How to Structure a Story

All stories have structure. Simple structures: the hero wants something, they attempt to get it, they are thwarted, and then they succeed. Complex Structures: frame narratives, flashbacks, multiple perspectives, subplots. Structure is the substance and shape of your story. It is the events that transpire, and it is the sequence and manner in which those events are related to the reader. 

But what is structure? What are the different patterns, what are the accepted customs? How can I break from those set ways? These are questions I ask myself frequently. I researched them, but the answers proved vague and disparate. I hope to be able to synthesize what I’ve learned into more bite-sized chunks.

Choosing the structure of your story is an important part of the storytelling process. It helps your reader know what they are getting into. It gives them a pattern to follow in their head. And when you deviate from the structure, your reader knows to pay attention. But how do you choose which story structure is the one for you?

Everyone’s process is different. I can only speak for myself. In answering that question, I like to  examine the accepted canon of story structures. 

Types of Structures

I find it a little funny that almost every major writer will attempt to create a definitive list of every type of story. Kurt Vonnegut does this in his lecture titled “The Shapes of Stories.” Christopher Booker wrote a book called, The Seven Basic Plots, and the contents of that book should be self explanatory. Robert McKee in Story gives a list of the 25 different film genres. Joseph Cambell proposes a single unifying story in the hero’s journey. Film experts tell you the three-act structure is king, theater aficionados will tell you the five-act tragedy is the supreme form. 

But of course, the end result of all these lists is that it’s super difficult to find anything definitive, so I mostly stopped worrying about it. Following any one of these formulas too closely will result in a, well,  formulaic story. I’ve learned that I can express myself best in the ways that I deviate from these forms. 

The crummy part is, in order to deviate from a form, I had to first learn what that form was in the first place. Which was kinda a pain. I’ll do my best to give an overview of the major ones.

The Hero’s Journey

This is a classic. You’ve probably heard of it. The above image is my summary of its different components. I made it in MS Paint, so it doesn’t look great, sorry about that.  In essence, the hero’s journey concerns a single protagonist. He (most typically male, but as I said, true beauty comes from breaking the standards, which is why many people find heroes with other genders to be more compelling) is living an ordinary life, in a world that he understands. 

Then an extraordinary figure calls him to adventure. He resists, then agrees. He leaves the world he knows and enters into a world of mystery. He meets friends, mentors, allies, enemies. He struggles and fails. He reaches the very bottom of misery or hardship, and then overcomes that to claim his reward. 

Finally, he returns, his character changed by the events he encountered. The world he once knew is now different to him. Perhaps he’s removed from it, jaded. Perhaps he’s able to fix its problems.

Sound familiar? I could spend the rest of the article listing books that use this structure. Rather than following this formula to a T, I found picking and choosing elements from it to be really helpful. It turns out the hero’s journey has a lot of important lessons. 

Characters should make decisions. Not a decision between good and evil — that’s hardly a decision. But decisions between equal options. Do I go on the adventure, or do I stay where I am? That’s a story beat that will never get old. 

Characters should have allies. Friends are cool. Teachers are also cool. Positive relationships can bring out different aspects of your character’s personality, and when those relationships are taken away, it can bring out even more aspects. 

Characters should have opponents. People who are searching for the same thing as your character. Rivals they can respect, or hate, or anything in between. Forcing your characters to overcome obstacles is how they grow. 

The abyss is crucial. It’s a bizarre part of storytelling, but I’ve found that we all like watching characters suffer. It doesn’t have to be physical pain, and indeed, it probably shouldn’t be. Instead, find what hurts or terrifies your character the most, and then inflict them with it. That’s the abyss. 

Redemption and reward is so satisfying to read, especially if I’ve just watched a character overcome their personal abyss. I love those moments where a character is recognized for what they’re truly worth. 

Finally, the return. The hobbits come back to the shire. The juxtaposition of who the character is now and where they used to be highlights their growth (or downfall) and emphasizes the theme of your story. 

As much as I find these elements interesting, an author truly grabs my attention when they break these elements. My mind walks along the pattern, ho-hum, and then boom! The mentor dies on page 3, instead of halfway through. Wow! Where is this story going? 

Rising Action, Falling Action

I bet you were taught this in high-school. At its core, this is a simplified version of the hero’s journey. This structure is too simple to be useful, but it still has lessons to teach. Personally, this graph taught me the power of escalation. 

