Understanding Story Structure: The Essential Steps
Story structure. It’s easy to take it for granted. It’s easy to think it unimportant in a world where structure is constantly being played with and upended.
Picture this scenario though: You’re enjoying a movie. The story develops in front of you, drawing you in. You empathize with the characters. The cinematography blows you away.
AND THEN all of a sudden, 44 minutes in, the story falls absolutely flat. The structure collapses: subplots lead no where; character’s journeys aren’t pursued; the film loses its direction.
This is why story structure is so crucial. It’s all about consistent engagement with the story. We all have an in-built understanding of story. We therefore expect peaks and troughs, set ups and conclusions.
Understanding the basics of story structure is key in building the blocks of any screenplay.
Whilst rules don’t always need to be followed strictly, understanding how story structure works is imperative for whatever structure you end up employing.
The following steps aim to illuminate some of the basic tenants of story structure as applied to screenwriting…
The History of Story Structure
Before we jump into the steps, let’s first look at some background.
Structure harks back to centuries of storytelling. It speaks to humans’ instinctive way of shaping the world. In stories, such as in our lives, we have a beginning, middle and end.
Aristotle is one of those credited to have originated this idea, which still holds firm in modern day storytelling. In its simplest terms, a story tends to be:
the Set-Up, the Confrontation and the Resolution.
The stories we’re taught from a young age and through school, family and social groups follow similar patterns. At its core, narrative structure remains the same.
Although very different in content and genre, a film such as Toy Story, has narrative similarities to a film such as 1917: a protagonist and world is set up, they face conflict and challenges and there is some kind of resolution.
What writers should be reassured by is that as a result of this background, most people have an innate sense of story structure. Audiences don’t need to know these steps are happening, they just need to feel it.
We know mostly how stories should go. The difficult bit is finely tuning this, making sure things happen at the right time and giving the story time to develop.
In the words of David Mamet:
‘Dramatic structure is not an arbitrary–or even conscious- invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement; thesis, antithesis, synthesis.’
6 Steps of Story Structure
There is not one singular way to structure your story. However, if you look hard at most TV or films, this structure seems to lie under even the most complex plots.
There may be diversions on this, or it may be done backwards, or in pieces. But ultimately these steps hold true for the majority of stories.
Step#1 – The Set-Up
Most stories begin with a character and invite you to emphasize or identify with them. This set-up should flesh out the character’s lives and their surroundings.
It is an opportunity to intrigue the audience and engage them with the story world.
Put simply, the set-up is the introduction to our protagonist and their world.
- What does the world look like?
- What is the protagonist’s life like?
- Who are the other characters in the protagonist’s world?
If there are multiple protagonists then this is just extended out. The screenplay will need to be even more efficient in introducing the set-up in this first part of the story structure.
But to move the story forward this protagonist or the central characters need to have a desire/goal. Passive characters are not engaging enough. They won’t grab the audience, they’ll wash over them.
Make your characters grab the audience’s attention in this set-up.
Give your character’s motivations, goals and things they lack. This can provide the basis of what they should achieve on the upcoming journey.
Step#2 – Inciting Incident
This is a turning point, where the situation of the central character is put into flux. It may follow after a long set-up of the story world. It may follow after only a very brief set-up.
Something changes, or an opportunity offers itself up to the character. Maybe a problem emerges.
This provides the opportunity for the protagonist to learn something or gain something.
- It presents an opportunity for the protagonist to identify something tangible which represents their desire/goal.
- It also further drives and exposes to the audience what your character lacks or needs.
If you were to look at this in terms of a three-act structure (more on that later), this incident drives the action into the second act. It’s the bridge from the set-up to the main body of the action.
This inciting incident might come in the form of:
- An unexpected incident.
- A revelation.
- A break in reality.
The Matrix provides a great example of a compelling inciting incident. In its break with reality, it is a very clear way of graduating from one step of the story structure to the next.
- Neo meets Trinity in a club. She teases Neo’s desire to understand what the Matrix is.
- Neo has encountered hints already of the Matrix in his life as a computer programmer.
- However, this crucial encounter propels Neo into a path of seeking to understand what the Matrix is.
- Just the very flirtation with this leads to Neo being faced with Agent Smith, who tries to stop him from meeting Morpheus.
- Neo can no longer remain in ignorance. His curiosity has changed into a need.
- This then leads Neo to his life changing meeting with Morpheus.
The inciting incident for the rest of the entire series is Walt’s discovery of his terminal cancer. This is his break with reality and from normal life. Nothing can or will be the same again.
- Whilst external events also force him into changing his life, it’s his knowledge of his fatal cancer that is the crucial context to him becoming a new person.
- It’s this that keeps him on the path to his new persona, with catastrophic external events lubricating this journey.
Step#3 – The growing journey…
The story and tension begins to build as the character, or characters, try to come to terms with the change or opportunity presented by the inciting incident.
