How To Build Narrative Structure for Writing Fiction

A runners take on narrative structure

Whether you are someone that likes to make a comprehensive outline depicting each and every detail of your story or someone that likes to write as they go, understanding the foundations of a story is crucial to knowing how to build the narrative structure of your novel.

Story Structures are blueprints and outlines of dramatic structure intended to give your audience an introduction to your world and characters, before slowly escalating the stakes, until you reader arrives at a climax and resolves it in a satisfying way before concluding.

The point of narrative structure is to help organize ideas, create plot and subplots, and tension build up. By understanding how stories are designed, you can plot better, and instinctually know what you need to do to make you story more dramatic

Here are some of the best examples of story structure:

3-Act Structure

Im sure you have already heard of this on. The most common use of this structure is 3-Act plays in theatre.

For those of you that are not familiar or just need a little refreshing, the structure divides a story into 3 parts- or in this case acts- to keep.

Three Act Structure
  • Act 1: This is the time to introduce the world, character, setting, and begin creating the plot and subplots. This will all lead up to a big moment right before the next act, shifting the story.
  • Act 2: After the events at the end of the first act, the story starts to take on a new shape and direction. New elements are introduced to heighten the stakes.
  • Act 3: The start of this act begins with a bang! The story has reached its pinnacle of suspense changing the story either for good or bad. After the big moment, this is where explanations of what happened occur, and the gradual let down and transition back into the normal world begins.

5-Act Structure

Also known as dramatic structure or a story arc. This structure in its simplicity is basically just saying:

Give the situation of the setting and characters, build tension by creating conflict, bring that conflict to a peak, gradually bring that tension down, and then then calmly bring the story to a close.

It is important to realize that a story’s structure also depends on your audience’s emotional state.

Stages of The Hero’s Journey

A professor of literature named Joseph Campbell studied a wide range of historically famous stories and recognized a pattern.

In a book he wrote called the Hero With a Thousand Faces, he presents the idea of a monomyth; a concept/theory for a template that all good stories of adventure should follow.

The essence of the template, is that a normal person or character goes through each of the stages listed below on their adventure.

In addition to being simple, the success of the template is evident in many critically acclaimed books and movies, such as Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Star Wars, Too many Marvel Movies…Etc.

Hero's Journey story circle
12 steps in The Hero’s Journey
  1. The Ordinary World: The hero is seen in everyday life. A casual introduction to character and their goals and flaws
  2. The Call to Adventure: The initiating incident of the story happens as a result of some conflict
  3. Refusal of the Call: The hero hesitates to answer the call. Change is scary. Change implies risk
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: The hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to commence the adventure. Mentor guides character based on theme
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The hero decides to take on this adventure
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies: The hero explores the special world, faces trial, and makes friends and enemies through conflict
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave: The hero nears the center of the story and the special world
  8. The Ordeal: The hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth. A great failure leads to important change that leads to success
  9. Reward: The hero experiences the consequences of surviving death. Win the day at whatever cost
  10. The Road Back: The hero returns to the ordinary world or continues to an ultimate destination
  11. The Resurrection: The hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so they are pure when they reenter the ordinary world
  12. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world

WARNING: This narrative structure model is overused. In fact, this model for telling a story has become so popular that it is almost cliche. If you decide to write your novel using this exact formula, make sure you make it interesting and unique.

Dan Harmons Story Circle:

Similar to the Hero’s Journey, is Dan Harmon’s story circle. Dan Harmon is a famous writer (Rick and Morty is probably his most famous work) who came up with his own version of what makes for an interesting and fulfilling story arc.

Dan Harmon's story circle
  1. You: The hero is living their everyday life with their everyday problems
  2. Need: The hero has a goal or need that they want to fill
  3. Go: The hero sets off somewhere they don’t know to get it
  4. Search: The hero navigates this new place and its trials while learning
  5. Find: The hero gets something they want one way or another
  6. Take: The hero must pay the price for achieving what they wanted
  7. Return: The hero must go back home
  8. Change: Because of the efforts and lessens learned from the journey, the character is now different in some way and changes. This could be their perspective on something, their goals, their beliefs, etc. Just make is interesting

Stages of Story Progression

When you are early in your learning of how to structure you novel, it helps to see a more detailed plan of how a story works. Linked below is a page where a writer dissects the narrative structure of what happens in three successful books, and gives a rundown of what happens and when.

This can be an insightful tool or reference to show natural progression. If you have never written an outline before, check this out.

Click Here for an incredible master outline

Published by authoraidwriting

Helping Writers Write!

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