Read any popular novel and you are likely to find similarities in story structure. The classic story arc adheres to this structure:
- The main character is introduced in her normal world. The author describes the character’s attributes, goals, needs and dreams.
- The story takes shape through a disruptive event or inciting incident that stands in the way of the character achieving her dream or goal.
- This leads to a series of obstacles placed in the way of the character, growing more serious in nature. This is referred to as “rising action.”
- Tension is a key element in moving a story along. The tension will rise and fall in intensity as the story progresses.
- The main character faces a series of increasingly difficult choices as the tension builds.
- The story’s climax is the point where the main character faces her most serious challenge.
- The final elements are the denouement and resolution, where the main character meets her challenges, overcomes her fears and obstacles, and achieves her goal.
There are numerous variations on this arc. The thing to keep in mind is that, whatever structure you choose, the story must move the character forward. The character must emerge as a transformed or changed individual. She must discover some truths about herself and act on them. Otherwise, why bother?
Let’s look at the story arc of a classic novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is about to enter the first grade when the story begins. She is a true innocent who thirsts for knowledge. She will discover some hard truths during this story. At first the tension level is low. Scout teams with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, to engage in some harmless pranks. They make several futile attempts to draw out Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbor, with comical results.
The story takes a serious turn when a judge assigns Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch, to defend a black man who is accused of raping a young white woman in Alabama during the early years of the Great Depression. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak out at night and Scout unwittingly deters
an angry mob that descends upon Atticus Finch as he sits outside the cell where Tom Robinson is held. The children later slip into the courthouse to witness Tom Robinson’s trial and their father’s heroic, but unsuccessful, defense of him. The story culminates in a shocking incident resulting in the death of Bob Ewell and the end of the children’s innocence forever.
The arc of the story described above is popular because it is a reliable and logical way to structure a story. However, it’s not the only way to tell a story. Let’s take a look at Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan breaks all the rules of story structure. There is no main character. There is no central story. The novel progresses as a series of short stories with different characters, some of whom show up in later sections of the book. The glue that holds it together is the characters’ interest and involvement in rock and roll music. The novel explores the ideals of rock and roll music (and youth itself) and how the passage of time erodes the passion and dreams of youth. The novel divided critics, but it was such a brilliant piece of writing that it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
As Egan’s novel proves, there are no rules for story structure. What counts is to choose a structure that not only you as a writer can work with, but one that engages the reader.
What story structure works best for you?