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Writing

How to Structure a Story: Understanding Narrative Structure

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

From origin stories to folktales to supernatural mythology, well-told narratives have been passed down across cultures and generations. In today’s world, we’re most familiar with storytelling in one of four forms: spoken stories, novels (or short stories), live theater, and filmed entertainment. In all forms of media, the stories that stand the test of time are those with strong, compelling narrative structure.

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Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short StoryJoyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story

Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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What Is Narrative Structure?

Narrative structure—which is also known as story structure, storyline or plotline—is the organizational framework of a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When all three of these story sections are individually compelling yet also work well in concert with each other, narratives can be smooth and compelling.

5 Types of Narrative Structure

Over time, novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters have developed specific ways to frame a narrative. These narrative techniques vary in how they present a sequence of events, but each framework has proven to be a useful tool for writers who employ it. Here are five particularly powerful templates for a story’s plot structure:

  1. Linear Plot Structure: In a book, play, movie, or TV episode with a linear plot structure, events are presented in chronological order. This doesn’t mean characters can’t recall the past—for instance, the main character might go through a flashback—but any non-chronological elements are clearly identified as such. The majority of books, plays, films, and TV shows use a linear plot structure. Writers like Dan Brown and Margaret Atwood use linear plots to great effect.
  2. Nonlinear Plot Structure: In this story structure, plot events will be introduced outside their chronological sequence. The first scene of a nonlinear book or movie might actually be the last thing that happens chronologically. Stories told out of order can confuse an audience at first, but they can be quite rewarding when the story reaches its denouement, and plot threads are tied together. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a famously nonlinear story. Writers like Joyce Carol Oates and William Faulkner are similarly acclaimed for nonlinear narratives.
  3. Parallel Plot Structure: In a parallel plot structure, multiple storylines unfold concurrently. Sometimes they intersect—such as in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities—and sometimes they do not—such as in Nathaniel Rich’s The Mayor’s Tongue.
  4. Circular Plot Structure: In this structure, the story ends where it began, as events eventually lead back to the imagery, event, or actual scene that begins the tale. Circular plot structures exist in all levels of writing, from Cynthia Rylant’s Long Night Moon to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
  5. Interactive Plot Structure: In an interactive plot structure, the story adjusts to the whims of the reader or viewer. One such example is the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books, where readers experience varying storylines depending on which page they turn to.
Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story
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4 Things to Consider When Creating a Narrative Structure

Few writers plan their story or screenplay around a narrative structure. Rather they consider other elements first, and they only settle on a plot structure after answering several key questions.

  1. What is the protagonist’s character arc? Think about what change you want your protagonist to undergo, and what series of events will make that change possible. Most readers and viewers care foremost about character development; this element needs to be strong before you get to the mechanics of how your story will be told.
  2. Is the narrator in the first person or third person? Narrating in the third person tends to provide authors with greater flexibility. It allows a degree of omniscience that makes parallel, circular, and nonlinear narratives possible. If you strongly feel your story must be told in the first person, it’s usually safest to go with a linear story structure—but remember you can still use flashbacks and plenty of inner monologue. Learn more about different narrative points of view in our guide here.
  3. What are the major events in the story? Identify what will be your starting point, your inciting incident, your rising action, your turning points, your climax, your falling action, and your final resolution. Each of these parts of narrative will function as touchpoints that anchor your story. Ask yourself whether they could exist in a nontraditional story structure. If the answer is yes, consider embarking on some nonlinear storytelling. If you do it right, it can help your novel or script stand out among its competition.
  4. How many perspectives are featured? Sometimes a good story is best told through multiple points of view. Viewing a sequence of events through the eyes of different characters creates a dense tapestry to engage the reader. William Faulkner famously does this in nonlinear novels like As I Lay Dying. Parallel structure also helps showcase multiple perspectives.

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3 Tips for How to Build a Narrative Structure

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Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.

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Once you’ve answered some key questions about your characters, your primary story, and perhaps a subplot or two, you’re ready to commit the entire story into a fixed narrative structure. Here are some constructive ways to do that.

  1. Organize your narrative into a three act structure. Stories can be divided into any number of acts, but three acts is fairly standard. (If you’re writing a half-hour TV script, think of the commercials as your act breaks.) Divide your story into exposition and an inciting incident in the first act, a rising action leading to a climax in the second act, and a climax de-escalating into resolution in the final act. By roughly dividing your story in this way, you may find that you need more acts.
  2. Map out what your want your readers and audience to know about your characters, and when. A character’s particular traits and their backstory may be special elements that you want to tease out over time—perhaps via a nonlinear story structure. Or perhaps there are certain characters you want your audience to fully understand from the very top. Make sure each character’s growth is well paced throughout the script.
  3. Pay attention to loose ends. As you write, you need to make sure you aren’t leaving a trail of dangling narrative threads. If you raise questions in your readers’ minds, make sure you answer them. Remember that part of being a good storyteller is doing a bit of “quality control.” Your reader or viewer doesn’t have to love every story choice you make, but they always want to feel confident that you, as the storyteller, have a clear grip on all the characters and plotlines that you’ve introduced.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.

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