By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)
For a long time, I’ve known that a good story is just as important as good writing. Or possibly more important. But what makes a good story? In search of what makes a good story good, I took an online class that focused on story structure and development. I found that just as good writing has some basic rules that writers should be aware of, good stories have a standard structure.
Most writers know that stories need a good plot. Plot is the sequence of physical events. Aristotle proposed a basic plot structure that should be present in a good story: the inciting event, the complications, the climax, the dénouement, and the resolution. Writers depending solely on Aristotle’s incline, however, risk missing half of what makes a story a good story.
Also critical to a good story is the emotional journey undertaken by the character. This journey is usually defined by the protagonist’s character flaw. And like plot, the emotional journey also has its defining moments. There is the backstory, where we are introduced to the protagonist, the crisis, where the protagonist’s main flaw sends the protagonist into inner turmoil, and the epiphany, where the protagonist confronts the flaw head on and either overcomes it or fails to overcome it. A story in which the protagonist fails to overcome the flaw is a tragedy.
The plot and the emotional journey do not work in isolation. Events drive the character, and the character’s emotional reactions drive events. The plot sequence meshes with the emotional journey sequence to form a solid story. A well-structured story will contain the following checkpoints, in order:
- The Hook:
Start the story with an exciting introductory action to draw the reader in.
- The Backstory:
Introduce the main characters and reveal the protagonist’s flaw (through action, not exposition!).
- The Inciting Event, or Trigger:
This is the defining event that starts the protagonist on both the emotional and physical journey. This event is generally instigated either directly or indirectly by the antagonist, the person or force acting against the protagonist.
- The Crisis:
The crisis is an inner moment of emotional turmoil caused by the triggering event and the protagonist’s flaw.
- The Complication, or Struggle:
The physical action that occurs as a result of the triggering event and the crisis is driven by external events and the character flaw. The action is mostly directed by the antagonist.
- The Epiphany:
This is the inner moment when the protagonist realizes he or she needs to change, and makes the conscious decision to overcome the character flaw.
- The Plan:
The protagonist has confronted the flaw, and can now move in a new direction. This ends the struggle, and allows the protagonist to find a potential solution to the main problem confronting him or her.
- The Climax:
The protagonist confronts the antagonist. The insight from the epiphany allows the protagonist to use the antagonist’s own character flaw against the antagonist. Whether protagonists ultimately triumph or fail in a climax depends on whether or not they were able to overcome their own character flaws.
- The Ending, or Resolution:
The effects of the climax are shown, and both the emotional journey and the plot are brought to a satisfying conclusion.
These acts are structure points, not space guidelines. They are not each meant to be one third of the story. Writers can spend varying amounts of time on each act. An act and a checkpoint should only be as long as they need to be.
In one story, Act 1 might be a paragraph, while in another, it might be several chapters. The crisis could be several paragraphs, or it could be a single sentence.
For most stories, the bulk of the writing will probably be in Act 2, with the struggles. The struggles should escalate until the character reaches the epiphany.
Act 3 is often short as well. Generally, you don’t want the plan to drag out. Once the character has reached the epiphany, things start to move quickly toward the climax, and then quickly from the climax to the end.
Putting it In Action
Let’s see how this structure works for one of the more popular stories of our time: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here’s one way to break the story down into its checkpoints. (Disclaimer: These checkpoints are my interpretation of the story after the fact and may or may not agree with anything J.K. Rowling has thought about.)
Act 1 (3½ chapters)
The wizarding world is celebrating the defeat of the evil Lord Voldemort, and the infant Harry is left on the doorstep of his aunt’s house.
Harry is bullied by his family, particularly his cousin. Also, strange things happen around him that make his aunt and uncle very angry. He is unsure of himself.
Hagrid the giant reveals that Harry is the son of a wizard and a witch, and that he is to go to Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Harry’s Aunt Petunia accidentally reveals she’s known his past all along.
Act 2 (8½ chapters)
Harry is shocked to find out the truth about his parents. He struggles to reconcile people’s expectations of him because of his past, and his own self-doubt and confused identity.
Harry tries to find his place in the wizarding world. Mysterious events related to the Sorcerer’s stone occur, each one more dangerous than the last. Eventually Harry finds the Mirror of Erisid, which shows him his parents, and he becomes caught up in the identity he never had.
When he is caught at the Mirror or Erised by Dumbledore, Harry eventually realizes he has to learn to depend on himself and be who he is rather than the person he never was.
Act 3 (4 chapters)
Harry and his friends find out that Voldemort is back and is trying to steal the sorcerer’s stone. When they can’t find Dumbledore, they resolve to save the sorcerer’s stone themselves.
Harry and his friends navigate a series of magical challenges. At the end, Harry must leave his friends behind to face Voldemort by himself. Voldemort, who has possessed one of the teachers, tries to kill Harry, but touching Harry sends him into agony, and Harry defeats him simply by being who he is.
Harry becomes a hero to the school, and shows that he will not be as easily bullied when he returns home. This highlights his new-found confidence in himself.
Viewed through this structure, the story hangs together. There is a strong theme of accepting yourself for who you are that becomes apparent when you look at the different checkpoints. Notice, too, how the checkpoints related to Harry’s flaw of self-doubt about his identity. A lot of Harry’s struggles are directly related to his self-doubt and how it affects his interactions with the external events perpetrated by Lord Voldemort and his minions. He ultimately realizes his lack of identity (as represented by his parents) is fueling this self-doubt and that he must learn to accept himself as he is. And it is because of who he is that he is able to win in the end.
A Backbone, Not a Ball and Chain
I’ve heard people complain that using a story structure like this takes the creativity out of writing, and makes all stories sound the same. But the structure is actually very flexible, and not all checkpoints must have equal weight. For example, an action-adventure story would focus more heavily on the plot checkpoints than on the character’s emotional journey checkpoints, while a work of literary fiction would focus more heavily on the emotional journey checkpoints. The amount of time spent in each checkpoint can also vary widely.
Remember: This structure is the backbone of your story, not the flesh, and not chains wrapped around the flesh. Use the checkpoints to shape your story, not as your story. It should be deeply embedded in your writing rather than brought to the surface and made obvious. The emotional journey checkpoints should evolve naturally from the character flaw and plot checkpoints. When you plan for this to happen, your story is stronger and more satisfying.