6 Classic Story Structures

6 Classic Story Structures

In this post we look at six classic story structures from around the world.

Nowadays, it seems like there are dozens of approaches for plotting and structuring your story. Most models are so complex that you need to read entire books (or a series of books), attend expensive seminars, and spend hours studying to get the hang of the basics for each model.

Worst-case scenario, it turns out the fancy new narrative model is just an ineffectual novelty. I know, because I’m the sort of nerd who enjoys exploring these models in depth, so I can find the commonalities across various models. I try to apply what works and discard the dross. My approach, however, has taken a toll on my time and wallet.

Well, I have a treat for those of you who prefer things that are free, accessible, and perennial. In this post, we will look at six narrative approaches that have had a deep, wide, and abiding impact and appeal for thousands of years. And, best of all, each of these narrative models is relatively simple.

I’ll even run a single premise through all six models so you can see how each emphasizes different narrative elements and, thus, gives you greater insight about the story. To add another level of intrigue, I’ll wait to reveal which story borrowed the premise until the end of the post. Try to guess what the story is before then!

So, without further ado, let’s dive into these classic story structures.

6 Classic Story Structures 

1. Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure

Origins: The Poetics, by Aristotle

Classic Example: Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles

Structural Overview:

Act 1- Pity

(Tying- throughout the first half of the story)

Act 2-Fear

(Untying- beginning at the midpoint, continuing til the end)

Act 3- Catharsis

Step-by-step Breakdown:

Act 1- The author introduces a single protagonist and gives us a reason to ‘pity’ or care for them. The author also begins tying a narrative knot and making life increasingly difficult for the protagonist.

Act 2- The protagonist’s overarching goal is introduced. The writer creates fear in the audience by making clear the stakes—what the character stands to gain, by achieving their goal, as well as what they risk losing should they fail. Ideally, the protagonist risks everything they have already for the one thing they hold most precious. Here the protagonist begins proactively trying to untie the Gordian knot that pesky writer has made of their life.

Act III– By the end of the last act, we find out if the protagonist has succeeded or failed to achieve their goal. Knowing how the main conflict is resolved ought to lead to a satisfying feeling of catharsis or emotional release for the audience.

Example:

Act 1- Pity: A businessman takes his unfaithful wife on a hunting trip abroad. He botches the trip right away by fleeing a charging animal during the first hunt.

Act 2- Fear: The businessman’s wife cheats on him yet again with their hunting guide. Desperate now, the businessman risks it all by pursuing extremely dangerous game: a wounded lion. (Notice the author has tied one heck of a knot for the character to unravel, which he dutifully sets about in the dead middle of the story)

Act- 3 Catharsis: Suddenly, the businessman finds he can re-contextualize his fear. His terror turns into a thrill, and he boldly pursues his quarry. His wife, however, sees her husband has reclaimed his self-respect and shoots him before he can finish the hunt, and, presumably, leave her.

Structural Theme:

‘How will you persevere in the face of life’s trials?’

2. Chiastic Structure

Origins: The Torah (or Old Testament)

Classic Examples: The Creation and Fall; Noah’s Flood; The Book of Job. 

Structural Overview:

Beat 1a – Life before

Beat 2a – The protagonist loses everything

Beat 3a – Things go from bad to worse

Beat 4 – The protagonist remains steadfast/takes action

Beat 3b – Things go from worse to better

Beat 2b – Character gets everything back—plus more

Beat 1b – Life after

Step-by-step Breakdown

Beat 1a – The protagonist is living a prosperous life.

Beat 2a – Outside forces rob the protagonist of everything they have.

Beat 3a – Even their loved ones turn their back on the protagonist.

Beat 4 – The protagonist has a moment of apotheosis and an epiphany and acts accordingly.

Beat 3b – Because of the protagonist’s steadfast action, slowly but surely, things get better.

Beat 2b – Everything they loved is restored to them tenfold, putting their doubters to shame.

Beat 1b – The protagonist lives/or dies in a place of unshakeable faith and contentment.

Example:

Beat 1a–A businessman has it all: he is admired, handsome, rich, and has married a beautiful wife he’s madly in love with.

Beat 2a–His wife cheats on him at every opportunity. People now pity him, the stress deteriorates his looks, and his wife spends money beyond their means. Worst of all, she confirms she does not love him.

Beat 3a–His wife flaunts her infidelities and taunts him by telling him he’s too cowardly to divorce her.

Beat 4–While the businessman is on a hunting trip with his wife meant to win back her love, he discovers something else: his own courage and, thus, self-respect.

Beat 3b–The businessman behaves so bravely, that he wins his wife’s begrudging admiration and care, as she worries for his safety on the dangerous hunt. He resolves to divorce her, restoring everything he has lost.

Beat 2b–Even the man who cuckolded the businessman is overwhelmed with respect and cheers the businessman on during the hunt.

Beat 1b–The wife, desperate to reassert herself, shoots her husband, killing him instantly, but he dies filled with joy in the present and hope for the future. 

Structural Theme:

‘By divine grace and aid, you can reverse and redeem your fate.’ 

3. Kishotenketsu

Origins: South-East Asian poetic and narrative traditions

Classic Example: Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling

Structural Overview:

Ki- Intro

Sho- Development

Ten- Twist

Ketsu- Resolution

Step-by-step Breakdown:

Ki- The writer introduces the characters and setting.

Sho- The audience gets a better sense of who the characters are by watching them go about their daily lives.

Ten- An unexpected event occurs which re-contextualizes everything that has happened until now or sends the character’s life spinning off wildly in an unforeseen direction, or both at once.

Ketsu- The characters respond to this unexpected event as best they can, and we briefly glimpse how both the characters and their circumstances will never be the same.