Stories should increase in intensity over their duration. Economics states that though something may be originally pleasing, the more times we are exposed to that thing, the less pleasing it is. In order to maintain that original level of pleasure, we need to up the ante. 

If your character gets injured, that’s exciting. If your character gets injured in the same way, that’s less exciting. But if they get even more injured, that’s just as exciting as the first time. 

Finally, tensions should come to a head at the climax. Everything is realized. The excitement has never been this high. The story is resolved with a flash and a bang, and then things return to normal. 

However, this graph is flawed. As a kid, my English class had a visitor from a local author. She showed us this graph:

Now this is cool. Just as the same injury, if repeated, loses interest, readers will also lose interest if the pace of escalation stays the same. Escalation itself becomes boring. To fix this, you can alternate between highs and lows. As the story progresses, the highs get higher and the lows get lower. 

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, is a good example of this. The story concerns a dad and his child walking through the post-apocalypse. If the story were just suffering, it would be boring. But the story alternates between suffering and hope, and then takes that hope away. Reading The Road feels like the author is tantalizing you with the promise of comfort for these characters. You keep reading because you want to know if they ever actually find safety. The answer would be too obvious if the story had no variation. 

My Personal Process

I like starting with an archetype. Perhaps I saw a really cool movie about an antihero, so now I want to write about an antihero. I do a little reading. What are the conventions of the antihero story? Where can I subvert them? I learn that antiheroes need a foil, an innocent character. The antihero and the innocent need a reason to be forced together. Now I have the foundation of a story. 

Next I add a genre. I throw it on top like seasoning. Perhaps I want to tell a story about a cyberpunk antihero. Oooo. What are the conventions of cyberpunk? I do a little reading. It turns out I need dystopic capitalism, virtual reality, and degenerate body modifications. Where can I deviate from those?

Now I turn to the hero’s journey. What does my character want? What prevents them? What helps them? How do they change over the course of the story? Answering these questions gives me a basic outline of start, middle, and end. 

Finally, I create escalation and de-escalation. I come up with a moment of intensity, and I follow it with a moment of peace, and I repeat that process until my story reaches a climax. And each time, I increase the magnitude, until I have taken both ends to their logical extremes, and there I find the abyss and the reward from the hero’s journey. 

I do this process for each character and each subplot. Usually genre stays the same, but perhaps in my cyberpunk story one of the subplots is a romance. Anything goes. I allow myself the freedom of having the story be as long or as short as it needs to be to realistically cause change or growth in my protagonist, antagonist, and secondary characters. Sometimes this results in a short story, other times, a novel. 

General Advice

At the end of the day, don’t stress about structure. It doesn’t matter if your story adheres to three acts or five or which of the seven basic plots applies to you. It’s your story. Ignore conventions, do it. 

But it is helpful to pick an established structure and to change it. The hero’s journey, but female (The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood). The hero’s journey, but in space (Star Wars). Classic fantasy, but with realism and stakes (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin). Each of these stories follows some conventions, some pattern. And each of these stories subverts that pattern. Know the story you want to tell, know what is expected of you, and know how and when and where to defy those expectations. 

The best way to research is to read. I like to write fantasy. So I read fantasy. Way too much fantasy, if my wallet is any judge. I read critically, I read to analyze the story for its component parts, and I learn a little bit more about the structure of fantasy. (Sometimes I’ll steal an idea from a story. Don’t worry, everybody does it. All you have to do is call it ‘inspiration’ and nobody bats an eye). 

I’ll conclude by tentatively adding one more proposal to the lists and lists of types of stories. A story is a character who wants something and is prevented from having it. When the dust settles, that’s all a story is. 

Creating A Complex Character

My favorite feeling is falling in love with a character. Grinning stupidly whenever they’re on screen or sobbing with them as they struggle. Watching them learn and grow, and cheering for them without restraint, and then that empty ache when the story is over. 

It’s a rare feeling. The greatest challenge for me when I write a story is attempting to give this feeling to the reader. I am not always successful — it’s the most difficult task in storytelling. But each time I fall in love with a character, I learn a little bit more about how to replicate that process. 

This is, of course, a bare bones overview. Characters are insanely complex things to discuss. I would argue characters are far more complex than us humans. Each of these points I will assuredly discuss again, at a later date, in more detail. But for now, this is a good summary of what I have learned. 

Motivation

All characters need motivation. Motivation has two parts: a what and a why. The “what” is more superficial. It can be anything. True love, treasure, a friend, a castle, personal growth, adventure. I find it helpful to imagine the moment in which the character achieves their desire. What are they holding in their hands or their hearts? Who surrounds them? What are they thinking about?

