Thoughts on Story Structure

Having trouble structuring your story?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a no single formula to follow that created great stories every time? Of course such a formula doesn’t exist, but great stories do share some common characteristics.

In most interesting stories, elements of tension are revealed and a character in the story is forced to grapple with that tension. There has to be something at stake for the narrator or main characters and/or the reader, and the writer has to help the reader into the story and help him/her care about the struggle presented. It’s best if you can introduce that tension early on so that the reader knows the purpose and gains investment early.

The conflict in a story, however, doesn’t have to be major. It can even be an internal conflict or a small, nagging annoyance that guides a character’s actions.

You’ve probably heard the term “narrative arc.” This is a fancy way of describing the most basic story structure that can serve as a starting point when thinking about your own story’s structure. If you use Google to find images of a narrative arc, you’ll come across many diagrams that look like similar to this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 8.30.23 PM

Writer’s Digest shares one perspective on creating a narrative arc here by introducing the concepts of beginning, middle, and end and what each part of a story must effectively do to be successful.

Of course, experimental writers often push back on the idea that a story needs a traditional narrative arc. Reading collage essays may help you get ideas for structure and jumping off points that can inspire a less linear story structure.

In any case, the structure should serve to connect the reader with the story and motivate him/her to continue reading/viewing your work from beginning to end, while staying true to your own vision.

Whew. That is a lot to accomplish. It might help to create a story board for your in-progress work to see an X-ray of the structure or experiment with a variety of approaches to sequencing your work.


About npiasecki

Instructor of Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver, specializing in 21st century skills, research, and creative nonfiction. Director of the Denver Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project's professional network for K through College educators.
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