A well-structured story is satisfying to read. There’s payoff for the reader as the story has cohesion and shape. Read a definition of story structure, plus effective story structure examples and methods to make your story more cohesive and dynamic:
What this story structure guide covers
- What is story structure?
- Useful types of story structuring devices
- Methods for structuring your story
- How to write more cohesive stories: 5 ideas
What is story structure?
Story structure refers to the sequencing of (and connection between) scenes, chapters, plot points (or plot events) and narrative time. Common errors in story structure include lack of cohesion/connection, and overlong or rushed exposition or other segments of story.
Useful types of story structuring devices
There are several ways stories are structured through an author’s choices:
A story doesn’t necessarily have to be told according to a linear timeline.
You might use flashbacks or flash forwards to tell your reader events that occurred earlier in your characters’ lives (or will occur later), relevant to the main timeline.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez does this in One Hundred Years of Solitude where he describes how the protagonist will face a firing squad later in life, before the main timeline catches up with these events.
We call this skipping forward in time a ‘flash forward’, and in this example, it sets the tone for dramatic events while also creating suspense. We wonder how the main character will land up in this dangerous position, so it’s a clever structural choice.
Repetition and variation
Repetition and variation (or repetition with variation) are elements of structure storytelling and music share.
In music, a structured form such as the sonata has a melodic theme that appears near the start and is developed and returns with embellishment and alteration.
In fiction, themes, images, and phrases can be brought back the same way to create overarching structure and cohesion.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) gives one such story structure example, showing how a repeated phrase adds a sense of cyclical return.
The author starts each sentence of the novel’s three parts similarly, describing the shifting nature of the haunted house that is the primary setting:
- ‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.’ (p. 3)
- ‘124 was loud.’ (p. 199)
- ‘124 was quiet.’ (p. 281)
Scenes, acts, chapters and beats
Scenes, acts, chapters and beats are useful elements of story structures that help you break up a longer story into simpler, purpose-driven units.
Some brief definitions before we continue with scene structure tips:
What is a scene?
A scene is ‘a single, interesting or important happening in a play or story’ (Merriam-Webster). For example, in the ‘meet cute’ (a type of romance scene), future lovers meet for the first time. See our guide to scene structure for more.
What is an act?
An act is a division within a play, book, screenplay or other story format typically larger than a chapter’s length (usually a group of story units such as chapters).
For example, a story divided into three main acts is said to use ‘three-act structure‘ (more on this below).
What is a chapter?
A chapter is the most common division in a book or novel, typically having a number or named title, and sometimes a subtitle giving setting information, a quote, or other context.
What is a beat?
This story structure term from screenwriting means a moment in a story that shifts the tone or moves the story forwards.
For example, ‘A bus pulls to a stop.’ or ‘A boy gets out the bus yelling with excitement, running to meet a waiting elderly person.’
Let’s explore methods for structuring your story, before we look at tips for satisfying your reader with formal payoffs:
Structure your story ideas with prompts and help
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Methods for structuring your story
There are several useful ways to structure a story using a broader structural template (which you can also modify to fit your needs).
Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer runs through three-act structure plus other methods in our YouTube playlist on story structure:
In the video above, Romy talks about how three-act structure was codified in the Greek polymath Aristotle’s Poetics (335 BC), the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory.
Simply, three-act structure divides a story into a beginning, middle section and end. Making each of these parts of a story focused so it is purpose-driven ensures there is emotional payoff for your reader.
In three-act structure, you have three primary acts:
Structuring your story into three acts
The three basic acts in three-act structure are:
Act 1 – Exposition and inciting incident
Exposition ‘sets up’ your story. You introduce context for the events that will follow.
For example, the year or era and place in which your story is set (which in turn establishes parameters for what is possible for your characters and what is not or at least unlikely).
The inciting incident is the event (or sequence of events) that gets the story rolling or pushes your characters to begin changing or making important, motivation-driven choices.
Act 2 – Rising action
This is the act in which there are shifting goals and setbacks for your characters. This forms the so-called ‘rising action’ – a sequence of incidents that rise in tension towards your story’s climax.
Act 3 – Climax and resolution
The third act is the section of your story in which the main conflicts come to a head. The story’s greatest unknowns resolve.
The Hero’s Journey and its adaptations
The American scholar Joseph Campbell codified common story structures he observed in myth and religion, which he termed the ‘monomyth’.
Campbell identified a common pattern in many stories of heroism. His approach to story structure describes seventeen incidents divided into three broader sections (so this approach fits three-act structure well):
- Departure (in which a ‘Call to Adventure’, the first of the 17 incidents or beats, causes a character to leave the ‘ordinary world’).