They have to adapt and learn new ways of dealing with the world.
- Obstacles may throw themselves into the characters path and conflict can arrive.
- Tension begins to build and characters may be thrown into sticky situations which test and confuse them.
But this is also a time of doubt and discovery. Experimentation is key.
- How do the characters react to these new challenges?
- How does it change them for the better or worse?
These are questions to ask yourself as you build your character’s journeys.
This point will be when the characters (protagonist and/or supporting) start to reveal the traits that will come to define their journey.
- Do they display heroic traits or cowardly ones?
- How do these challenges make our engagement with the characters grow and change, as well as changing and growing the characters themselves.
Step#4 – Midpoint
Now, midpoints do what they say on the tin.
What’s vital about the midpoint is that it can push the protagonist further or closer to their goal. It has more clarity than other turning points.
While it isn’t a climax, it sets the ball in motion for the goal to become a more tangible or needed reality.
- The stakes must be raised and drive the narrative towards a climax and resolution.
- The midpoint could have a positive or negative inclination.
This midpoint will lead the characters to the point of no return, where they are forced to decide if they can ever return to their normal lives or if they must journey on.
Once they make this decision, there is no turning back.
Put simply, at the midpoint, a plan of action might suddenly be derailed. The characters must decide how they can alter their plan of action to achieve their goal.
- In other words, just when the goal seemed within reach, it has suddenly accelerated beyond reach again.
However, the midpoint could also be, or at least seem, a positive change.
- This positive change might have a ripple effect that alters the character’s goals, their ability to reach those goals or their perspective on their goals.
For example, in The Dark Knight, the midpoint occurs when Batman catches the Joker.
- It seems that Batman has achieved a goal.
- However, in truth the Joker wanted to be caught.
- The Joker’s revelation of a new peril for Batman to stop, alters Batman’s goals.
- The outcome of failing to achieve this goal (to save Rachel) has a ripple effect…
- Harvey Dent is tormented by Rachel’s death and consequently becomes another villain for Batman to stop, Two-Face.
Step#5 – Climax
So here we are: the climax.
If the climax makes you picture guns going off, raging battles, massive explosions – you’re not completely wrong .But this obviously isn’t the case in all stories.
The climax is where the protagonist must face the biggest obstacle in their journey. This is a final test of character, to see what they have truly learnt about themselves along the way.
Here too, the hero is forced to face up to their dramatic need or flaw.
Take The Lion King as an example. The climax comes when Simba comes face to face with Scar.
- This is the point where Simba must prove his growth.
- All the emotion he has from his father’s death is released at this moment.
- He fights Scar, the perpetrator of his father’s death.
This a literally climatic moment in that it is a fight, with only one outcome possible.
But it’s also the climax of all the emotion the story has been creating: Simba’s journey into adulthood, vengeance for his father’s death, and a battle to be king.
Step#6 – Resolution
The final step of any story structure. Every story has a resolution. It could be definitive or it could be ambiguous. Either way, what needs to be clear is the writer’s voice.
- The story might be continuing in some way. But the writer needs to assert that this is the resolution they are providing.
We can imagine some stories going on and on. A character might only be at the beginning of their life, for example.
But the resolution is not the resolution for this character in absolute terms.
- Instead, it’s the resolution of the story’s purpose and of the protagonist’s driving goal throughout the preceding journey.
The resolution allows the audience to see the fallout or aftermath of the climax. Now that the dust has settled, what might life be like for the character(s) going forward?
This resolution could be a few seconds of screen time, or a longer developing resolution which ties up some plot arcs that haven’t yet been tied up.
Either way, it makes the audience leave the story feeling like the journey has been worth it.
- The protagonist and central characters should have changed and developed.
- Even if there is a tragic ending, the resolution usually allows a way for the character to assimilate or accept what has happened.
It’s vital that the resolution doesn’t leave any loose ends. Audiences will have an innate frustration if arcs are not concluded.
After all, if we saw the beginning of a story (whether it be a small plot point or a supporting character) but not the end, what’s the point of seeing it in the first place?
A three-act structure is the most common structure employed within film.
You could have a five act structure, or even a seven act structure.
However, a three-act screenplay structure is an easy way to group the above steps of story structure. It’s a good example to use in seeing how the steps of story structure can work.
- The set-up can be seen as Act 1: Characters are explored and established and we get to know the story world.
- Act 2 could be said to include: the inciting incident, the journey and midpoint, with the climax evolving into…
- Act 3, which is: the result of the climax and the consequent final resolution.
Story Structure Case Study: Little Miss Sunshine
Let’s use Little Miss Sunshine as an example of how story structure can be employed.
In the fact that it is a journey/road movie it provides a handy and easy map for story structure to be worked out from. It also deftly applies story structure to multiple characters.
