The Basic Framework For A Good Story
Cover Credit: Lucasfilm/Disney
Crafting a story from scratch can be difficult, but it can be easier once you know the classical formulas.
When you sit down in front of your computer ready to write the next best screenplay the world has ever seen, the first word can be the hardest part. You may have the beginning and end solidified in your head, but how your protagonist gets from point A to point B is completely lost on you. Maybe you want their arm to get eaten by an alligator in the middle of the script, but how does the alligator get there if your story is set in post-apocalyptic Maine?
These are the same problems that writers have been facing since the beginning of storytelling. Thankfully, we’ve got the help of myth and story scholars such as Joseph Campbell and even “Rick and Morty” creator Dan Harmon that have created helpful guidelines and motifs that almost all western stories have followed since “The Odyssey”. Let’s dive into 6 of the most popular story structures to help you create a solid framework for your next masterpiece.
Three Act Structure
The basis of most western stories and the simplest of them all, the three act structure divides your story into 3 separate parts that influence each other. You will see this story structure in classics such as “The Odyssey” and “Beowolf”.
Act 1: The Set-Up
The beginning of the Three Act Structure starts with something called the “Inciting Incident”. This is what brings the hero from their comfort zone and starts them off on their adventure, leading them to a new world that they are yet to explore. They then face their first challenge or accept their quest, introducing Plot Point 1.
Act 2: The Confrontation
Once your character’s challenges and stakes become more clear, they explore their new world and face their first encounters with friends, meet new enemies, and face small challenges in the Rising Action. This then leads to the Midpoint, where an event puts an obstacle between the protagonist and their quest. In the trial to overcome this obstacle, the protagonist usually fails, stemming doubt in their mind if they could succeed or not. This introduces Plot Point 2.
Act 3: The Resolution
While the protagonist feels that all hope is lost after Plot Point 2, they must muster the courage to continue in the Pre-Climax. This is usually where there is a rousing speech by one of the secondary characters to get the hero back on their feet. This leads to the Climax, where the hero finally faces off against the antagonist of the story. After victory, the new status quo of their world and the consequences of their actions become real in the Denoument.
The Hero’s Journey
The story structure originally conceived by Joseph Cambell’s concept of the “monomyth”, or storytelling patterns that have been found in different cultures across the world, the Hero’s Journey is a more detailed 12-step form of the Three Act Structure. You will see this structure in classic movies and books, primarily in the sci-fi/fantasy world, such as “Star Wars”, “Dune” and “The Hobbit”.
- The Ordinary World. We are introduced to the hero, who is typically an “ordinary” person that is about to be dashed into the extraordinary.
- The Call of Adventure. The hero is called into action, whether it being an inciting incident or a “chosen one” type revelation.
- Refusal of the Call. The hero denies accepting the challenge, whether it being they don’t believe they are the one for this challenge, or they don’t think they have the strength to complete it.
- Meeting the Mentor. The hero meets a figure (whether it be a wizard, a long lost uncle, or a wise elder) who prepares them for their journey and convinces them to accept the quest. Think of Luke Skywalker meeting Obi-Wan for the first time.
- Crossing the First Threshold. The hero leaves their old world that they once knew and crosses into uncharted territory.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies. The hero comes face to face with their first challenges, comes to find who their antagonist is, and has new allies come to their side to join their quest. The Council of Elrond scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a good example of this.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave. The hero begins to get close to their goal, whether it be in location or completing quests.
- The Ordeal. The hero finally faces their greatest challenge, and most likely overcomes it. Typically, it’s not the climax of the story, but where the hero has their most steep character arc.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword). The hero overcomes their obstacle, and receives their reward. Usually, this reward has consequences attached to it. Regardless of the reward, the hero nears the end of their character arc and transformation.
- The Road Back. As the hero thinks that they have finally reached the end of their quest, they learn that there is still one more obstacle to overcome.
- The Resurrection. This is the final climax of the story. The hero faces the final challenge, and they have to use everything they have learned in their quest to defeat the final evil.
- Return with the Elixir. The hero defeats the final evil, and returns back to the ordinary world. They return as a different person, changed by their journey for better or worse.
