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Story Structure and Plot


Tip: read these articles in sequence starting with Conflict


Conflict and Character within Story Structure

The Basic Three Act Structure

The simplest building blocks of a good story are found in the Three Act Structure. Separated by Plot Points, its Act 1 (Beginning), Act 2 (Middle), and Act 3 (End) refer not to where in time in the story they lie but instead fundamental stages along the way.

3 Act Structure

  • In the Beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in and their goal. Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their "normal" life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about. 

    • Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1, instead filling it in with back story along the way.

  • In the Middle the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises are temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. The resolution of the Climax is Plot Point 2.

  • In the End, the Climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it's nearly impossible to sustain a reader's interest very long after the climax. Finish your story and get out.

story structure

Character Arc and Story Structure

  • Act 1 Character Arc
    • In the Beginning of a story the main character, being human (even if he of she isn't), will resist change (inner conflict). The character is  perfectly content as he is; there's no reason to change.
  • Plot Point 1 – Then something happens to throw everything off balance.
    • It should come as a surprise that shifts the story in a new direction and reveals that the protagonist’s life will never be the same again.
      • In Star Wars this point occurs when Luke's family is killed, freeing him to fight the Empire.
    • It puts an obstacle in the way of the character that forces him or her to deal with something they would avoid under normal circumstances.  
  • Act 2
    • The second Act is about a character’s emotional journey and is the hardest part of a story to write. Give your characters all sorts of challenges to overcome during Act 2. Make them struggle towards their goal.
    • The key to Act Two is conflict. Without it you can’t move the story forward. And conflict doesn’t mean a literal fight. Come up with obstacles (maybe five, maybe a dozendepends on the story) leading up to your plot point at the end of Act 2.
      • Throughout the second act remember to continually raise the stakes of your character’s emotional journey.
      • Simultaneously advance both inner and outer conflicts. Have them work togetherthe character should alternate up and down internally between hope and disappointment as external problems begin to seem solvable then become more insurmountable than ever.   
      • Include reversals of fortune and unexpected turns of eventssurprise your reader with both the actions of the main character and the events surrounding him. 
  • Plot Point 2
    • Act Two ends with the second plot point, which thrusts the story in another unexpected direction.
    • Plot Point 2 occurs at the moment the hero appears beaten or lost but something happens to turn the situation around. The hero's goal becomes reachable.
      • Right before this unexpected story turn, the hero reaches the Black Momentthe point at which all is lost and the goal cannot be achieved.  
        • In order to have a "Climax", where the tension is highest, you must have a "Black" moment, where the stakes are highest and danger at its worst.
        • During this moment, the hero draws upon the new strengths or lessons he's learned in order to take action and bring the story to a conclusion.
          • Dorothy’s gotta get a broom from the Wicked Witch before she can go home.
          • Luke’s gotta blow up the Death Star before fulfilling his destiny.
          • Professor Klump’s gotta save face with the investors of his formula and win back Jada.
  • Act 3
    • The third Act dramatically shows how the character is able to succeed or become a better person.
    • Resolution/denouement ties together the loose ends of the story (not necessarily all of them) and allows the reader to see the outcome of the main character’s decision at the climax. Here we see evidence of the change in a positive character arc. 

Story Structure & the Buddha

Great novels—great stories—existed long before there were books about something called Story Structure. The pattern of an enchanting yarn has been recreated again and again through time and around the world in myths and tales. The rhythm of these stories that so captures our imaginations reflects not marketing trends but our collective struggle through life. Things that deeply resonate do so because they tug at our inner workings. Structure is not a prison—use tips and advice on it only as a map, but go down deep within yourself to find the road. Finding the road is the most pleasurable part of writing. 

>> Find out more with The Hero's Journey in the Good Links Section

A Word on Plot

Don't let your focus be the Plot, which is the series of events and situations that occur along the route of your story. The Plot is a natural outcome of the seeds of your story—it emerges from your setup of the characters, their conflicts and the setting they occur in. You'll write a more powerful, believable story if you focus on seed planting long before you worry about the harvest. 

The Best Books on Story Structure


>> See More Books about Writing a Novel or Film Script

 Read an article about writing Dialogue