Basic Story Structure

Basic Story structure.jpg
Even the grandest structure needs scaffolding.

Every story has the same basic structure, but this foundation doesn’t need to be limiting. Find out the basics of storytelling and use these tools to craft your own absorbing tales.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • The beginning

  • The first plot-point

  • Some first plot-points in movies

  • Some first plot-points in novels

  • Some plot-points are not so obvious

  • Conflict

  • The middle

  • The second plot-point

  • The end

  • Exceptions to the basic story structure

The beginning

The beginning of a story (sometimes called the exposition or prologue) is an introduction that gives us the information we need to fully understand and enjoy a tale. The writer doesn’t have to reveal everything in the beginning, just enough to get us started.

In most cases the beginning will establish the location of the story and give us information about the principle characters, especially the protagonist. In the case of genre fiction the beginning also establishes the ‘tone’ of the story. If your tale is a gruesome horror story, it’s an idea to introduce something gruesomely horrific early on, just so the reader knows what they have in store for them.

At the same time avoid information dumps, some story elements are best left to emerge naturally as the plot progresses. Readers often don’t mind being left in the dark at the start of a tale, just don’t abandon them there.

In relation to story openings, Kurt Vonnegut used to say ‘start as close to the end as possible’. Which could be shortened to ‘cut out the waffle’. Give your audience the information they need to understand what’s happening (and why they should care) then get to the inciting incident that kicks off your tale (see below) as quickly as you can.

The first plot-point (the inciting incident)

The first plot-point almost always consists of an ‘inciting incident’ that causes a problem  —  something goes wrong that has to be put right. It’s the putting right bit that makes up the main part of the story.

Take the movie Star Wars. Near the start of the story Luke Skywalker comes across CP30 and R2D2 and learns of Darth Vader’s capture of Princess Leia. In a recorded message the Princess asks the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke goes to find him. Obi-Wan tells Luke about The Force and the Jedi Knights and asks Luke to join the battle against Darth Vader. Luke refuses but gives Obi-Wan a lift to the spaceport. On the way they discover that Imperial Stormtroopers have killed Luke’s Aunt and Uncle and destroyed their farm. Luke then decides to follow Obi-Wan and learn how to become a Jedi.

Reading the above we can see that there are a number of contenders for the inciting incident in Star Wars, for example, Luke’s discovery of CP3O and R2D2, the playing of Leia’s message, Obi-Wan’s revelation about Luke’s father etc. However, the strongest contender is an incident that we don’t actually witness at all – the murder of Luke’s family. Prior to discovering this massacre Luke was going to act as Obi-Wan’s Uber lift to the spaceport before returning home to resume his normal life, but after the massacre his world is turned inside out and he makes the decision to go to the stars and join the Rebellion.

All the information we learned before Luke’s change of heart is the beginning of the story, the prologue that tells us about:

  • The main characters – the prologue gives us information about their personalities, background and relationships

  • Their situation – the prologue shows us where they are and what they’re doing.

Some first plot-points in movies

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Roy, a telephone engineer, is called out on a job and sees a flying saucer. Although the flying saucer doesn’t present Roy with an immediate problem (it doesn’t try to zap him or kidnap him) it does change his life. Before Roy saw the flying saucer his life was ordinary; after he sees it, everything is different.

West Side Story. Maria, whose friends and family belong to a gang called the Sharks, goes to a dance organised by a local social worker. At the dance, Maria sets eyes on Tony (a member of a rival gang called the Jets). The pair immediately fall in love and, despite their many differences, they start to plan a future together.

The Odessa File. Peter, a journalist, reads the diary of a concentration camp victim and decides to track down the SS Commandant who ran the camp. When Peter begins reading the diary he’s a journalist looking for a story; by the time he’s finished, he’s a man with a mission.

You can find a contender for the first plot-point in almost any story, whether it’s presented as a movie, play or novel. However, most novels aren’t as fast-paced as movies and television shows and the problems faced by their characters usually unfold at a gentler pace.

Some first plot-points in novels

Pride and Prejudice. Mister Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet meet at a dance and form unflattering opinions about each other. Mister Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t faced with any immediate problems to solve, but we have a shrewd idea they’re meant for each other. We keep reading because we want to see how things work out.

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. A group of children discover that an old wardrobe is a doorway to another world. There is an immediate problem here because the children have to discover a way to get home. They also have another problem in that a witch has kidnapped one of their friends. We keep reading because we want to see how these problems are resolved and, like the children, we want to learn more about this strange world of talking animals.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, sinks a ship but rescues some of the survivors who are presented with the problem of escaping from his clutches. They also discover that Nemo wants to rule the oceans and have to figure out how to stop him. In the meantime we find out more about Captain Nemo’s incredible submarine and the mysteries of his underwater realm.

