10 Storytelling Structures Every Writer Should Know
As writers, we need to know the plot structures we are working on. This is essential to hitting goals in our stories. Even if you use writing software to help you structure your novel, in your mind, you should know where you are going before you get there. Today, most writers write in the three-act or 5 act structure, but understanding these structures will help you better navigate your writing. Knowing a little history and other structures may help you innovate your storytelling. Knowledge is always power in writing. This page is meant to be a beginning page. It is intended to start your research, not end it. Please keep that in mind.
Other storytelling structures are being used today.
Since the earliest cave paintings and oral legends, storytelling has allowed humans to make sense of the world. Dramatic structures serve as blueprints for transforming observations of life into compelling narratives that speak to universal experiences. Over centuries of refinement, time-tested patterns have emerged, which enable stories to maximize their emotional impact. This article examines vital frameworks underlying Western and Eastern story traditions, analyzing the elements and escalating tension unique to prominent formats. From sparse single-act tales to expansive five-act epics, these foundational structures crystallize abstract ideas into resonant plots that engage audiences across cultures. Whether sculpting a perfectly-timed joke or charting an odyssey, every captivating story follows in the footsteps of these narrative templates – each seeking to transport readers into realms of imagination as timeless as the drive to tell stories itself.
The Elements of Captivating Storytelling
Since ancient times, humans have been driven to tell stories. From oral traditions to modern blockbuster franchises, specific dramatic structures prove most effective at hooking an audience. While narratives have taken endless forms over millennia, several classic patterns continue to emerge across cultures as audience favorites.
The Minimalist Approach: One-Act Structure
A story can be structured around a single arc in its simplest form. One triggering event upends the protagonist’s regular world and launches them on an emotional journey as they react to changing circumstances. Though resolved by the story’s end, the character is transformed forever by what they have endured. Many jokes follow this concise format –disrupting expectations with a sudden twist and immediately providing a cathartic resolution.
Here is the one-act story structure in bullet points:
- Setup protagonist and the status quo of their daily life
- Hint at internal dissatisfaction or unfulfilled desire
- Introduce supporting characters/settings connected to the protagonist
- An inciting incident suddenly disrupts the protagonist’s regular world
- Rapid escalation as they react to new, unstable circumstances
- A whirlwind of complicated actions, revelations, and stakes continues rising
- The protagonist chooses to reveal their authentic self
- Story channels quickly toward the final crisis point
- The climax demonstrates change within the protagonist
- No falling action moves straight into the resolution
- The protagonist’s world permanently transformed
- A glimpse at their new path forward from the ending point
Unlike multi-act structures, the one-act tightens the dramatic arc into a more compressed sequence. The backstory, subplots, and character establishment are stripped to only essentials before ramping swiftly to the climax. The solitary arc focuses wholly on pivotal inner change within the protagonist. Most jokes, short stories, and standalone folk tales utilize this concise mold.
2 Act: The Setup and Confrontation Structure
There is a two-act dramatic structure, though it is less common than the three—, four-, or five-act formats. Here is an overview:
Act I: Setup & Initiation
- Introduce the protagonist and critical supporting characters
- Establish settings, context, themes, and tone
- Provide relevant backstory where necessary
- Show the protagonist’s baseline emotional/mental state
- Inciting incident jars the protagonist into change
- They make pivotal choices, setting stakes
Act II: Crisis & Resolution
- The protagonist fully commits to a high-risk goal
- Rapidly escalating threats, dangers, revelations
- Significant deterioration of circumstances
- Temporary victories undercut by more conflict
- The final do-or-die crisis faces the protagonist
- -They draw fully on inner resolve
- Aftermath scenes address the transformation arc
- Fundamental change conveyed from Act I
The two-act structure condenses the standard three-act dramatically. The truncated mid-section jumps promptly into dangerous tensions, stacking crises and battles without much-rising action to pace the momentum. The focus stays intently on the protagonist confronting truths about themselves before emerging profoundly altered. Fewer subplots divert from this taut personal evolution.
While less prominent than other formats, the two acts still deliver an impactful, if swift, dramatic journey when done well. Certain tightly constructed stage plays, streamlined book endings, or episodes of rapid-fire adventure series sometimes follow this template.