Step #1 – The Set-Up:
Little Miss Sunshine does not make it clear who the protagonist is.
While it could be argued it is Olive, she is perhaps the character with the least prominent character arc in the film. Arguably her father is closer to the protagonist, but other key character arcs are represented by the rest of the family as well.
Either way, the film sets up and implies the family’s situation. It does this in a dynamic opening montage.
- Richard is pushing his nine step ‘Refuse to Lose’ program to a class and then later to his family. This project however seems to be failing despite Richard’s obsession.
- Olive is obsessed by beauty pageants.
- Grandpa is shown snorting drugs in the family bathroom.
- Frank has just got out of hospital after trying to kill himself.
- Dwayne is a teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he can fulfil his dream of becoming an airline pilot.
- Sheryl, the mother, is overworked and it is implied she is struggling to hold the family together.
The narrative manages to define and suggest the character’s goals, desires and complexities right at the start.
These are certainly not passive characters. They have clear definitions which the script is able to convey in one short scene (per character).
The dynamic between the family members is also emphasized. The film clearly sets up its theme as being of family and how it functions.
Step # 2 – Inciting Incident:
- Olive is informed she has qualified for the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ beauty pageant.
- Her mother, father and grandpa want to support her.
- This means Dwayne and Frank must also join as they are not trusted to be left alone.
The quotidian has been broken and therefore the story can fully kick off. The pageant, with a date and location, provides a tangible goal to work towards where desires and needs can be realized.
Being low on funds, the family must take a camper-van 800 miles to California.
- This is a clever structural tool as it sets up a journey in which all the characters are together in a confined space and must work together (and stand each other enough) to get there.
It also mimics classic road movies or quests, but inverts this by placing the emphasis on the dysfunctional family.
Step #3 – The Bumpy Journey…
As the family’s journey gets underway, they encounter various bumps and obstacles.
- The van breaks down early on in the trip. They realize they can only set off from a standstill if they all push the van together and then one after the other jump in as it begins to move.
- The image of the family running together is visually symbolic: they are beginning to understand how to work together as a unit, rather than constantly coming up against each other.
- Richard goes from pay phone to pay phone on the journey, desperate to know if his nine step ‘Refuse to Lose’ program has been successfully sold by his agent. When the agent breaks it to him that it won’t be successful, this puts a dampen on the trip and brings up the family’s money troubles.
- Frank bumps into his ex-boyfriend, who left him for someone else and was part of the reasoning that led him to attempt suicide. However, the family members provide a somewhat dysfunctional support network, as well as the goal of the pageant meaning he must continue on.
Throughout these points of conflict, the characters begin to gain knowledge and understanding of themselves and of each other.
# Step 4 – Midpoint
Within these building obstacles and knowledge, the family stumble across the midpoint: Grandpa is dead!
- In darkly comic fashion, this brings about a key decision: do the family abandon the journey or do they continue the quest?
The answer is of course, to continue. So, the family bundle the body out of the hospital window. Grandpa’s coming with them.
By now the stakes are raised: they’re running very late for the pageant and have a dead body in the back of the truck.
Tensions are increased, even more so when a cop almost discovers the body in the back. As they arrive at the pageant, the possibilities for everything to crumble are high.
This midpoint cranks the film up into a higher gear, preparing it for….
Step #5 – The Climax
- As the family watch the other girls perform doll-like routines on the stage, the family wait anxiously in anticipation for Olive’s performance.
- Olive takes to the stage and begins a thrusting, hilarious dance routine which leaves the rest of the audience agasp.
Yet here finally the obstacle is faced: the goal becomes a reality. But this is not about winning the pageant.
- With attempts by organizers to stop Olive’s performance, the family all take to the stage to dance with her and provide support.
This scene suggests the family have used the knowledge they have gained on the journey and can finally come together in a scene which emphasizes their new family bond.
Richard, in particular, realizes the revelation that it is not winning that matters, but supporting his family and relishing their company.
Step #6 – Resolution
Charges against the family are dropped after they agree to never enter Olive in a beauty contest in California again. The family drive home, happy and united.
This resolution is fairly brief, but rounds off the character arcs effectively.
The pageant provides an aim in which the family could learn what they were lacking: cohesion, shared experience and understanding.
Take a hard look at some of your favorite films and you’ll see that the way they play out often follows a familiar story structure pattern.
- They may do this even in spite of a bold or alternative screenplay structure.
- Or they may do this within a more familiar, traditional three-act structure.
Whilst screenplay structure can vary greatly, story structure is often more resolute. Of course, rules can be broken. But with broken rules must come an understanding of why the tried and tested formulas work in the first place.
Find the root of why story structure works and the opportunities to play with it will feel more apparent.
You can play around and tinker with structure as much as you want. However, these steps will help equip you with the grounding and understanding to do this effectively.