The Ultimate Guide to the Story Structure
A story is made out of a series of events. The sequence of all the events is called a Plot.
An Event is a meaningful change in the character’s life, the thing that happens during the story that transforms the world from one state into another.
During the story, the main character (protagonist) goes through a series of events, each of them taking him closer to, or farther away from his Goal.
This series of events culminates in a Climax — the major, most important event of a story, the moment when the protagonist achieves his goal (or, sometimes, fails to achieve it).
The climax is what the story is about:
- Frodo drops the ring into the Mount Doom
- Luke destroys the Death Star
- Neo defeats the Agent Smith
A story is divided into 3 Acts.
The first act is about the protagonist’s regular life being disrupted by some event. This event is called Inciting Incident (I'll refer to it as IInc).
IInc is the main reason the story has happened, the thing that kicks off a series of events that lead to climax.
IInc gives the protagonist a challenge, creates a Goal — the thing the hero will be trying to achieve for the rest of the story. Often, IInc is the result of a problem created by the antagonist.
- Gandalf gives Frodo the Ring he will have to drop into Mount Doom.
- Luke hears the message from Princess Leia about the blueprints he must use to destroy the Death Star.
- Neo meets Morpheus who will tell him about the Matrix, which he will have to destroy to liberate humanity.
The first act culminates in the First Turning Point (TP1).
TP1 is the moment when the hero decides to go on an adventure, makes a conscious decision to engage with the story, and begins pursuing his goal.
- Frodo leaves the Shire
- Luke's parents are killed
- Neo takes the red pill
The second act is about the series of escalating events (successes and failures) which happen as the protagonist struggles to achieve his goal.
The hero pursues his goal, and overcomes the obstacles set by the antagonist. From his victories and mistakes he learns lessons about the world, and gains powers.
As the hero moves further, the stakes rise, his commitment to the goal increases, he has to apply more effort and take bigger and bigger risks to move forward.
In the middle of the second act, the protagonist goes through the Mid Point (MP) — the point of no return. He swims past the middle of the river, and now turning back would be more difficult than reaching the other shore.
The stakes continue to rise, until the protagonist has to risk everything in his biggest attempt to win. He engages in the final battle against the antagonist, and puts everything on the line.
The second act culminates in the Second Turning Point (TP2) — the moment when the hero’s biggest attempt fails, when all is lost, the goal is no longer attainable, the antagonist seems to win, and the protagonist has been defeated.
The third act is about the final battle and its outcome.
Defeated, half-dead hero learns his biggest lesson from his worst failure.
This is usually when the biggest twist happens. The hero sees the truth. Comes up with a brilliant creative solution, understands his mistake, realizes who was the murderer all along, finds the ultimate weapon, etc. This is what will enable him to turn his defeat into a victory.
- Harry holds a basilisk fang
- Neo sees the Matrix code
Armed with this knowledge he gathers all of his strength, and takes the final effort to turn things around, to win the battle.
The hero defeats the antagonist and finally achieves his goal.
What is a story? Why is it told? What lies at its core?
When the world undergoes change from one state to another, this process is called an “Event”.
The point of storytelling is to relay the experience of an event. People listen to stories to experience an exciting and meaningful event, understand it’s reasons, and learn from it.
Story is a description of an Event (change of value) and the underlying reasons for that change.
A story consists of a series of smaller events, leading up to and culminating at Climax — the big and important event, the reason for telling a story. The Climax is the moment such Event happens.
The Climax is the key to the story.
When you are writing a story, climax is the biggest thing you are looking for, and the most challenging thing to figure out. Once you know the climax — you have your story, because all of the key story elements are connected to it.
We experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist, he is our avatar into the story world.
The Climax is a direct result of a deliberate action by the protagonist. The protagonist is a person who has a goal, and has made a choice to pursue it. The Climax is the moment when the protagonist achieves (or fails to achieve) his goal.
As the hero struggles to pursue his goal, he gains experience. He understands the way the world works and the reasons for that. He learns lessons, and we learn these lessons through him.
Controlling Idea (CI) is the underlying reason for the change that happens, the underlying nature of the world we are trying to explain through our story. It is the answer to why the event has happened.
CI is an abstract idea, which is being expressed through concrete events and actions.
To put it simply — it is a “moral”, a philosophy that is being expressed. For example, children’s fables are simple metaphors for expressing simple ideas (“lying is bad”, “be nice”, etc).
CI is a “lesson” that the protagonist learns about the nature of the world that enables him to accomplish his goal.
Usually, CI is expressed as a flaw that prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal, it is a “lesson” he learns during the story.
Relationships between the story elements
When you are writing a story, the climax is the key element you are looking for. When you know the climax — you have a story, and until you know it — you don’t.
All the other elements of a story are connected to the climax, they add up to it, and are defined in relation to it. If you know the climax — you know all of the crucial elements. Here’s how elements relate to climax and to each other:
- Climax is a moment where the story’s main Event happens, that makes it the most crucial scene. Story is written about the Event, thus Story = Event = Climax.
- Climax is the moment when the protagonist achieves his Goal. That means that if you know the climax — you know the protagonist’s goal, and vice versa. Climax = Goal.