Establishing Complexity: Three-Act Structure
Expanding in complexity: the three-act template introduces a longer rising action. The inciting “trigger” event still disrupts Act I and propels the protagonist towards a quest. But succeeding crises and escalating conflicts plague their Act II mission. More extensive character development unfolds before Act III wraps with a climax, denouement, and transformed lead better for their journey. This remains the most ubiquitous structure for novels, plays, and films today.
Here is the classic three-act story structure outlined in crucial bullet points:
Act I: The Setup
- This opening act introduces the protagonist and their world before disrupting it.
- Exposition – Establishes the status quo. Details the protagonist, supporting characters, settings, and backstory.
- Inciting Incident – An event shakes up the norm, igniting the protagonist’s journey.
- Plot Point One – The protagonist reacts, committing to a quest or goal. The stakes are set.
Act II: Confrontation
- Challenges arise as the protagonist pursues their objective. Crises escalate towards a midpoint shift.
- Rising Action – Obstacles, enemies, and revelations test the protagonist.
- Midpoint – A pivotal event alters the protagonist’s path.
- Plot Point Two – Disaster strikes, leading to the climax.
Act III: Resolution
- The protagonist perseveres through a final challenge before emerging wiser.
- Pre-Climax – Darkest moment when all seems lost.
- Climax – The protagonist confronts the conflict. Stakes are the highest.
- Denouement – With a new perspective, calm replaces chaos.
The three acts outline the dramatic arc, allowing infinite room for creative story details. Popular films, novels, and stage plays closely follow this fundamental structure. The 3 act structure is prevalent today. You see it in most movies written today.
Eastern Storytelling: Kishōtenketsu
Emerging from classical Chinese and Japanese texts: this four-act approach begins with an introduction in Act I, while Act II expands on characters and circumstances. Unlike Western structures, conflict does not drive Kishōtenketsu. Instead, Act III pivots sharply by introducing a new perspective that reframes the narrative. Act IV draws connections between the earlier setup and twists to achieve a thematic or emotional resonance. This structure prioritizes contemplation over resolution.
Here are the critical components of the four-act Kishōtenketsu narrative structure:
Act I: Introduction
- Establish protagonist and key characters
- Set the scene with necessary contextual details
- No conflict has been introduced yet
- Calm appraisal of circumstances
Act II: Development
- Additional background details, worldbuilding
- Expand understanding of relationships
- Events unfold, but no rising action yet
- Broadens perspective of status quo
Act III: Twist
- The sudden dramatic shift occurs
- A new character/situation disrupts assumptions
- Functions as the core climax
- There is no direct conflict per se, but complication
Act IV: Reconciliation
- Reflects on meanings and connections
- Links set up to the twist thematically
- Resonance derived from parallels drawn
- New understanding instead of resolution
Rather than confrontations or crises driving the narrative forward, the Kishōtenketsu structure pivots wholly on the revelatory twist in Act III that reframes what preceded it. Act IV draws out the emotional and philosophical impact.
The Extended Structure: Five Act Format
An expanded version of three-act storytelling, the five-act mold further elongates plot escalation. Exposition and character establishment last longer in Act I, rising crises stack higher in Act II, and more time focuses on the consequences of the climax across Acts IV and V. This slower build allows more significant investment in relationships and more multifaceted exploration before the final outcome. Many serialized novels and epics employ this dramatic rhythm.
Examining diverse narrative structures reveals common threads and stark differences underpinning cultural storytelling traditions. Nonetheless, compressed or expansive, formulaic or avant-garde, the most compelling stories over millennia all serve a singular purpose: transporting audiences into inspired new realms of imagination.
