Writing

How to Write a Better Novel: The 4 Most Common Story Structures

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 5, 2019 • 3 min read

Novel writing can be a beastly undertaking, even if you have a rock-solid writing process in place. In fiction writing, you should use whatever tools you can find to unearth the story you’re looking to tell: wielded correctly, story structure is an incredibly powerful tool.

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What Is Story Structure?

Story structure—which is also known as narrative 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.

4 Types of Story Structures and How to Use Each

Sometimes, when contemplating the great wilderness of your unstructured creative brain, all you need is a map. Whether you have a short story or full-length novel in mind, these common plot structure devices will help things take shape. Combine and customize them in whatever way your story requires.

  1. The three-act structure. A story in three acts is a particularly popular approach, especially in screenwriting, because it is elegant and distilled. In the first act, introduce your reader to the world of the novel—set the stakes, bring out the main characters. An initial inciting incident brings the story’s first climax. The second act is a series of events meant to challenge: obstacles and reactions to those struggles. The third act is where all that resulting build-up of pressure leads to the big final climax, and the eventual fall-out and resolution (wrap-up of any loose ends). This is easily applied to a short story, where the timeline of events is usually compressed. Learn how to use three-act structure with our complete guide here.
  2. Freytag’s pyramid. Gustav Freytag was a German playwright in the nineteenth century. The narrative structure that bears his name today weaves character development and plot points in a familiar seven-step outline: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. This is a recurring format found in thrillers, for example, or in Aristotle’s Poetics, with Oedipus Rex setting out to find the cause of the plague on Thebes (the precipitating event), becoming king (part of the journey), and at the end, finding out he’s the cause of the plague (the question is answered).
  3. The hero’s journey. Containing 12 rough steps across three parts, the hero’s journey begins with a call to adventure. After initial resistance, and meeting of a guide or mentor figure, the hero arrives at a turning point, or a point of no return: they must make a choice to plunge into the unknown, kicking off the second stage. The events of this second act reflect a pared-back three-act structure—tests, the search for truth, and a great ordeal. By the end of the story, the main character returns to the world they began in as a person changed by what they just experienced. Compare the events of your story to the plot points that create Campbell’s wheel. Does it help illuminate your character arc? Are you missing any of the story elements that might help you where you’re blocked?
  4. The snowflake method. For those mathematically or design-minded writers, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake” method is an organizational approach for a first draft based on the fractal patterns of snowflakes. It’s a ten-step process that burrows into your plot, beginning with a simple summary of your story—one sentence that captures what your soon-to-be novel is about. That sentence is expanded into a paragraph. Then, each sentence within that paragraph is expanded into its own, elaborated paragraph, and so on.
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