In storytelling for fiction writers, especially in the early stages of story development, there's much talk about story structure.
Story structure is the framework around your literary jigsaw puzzle, the order into which you organize the events in your story to create a beginning, middle, and end.
And there are lots of options for choosing a story structure that works well for you. So let's talk about some common story structures you may encounter while researching storytelling techniques. Then, I'll let you in on a big secret.
Let's get to it.
Pixar's Story Spine
If you grew up with Pixar movies or have watched a Pixar movie with your kids, you'll recognize this story structure pretty quickly. Here's the method:
Once upon a time (set up the "before")
Every day (detail the hero's daily routine)
But one day (something changes and forces the hero off their routine)
Because of that (the hero tries, fails, and tries again to get back on track)
Until finally (reach the climax, resolve the plot, the hero wins)
And ever since (share the "after" image)
Pixar's Story Spine works well, especially if you're still working through your major story concept, because it forces you to get from the beginning to the end to actually write the spine.
If you follow this exercise, you'll end up with a summary paragraph of your entire story, which is pretty neat.
Who doesn't like some drama, eh? Freytag's Pyramid is a story structure designed around drama and tragedy. And while novelist Gustav Freytag developed the pyramid in the 19th century, Freytag's Pyramid is a name given to a five-act story structure that has been around for millennia. Seriously. All the way back to Chaucer and before.
And you'll probably recognize it from a high school English class:
You can use Freytag's Pyramid to outline your story from beginning to end, which is helpful when you need to write a synopsis. (And if you're stuck in your writing, writing a synopsis can help get you unstuck.)
The Fichtean Curve
The Fichtean curve encourages you to get to the action right away and skips over the exposition that front-loads many stories. But readers still get that exposition. It's just peppered into the narrative between events.
If you're familiar with the "what if" method of storytelling in which you put your hero in a predicament and then continue the story with a series of "what if" events, you've basically come to the Fichtean curve in a roundabout way.
Because of the focus on action, many novels follow a Fichtean Curve model, including science fiction stories and thrillers.
The Hero's Journey
The Hero's Journey is well-known to novelists who champion the good guys. I mean, who doesn't love a true hero (or anti-hero)?
The hero's journey dates back centuries in literature and mythology and has helped countless writers create compelling stories based on transformative journeys.
From well-known sagas like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, to cinematic masterpieces from E.T. to Rocky, the hero's journey celebrates the trials and triumphs of the human condition when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
The 7-Point Structure
The 7-Point Structure is another well-known storytelling method and includes, you guessed it, seven points. It starts with a hook, has plot and pinch points to make up the middle, and ends with the resolution.
If you read my post on Storytelling 101, this will be familiar to you. It closely resembles Freytag's Pyramid but adds titles for two more of the vertices connecting story parts.
Harmon's Story Circle
What I appreciate most about Harmon's story circle is that, like the hero's journey, it celebrates the cyclical nature of change and growth and doesn't include the pressure (or of being heroic.
Harmon's Story Circle is adaptable for real people in real situations and is widely used, even when authors don't realize they're using it.
Save the Cat! Beat Sheet
For those interested in movies and screenplay writing, Save the Cat! is a familiar bookshelf favorite. And Jessica Brody took Blake Snyder's screenplay writing playbook and adapted it for novels in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.
The Save the Cat! beat sheet outlines specific scenes, or sets of scenes, to hit as you write your novel.
When it comes to constructing a story from the bottom up, using the Save the Cat! method may save you both time and frustration because it takes the guess work out of knowing what goes where.
Now, are you ready for the secret?
The Story Structure Secret
As you read through this article, you probably noted some differences and similarities between these seven structure methods.
But you know what?
They all fit within the three-act structure. Every single one of them.
The various parts of any one story structure may use different language. Some include more detail than others. But most stories follow the three-act structure even if you don't realize it.
The three-act structure is the base on which most stories structures are constructed.
If you're worried about getting story structure right, don't waste energy determining whether you have all the elements of any specific structure.
Instead, ask yourself these two questions:
Does my story have a beginning, a middle, and an end?
Does my story have a catalyst, a midpoint, and a climax?
If the answers to both are 'yes,' you have a story, even if that story is unrefined.
If the answer to either question is 'no,' you don't have a story.
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