- Initiation (during which a character faces trials, temptations, commits mistakes, must atone for them, etc.)
- Return (the protagonist or main character heads home, perhaps reluctantly or with major obstacles in their way at first).
Wikipedia has a useful table showing how Campbell’s theories (which were published in his book The Hero with the Thousand Faces in 1949) have been altered and modernized by other writers over time.
Example of heroic structure: Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Dan Harmon, creator of the sitcom Community and co-creator of animated sci-fi comedy Rick & Morty, created one example of a modified Hero’s Journey.
Instead of Campbell’s 17 incidents or stages, Harmon’s Story Circle has eight events a story should contain:
- You meet a character you can identify with.
- They have some kind of need/wish/incompletion.
- This causes them to cross a threshold.
- They go down a road of trials, searching for something.
- The character finds what they’re searching for (whether good or bad).
- The found thing ‘kicks their ass’.
- They come back to the world they started in.
- They have changed due to their experience.
See Harmon’s explanation of this story structure concept for Adult Swim in his succinct video:
Simplified structuring devices: Story beats
If you don’t want to use a very templated approach to story structure (one common criticism is that the hero’s journey is too formulaic), you could simply organize your story in beats of action and reaction.
A character performs an action. For example, a detective opens a letter he finds on his desk. The contents make him react and make choices that move the story forwards and raise the tension.
Planning your story’s scenes in duos of action and reaction (while you keep in mind longer term story goals for characters) is one way to compromise between ‘pantsing’ and more detailed plotting.
So – how do you write a story that is structured well, or has structural or formal elements that create cohesion and emotional payoffs for your reader?
How to write a more cohesive story: 5 ideas
- Use repetition to build tension
- Repeat elements with variation for pathos or humor
- Create story arcs around goal, motivation and conflict
- Visualize story structure to identify key events
- Adapt existing story structures to your story
1. Use repetition to build tension
A key building block of story structure is repetition.
Repetition in stories has roots in oral culture. Repetitive elements would enable memorization for retelling, before print culture arose.
Examples of using repetition to build tension in stories
A classic example of using repetition for tension is the children’s fable, ‘The Three Little Pigs’.
In the story, three pigs terrorized by a wolf each build a house to hold him at bay – one of straw, one of sticks, and one of bricks. The wolf destroys the first two houses, devouring the pigs. The third pig outwits and devours the wolf instead, by building a brick house.
The reason this simple story has delighted children since at least 1840 is the simple repetitive structure builds tension and suspense.
We see each interaction, and the first two outcomes (the antagonist winning in a landslide victory) create suspense. There is a plot reversal, however, when the third pig thwarts the wolf.
Many modern thrillers and fantasies have similar structures. In a murder mystery, for example, a killer might pick off secondary characters one by one.
As we see each new crime scene, we feel the increasing tension of the killer’s unchecked success. They might start to seem unstoppable like that darn wolf. This raises stakes and the urgency of the case being solved.
How to structure story tension using repeated elements
To create effective tension through repetition:
- Raise the stakes: In a murder mystery, perhaps the killer’s pool of victims draws closer to the detective’s circle of friends or colleagues, for example. Consider structuring the procession of crimes around a movement closer to key characters.
- Vary settings and the rules of engagement: A first brush with an antagonist may be in a public setting, a later more tense one in a private one where there is less protection, buffer or security.
Repetition in story structure is also useful for creating emotional payoff – laughs or tears:
2. Repeat elements with variation for pathos or humor
Besides tension, repetition in story structure is a great device for creating humor or pathos (a quality that evokes pity or sadness).
Take the famous Spanish classic, Don Quixote (1615). Although more than 400 years old, it’s widely regarded as one of the best novels ever written.
The story follows a man named Alonso Quixano who has read many romances about valiant knights. When he loses his sanity, he sets out to live a life of chivalry emulating the books he’s read.
Cervantes builds structure and humor by showing repeated events that illustrate his protagonist’s determined habitation of his knightly fantasies.
Don Quixote renames an ordinary neighbouring farm-girl ‘Dulcinea del Toboso’, imagining she is his ‘lady love’. He imagines an inn is a castle, addressing the resident prostitutes as courtly ladies. He gets badly beaten in a fight when travelling merchants insult his (unknowing) love, Dulcinea.
Each repeated instance of his delusional behaviour is made funnier by the viewpoint of Sancho Panza, a simple farmer whom the Don recruits as his squire.