- Inciting Incident (IInc) is, by definition, the moment when the character acquires his goal. Usually, it is a problem created by the antagonist, a problem which the hero will struggle to solve during the whole story, and will finally solve by defeating the antagonist at the climax. That means that if you know IInc = you know the goal, and you know the goal = you know the climax.
And when you know IInc, goal, and a climax — it is easy to figure out everything else:
- At Turning Point 1 (TP1), the hero makes a decision to pursue the goal he acquired at IInc and starts on his journey.
- At Mid Point, the hero realizes he can't turn back, he has a better chance of achieving his goal than going back to the way things were before.
- And at TP2, the hero seems to fail and lose his goal, it is simply the reverse of what happens at climax.
Now the antagonist is a character whose function is to prevent the hero from achieving his goal by throwing obstacles on his way.
Character’s friend/sidekick is a character whose function is to help the hero to achieve his goal (and to be a source of information — talk to the hero to provide exposition, explain to us what’s going on, render his thoughts, etc.)
Love interest is an extra motivation for a hero to achieve his goal, a source of extra complications/conflict, and a reward he gets for winning.
The hero’s Flaw is a mistake he makes, an internal quality that prevents him from achieving his goal, and creates internal conflict.
The Controlling Idea (the “moral” of a story) is a lesson the hero learns by overcoming his internal flaw, the lesson that enables him to defeat the antagonist and achieve his goal.
That way, as you can see, all elements are connected through the goal to the story’s climax. Any can be discovered if you know the climax, and when you know only some of the elements but not all — you can discover climax by following these connections.
Story Writing Process
Now that I’ve talked about story structure, story essence, and connection between climax and other story elements — I will talk about the story writing process.
There are 4 crucial elements you need to know about your story:
- Setting — the world of a story.
- Characters — protagonist, antagonist, others.
- Event — the climax, the event the story is about.
- Controlling Idea (CI) — the “moral” of a story, the abstract philosophy you want to express by giving people the concrete experience of the story.
Together they form a High Concept (HC) — the main story idea, original and interesting concept you can express in a few words.
When you know what these elements are — you can find the key structural points (IInc, TP1, MP, TP2, Climax) of a story, and develop a Plot.
That will give you a pretty clear and straightforward idea of what your 3 Acts are about. Once you know that — you can break the acts into scenes , and create Outline. And then use that outline(list of scenes) to simply expand it into writing.
You find these elements by asking and answering questions. In practice any of the elements can be an initial idea/inspiration, the process is chaotic, it involves jumping back and forth between questions, tweaking, randomness, serendipity, imagination, etc. The following is an idealized, orderly version of a process.
Character in a situation
It makes sense to begin by finding an interesting setting, and once you know where your story takes place it is easier to find an interesting character.
I also call it “SciFi Premise”, because SciFi/Fantasy tend to revolve around worldbuilding and unusual characters in interesting situations.
Once you know the setting and characters, your biggest goal is to find your climax.
It is difficult to come up with the climax on its own, but as I’ve said, all the elements in the story are connected, and you can unravel all of them by starting with one.
In my experience, the easiest one to begin with is IInc, or, in other words, a problem.
Because once you have your character in a setting, you can answer the question “What can go wrong?”
Usually this problem is caused by the antagonist, so if you can figure out who that is it may help you to find the problem.
Once you have your problem — you'll have your IInc, you know where your story has started.
And, you'll immediately know that the character’s goal is to solve this problem.
So even if you don’t have a very idea of your climax — you know that your character will solve this problem at climax.
TP1, MP, TP2
Then you can figure out TP1 — it is simply the point when the hero decides to pursue his goal.
Once you know that, you can imagine what difficulties may arise, and how things can escalate, and as they escalate more and more — you know your MP, and as they escalate even further — you can figure out the big final attempt at achieving his goal, and how it can go horribly wrong and fail.
Finally, once you know the TP2 — the lowest point for the character — you can figure out how he will turn things around and solve everything at climax.
Here’s a convenient list of questions to summarize it:
- Setting. What is the world of my story?
- Characters. Who are the characters?
- Problem (and Goal). What can go wrong? What problem will my character need to solve?
- Engage. How does the character begin pursuing his goal?
- Escalate. How can the problem get more difficult? What obstacles will the hero face?
- Lose. What is his final, most difficult, highest-stakes challenge, and how can it fail?
- Turn How can the hero turn his defeat into a victory? How does he solve the problem?
Once you know the things you are looking for, the main steps you need to take — you search for them by asking questions, thinking, writing.
Usually it is hard to write the story completely top-down (start from outline, find key points, and break things down until you have individual scenes), and it is hard to do it bottom-up (just sitting down, writing, and going wherever it takes you). So I think that the best way is to combine both options and jump back and forth. You think about the outline, you ask questions, you sit down to write, then go back to correcting the outline.
If you find yourself unable to answer some of the questions, I suggest writing a list of 5 possible options, not the best ones, just something that could barely fit, and then pick the one you like the most.
Another useful idea at this point is to just set yourself a goal to write a certain number of words (250 or 500 works well). When you are doing that, you should not think about the outline, or the story structure, or theory - just type words, this process will help you to find the answers and new ideas.
To go deeper into this subject and learn more, I highly recommend the book Story by Robert McKee, this incredible lecture on screenwriting by Michael Hauge, a series of lectures by Brandon Sanderson, and my course about creating adventures.