that increased the stakes in the tension.
- Midpoint: one event in particular turns everything on its head, and nearly ruins the protagonist's chances of achieving their goal.
- Plot point 2: following the midpoint, the main character fails at a challenge, growing everything into jeopardy, and questioning whether the protagonist is capable of succeeding.
Act III: Resolution
- Pre-climax: there is a moment before the final climax of the story where the main character pulls themselves together and prepares for the final confrontation.
- Climax: this is the final confrontation with the antagonist or main source of conflict, usually ending with (but not always) a success on the protagonist's part.
- Dénouement: all loose ends are neatly tied, and the consequences of the climax are clearly spelled out.
When to Use 3 Act Structure
The 3 act structure is one of the most common structures in all of storytelling, particularly in modern times. As such, you should definitely familiarize yourself with it for virtually all types of storytelling.
There are exceptions when you might want to look at other structures, such as the 5 act structure or Freytag's Pyramid (useful for tragedies), otherwise most of the structures on this list adhere to the three act structure.
3. The Hero's Journey
The hero's journey is one of the most popular forms of story structure, made popular by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which identified several unique steps used in almost any heroic story, common in mythology.
This framework was later adapted by Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer's Journey, which boil down the hero's journey into 12 steps:
The 12 Steps of the Hero's Journey
Part 1: Departure
- The ordinary world: we establish the place of comfort for the hero.
- The call of adventure: this is similar to the inciting incident, where the hero is given a reason to go on an adventure.
- Refusal of the call: at first, the hero is reluctant to answer the call to action.
- Meeting the mentor: in almost every hero's journey, there is a wise mentor who gives the hero knowledge, or otherwise prepares them for what is ahead.
- Crossing the 1st threshold: the hero steps outside of their comfort zone, and the main plot begins. In a 3 act structure, this would be the end of act one.
Part 2: Initiation
- Tests, allies, enemies: the hero faces increasingly difficult challenges, but also gains allies against the new enemies.
- Approach to the inmost cave: the hero approaches their goal, but we are still uncertain of the outcome.
- The ordeal: this is a huge challenge that the hero overcomes.
- Reward (seizing the sword): as a result of overcoming the previous challenge, the hero gets some kind of boon or a reward to help them in the future.
Part 3: The Return
- The road back: at this point, the hero has achieved their goal, but the end is not yet. The hero may even discover that what they achieved may have made things worse.
- Resurrection: the hero faces their greatest challenge, the climax of the entire story, where everything they have learned so far comes together.
- Return with the elixir: this is similar to falling action, where all of the loose ends are tied up, and the hero returns to their ordinary world with new experiences.
When to Use the Hero's Journey
The hero's journey is best used for heroic narratives, or when you have a hero that must accomplish some great thing, and grow in the process.
That said, the basic structure of the hero's journey works for a variety of stories and genres, even though they are most commonly used in fantasy, science fiction, and superhero narratives. Because, if you think about it, every protagonist is the hero of their own story, so you can use the hero's journey there.
Simply adapting these steps to your genre can easily make a mythically-resonant novel.
4. Freytag's Pyramid
Freytag's Pyramid is one of the oldest story structures ever identified. It was invented by Gustav Freytag in the 1800s, and focuses primarily on the structure of classical literature and tragedies such as those written by Shakespeare, a.k.a. the most popular literature of the time.
Some will debate whether there are 5 or 7 steps to Freytag's Pyramid, but the original work only included 5, so let's start with those:
The 5 Steps of Freytag's Pyramid
- Exposition: at this point, we establish the status quo, and explain the starting situation. The step ends with the inciting incident.
- Rising action: just like in the Fichtean Curve, rising action features the main character pursuing their goal while the stakes heighten.
- Climax: this is a moment in the center of your story that acts as the point of no return.
- Falling action: we see the consequences of the climax and the decisions that the protagonist has faced so far. In a tragedy, falling action is when we see things start to spiral out of control.
- Resolution or catastrophe: in the final step, everything is tied up, and the character reaches their lowest point (if you are writing a tragedy).
When to Use Freytag's Pyramid
Freytag's Pyramid is best used when writing tragedies, or other works heavily inspired by classical literature. It, like the 5 act structure, is less common in modern-day works, but can still be really useful for the right type of story.
5. The Five Act Structure
The five act structure is basically the same as Freytag’s Pyramid, following the same basic steps:
The 5 Steps of the Five Act Structure
- Exposition: We establish the ordinary world and basic setup of the plot.
- Rising action: a series of events as the protagonist pursues their goal.
- Climax: everything converges into the point of no return.
- Falling action: the consequences of the hero’s decisions thus far.
- Resolution or catastrophe: final resolutions where the hero is at the highest or lowest point of the story.
When to Use the 5 Act Structure
Like Freytag’s Pyramid, the 5 Act Structure is best used in works inspired by classical writing, such as the works of Homer or Shakespeare.
