DOG-EARED CORNER - 1.2: Narrative Structures
In the previous post, we took a minute to define what exactly makes up a story. Literally. Breaking Story down into its fundamental components. We then used these to build it back up again.
Today we’re going to look at narrative structures. We’ll explore classical structures you’re probably familiar with, some which maybe you haven’t seen; then finally, end off with how I personally tend to structure my narratives.
So let’s jump in!
If you do an image search on the phrase, “plot structure,” or especially, “classical plot structure,” you’ll find yourself looking at a few million variations of this:
This is called Freytag’s Pyramid, named for the 19th Century German novelist who developed it. The diagram illustrates the narrative’s development of suspense, interest and tension in the plot (Y-axis) over the course of the story (X-axis).
As you can see the structure begins with something of an infodump (Exposition) where characters and contexts are introduced to set up future events. The Who, What, Where, When and Why are established.
An interruption in the status-quo leads the protagonist into a series of conflicts which grow larger and more challenging as they develop (Rising Action). The key here is that the stakes must get higher and higher.
These escalations peak with a turning point (Climax) in which the protagonist faces their greatest challenge and the path of their fate is altered. Often reversed. Such reversals commonly result from a specific decision or particular personality trait.
From there our conflicts and arcs tend to come to their natural conclusions (Falling Action). This likely involves a final moment of tension where the protagonist achieves their goal or overcomes an antagonist (or fails to do either).
Finally, the plot flattens into a resolution (Dénouement). Here, loose ends are tied up, themes may be reinforced, and the reader is allowed a moment to take a breath before stepping out of the story.
At a glance, I see two things wrong with this structure:
Climax in the Middle - Tension and suspense are HUGE elements of a good story. Both of these come from uncertainty. If the most important event occurs in the middle of the narrative, they will drop through the remainder. Your reader loses interest.
Falling Action - All conflicts should resist being resolved. If resolution coincides with shrinking stakes (due to increased certainty about the outcome after the climax), this will not be the case.
It’s just a really weird structure, and I can’t actually think of a lot of narratives (even classical ones) that adhere to it.
The Modified Pyramid / Freytag’s Ramp
(I don’t know what this is actually called, or if it even has a name, but it transposes the spirit of Freytag’s Pyramid onto a structure that actually applies to most narratives.)
As you see, we’ve moved the Climax to the end of the narrative (where it belongs!) and dispensed with most if not all of the falling action. Any conflicts remaining after the highest point of tension are quickly resolved, leading straight into a Dénouement.
You’ll recall with the Pyramid, the Climax’s reversal often results from a decision made by the protagonist. While the Ramp may also follow this pattern, we can in fact move this decision to just before the Climax. The protagonist’s world suddenly falls apart, and whatever the decision is, it’s the only thing that enables them to move forward. We call this the Crisis. Including such a turn in the narrative heightens the drama as we move into the Climax.
So, this structure is better. You can use it to map narrative of pretty much every story. But it’s still not great. Because … how does it help us as writers? How do we know if the action is rising? How do we make it rise? How do we engineer a Crisis?
To answer these questions we’re going to have to change focus.
(Not to be confused with The Hero’s Journey which I’ll briefly get into at the end.)
Like the others, The Quest illustrates our narrative’s forward progression through the story (X-axis). Instead of varying on action, however, we now rise and fall as either the protagonist gets closer to, or further away from their Goal. The Goal itself can change over the course of the story, but whatever it is, it should not be achieved until the end.
As before, the story begins flat. The Goal does not yet exist and life is as it’s always been. It is the first turn in this line, the Inciting Incident, that interrupts the status quo and sets the protagonist toward their goal.
People (not just characters in stories but real-life, living people) always tend take the path of least effort—and least risk—in achieving a goal. (Even when their goal is to make everything as convoluted and difficult for themself as possible.) In a perfect world everyone’s journey would look like this:
But life is filled with obstacles, and good stories doubly so. Each obstacle forces your character to take a longer path to achieve their Goal. These are points of conflict and they should drive the protagonist further and further from their Goal. As the narrative progresses, the path gets more difficult. Requiring more effort and more risk.
If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s another way to describe Rising Action. Only now we can see the WHY and the HOW of it.
The Quest is often laid out in a three-act format. (It can be more or fewer, but three seems to be an effective number.) An act is a climaxing structural arc (encompassing multiple, if not all, plot lines through a section of the narrative).
In a three-act story, the (least important) First Act Climax occurs early on and exists solely to keep the narrative interesting. It often coincides with the Inciting Incident. But it doesn’t have to.