Here is the five-act story structure in crucial details:
Act I: Exposition
- Set up the protagonist, world, and supporting characters
- Establish background context, settings
- Multiple scenes furthering audience familiarity
- Initial hints of flaws or discontent in the protagonist
- Inciting incident induces curiosity/concern
Act II: Rising Action
- The protagonist commits to the quest, seeking answers
- Scenes reveal additional dimensions of characters
- Subplots introduced, interweaving with the main arc
- Gathering obstacles, enemies, escalating threats
- Ends on a significant revelation or crisis moment
Act III: Climax
- Darkest moment when all seems lost for the protagonist
- Supporting characters play a pivotal role
- Protagonist finds inner resolve
- The climax confrontation with critical stakes
Act IV: Falling Action
- The outcome of the climax carries consequences
- No more danger, but uncertainty lingers
- Confusion or power vacuum in the wake of crisis
- Resolution settles some conflicts, but not all
Act V: Denouement
- Connects the journey from Act I to transformation
- Revelations, reflections, and glimpses of the future
- Loose ends tied, tension dissipates
- The protagonist sees the world and self anew
- It ends with symbolic hope
The Hero’s Journey
One famous storytelling structure filmmakers and writers are using today is The Hero’s Journey. This is a structure based on Joseph Cambell’s research into mythology. It rose to fame in Star Wars when George Lucus. The structure varies in many ways, but this is one popular version of it:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusing the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Entering the Belly of the Whale: Symbolizes the hero crossing the threshold; no going back now
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Revelation and Discovery: Learning a vital secret or truth
- The River of Nightmares: A hellish experience the hero must endure
- Atonement with the Shadow: Facing the darkest parts of themselves
- The Ultimate Boon and Gift: The treasure the hero wins after all the conflict
- The Road Back and Resurrection
- Return with the Elixir
So, in this more contemporary version, the hero faces inward for self-discovery in addition to external obstacles. They wrestle with personal demons during the journey, leading to a more profound transformation before they return home to share what they have gained with society.
Save the Cat Beats
Proposed by author Blake Snyder, this famous 15-beat template guides the protagonist’s emotional transformation. After the opening image of the status quo, the inciting incident catalyzes the journey at the 1/8 mark. Fun and games ensue until a dramatic midpoint. Mounting crises pressure the protagonist into an “all is lost” disaster. They rally for a climactic resolution, emerging transformed in the finale that parallels the opening balance. This prescriptive mold emphasizes the inner character arc enhanced by mythic archetypes and timed turning points for commercial appeal. Snyder focused on redeeming flawed protagonists with crowd-pleasing story beats to “save the cat” and win over audiences through calculated pathos and redemption.
Here is the Save the Cat story structure in key story beats:
- Opening Image – First impression of the protagonist’s status quo world
- Theme Stated – Early hint establishing the story’s central theme
- Setup – Background context before a disruption occurs
- Catalyst – The inciting incident that launches the journey
- Debate – The protagonist reacts, weighing whether to engage
- Break Into Act 2 – They commit to the central quest.
- B Story – Introduction of relationship subplot
- Fun and Games – Low-stake adventures early in the quest
- Midpoint – Major event that raises obstacles ahead
- Bad Guys Close In – Mounting threats pressure the protagonist.
- All is Lost – A crisis where the protagonist seems beyond hope.
- Dark Night of the Soul – The protagonist hits emotional rock bottom
- Break Into Act 3 – They rally strength for the final push.
- Finale – Last stand as protagonist faces innermost conflict
- Final Image – Concluding glimpse of the future transformation
- The Save the Cat beat sheet draws extensively on mythic archetypes while tracking essential turning points in the protagonist’s inner and outer journeys.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a famous narrative structure for TV and film, using an 8-step circle harmonizing the external plot and internal character arc.
- A Character is in a Zone of Comfort
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation.
- Adapt to it
- Get what they wanted.
- Pay a Heavy Price
- Return to their familiar situation.
- Having Changed
In step 1, we’re introduced to the protagonist’s status quo. By step 2, we know their conscious and unconscious desires. Steps 3-5 take them on a journey to achieve their goal, but it comes at a cost in step 6. Finally, in 7 and 8, they return home as a changed person, completing the circle narrative.
The circular shape illustrates the cyclical nature of change while tracking the protagonist leaving and returning to equilibrium. The internal and external journeys run in parallel, with the emotional payoff coming after the integration of learning. This structure has been used extensively for TV shows where the cyclic format allows episodic storytelling combined with ongoing character growth.
For scribes across all mediums, understanding dramatic architecture empowers our narratives to stand tall. While creative spark ignites stories, the structure gives them strength. Experimenting within flexible frameworks nurtures originality; blueprinting innovation needs rooms left open. So be fluent in predominant patterns, recognizing which structures suit your content best. Absorb enduring traditions before daring unentered literary lands. Whether chiseling ideas into established templates or cutting new fiction frontiers entirely, hold fast to what lasts: make each escalating action count and guide readers deeply inward. If well-built, our visions will endure. Sturdy scaffolds uphold skyscrapers; resilient skeletons allow bodies to dance. Model time-honored structures before leaping beyond them, and your bold new stories may reshape the literary landscape. When the last word lands, a power beyond formulations awakens – where skillful writing transports all willing into wisdom’s most expansive vistas.
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