The what is not nearly so important as the why. A character can want true love, and seek it, and find it, and that makes for a compelling romance novel. But when the novel explores why the character wants true love, it reaches another level of poignance and thematic power. Answering the question of why your character wants something often is an easy way to strike at the very core of who that character is. 

Flaw

Character flaws make a story interesting. You don’t need to like a character to fall in love with them. In fact, most of my crushes are on villains who I would never want to invite to a dinner party but who I adore watching on the screen or page. 

Choosing a flaw for a character is a delicate process. Flaws should be relevant to who the character is at their core and to the story itself. If you have a character whose flaw is, say, murderous rampages, but then that aspect of the character is never explored, they never grow, and the story never concerns it, then it’s not much of a flaw. Indeed, many stories are centered entirely around the flaw and overcoming it. This is the most basic and eternal form of character arcs. 

Take Prince Zuko, from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. His character flaw is, principally, that he’s doing the wrong thing. The rest of his story is the process of him realizing that and redeeming himself. What makes Zuko so compelling is his struggle as he turns himself around. Fixing his flaw digs at who he is at a very base level. It requires him to confront his father and his sister over the way they sculpted and manipulated him. Zuko’s flaw is a central element of his character and the story as a whole. 

I would advise you to steer clear of flaws that are based only in personality. Being an obnoxious person isn’t much of a flaw if it is left at such a surface level. Rather, I find it helpful to connect the innards of a character with their outtards. Zuko’s flaw is not that he shouts or is angry or is kinda annoying. Those personality traits result from his deeper flaw; he’s doing evil deeds, and knows it. 

Change

Dynamism is essential to a character. The process of their change more often than not ecompasses the entirety of the story and drives its events. 

They can change in many ways. Commonly, they overcome their flaw. But some stories focus on negative change, a deepening of the flaw. Other stories focus on a revelation concerning a hidden nature. Others focus on establishing a relationship between two characters. All of these count as change. 

Change should be directly tied to motivation. Their motivation, and the pursuit of that motivation, is the vehicle that drives their change. I would advise you to steer clear of having a character’s motivation be change. Rather, focus on finding ways to cause change as a result of motivation. Let motivation be a more physical goal, something the character can hold in their hand, so to speak. Let the mental goal follow naturally as a result of achieving the physical goal. 

Indeed, it can be powerful to consider the idea of  ‘change’ as a secondary motivation for your character. But this time, it is not a motivation they are aware of, or at least, it is a motivation they are afraid of admitting. It is something they keep hidden, even from themselves. 

Again, consider Prince Zuko. His flaw is his evildoing. But his motivation is not simply “do good things, instead of evil ones”. His motivation is to capture the protagonist, Aang. This is a physical and definite objective. In the process of doing so, he learns to do good things, and fixes his flaw. 

Not all characters should change. Your protagonist and antagonist, definitely. Their supporting relationships, probably. But everyone else? Most characters in a story are content to exist as they are, and they serve a valuable function in doing so, as a way to induce change in other characters and as a metric for measuring that change.  

Contradictions

Robert McKee, in Story, describes his opinion on  what makes a character interesting, and it is one that resonated well with me. Essentially, McKee argues, characters are interesting when they have contradictions in their nature. The more contradictions, the more interesting. 

For example, take Han Solo, from Star Wars. Han Solo is likeable because of the contradiction inherent to his roguish nature and his heart of gold. The juxtaposition of those two traits is powerfully dynamic. 

Or, consider Snape, from Harry Potter. Snape is far and away the most interesting character in that series, and it is because of his contractions. He’s mean to Harry, but looks after him. He’s stern and cold, but deeply emotional. He (spoilers, but you definitely already know) loves Dumbledore, but kills him. These contractions are fascinating. The reader asks themselves how they came to be, how they could possibly coexist. It makes his character into an intriguing mystery. 

I structure contradictions around two conflicting statements, connected by a “but”. The character is this way, but also the direct opposite way. For main characters, I might have a list of 5 or 6 powerful contradictions. For supporting roles, I keep it to just 1 or 2.  That’s just personal preference, though. 

Relationships

A relationship with another character is principal to making both characters interesting. Relationships are like the idea of contradictions, above, but in a macro sense. The character is this way, but this other character is that way. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about your story as its own character, and the relationships inside as the contradictions that make it interesting. 

