Story Structure I

“Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending.”

This isn’t just a pithy saying; writers tell stories more effectively when their plot follows that structure.

Readers' minds are wired to process stories in a certain way. In that sense, story structure has the same role in fiction as studying anatomy does in art. A reader will unconsciously be put off by a disproportionate story structure, the same way they would by a drawing of a person whose limbs are the wrong size or whose facial features are misplaced. In the same way, a story that feels too slow, too rushed, or like it jumps between plot points is often a victim of poor plot structure.

By the end of this course, you’ll understand the basics of story structure on two different levels: the structure of a story’s plot, including how to identify and place plot milestones, and the structure of individual scenes within the story, including how to ensure each scene moves the plot forward.

Note: Stories often progress on two different levels, showing both the evolution of both external events (referred to as the story arc) and the character's internal changes in response to those events (referred to as the character arc). This course focuses on the story arc. Character arcs will be covered in a different course.

Plot Milestones

Even if you aren’t the type that normally plans or outlines their stories, keeping certain plot milestones in mind as you write will reinforce your story structure and make sure that your story seems balanced to readers. Each of these milestones happens at a particular place in the story.

  • The first point of no return marks where the main character is locked into the plot of the story; after this point, they can no longer go back to their “everyday life”. This milestone marks the transition from “beginning” to “middle”, and comes at between a quarter and a third of the way into the story.

  • The midpoint is when the main character goes from reacting to their circumstances to making their circumstances react to them. As the name suggests, this milestone falls at the middle of the story.

  • The second point of no return marks where the main character is locked into the battle (literal or figurative) that occurs at the climax of the story. This milestone marks the transition from “middle” to “end”, and falls between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way through the story.

  • The climax is the set-piece of the entire story; in games and movies, the climax is the final boss fight. This milestone happens about 90% of the way through the story, slightly before the end, to allow for some time to tie up loose ends afterward.

For examples of story structure in action, we need look no further than the movie that started it all: A New Hope.

  • The first point of no return, at approximately a quarter of the way into the movie, is the Empire’s attack on the Lars homestead while Luke Skywalker is visiting Obi-wan Kenobi. When Luke returns home to find his aunt and uncle dead, he effectively has no choice but to accompany Obi-wan on the voyage to Alderaan.

  • The midpoint, at approximately the middle of the movie, is when the Millennium Falcon arrives in the Alderaan System and gets caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam. Instead of focusing on his own survival, Luke decides to rescue Princess Leia (and talks Han Solo into joining him), becoming an actor instead of a reactor.

  • The second point of no return, at approximately three-quarters of the way through the movie, is when Darth Vader kills Obi-wan. This compels Luke to join the Rebel Alliance, ensuring that he’ll be present for the Rebels’ attack on the Death Star.

  • The climax, at approximately 90% of the way through the movie, is the moment when Luke destroys the Death Star.

Measuring Your Milestones

How you measure where your plot milestones fall in your story is up to your personal taste, but it should be something objective—word count, page count, or even measuring how much space it takes up on the screen—instead of being based solely on your own feeling of how long a particular section is. As a writer, you have a different perspective on your story than your readers will. If you’ve spent a great deal of time rewriting and refining a particular section of the story, it will stand out in your mind as being “larger” than the other sections, regardless of its objective length. The reader, though, will experience the flow of the story based on the length of each section—which can result in the story seeming lopsided.

Here are a few other tips for how to structure your stories:

  • The beginning and the end of the story should be approximately the same length.

  • Shorter stories usually have shorter middle sections, with the first and second points of no return falling at one-third and two-thirds of the way through the story, respectively. The midpoint always falls at the halfway point of the story, and the climax always falls near the end of the story.

  • Larger stories usually have a longer middle. The longer a story is, the more likely that the first and second points of no return will fall at the “quarters” (the one-quarter and three-quarter marks, respectively) of the story, instead of the “thirds”.

Now that we’ve talked about the structure of a story’s plot, let’s break it down further by looking at the structure of individual scenes.

Scene Structure

What exactly is a “scene”? The textbook definition is that a scene describes an exchange of actions and/or dialogue between characters in a given location. For the purposes of this course, we’ll just think of scenes as “units of plot”.

