Having considered the basic structure of narrative, beginning, middle and end, now we have to take a deeper look. I should perhaps start by saying personally I like to keep structure that simple, I find if I start thinking too hard about frameworks and hitting targets I start getting blocked. However, there are a numerous books, journals and articles examining the way in which humans construct stories, categorising and sub-categorising all the targets. This is something that often associated with screenwriting but not solely, everyone has a slightly different opinion or slightly different phrasing.
If you were to put all these different theories together you might be able to write an entire novel bouncing from one point to another, which isn’t to say it would be a bad novel, it could be a fantastic novel. Plenty of writers may find such a structure helpful in their planning and writing, while others don’t because everyone’s creative process different. For example, Christopher Vogler breaks each of his theoretical plot points down into twelve chapters and the first few are:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
These could easily be points on a writer’s plan. First we introduce our characters and their world, then we kick off the action, then we have conflict when the character is faced with the need for action and may be reluctant. Arguably this doesn’t apply to all fiction, but Vogler is looking at fiction through the lens of its mythological roots and those characters who discover epic destinies as are common in mythology often hesitate, who wouldn’t?
Three points in and we struck on a possible flaw: we may want our character to dive right into the action without hesitation, as some people would. This is why it can be tricky to break down the narrative structure into points and while there are generally hailed structures there is not a single universal that may be completely agreed upon.
In chapter two of The Seven Basic Plots Christopher Booker suggests that narrative can be broken down into:
‘The Call (or Anticipation Stage) […] Initial Success (Dream Stage) […] Confrontation (Frustration Stage) […] Final Ordeal (Nightmare Stage) […] The Miraculous Escape (and Death of the Monster)’ [Page 38 – 39]
Now, I should mention that Booker is analysing fiction from the perspective plot so his narrative structure varies slightly depending which of the seven basic plots you’re writing and the example I chose is from the plot ‘Overcoming the Monster’. We still have the ‘The Call to Adventure’ as Vogler called it, but instead of ‘Refusal of The Call’ we jump straight into the action with the ‘Initial Success’ which Booker describes as:
‘[…] first brushes with the ‘monster’s’ agents or even the ‘monster’ himself, in which he is victorious […] There may be attacks on his [the hero’s] life, but he survives these , and the general mood is a dream-like sense of immunity to danger, with the horror of the monster’s power and ambitions not yet in full view.’[Page 38 – 39]
This version allows the hero or heroine to jump straight into the action as well as cutting the list of narrative points down from twelve to five. You might’ve noticed as well that the narrative structure varies the depending upon the frame of reference the writer is using. Vogler uses a mythological archetype while Booker uses archetypal plots and there are already two different views. This is why there is a wide variety of opinions on what makes in-depth narrative structure, there’s even a special structure for screenplay. Robert McKee argues in Story, which largely focuses on screenplay, that there are five points but his are:
‘The Inciting Incident […] Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, Resolution.’ [Page 181]
Oh dear, we seem to have disagreement again. Though if we look again we may conclude that the ‘Inciting Incident’ is once again ‘The Call to Adventure’. As I mentioned McKee is looking at plot through the lens of screenplay; another view, another idea of narrative structure. If I was to examine every view on the structure of narrative this article to a lot pages. That’s part of why I came up with my own little theory that in narrative structure: ‘Once upon a time something happened and was resolved.’ And why I like to stick to beginning, middle and end, aside from this I cannot give you one definitive narrative structure. If you want a narrative structure to help you develop your plan the best way would be to read around and find which structure works best for you and the story you want to write, or develop your own narrative structure that works for you.
Booker Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, (London: Continuum, 2004)
McKee Robert, Story, (London: Methuen Publishing Limited, 1999, orig 1998)
Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (Studio City: Michael Wise Productions, 1998 rpt 2007)
For more writing advice see my archive page.