In any case, relationships are useful for a couple of reasons. First, they’re just fun to watch. A dynamic relationship between two characters is more enjoyable than anything else. Two friends with chemistry, working together to solve a problem. A protagonist and an antagonist who respect each other even as they compete. Like contradictions, relationships get more interesting the more opposite two characters are. A character and their foil forced to coexist is the premise of like every buddy cop movie ever made. 

But second, relationships are ways to drag out different sides to your character that they wouldn’t otherwise have shown to the reader. If your character is a gruff bounty hunter, that’s all they will present. But pair that gruff bounty hunter with a child who reminds them of who they used to be, and their gruff exterior will soften. Pair that bounty hunter with a villain they detest, and they will show determination and resilience. Pair that bounty hunter with a love interest, and they will start to reveal passion and emotion. Use relationships to plumb the depths of your characters. 

Hidden Nature

This is much more optional than some of the above techniques. I found that by answering the above questions, especially brainstorming contradictions, my characters already possessed a hidden nature, and I didn’t have to work at it. 

A hidden nature is simply any side of your character that they don’t show to the general public. This isn’t an essential thing for every character. But thinking about what your character keeps hidden, why they keep it hidden, and how that secret eventually and inevitably gets revealed, is a helpful process. 

Physicality and Personality

These two are the most fun parts of character creation, but they are also the most superficial. In my own character creation process, I find that I imagine physicality and personality first, and then promptly ignore them to move on to the more relevant things. 

However, both of these are still important. In what is swift becoming a common thread for this article, physicality and personality are most interesting when they contradict each other and themselves. A giant who speaks in a soft voice. A gangster who wears hand knitted sweaters. 

I will sometimes imagine my character in passing situations. If I’m in class, I imagine my character sitting next to me. What are they wearing? Did they arrive late? Are they slumped over, bored, or sitting straight backed, attentive? It’s like a little game I play with myself, and it proves to be an effective exercise. 

Characters should also sound distinctive from each other. Not just in their actual voices, but what and how they say things. This is more than just an accent. Are they easily angered, do they speak in exclamations, are they quiet in large groups, timid, braggadocious. A fun challenge is to write different lines of dialogue for your characters without the name tags attached, and to see if you can spot the difference. 

Finally, though, I would advise you not to focus too hard on this part of your character. Don’t define your character by how they look or sound. Define them by their decisions and their relationships and their goals. 

Physicality and personality are at their most useful when they serve as keys into your character’s psychology. The gangster wearing hand knitted sweaters is more than just a gimmick, it’s a clue that they care about their mother and that they don’t care about what other people think of them. The reasons why a character looks and sounds the way they do are more compelling than what they look and sound like. 

Competence

A much smaller point: it’s fun to read about a character who is competent. This competence can be in anything; social interaction, fighting, math, you name it. But giving a character a skill that they are better than anyone else at is an easy way to make them seem cool and likeable. It plays into the escapist part of fiction — when I’m reading, I read to feel like someone else. I’d rather feel like someone who has a skill than someone who is totally useless. 

Suffering

Your character should suffer. A lot. In ways that really really hurt them. Similar to competence, suffering is an easy way to make them relatable. We all know what it’s like to suffer, at least a little bit. If your character suffers too, it inspires empathy. 

The easiest way to make a character likeable is to make them suffer in an unfair way. Have someone lie and take credit for their work, have someone not believe them, have them be cheated by the system. A small warning though — this kind of suffering is often superficial. It’s useful when creating an immediate connection, but it’s difficult to create a truly meaningful story if the principal plot point is based off of a miscommunication. 

Additional Note

Sometimes the most compelling characters are the ones who are noticeably missing one of these aspects. Characters without flaws, or without motivations, or without change, or without relationships make for some of the most interesting characters in fiction. 

Writing is full of rules, and the first rule of writing is that you’re allowed to break all of the rules. But the second rule of writing is that you should know why you’re breaking the rule. 

My Character Sheet

Everybody creates characters in their own way, and every way is valid. This is simply the way that I find the most useful, and if you find it useful as well, feel free to claim it and personalize it and make it your own. 

  • Name
  • A paragraph or seven on physical description and personality
  • Flaw (s)
  • Contradiction (s)
  • Greatest Fear
  • Change
  • Hidden Nature
  • Motivation
  • A list of their relationships with other characters, how they feel about those relationships, and what purpose to the story those relationships are meant to serve.