The Second Act Climax (AKA Secondary Climax) typically acts as the Crisis. It may be an obstacle so big your protagonist can’t imagine overcoming it. It may be that the conflict has suddenly become personal. Or maybe they just find themself in a really tight spot. Whatever the Crisis, this is the point where your character must find a way to overcome. Coming to a decision, devising a plan, finding enlightenment or learning the power was inside them all along. Whatever the solution, this is your protagonist’s moment of truth.
Finally, we come to the Third Act Climax (AKA the Climax). This is a turn that acts as the Climax to the whole story. No different than in previous structures: Highest point of tension. Highest stakes. Greatest challenge. Resulting in the protagonist achieving their goal.
(NOTE: In tragedies this structure may flip. The Secondary Climax has your character on the verge of achieving their goal but they make a fatal decision (or plan etc.) that leads to a tragic downfall in the Climax.)
As with Freytag’s Ramp, The Quest is not too concerned with Falling Action and we slip as seamlessly as possible into a Dénouement.
Now that is a structure I can get behind…
It’s still not quite right. Not for me at least. Because not every Climax I write wants to go from bad to good. Or good to bad. Nor do they in many of the stories I’ve read or watched. The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, gives us negative-negative. So does The Fellowship of the Ring. A New Hope is positive-positive. As is The Hunger Games.
Even my novel, ICARUS, doubles down like this!
But since the contrast between Crisis and Climax is so essential to the structure of The Quest, we’re going to have to come up with something entirely different for what I’m now describing.
Actually, this structure is pretty similar to the previous. The difference is that the Secondary Climax is no longer limited to being just a Crisis. Now it’s an end to the original narrative. It could be the protagonist achieving their goal, failing to achieve it, or even giving up. And after that we get the final Climax which is a narrative all its own. A whole new one, though it seems inevitable in the eyes of the reader.
Using the examples from before:
Luke and Han rescue the Leia and they escape with the plans … only to have their ship tracked and be forced into a battle against the Death Star. (Positive-positive)
Gandalf dies in battle, leaving the Fellowship leaderless … Now suddenly it’s not external enemies but those within the Fellowship itself that threaten to take the ring. (Negative-negative)
Katniss and Peeta beat all their opponents and finish the games together … only for the rule-change to be revoked forcing them to defeat the game makers themselves to survive. (Positive-positive)
Han is frozen in carbonite while Leia and Chewie are forced to watch … In a misguided attempt to rescue them, Luke faces Vader and learns the horrible truth about his heritage. (Negative-negative)
(I picked these examples because most people will know them, but I certainly could go on.)
What’s great about the Two Quests structure (to which I subscribe) is that the Secondary Climax can be a Crisis (which remains a powerful narrative technique), but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s important to remember that this second narrative must attach seamlessly to the end of the first, with a new goal and higher stakes that have developed through its run.
(For an example of the Two Quest narrative have a look at my supplementary breakdown of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.)
To recape the structures we looked at are:
There are, of course, countless other structures. Shorter stories, for example, may have only one major turn. What’s important is to gain a good understanding (or just a good feel) for how different structures will affect your readers. If you can master this, your narratives will be emotional roller coasters that leave your readers breathless.
The Goal for which your protagonist is striving need not be a concrete, cut-and-dried achievement. It can be; it can be as overt as a post in the ground at the end of a footrace with a big sign that says “GOAL” on it. But it can also be subtle. Abstract. It could be coping with the death of a terminal loved one, putting their childhood behind them, or conversely, renewing the childhood they’ve lost. The reader need not even recognize it as a goal. But you should. The Goal is the WHY of your story. Important to remember. Useful in structuring.
I am not suggesting in this post that diagrams like the ones above should actually be drawn out while plotting a story. These are just illustrations I found useful to deliver the concepts. For most writers plotting tends to be a mite more organic (and a lot more personal), and adhering too close to any one formula will likely hinder your work. (I’ll do a post on plotting later on. Promise.)
I mentioned above that I’d briefly get into The Hero’s Journey. Here goes: Your narrative’s a circle, beginning with the protagonist being pulled from their daily life (Call to Adventure). They go through trials, there’s a rebirth, atonement is made, and finally they return home, wiser and worldlier than before. (Basically, it’s The Hobbit.)
I didn’t include this structure in my list because, 1) while the ones we went through could be said to be of the same structural family, Hero’s Journey is a different thing altogether, so it doesn’t really fit in with what I wanted to talk about. 2) I don’t like it. Rather than a map of the narrative itself, it’s a very specific series of events said to exist in all stories. Which they don’t. So there you go.