Freytag’s Pyramid is the framework for most classical tragedies, such as Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. There is usually no happy ending with stories using Freytag’s Pyramid as their structure, but there’s always a lesson to be learned.
- Introduction. We are introduced to the characters, and the status quo of the world is established. An inciting incident strikes the match of the story.
- Rising Action. The protagonist tries to pursue their goal, and they begin to face their first challenges as the stakes rise.
- Climax. At the tip of the Freytag’s pyramid, the protagonist can no longer return to their status quo. They have gone too far to return to normal.
- Return/Fall. After the protagonist faces their climax, tension begins to grow and a greater threat leads them closer to doom.
- Catastrophe. The protagonist finally realizes that their greatest fear or a dire prophecy has become true, usually by their own hand without them knowing. They are brought to a new low, and a lesson is learned either in death or destruction of their lives.
The 7 Point Story Structure
The 7 Point Story Structure, coined by author Dan Wells, is a story structure that is meant to be written from end to beginning. It focuses on what the writer wants the protagonist to face and learn in the end, then working your way backwards to create an interesting story to the beginning that contrasts the end.
- The Hook. This will be where the character starts, and where the writer will draw in a reader or viewer with an interesting premise. The beginning should be opposite of the ending, creating a dichotomy between the two.
- Plot Point 1. Where the inciting incident sends the character on a new journey or introduces a new obstacle they must overcome by the end - setting the plot into motion.
- Pinch Point 1. The point in the story where pressure is applied to the protagonist, whether it be introducing the antagonist or making them solve a unique problem.
- Midpoint. The place in the story where the protagonists accepts their duty in this new world, and become an active participant in their quest to defeat the antagonist.
- Pinch Point 2. This is where the protagonist takes their deepest dive into failure or depravity due to a knocking blow to their progression through death of a loved one, failure, or a small antagonist victory.
- Plot Point 2. After the protagonist heals from the second pinch point, they come back with a vengeance and learn that the key to completing their quest has been with them the whole time.
- Resolution. The protagonist completes their quest or resolves their conflict, and has their final character arc that changes them from the person they were at the beginning of the story to who they are now.
Fichtean Curve (In Media Res)
Coined by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction”, the Fichtean curve encourages high amounts of crises and tribulations that are faced by the protagonist that eventually lead into a final climax that the protagonist must endure. It’s primarily used in mystery novels and noir films due to it’s engaging nature employed by multiple mini-climaxes.
In Media Res - The Beginning
The story begins In Media Res, or “in the middle of things”. We begin with the main character in the middle of a crisis right off the bat, like a detective coming across a strange crime scene or a person on the run from the authorities.
The Multiple Crises & Climax
After we are introduced to the world that the character is set in and their first crisis is enabled in the beginning, the character will face a series of mini-crises along the way to the final climax. This could be a detective finding clues about a murder or running into the antagonist that is actively preventing the main character from finding the truth. The final climax is where the main character unveils the main truth they have been seeking, or comes face to face with the power that has been chasing them.
Once the character faces their final climax, they are spat into a world where the truth has been revealed and the loose ends of the story are wrapped back up.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
An example of the Story Circle from Rick and Morty. Credit: Reedsy Blogs
Dan Harmon, the creator of the NBC show “Community” and the co-creator of “Rick and Morty”, developed his own story structure to employ in his own creations. It’s heavily inspired by the Hero’s Journey, although it focuses on character development compared to a lesson learned through the overarching story. The beats in this structure are driven by the characters wants and needs instead of the story directing the characters actions.
- You — A character is in a zone of comfort. The character is in their status quo, and everything seems to be normal, until...
- Need — But they want something. They long for something more in their lives, and want to venture out and achieve it.
- Go — They enter an unfamiliar situation. To achieve their goals, they must enter a new environment and do something new.
- Search — Adapt to it. They face challenges and adapt in the face of strife to achieve their goals.
- Find — Get what they wanted. They think they have achieved their goal, but it usually is not fulfilling to the character.
- Take — Pay a heavy price for it. They what they wanted, but usually this isn’t what they “needed”.
- Return — Then return to their familiar situation. They return back to their status-quo with their new-found knowledge.
- Change — Having changed. They have been transformed by the quest, for better or worse.
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