‘Narrative structure’ is one of those terms that makes the essentially simple sound unnecessarily complex. Narrative structure begins with: Beginning, middle and end. Have those three things and immediately there’s structure to your story, now they can be played around with but we’ll get there in time.
On its most basic level narrative is: ‘Once upon a time something happened and it was resolved.’ Reading that back it sounds like I’m not being serious but I really am. Narrative structure, simple.
Before we can get on to playing around with this structure we’ve got to learn the basic rules as Syd Field says:
‘If you want to pay a game of chess you need four things: first you need a chessboard […] Next, you need the pieces […] the third thing you need are players, and fourth, you need to know the rules. Without the rules, it’s not a chess game.’ [Page 28]
For all the clever things it is possible to do with narrative structure if the writer doesn’t know where the story begins and ends then clarity will prove elusive. That, I think, is the basis of structure. You don’t have to begin your story at the beginning but as the writer you have to know where it is otherwise you risk getting confused yourself. Think of a crime story as an example, we may begin the story after the crime has been committed but the beginning of that story, why the crime was committed, is not the beginning of novel or short story. The actual beginning of the story might be that Abby killed Mary because Mary did something terrible to her. However, were we to begin the novel here there would be no story, unless it was a story of how Abby was caught, after all the reader would know who committed the crime and why.
In the case of this story the beginning might be the discovery of the dead body, the middle would be investigating how Mary died, and the end would be the revelation that it was Abby who killed her. There you have simple narrative structure, yet at the same time not completely simple because the true beginning is not the novel’s beginning. In which we meet backstory, the stuff that all characters need that happens off the page before the story begins. In a crime novel we may explore this during the investigation in the middle of the story, but if backstory doesn’t play a role in the actual story then we may not need to see it at all.
If for example we are writing a story where Abby and Mary are best friends we might not need to see how they became best friends because this backstory is not the beginning of our story. In this case there are usually two main types of buddy story; the story where they meet and become buddies, or the story where they are already buddies. In the second type we may discover how they became friends but it isn’t the beginning of the story itself.
You may wonder why I’ve pointed this out but I have read manuscripts that start like character studies telling us everything we need to know about the character that we should really be learning as the story progresses. An introduction to your main character at the beginning of a story is not the same as a mini-biography which doesn’t advance the story forward. While this isn’t a problem in a first draft where you might be working out your characters but when editing we’d have to consider how much patience a reader would have when they want the story to get started. Once the story has got started and is rolling along people are generally happier to have backstory filled in.
So your basic narrative structure is beginning/introduction, middle/action, and ending/resolution.
Field Syd, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006, orig 1984)