However, while Freytag’s Pyramid is primarily for tragedies, the five act structure can also be adapted for less-tragic stories, such as comedies. For example, Shakespeare’s comedies also follow the five-act structure, which is kind of an inverse of the tragedy whilst maintaining the same structure.
6. Save the Cat Beats
Another popular story structure was made famous by author and screenwriter Blake Snyder, and is a more detailed version of the 3 act structure.
While Blake Snyder was originally writing for screenwriters, and his Save the Cat beat sheet even has page numbers assigned, so you know exactly how many pages of a screenplay you should write, it still works for novelists as well.
The 15 Steps of the “Save the Cat” Formula
- Opening image: your story should start out with a brief look at the main character, the overall feel and tone of the story, etc.
- Set up: from here we get a little more exposition, setting up the tone of the world, introducing us to characters, etc.
- Theme stated: somewhere inside the set up, it should be made clear what the theme is. This may not be understood by the main character yet, but it will become more and more obvious as the story progresses.
- Catalyst: following all of the set up, we have the inciting incident and the story starts rolling.
- Debate: like the “refusal of the call” in the hero's journey, there are moments when the protagonist fights or debates with the path that they have taken.
- Break into two: at this point we move into act two of the story, and the main character is fully invested in their quest.
- B story: every good story also has some kind of subplot, such as a romance that is happening at the same time as the primary plot. At this point, we are introduced to this subplot.
- Fun and games: before the goings get tough, the protagonist has a small amount of time to enjoy the new life that they are living, the new world they are in, the new abilities they have gained, etc.
- Midpoint: but then something big happens, and it completely turns the protagonists goals on their head.
- Bad guys close in: here, the antagonistic forces become a greater threat to the protagonist, the tension is raised, the conflict increases, etc.
- All is lost: then, something happens to the protagonist. They face a dark time, they lose a friend or mentor, or are otherwise put under extreme duress
- Dark night of the soul: the protagonist goes through a depressive period, when it seems that all hope is lost.
- Break into three: now we move into act three, where the protagonist is able to jump up from rock-bottom and gain a key piece of knowledge that will help them in the future.
- Finale: this is where everything culminates. The character takes everything that they have learned and gained over the course of the story and puts it to use in order to eliminate the antagonist.
- Final image: this is a final snapshot of your story, and it should mirror or “rhyme” with the opening snapshot. In the hero's journey, this is the return.
When to Use Save the Cat
The Save the Cat framework is ideal for writers of film and television, although many of these ideas are applicable to novelists as well.
If you want to use this in a novel, you will have to adapt the page count of each beat to your own story, but you can make it work.
7. The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method is a form of plotting developed by Randy Ingermanson.
It uses the symbol of the Koch Snowflake as a metaphor for plotting. By using the fractal-form of a snowflake, you start with something simple, then expand it slightly, then expand it some more until you have a fully fleshed-out story.
The 10 Steps of the Snowflake Method
- Craft a one sentence summary: get your book down to its absolute essence. If you can't get it to fit into one sentence, then your core idea is not defined well enough.
- Write a one paragraph summary: from there, expand your single sentence into a full paragraph.
- Create character synopsis: once you have a basic idea of the plot, you can start creating basic ideas of the characters.
- Grow your story to a one-page description: now that you have an idea of the characters, you can expand your single paragraph to a full page.
- Review and refine your character descriptions: you can now expand your characters even further, now that you have a better idea of the story.
- Create a four-page plot outline: now you can really dig deep into the plot.
- Create full-fledged character charts: now you can really dig deep into the characters and flesh out their back stories.
- Break down all of your story scenes: you should have an idea of how many scenes you need to write, so now is the time to build each one.
- Sketch out your novel chapters: you can now combine your scenes as needed and create chapters.
- Write the novel's first draft: with full character templates, scene outlines, and chapter outlines, you are now ready to write the entire first draft of your novel.
When to Use the Snowflake Method
While this is less of a story structure, and more of a way of creating a story, the snowflake method is an incredibly useful method for authors who have no idea where to start.
The point is to start small, narrow down your idea to a very specific hook, and then you can expand on it from there.
By continuously expanding your idea, you will be able to stay true to the core essence of your story, while deeply fleshing out your plot and characters.
8. Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Dan Harmon's Story Circle is a plotting technique adapted from the hero's journey by screenwriter Dan Harmon.
It focuses a little more on character arcs, making it a useful tool for authors to use.
The Eight Steps of Dan Harmon's Story Circle
- You: Where the character is in a zone of comfort
- Need: And they want something
- Go: So they enter an unfamiliar situation
- Search: Adapt to it
- Find: They find what they wanted
- Take: Pay the price of taking it
- Return; They go back to where they started
- Change: And is now changed
When to Use the Dan Harmon's Story Circle
The Story Circle is best used when you want a hero's journey-type narrative, but one that focuses more on character experiences and development.