Through this device, we see the ‘objective’ reality (the plain inn) through Sancho’s eyes alongside the Don’s wild re-imagining of it. There’s pathos or melancholy in addition to humor in this doubling, as we see Sancho’s long-suffering loyalty.
How to use repetition for emotional payoffs
To use repetitive story structure for emotional payoffs for your reader:
- Repeat with variation: Alonso Quixano starts by giving himself, his horse and his neighbor romantic names. Each time we read about him renaming something ordinary with a heroic or romantic, ridiculous name, it becomes a little funnier.
- Create irony: Repetition enables you to emphasize ironic elements of your characters’ behavior. For example, Cervantes describes Don Quixote’s ‘noble steed’ as actually exhausted and decrepit. Reality contrasts starkly with his imaginary world, and repeat revelations of the wild differences between what Don Quixote perceives and what his sidekick perceives increase the laughs.
- Repeat with futility for pathos: Existentialist stories often use repetition to create pathos. In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot (1952), for example, two vagrants perpetually wait for a mysterious character named Godot who never arrives. Repeated incidents that raise false hope create pathos.
Besides repetition, what are other important elements of story structure?
3. Create story arcs around goal, motivation and conflict
Well-structured stories have arcs – rising and falling action as characters pursue goals that stem from recognizable motivations.
For example, let’s examine a classic ‘Rags to Riches’ story structure, the fairy-tale ‘Cinderella’.
You could summarize story structure in Cinderella thus:
A. Cinderella starts out in rags
Cinderella has her first misfortune: The death of her biological mother and her father’s remarriage. The consequence or reaction to this is Cinderella having to live with a cruel stepmother and her daughters.
B. Cinderella’s situation improves with magical help
Cinderella finds supernatural help and comfort: After Cinderella plants a hazel twig her father gives her on her mother’s grave, it grows into a magical tree. When she prays beneath it (introducing her goals and desires) a white dove delivers her wishes.
C. The romantic interest enters the story
The Prince enters the story: When the local king announces his son is holding a feast to find a bride, Cinderella’s stepmother won’t let her attend. She throws a pot of lentils into the ash of the fireplace and tells Cinderella she can attend if she picks them all up individually. The stepmother is a perpetual source of conflict or obstacle.
Cinderella achieves the task with the help of a flock of white doves.
D. The road of trials is long – Cinderella doesn’t have everything she needs yet
Cinderella prays under the tree for fine clothes to attend the feast. Her wish comes true and she attends the feast, dancing with the prince. When he accompanies her home, she escapes. The next day, she attends another day of the feast in even finer clothing. She loses her shoe in departing, and the prince keeps it, motivated by Cinderella’s allure to find her.
E. Cinderella goal seeks her in turn
The prince seeks the mystery girl. Part of what makes the story structure in Cinderella satisfying is there comes a point where her hard work pays off. The prince seeks her, too.
He makes women in the surrounding lands try on the slipper. The cruel stepsisters cut off their toes to make the shoe fit, but the white dove alerts the prince to blood on the slipper. He returns and eventually finds Cinderella, sees that the slipper fits, and recognizes her (through her ordinary servant’s clothes). The lovers end up together in the story’s resolution, while the white dove who helped Cinderella blinds her cruel stepsisters.
The above is condensed in the graphic below to illustrate Cinderella’s character arc:
4. Visualize story structure to identify key events
Here is a graphic summary of Cinderella’s story arc:
From this we can gather some useful points on story structure:
- Reversals add tension and intrigue: The reversals or turning points introduced by the stepmother’s interference take Cinderella further from the ‘Riches’ resolution of her character arc. This creates tension as her ultimate goal (meeting the prince) appears harder to reach.
- There is repetition with variation: The story’s structure coalesces around repeated elements – cruel and obstructive acts by Cinderella’s new family, versus the way supernatural forces come to her aid.
- Secondary characters help make story structure more interesting: Secondary characters – from the white dove to her fairy godmother – help or hinder Cinderella in her path to her goal. They add ups and downs.
As you draft your own story, create the occasional diagram of your own character and plot arcs. How does tension increase and decrease? Do events bring characters closer or further from their goals? Creating variety through repetition, variation and reversals will ensure your story isn’t ‘one note’.
5. Adapt existing story structures to your story
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle described above is a great example of how you can adapt existing story structures to serve the needs of your story.
For example, you could decide you want to write a hero’s journey -type story without the third part (return) – say you were writing a sci-fi story about a mission to establish a base on Mars, for example. Only one thing matters: Do the structuring devices you’re using serve your intentions and your story?
Create satisfying structure now: Start a story with structured writing prompts and grown a detailed, well-structured outline.