Storytelling guide

Story structure demystified: the fundamentals

Story structure and plotting is tricky. It’s tough to find a balance between an over-plotted story that overwhelms the audience and a plot so simple it puts them to sleep.

Paint-by-numbers story structure advice tends to do more harm than good. Without a proper understanding of narrative design, even when following the “rules,” of these story formulas, it’s easy for a novice writer to get stuck and not understand why they’re stuck (and therefore also not know how to fix their problem).

We’re going to dive into the essential elements of storytelling that’ll make your tales shine. Whether you’re writing a kids’ story, a thrilling TV show, or a mind-blowing novel, understanding these fundamentals will level up your storytelling game.

1. What is Story Structure and Narrative Design?

Story structure and narrative design might sound like fancy terms, but they’re not that complicated. Story structure is like the skeleton of your story, holding everything together. It consists of two main things: plot and narrative design.

Plot is a story’s ordered series of events, consisting of dramatic action involving the story’s characters. And narrative design is the form of the story (i.e. the structure of how it’s told).

If you’re interested in learning more about story and narrative, check out my basic explanation of story elements.

1.1. Plot: The Heart of Your Story

The plot is the series of events that make your story happen. Think of it as a road map guiding your characters through their journey. Remember Plato’s advice from centuries ago? Every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. But you can also mix things up, like in movies such as “Memento” or “Pulp Fiction,” where the story unfolds out of order, keeping us on our toes. Folks like Jean-Luc Godard clarified Plato’s assertion; a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Let’s take a fun example from kids’ stories: “The Three Little Pigs.” The beginning is when the pigs build their houses, the middle is when the wolf huffs and puffs, and the end is when the pigs outsmart the wolf.

In any case, you should be careful not to confuse plot with narrative design.

A plot is just a collection of events that involve the story’s characters. One way to think about it: imagine a detective walking us through what took place at the scene of a crime.

Now imagine a lawyer taking the detective’s list of events but explaining why certain things happened, and from the plaintiff’s point of view. This is one way to think about narrative design.

In other words, if plot is the what, then narrative design is the how.

1.2. Narrative Design: The How of Your Story

Narrative design is how you tell your story. It’s like adding colors and textures to your plot. It includes elements like the tone, point of view, imagery, and more. Remember, your favorite painting has different brush strokes and colors that make it unique? Well, that’s how narrative design works.

For example, take the classic tale of “Cinderella.” The same plot can be told in different ways, depending on the narrative design. It can be a heartwarming fairy tale, a thrilling mystery, or even a sci-fi adventure.

2. Story structure and plot templates

There are a few popular ways we humans like to consume stories (Joseph Campbell explains it well in The Hero with a Thousand Faces).

However, as mentioned above, it’s easy to confuse narrative design and plot. This confusion can complicate the use of story templates and concepts like “The Hero’s Journey.”

This happens because story template structures often try to cover both plot and narrative design at the same time. A more modular understanding (i.e. plot as separate from narrative design) creates for more flexibility, and stronger storytelling overall.

2.1. The basic elements of plot structure

Here are the main concepts to remember for plot structure:

  1. Conflict: Every great story has some tension, drama, or conflict that drives it forward. It’s like adding spices to your favorite dish, making it more exciting. Think of “Harry Potter” facing off against Voldemort – the conflict makes the story captivating.
  2. Climax: The climax is the most critical moment in your story, where all the suspense and tension reach their peak. It’s like the ultimate showdown in superhero movies, like when Spider-Man faces the Green Goblin.
  3. Resolution: After all the excitement, your story needs a proper ending. The resolution is where loose ends are tied up, and the characters find closure. In “The Lord of the Rings,” the resolution comes when the hobbits return to the Shire and begin their new lives.

This tension from conflict builds as the story progresses, like slowly pushing down on a spring. When the story can’t hold any more tension, it explodes at the climax, like a spring bouncing into the air.

Finally, a good story will usually give some resolution, or let us know where things have landed.

