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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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What Is a Story Structure?

Story structure is the way that a story is organized and presented. It is also called narrative structure. It includes the order and manner in which the author describes the events and other narrative elements, such as character and setting, to achieve an overall impact with their writing. Story structure combines two things, the plot and story elements.

  • Plot: The events of the story and the order in which they occur.
  • Story Elements: Other elements of story that help the writer create an overall impression, such as character (the people, animals, or things presented as people, that are included in a narrative) and setting (the time and place in which the narrative occurs).

Plot+Story Elements = Structure

For example, in the story “Snow White,” we know that she moves in with the dwarfs, meets the witch, eats the apple, falls asleep, and is awakened by a prince. These are the events of the story (plot). We also know how innocent Snow White is, and how mean and greedy the witch is (character), and what the dwarfs’ house and witch’s castle look like (setting). How the author weaves all of these elements together creates the story structure.

Structural Elements in Writing

There are two elements every story must have to be a story–plot and character. Something has to happen and it has to happen to someone. The plot consists of the events that occur during a story, and the order in which they occur. A plot has five main parts:

  1. Opener: The beginning of the story during which the author introduces the reader to the characters and setting, and sets the stage for the conflict.
  2. Incident: When the main problem or conflict that the main character (protagonist) will have to face is introduced.
  3. Crisis: The conflict of the story becomes more intense.
  4. Climax: The highest point of action in the story. The conflict has reached its limit and something must change that will impact the rest of the story.
  5. Ending: The end of the story in which the reader learns what becomes of the protagonist and other characters as a result of the climax.

Without each of these parts, the story would feel incomplete. In the narrative structure, all are connected as one leads into the next.

Consider the story “The Three Little Pigs.” This story follows the narrative structure closely:

  • Opener: The pigs build their own three houses, each of different material.
  • Incident: The wolf is hungry and looking for dinner.
  • Crisis: The wolf arrives at each of the little pigs’ houses, chasing them to the next brother’s house.
  • Climax: The pigs are trapped in the brick house and the wolf is coming down the chimney.
  • Ending: The wolf is singed and runs away. The three little pigs are safe.

Other elements of story structure include conflict, point of view, and tone.

How Structure Affects Meaning

Writers use structure to create an overall impression for their story. They combine the events of the story with the other elements of structure to achieve the overall design. This overall meaning can also be called the theme of the story.

Clearly, changing the plot of a story will change its meaning. For example, if three pigs didn’t first go off and build separate houses, the wolf may have encountered them on the road and the story taken off from there. The theme about being prepared and planning for the future (the pig that built the brick house) would be completely different.

The same is true for other elements of story. Each impacts the story’s overall meaning:

  • Character: Changing the protagonist of the story, a character’s reaction to conflict, or his/her motivations will impact the meaning. What if the wolf were a vegetarian? Or if the first pig’s response wasn’t to run but to fight back?
  • Setting: A character’s surroundings are often central to the story. The difference between straw, stick, and brick houses is pretty big to this story.
  • Conflict: This is what drives a story. What if two of the brothers decided to turn on the third?
  • Point of View: Perspective makes a huge difference in the way a story is told. Every person (character) has a different way of explaining events. The story from the wolf’s point of view is likely to be completely different.
  • Tone: This is the feel of the story. The pigs are running for their lives. What if the story had a lighter tone, such as the pigs thinking the chase was fun or a game?

Each element of story contributes to the overall meaning.

Examples of Types of Structures

Most stories follow the narrative structure. However, there are other types of structures that authors can use.

Narrative (story): The standard, five-part structure with an opener, incident, crisis, climax, and ending.

Fichtean Curve: These are stories in which the author includes several small crises that the protagonist must overcome on their way to an overall goal.

Hero’s Journey: Also known as “monomyth”, the Hero’s Journey is a very common structure in mythology worldwide. It breaks the story into several smaller parts, including a call to adventure, refusing the call, meeting a mentor, and a resurrection.

Three Act: This breaks the action of a story into three sections–setup, confrontation, and resolution.

A monomyth is a common structure in mythology.

Lesson Summary

Story (narrative) structure is the order and presentation of the parts of a story. It is a combination of several elements of story, including: plot, character, setting, conflict, point of view, and tone, which create an overall meaning. In the story structure, plot is broken down into five interconnected parts: opener (the beginning), incident (when the conflict is introduced), crisis (tension builds), climax (the peak of the conflict), and the ending (what happens after the climax). Though most stories follow this structure, authors do use other types of structures, the differences between which are generally found in the way the plot is presented. Examples of other types of structures include: Fichtean Curve, Hero’s Journey, and Three Act structures.

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