Story structure is the framework of a narrative, providing a roadmap for authors to build compelling stories. Whether it be in books, films, plays, or television shows, story structure is an integral part of storytelling that helps guide writers and makes sure they have all the necessary elements in place to tell an engaging story. By understanding these different types of narrative structures, writers can dive deeper into the art of storytelling and make sure that their stories are engaging, meaningful, and memorable.
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What is Story Structure in Film?
First, let’s define story structure
There are many different types of story structures out there — from Dan Harmon's Story Circle to Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat'' Beat Sheet — each with their own unique set of rules and approaches to crafting stories. Before we dive into each, let’s look at the story structure definition.
STORY STRUCTURE DEFINITION
What is story structure?
Story structure is the underlying framework of a narrative that guides the plot, characters, and themes throughout a story. It can be thought of as an "outline" for a story, outlining which scenes are necessary for the plot to move forward and allowing for elements such as rising tension and resolution. Story structure is often broken down into distinct parts or acts, such as exposition (introducing the world and characters), rising action (building towards conflict or climax), and denouement/resolution. Different story structures may use different act divisions, but all serve to guide the plot along a cohesive path.
Common Elements of Story Structure:
- Character Arcs
- Plot points
What is Story Structure Used For?
Why is story structure important?
Story structure is an important element of storytelling because it provides a sense of order and continuity throughout the story. It helps to create tension and suspense, as well as allowing for elements such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, and rising action.
There are facets of cinema that lean into the more experimental and disregard story structure. However, when it comes to storytelling, structure is important. Without a solid story structure in place, readers may lose interest or become confused by the plot's lack of direction.
Having a cohesive structure allows writers to craft a narrative that keeps readers engaged and invested in the story.
What is Story Structure Made Of?
Common elements of story structure
While different story structures follow different frameworks, there are a few common elements of story structure that exist in each: setting, characters, character arcs, and plot points. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Setting is an important element of story structure because it provides a physical environment in which the characters and situations within the story can exist. It also serves to highlight thematic elements such as symbols, mood, and tone.
The setting of a story is the physical and temporal environment in which the story takes place. It provides context to characters and can help to shape themes. The setting helps to define the characters too, by providing context for their actions and motivations.
For example, a character living in poverty may have different motivations than someone with wealth as is the case in Slumdog Millionaire.
Finally, setting can provide visual interest to the narrative, giving readers a clearer picture of what's taking place in the story and making it more engaging.
Characters & Character Arcs
Characters and character arcs are integral elements of story structure as they provide the heart of the narrative. They introduce conflict, emotion, and relatability into the story. Without characters, a story would simply be a series of events with no attachment or meaning.
For example, would the plot points and world of Forrest Gump be as emotional and important to the audience without out investment in the lead character?
The arc of a character's journey is especially important for readers to understand why characters do what they do in the narrative. It gives them insight into the characters' motivations and drives their investment in them, as they chart an individual's path of growth and transformation through their experiences in the story.
Plot points are important components of story structure because they provide the framework for the story's progression. These moments lead from one dramatic beat to the next, with each scene building up to a climax.
They create arcs and tangible stakes that draw readers into the narrative, making them feel invested in what happens next. Additionally, plot points help to unify the characters' development and their motivations with the events of the story.
Plot points should be carefully crafted and balanced so as to provide maximum drama and momentum for readers, while also providing appropriate resolutions to conflicts set up earlier in the narrative. Let’s take a closer look at various ways you can craft these plot points through structure to tell a captivating and immersive story.
What is Story Structure in Acts?
The three act story structure is a classic structure which outlines the basic building blocks of narrative storytelling. It divides a story into three acts, or distinct sections: the setup, rising action/conflict, and resolution.
To better understand this, check out our video breakdown below of Parasite’s three-act structure.
To recap, in the first act, or setup, characters are introduced to the audience and their world is established. This is usually the first 20 minutes of a film.
The second act is where obstacles are presented to the characters and they have to rise to meet these challenges. This is often referred to as the rising action or conflict portion of the story.
Finally, in the resolution act, conflicts must be resolved and any dangling plot threads must come together. This part of the story shows how each character has grown due to their struggles and ultimately reveals what happened in a satisfying way for readers.
Story Structure Examples
Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey is a classic story structure which presents an archetypal cycle of events that many narratives follow. It involves a hero who faces obstacles and challenges in pursuit of some kind of goal or destiny.
The stages of the journey are often referred to as the "Hero's Journey" and typically include plot points like:
A Call to Adventure
The Road of Trials
Meeting with Mentor(s)
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Approach to the Inmost Cave / Ordeal
The Reward / Ultimate Boon
Return with the Elixir/Ultimate Boon
The Hero’s Journey is found all throughout cinema. Check out this supercut by This Guy Edits of various characters in hero’s journey stories in film.
This structure allows for stories to explore profound human experiences such as coming-of-age, self-discovery, and a universal connection with something greater than oneself.
Story Structure Types
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Dan Harmon's Story Circle is a classic narrative structure popularized by the television show Community and its creator, Dan Harmon.
It divides a story into eight simple steps which can serve as a useful framework for outlining a narrative.
To recap, the Dan Harmon circle story structure is as follows:
You — A character is in a zone of comfort...
Need — But they want something...
Go — They enter an unfamiliar situation...
Search — Adapt to it...
Find — Get what they wanted...
Take — Pay a heavy price for it...
Return — Then return to their familiar situation...
Change — Having changed.
For a deeper dive into the structure, check out our video guide below.
This structure emphasizes the importance of character development and growth, as well as how one’s actions can have lasting consequences - both positive and negative.
What Does Story Structure Mean in Film?
Save the Cat Beat Sheet
The "Save the Cat" Beat sheet is a story structure created by legendary film producer and writer Blake Snyder. It consists of 15 story beats that are used to track and refine the story-telling process from beginning to end. These beats provide a framework for writers and filmmakers to use when creating engaging stories.
The beats include:
Catalyst/Break into Two
Debate (1st Plot Point)
Break into Three/Promise of The Premise
Midpoint: Active Protagonist & Reflection
Bad Guys Close In (2nd Plot Point)
All is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
Break into Four/Finale Lurking
Finale / Climax
By following this structure, writers can ensure they have all of the necessary elements in place to create an effective story and convey their intended message. In our video, we breakdown Interstellar, one of Christopher Nolan’s best films and how it plays out in a Save the Cat beat story structure.
Story structure is a crucial element of any successful story, helping to create engaging narratives that are able to draw readers and viewers in. Each type of story structure has its own unique set of beats, tailored to the specific needs of any particular story.
By understanding the different types of narrative structures, writers can craft stories that bring their characters' journeys to life. From Dan Harmon's Story Circle to Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" Beat Sheet, each story structure can provide writers with a framework for exploring new ideas and telling compelling tales.
Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Story structure is often implemented to make the seeds of a story concept even better. While we touched on Dan Harmon’s Story Circle above, we take an even closer look at the framework in our next article.