That’s it – those are the essential elements to think about when plotting a story. You can add in all kinds of other markers, milestones, and growth points for characters if you want. But that’s all you need to create a plot.

2.2. Understanding narrative structure

Understanding narrative structure is confusing at first because it’s a far more abstract concept than plot.

Narrative design is how you choose to structure narrative elements like tone, point of view, imagery & description, time management, suspense, symbolism, and theme. For instance, think of your favorite painting in terms of its elements (ex. brush strokes, colors, etc.) instead of the overall image itself.

Each one of these elements can produce endless results. They also all relate to and influence each other.

So it’s easier to explain if we choose a specific interpretation and common layout for narrative elements. In other words, let’s discuss a popular plot and narrative design since its easily understood by an average audience.

2.2.1. Narrative Elements: Your Creative Toolkit

Narrative design is like a treasure chest of creative tools you can use to tell your story in unique ways. Let’s explore some of these elements: Tone: Setting the Mood

Tone is like the attitude or feeling of your story. It can be humorous, dark, hopeful, or mysterious. Take “Alice in Wonderland,” for example. Lewis Carroll’s whimsical tone adds a sense of wonder to the tale. Point of View: Seeing Through Different Eyes

Point of view is about who’s telling the story. It can be first-person (I, me), third-person limited (he, she), or omniscient (knows everything about everyone). Think of “The Hunger Games,” where we experience everything through Katniss’s eyes. Imagery & Description: Painting a Vivid Picture

Use vivid descriptions and imagery to make your story come alive. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series paints magical scenes in our minds, making Hogwarts feel like a real place. Time Management: The Art of Pacing

Playing with time can add suspense or reveal surprises. Christopher Nolan’s movie “Inception” is a masterclass in time management, blurring the lines between dreams and reality. Suspense: Keeping Readers on Edge

Suspense keeps readers hooked, wondering what happens next. Mystery novels like Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” are great examples of building suspense. Symbolism: Hidden Meanings

Symbols add depth and meaning to your story. In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the green light as a symbol of hope and unattainable dreams. Theme: The Heart of Your Story’s Message

Themes are the big ideas or messages that your story conveys. In “The Lion King,” one of the themes is the circle of life and the importance of finding your place in the world.

2.2.2. Example: Structuring Narrative Elements

Let’s put all these narrative design elements together using a popular story template: Plot Template: The Hero’s Journey
  1. Introduction: Introduce a character comfortable in their familiar world but yearning for something more.
  2. Desire: The character embarks on an adventure into an unfamiliar situation, seeking what they desire.
  3. Unexpected Consequences: Along the journey, the character faces challenges and adapts to overcome them.
  4. Resolution: After a climactic showdown, the character returns to their familiar world, transformed by the experience.

Let’s see how we might structure the theme of this story. Again, this is just one of an infinite amount of combinations and interpretations, but it should help you grasp the overall concept. Narrative Design Example: Theme of Redemption
  1. The character is a former thief, tired of the criminal life – Theme: Finding Redemption.
  2. They want to change and seek a better path – Theme: Seeking Forgiveness and Second Chances.
  3. However, their past catches up with them, and they must face their demons – Theme: Confronting the Consequences of Past Actions.
  4. Ultimately, they make amends and help others, finding true redemption – Theme: Embracing Self-Transformation and Redemption.

You can see how the thematic elements evolve as the plot advances. We can apply this approach to any of the elements of narrative design.

In this way, you can see the value in separating the concepts of plot and narrative design. At the vert least, now you can identify the basic difference between the two concepts.

Share your thoughts

You’ve made it through the key elements of storytelling. By understanding story structure and narrative design, you’re equipped to craft compelling tales that captivate your readers’ hearts and minds. So go ahead, let your imagination run wild, and create unforgettable stories that will leave your audience asking for more. Happy writing, and may your storytelling adventures be filled with endless possibilities!

I study narrative in my free time. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Let me know if you think this makes sense, where it doesn’t, or what you would suggest instead.