Example:

Ki- A rich, handsome young couple is on vacation abroad.

Sho- Every day they enjoy hunting exotic game together.

Ten- After a hunt takes a turn for the worse, revealing the husband’s cowardice, the wife shows her previously hidden disdain for her husband by cheating with their guide.

Ketsu- In a desperate attempt to regain his wife’s respect, the husband goes on an extremely dangerous hunt, but ends up rediscovering his self-respect instead. The wife, realizing what this might mean for her, shoots her husband while he’s lost in the hunt’s thrill.

Structural Theme:

‘Just when things feel settled, life can take strange, unexpected turns.’ 

4. Mythic Structure (Monomyth)

Origins: Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth; Dan Harmon’s simplified Story Circle.

Classic Example: The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Structural Overview/ Step-by-step Breakdown:

Hero: We meet the protagonist and glimpse their everyday life, recognizing that something is missing; they are not whole.

Call: An incident occurs which forces the protagonist to confront the reality of what they want or need, while also giving them the opportunity to pursue that need is.

Departure: The protagonist leaves their familiar environment or circumstances, setting out in pursuit of what they need.

Trials: The protagonist faces and overcomes increasingly difficult obstacles between them and their goal.

Discovery: The protagonist finds the object of their desire.

Ordeal: They must pay a great price to claim what they want.

Homecoming: The protagonist returns to where they began, their original environment or circumstances.

Transformation: Now, however, they have been changed by their journey, and this change in them spills out, changing their environment, circumstances, and even the surrounding people.

Example:

Hero: A rich, handsome businessman lives a life of ease and comfort with his beautiful wife.

Call: He suspects his wife has fallen out of love with him and plans a hunting trip—and adventure—hoping it will help them reconnect.

Departure: They leave for Africa.

Trials: The businessman botches his first hunt and his wife sleeps with their guide.

Discovery: He decides he must do something brave to win back his wife’s love and respect.

Ordeal: He sets out on an exceptionally dangerous hunt for a wounded lion.

Homecoming: During the hunt, the man finds his terror has changed into a thrill. He regains his self-respect and contemplates life without his wife.

Transformation: At the height of the businessman’s joyful epiphany, his wife shoots him, so that he dies happy. His bravery inspires the hunting guide while chastening and humbling his wife.

Structural Theme:

‘What do you need and how can you use it to change the world? 

5. Fairy-tale Structure

Origins: Various Folklorists from around the world.

Classic Example: The collected works of the Brother’s Grimm, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang, and many, many more.

Structural Overview/Step-by-step Breakdown:

Once there was… the writer presents the protagonist and the setting.

And every day… we see them going about their daily life.

Until one day… something happens that throws their life out of balance.

And because of that… they react to the incident, trying to restore balance by the easiest route possible.

And so… their first attempt inevitably fails, but they try again, albeit taking a riskier approach.

Until finally… they are forced to make a desperate, last-ditch effort to solve their problem, leading to success or failure, for good or ill.

And ever since that day… we glimpse what the protagonist’s new normal looks like now.

Example:

Once there was… a rich, handsome businessman.

And every day… he doted on his beautiful wife.

Until one day… he discovered his wife no longer loved him.

And because of that… he tried to reconnect with her over an adventurous hunting trip.

And so… they set out together, but his wife is quick to assure him she looks down on him too much to love him ever again.

Until finally… he proves his worth to himself and to his wife while on a daring hunt.

And ever since that day… for the brief remainder of his life, the businessman is filled with joy and hope for the future.

Structural Theme:

 ‘What can you do to better yourself? What should you do to avoid harm?’ 

6. Fable Structure

Origins: Aesop’s Fables

Classic Example: The Fox and The Crow

Structural Overview/ Step-by-step Breakdown:

A Character behaves wisely or foolishly

They reap the rewards or face the consequences for their actions

Either a character or the narrator states the lesson

Example:

A businessman marries a beautiful, but selfish and capricious woman.

She spends all his money and cheats on him constantly, eventually killing him when she fears he might finally leave her.

No amount of gifts or blessings can satisfy the truly greedy; once they have a taste, they will do anything to hold onto their desires.

Theme: ‘Do this; Don’t do that.

The Final Word

Try experimenting with each of these classic story structures: outline one story using each of the structures, then write a single draft based on your insights from all the different outlines. Or outline one story using each structure, then write a draft for each one. You’ll be astonished at how much you learn about your story, your approach to writing, and just how diverse our various narrative traditions truly are!

P.S. The example story I used was Hemingway’s brilliant piece: ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

 by Oliver Fox.

More Posts From Oliver:

  1. The 4 Pillars Of Magic Realism
  2. On Plot-Driven vs Character-Driven Stories
  3. Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West
  4. On Ghosts & How To Write About Them
  5. The 4 Pillars Of Science Fiction
  6. Writers Talk 6 | Fantasy Sub-Genres
  7. 10 Classic Fantasy Tropes & How To Enliven Them
  8. Writers Talk 3 | Star Wars
  9. 3 Takeaways For Writers From David Foster Wallace

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 17th March 2022
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2 thoughts on “6 Classic Story Structures”

  1. stephanie gurnon

    This is super helpful, thanks! I love how succinct it is. (What’s up with the wife killing her husband though, in most examples, hahaha.)

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      I’m so glad you found this article helpful and straightforward!

      As for the exemplar narrative: That’s just the story Hemingway decided to tell in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” I suppose.

      I agree it’s dark, but the story seems to lend itself to multiple structural approaches. Check the story out for yourself, if you’re curious. I could hardly do it justice with my summaries!

      All the best,

      Oliver

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