In plot-centric fiction, the primary purpose of scenes is to move the plot forward. Not every scene will do this—writers will often include scenes that showcase aspects of a character’s personality, for example—but in stories that focus primarily on the plot, the plot must advance. (The rest of this course will deal with the structure of plot-focused scenes; the information given here may not apply to purely character-based scenes.)

In shorter stories, it can be useful to follow a “one scene per plot milestone” guideline, where each section of the story is given its own scene. For example, let’s say you’re writing a story where your character is assigned to rescue someone who’s being held in a hostile prison. The scenes might be divided up like this:

  • Scene 1: Your character receives their briefing and departs for their mission. This covers the beginning of the story, up to the first point of no return, where your character can no longer just walk away from the plot (because they’d get in hot water with their superiors).

  • Scene 2: Your character arrives at the prison site and scouts the area before beginning their rescue operation. This covers part of the middle of the story, between the first point of no return and the midpoint, when your character goes from reacting to their circumstances (by having to scout the prison) to forcing the circumstances to react to them (by starting their prison break operation).

  • Scene 3: Your character begins their prison break-in, including whatever events lead them up to finding the captive they were supposed to rescue. This scene covers the second part of the middle of the story, up to the second point of no return, which sets up the climax of the story.

  • Scene 4: Your character escapes the prison with their ward, overcoming whatever difficulties they need to overcome along the way, including a final “boss fight” obstacle (which makes up the climax of the story). Finally, any loose ends get tied up before the story actually ends.

Each of these scenes fulfills the function of advancing the plot by using conflict to move the story’s events forward. In its most basic form, every scene is made up of two parts: the conflict, where the character tries to accomplish their goal, and the aftermath, where the main character takes the outcome of the conflict and considers their next step. Usually, the main character’s attempt to accomplish that next step becomes the conflict in the following scene. The combination of using a plot point as the foundation of a scene and the continuous movement of events from one scene to another ensures that the plot keeps moving forward, and that the reader stays interested in the story.

To use the scenes described above as examples of conflict:

  • Scene 1, the character briefing, doesn’t have any innate conflict as written. In the first scene of the story, it’s sometimes better to leave out an obvious conflict in favour of introducing the reader to the setting and the characters. However, it would also be easy to include some kind of conflict, such as your character’s superior having to talk them into taking the mission.

  • In Scene 2, your character’s goal is to gather information about the prison where their captive is being held. The conflict is whatever action they need to take to get that information, and the aftermath is them using the information they’ve acquired to plan the prison break.

  • In Scene 3, your character’s goal is to reach the captive they’re supposed to rescue. The conflict is overcoming whatever security measures the enemy has put in place, and the aftermath is meeting up with the hostage and discussing or planning how to escape the prison with them.

  • Scene 4 is very similar to Scene 3, but in reverse: your character’s goal is now to leave with the captive, the conflict is overcoming whatever obstacles they face in getting out of the prison, and the aftermath is departing with the prisoner after escaping.

One important aspect of conflict is that it isn’t limited to a specific type of antagonist (beyond what makes sense for your story). The conflict might be external, like fighting enemy characters or overcoming a harsh environment. It could even include your character being forced to struggle to continue their mission despite their own injuries.

Likewise, the conflict in a scene can be internal, pitting the main character against themselves. A character having to suppress their doubts and talk themselves into moving forward can be just as dramatic as a life-or-death struggle against a superior enemy. As long as something or someone (including themselves!) is standing between a character and their goals, the scene is a fertile ground for conflict.

Another important aspect of the scene’s conflict is that a scene can move the plot forward even if the character doesn’t achieve their stated goal. The midpoint of Episode IV came because Luke, after the Millennium Falcon was caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam and failed to escape, decided to try to rescue Leia instead of hiding in one of the Falcon’s smuggling compartments while Obi-wan disabled the tractor beam.

As a final note on scene structure, it’s sometimes helpful to think of scenes as mini-stories with their own beginning, middle, and ending. The beginning of a scene lays out the circumstances of the scene, at least well enough for the reader to be able to envision it in their minds. The middle of the scene is where most of the scene’s conflict happens, and the aftermath forms the end of the scene.

Conclusion

By now, you should have a solid understanding of how stories are structured, on both the plot scale and the scene scale. Keeping these ideas in mind as you write or edit your stories will help you draw readers’ attention and keep them engaged through beginning, middle, and end. If you’d like more information on story structure, stay tuned for future Shadow Academy courses.

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