Some plot-points are not so obvious

Sometimes identifying the first plot-point can be difficult. Take Titanic a love-story involving Rose, a wealthy socialite, and the penniless artist Jack who first meet when he talks her out of committing suicide. This is a dramatic event, but nothing much changes as a result — Rose is still going to marry her unpleasant fiancé. The first plot-point occurs much later in the story when Jack declares his love for Rose and she decides to run away with him. When Rose makes this decision everything changes.

If you’re having trouble finding the first plot-point look at the behaviour of the main protagonist. Many stories start with the hero as a passive individual who just goes with the flow. However, at some point they usually decide they’re tired of being pushed around and take matters into their own hands. More often than not this moment is the first plot-point.

For example, in the movie Patriot Games the hero, Jack Ryan, is targeted by terrorists after foiling an IRA kidnap plot. Jack and his family are hunted ruthlessly, culminating in a car crash that almost kills his wife and daughter. Up till now Jack has been on the run, but when he sees his daughter lying in hospital the expression on his face tells us he’s not going to take it anymore. He’s going to start to fight back. This is the first plot-point, the moment when Jack takes control of his own destiny.

Conflict

It sometimes helps to think of a story in terms of conflict. Conflict is usually against one of three things:

  • A person versus nature. A plane crashes into the desert. How will the pilot survive in the waterless waste?

  • A person versus another person. Two brothers discover they are rivals for the love of the same girl. Who will win her?

  • A person verses themselves. A young show-jumper has an accident that leaves her terrified of horses. How will she overcome her fears to become a champion?

Almost any story you can think of is about a person’s conflict with something, someone, or themselves. The start of that struggle is often the first plot-point of the story

The middle

The middle of a story, usually the main part, is about problem solving.

For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark the first plot-point propels Indiana Jones on a journey to find the Ark of the Covenant and his life soon becomes a procession of difficulties:

  • first he has to get to Nepal and recover an artefact

  • then he has to travel to Egypt and find the Ark

  • then he has to rescue his girlfriend from some Nazis

  • then he has to rescue the Ark from the Nazis

  • then he has to rescue his girlfriend, the Ark and himself from the Nazis…etc.

For more about problem solving and developing the middle of your story see Expanding the basic story.

The second plot-point

The middle of the story ends with the second plot-point. The first plot-point presented our hero with a problem. The second plot-point sees the problem resolved.

The climax of a story (the exciting finale) usually coincides with the second plot-point, but it doesn’t have to. In The Wizard of Oz the climax occurs when Dorothy’s enemy, the Wicked Witch is finally destroyed. But it wouldn’t be right to say that the Witch’s death is the second plot-point. Dorothy’s objective was not to kill the Witch, it was to get home, and she achieves this later when the Wizard reveals the secret of the magic shoes.

The end

The second plot-point sees the problem-solved, and everything after this point is the end of the story — an epilogue, a summing-up.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark the second plot-point occurs when the Nazis open the Ark and are burnt to a crisp. In the end of the movie we find out that Indie and his friends have got home safely and see the Ark being put into storage.

In the end of The Wizard of Oz Dorothy discovers herself lying in her bed surrounded by her friends and family. Everything is back to normal and the Land of Oz was all a dream (or was it?).

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind the second plot-point occurs when Roy climbs to the top of Devils Tower and sees the alien ships (proving he’s not insane and was led there for a purpose). In the end of the movie the aliens welcome Roy on-board their mother ship and fly him away for a new adventure (hopefully not one involving probes of any kind).

Everything after the second plot-point is about tying up loose ends, offering explanations and (in most cases) showing a return to normality.

Exceptions to the basic story structure

The beginning-middle-end structure of the traditional story is a useful framework, but it can be simplistic and many stories don’t conform to this pattern.

Take the movie Batman (the 1989 version), here the second plot-point coincides with the death of the Joker, but the first plot-point is hard to pin down. The lives of the Joker and Batman seem entwined even before they’re aware of each others’ existence and it’s not easy to say where their story starts.

In Pride and Prejudice the first plot-point is reasonably clear (see above) but where’s the second? There’s no great climax where Mister Darcy saves Elizabeth from a bull, or fights a duel on her behalf, it’s more that they gradually become aware of each others’ good points. Though you could say that the eventual happy ending is sparked by the actions of the haughty and frightful Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Goodfellas doesn’t follow the traditional pattern, partly because it’s a biopic based on real events. The first plot-point is not an event, more of a transition, the scene where we first see the main protagonist Henry (Ray Loitta) as an adult mobster. There are a number of contenders for second plot-point, but one pivotal moment is when Henry’s capo, Paulie, turns his back on him and forces Henry to turn to the FBI for protection.

Whenever you’re writing a story be aware of the classic beginning-middle-end structure, but don’t feel bound by it. You can play around with it or even discard it if it’s getting in your way. However, most audiences will expect these traditional story elements so if you’re planning on dropping some you’d better have a good reason.

For more on crafting a story see Expanding the basic story.

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