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Writing

4 Ways to Structure Your Narrative Timeline

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 4 min read

All pieces of narrative writing, from short stories to novels, to screenplays, benefit from having a clear structure. Just like how the physical structure of a house encloses many unique interior design elements, writing structure is the outer framework that supports and shapes all the distinct details inside your story. Choosing the correct structure for your piece of writing is just as important as an architect making sure they’re using the correct blueprints.

There’s no one-size-fits-all writing structure that is best for every story but knowing the different types of common structures will help you develop your writing skills and choose which structure could be the right fit for your next project.

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What Is Writing Structure?

The main point of writing structure is to provide a method to construct the beats, or main turning points of your story, into a plot. Structure deals with how your story is told, and in what order.. The structure you choose for your story could mean it is arranged as a non-linear narrative, be used to provide additional background information in order to give more clarification on a topic, draw attention to something specific, give an alternate point of view, or simply build dramatic effect.

When thinking about writing structure, it may be tempting at first to focus on the microelements of your project e.g., how to piece together a single paragraph in a novel. But the structure of a story or text is a lot more than just figuring out how to start your first sentence, end your last sentence, and transition to a new paragraph—you have to understand how to structure your entire piece.

The 3 Elements of Writing Structure

In order to fully understand the definition of writing structure, it will be helpful to break down the three primary elements contained inside any given structure.

  1. Beats: A beat is one individual event, standing on its own, not yet connected to another beat. Example: “Sarah cheats on her SAT test.
  2. Stories: A story is a timeline or sequence of multiple beats presented in chronological order. Example: “Sarah cheats on her SAT test and then finds out she received the highest score in school.
  3. Plots: A plot gives the reader additional context to why the beats in a story belong together and what the story is meant to communicate. Example: “Sarah cheats on her SAT test, but is then consumed with guilt upon finding out she received the highest score in school.

Now here’s how the sample plot from above could be rewritten using a different structure: “Sarah finds out she received the highest SAT score in school, but oddly appears ashamed. All of her classmates are confused by her attitude, until Sarah’s so consumed with guilt that she reveals the shocking truth… she cheated on her SATs.

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4 Ways to Structure Your Narrative Timeline

A main component of narrative structure is manipulating time. Here are four types of writing structures that can help you choose the order in which your story beats appear.

  1. Linear: The most traditional and most common writing structure there is, a linear structure means your story will be told chronologically using the principles of cause and effect. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1595) is told in a linear structure.
  2. Fractured: A fractured or nonlinear structure is one in which scenes jump backwards and forwards in time, so the beats of your story would be told out-of-order from the actual timeline in which they occurred. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) is an example of a fractured narrative structure.
  3. Framed: A framed structure is a story within a story, where an introductory story in the present leads the reader into one or more secondary stories in the past. Often the introductory story is used to provide context about aspects of the secondary story which could be difficult to comprehend otherwise. An example of a framed structure can be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1823).
  4. Real time: A subset of linear structure, a real-time structure is one in which not only will your story be told chronologically, but also unfiltered without any breaks or forward jumps in time. This structure primarily applies to screenwriting, like in the show 24 (2001) and the film 12 Angry Men (1957).

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2 Types of Act Structure

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Now that you know some possible ways to structure your story’s timeline, here are two common text structures to help determine the actual content in your story and streamline the writing process.

1. Three Act Structure: The three-act structure, where stores have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, dates back to ancient Greek times. The three-act structure is one of the most commonly used act structures today. Many novels (Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games), films (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), and half-hour TV shows (The Simpsons) all use this structure, which is broken up as follows:

  • Act One: The setup. Introduce your world and characters. An inciting incident leads to a point where your protagonist can no longer turn back.
  • Act Two: The confrontation. A rise in action where an attempt to resolve the situation created in Act One makes the situation even worse for your protagonist.
  • Act Three: The resolution. The climax where the conflict is most intense and a falling action leading to the conflict finally being resolved.

2. Five Act Structure: The five-act structure was popularized by German novelist Gustav Freytag in order to achieve more nuance in storytelling. Several works of literature (all Shakespeare plays), films (Inglourious Basterds), and hour-long TV shows (Breaking Bad) use this structure, which is broken up as follows:

  • Act One: Introduction and exposition.
  • Act Two: The rising action. Conflict appears.
  • Act Three: The climax and turning point.
  • Act Four: The falling action. Everything goes downhill.
  • Act Five: The denouement. Loose ends are tied up and conflicts are resolved.

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