As character development is an important aspect of good storytelling, and the hero's journey is so universal, Dan Harmon's Story Circle might be a useful framework to use for many writers.
9. Seven Point Story Structure
The seven point story structure is a useful narrative structure, and identifies seven key points of storytelling.
Like many of the structures on this list, it follows the three act structure, but is a different way of looking at it.
The 7 Steps of the Seven Point Story Structure
- The hook: while getting to know the protagonist and the environment in which they live, there should be something at the beginning to hook the reader and get them interested in learning more.
- Plot point one: then something unexpected happens, the inciting incident, which pushes the character outside of their comfort zone into an unfamiliar world.
- Pinch point one: the character comes into conflict with the antagonist, and the main purpose of the protagonist is revealed.
- Midpoint: in this step, the character takes full responsibility for the quest, and begins stepping up to take action.
- Pinch point two: but with further conflict with the antagonist, the character reaches rock-bottom and it seems that all hope is lost.
- Plot point two: the protagonist finds new knowledge or assets to help them succeed.
- Resolution: the climax happens, everything is resolved, and the protagonist either does or doesn't achieve their goal.
When to Use the Seven Point Plot Structure
The seven point plot structure is useful for people writing by the seat of their pants. It gives you clear milestones to shoot for with each point, but doesn't restrict you as much as other plotting systems.
That said, the seven point plot system follows the three act structure fairly closely, so it is a useful plotting method for anyone who wants to give it a try.
10. Story Spine
The Story Spine method is another one commonly used in stories, and is a particular favorite of Pixar.
By now, if you have read all of the other story structure options, some of these might seem familiar to you. However, the Story Spine phrases it a little differently.
The Seven Steps of Story Spine Structure
- Once upon a time…: You set up your main character in the situation they are starting from.
- And every day…: You establish more exposition about how this life is normal.
- Until one day…: You have an inciting incident that shakes things up.
- And because of this…: The characters forced to leave their place of comfort and go on an adventure.
- And because of this…: In the pursuit of their goal, actions have consequences. The protagonist may achieve their first goal, but it leads to something else, which leads to something else, etc.
- Until finally…: At this point, we enter Act III and the final climax of the story.
- And ever since that day…: We learn how the hero has changed over the course of the story, and what they are bringing back to them to their ordinary world.
When to Use Story Spine
Like the seven point plot structure, this is another useful tool for people writing by the seat of their pants who don't want to thoroughly outline the novel.
Instead, the story spine provides a useful framework and steps to follow, so you can have an idea of where you are in the story, without sticking to a rigid outline.
11. In Medias Res
In Medias Res is Latin for “in the middle of things”. This plotting framework runs on the idea that you should start your story immediately at the start of conflict, dropping the reader into the action without warning.
Think of Star Wars: A New Hope, which drops us right into a conflict between the Empire and the Rebels. We know nothing about this conflict, but learn more as the movie progresses.
In truth, In Medias Res is more of a tactic than a storytelling structure, but it does have some key points to follow.
The Six Steps of In Medias Res
- In Medias Res: we start off immediately into the action, with little to no exposition or backstory.
- Rising action: the conflict increases, the characters are forced to adjust, and the tension is heightened over time. By this point the reader should be invested in the characters, but still not know everything that is going on yet.
- Explanation: layered throughout rising action, at key “rest” points, you can layer in exposition and backstory to inform the reader of what is going on.
- Climax: as with the three act structure, the climax is where everything comes together in the characters either succeed or fail.
- Falling action: following the climax, all loose ends are tied up in the reader is allowed to breathe.
- Resolution: the character returns to their ordinary world, and all remaining plot threads are addressed.
When to Use In Medias Res
This is a difficult question, as you can use In Medias Res in a variety of ways. Overall, you should try to start your novel as close to the conflict as possible, but there are multiple ways to do this. You don't necessarily need to start with the inciting incident.
The point is to immediately hook your readers and pull them through the story, which In Medias Res allows you to do.
Regardless of whether you are intentionally using In Medias Res as a story structure, we highly recommend you do everything you can to immediately pull your readers into the story.
The Best Book Plotting Tool
Now that we have covered all of these different story structures, how can you keep them all straight?
Indeed, it may seem overwhelming to have such a huge number of narrative structures at your disposal.
Thankfully, there are multiple tools out there to help you plot your novel, and our number one recommendation is Plottr (See our review here)
Plottr is a fantastic resource to not only plot your novel, but build your characters and story world, so you can keep everything straight.
Additionally, Plottr gives you custom-built templates for all of the story structures, plus many more.
And that is by far one of my favorite features, the plotting templates.
If you need a little help with your story structure, or want to find a better way of visualizing your structure, or even just want a place to put all of your notes on characters, locations, and world building, then Plottr is for you.