7 Story Structures Any Writer Can Use

You may have a fantastic story but have no idea where to begin. You need to know where you’re headed, whether you’re an outliner or a pantser.

  • So, where do you even begin?
  • What should the middle look like?
  • How can you write a rousing conclusion?

You’ll need a basic story framework, and there are plenty to select from.

I’ll offer seven plot structures that have worked for many best-selling authors, starting with the one that changed my career and has impacted every novel I’ve written since the 1980s.

However, what works for me may not work for you. So look through these and try a few on for size. Something will make sense and give you a head start in writing your story.


  • What is Story Structure?
  • Story Structure Elements
  • An Opener
  • An Inciting Incident That Changes Everything
  • A Series of Crises That Build Tension
  • A Climax
  • An End
  • 7-Story Structures
  • Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
  • In Medias Res
  • The Hero’s Journey
  • The 7-Point Story Structure
  • Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method
  • The Three-Act Structure
  • James Scott Bell’s Disturbance and Two Doorways

What Is Story Structure?

A story’s structure is analogous to the human body’s skeleton.

The structure you select for your story should assist you with alignment and sequencing.

  • The Conflict
  • The Resolution 
  • And the Climax

The sequence in which you tell your story impacts how efficiently you build drama, intrigue, and suspense, all of which are intended to captivate readers from the beginning and keep them reading until the finish.

Story Structure Elements

There are numerous labels for distinct narrative aspects, but they are basically identical. Every story contains some variation of:

  1. An Opener

Begin by establishing who your narrative is about and the difficulty, challenge, quest, journey, or dilemma he encounters—and it must have grave stakes to justify an entire book about it. The purpose here is to pique the reader’s interest in the main character and what he must do.

I use the masculine gender to refer to both male and female characters.

  1. An Inciting Incident that Changes Everything

Its one thing to make a character irritated by the status quo or upset by an annoyance. However, get to the cause of his action. Failure must have far-reaching effects, far beyond annoyance or disgrace. Consider the worst-case scenario and have your main character spend the rest of the novel striving to avert it.

  1. A Series of Crises that Build Tension

These should be reasonable and not the result of chance or coincidence, and they should worsen over time. By trying to fix things, your main character will get stronger and learn new skills that will help him in the long run.

  1. A Climax

Don’t confuse the climax with the end. This is the point at which your character appears to have failed terribly and everything seems terrible.

  1. An End

The resolution brings your story to a close. Based on what he has learned during the crisis, your main character must succeed or fail. Additionally, this is the point at which you tie up loose ends and please your audience while keeping him craving more.

7-Story Structures

  1. Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure

This is the structure that has altered the course of my writing career. It propelled me from mid-list genre novelist to New York Times bestselling author 21 times. I’m a pantser, not an outliner, but even I need some fundamental framework to know where I’m headed, and I appreciate how straightforward Koontz’s structure is. It comprises simply four steps:

  1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible. Naturally, the difficulty varies depending on your genre, but in short, it’s the worst conceivable issue for your main character. It might be a life-or-death situation in a thriller. In a romance story, this could indicate that a young woman must choose between two equally qualified suitors—and then her decision is revealed to be a disaster.

And, once again, the stakes must be serious enough to carry the entire narrative.

One caveat: whatever the quandary, it will be meaningless to readers unless they first find excuses to sympathize with your characters.

  1. Everything your character does to get out of the terrible trouble makes things only worse. Avoid the urge to make your protagonist’s life easier. Every complication must logically follow the one before it, and things must eventually deteriorate gradually.
  2. The situation appears hopeless. This is referred to as “The Bleakest Moment” by novelist Angela Hunt. Even you ought to be wondering how you’re going to get your characters out of this mess.

Your situation is so dire that your leader must use every new muscle and technique he or she has learned from overcoming a mountain of obstacles to become heroic and demonstrate that things only appeared to be beyond repair.

  1. Finally, your hero succeeds (or fails*) against all odds. Reward viewers with the expected outcome by keeping your hero on stage and responding appropriately. Readers respond to tragic endings on occasion.
  2. In Medias Res

This is Latin, meaning “in the middle of things.” In other words, start with something happening. It doesn’t have to be slam-bang action unless your genre requires it. The crucial thing is that the reader has the impression that he is in the midst of something.

That implies you shouldn’t waste two or three pages on backstory, setting, or description. All of these elements can be added as the plot progresses. Beginning a novel In Medias Res involves skipping the preamble and diving right into the action.

“They shoot the white girl first,” starts Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise—the ultimate of beginnings in the middle.

What makes In Medias Res work?

Everything hinges on the hook.

In Medias Res should pull the reader right into your story and almost force him to keep reading.

The rest of the In Media Res structure consists of:

  • Rising Action
  • Explanation (backstory)
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution
  1. The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell, a writer and teacher, made it popular, and it is often used to structure fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories.

The Hero’s Journey structure was employed by J.R.R. Tolkien for The Hobbit.

Step 1: Bilbo Baggins leaves his ordinary world

Baggins is happy living in the Shire, so at first he turns down an offer to go on an adventure and stays at home.

Gandalf, the wizard who would later become his teacher, tells him to answer the call.

Baggins gives up the easy life of a Hobbit to go on a dangerous journey across Middle Earth, where he faces many dangers.

Step 2: Baggins experiences various trials and challenges.

Bilbo makes a deal with the dwarves and elves so that they can work together to fight enemies like dragons and orcs.

Along the way, he faces a series of challenges that push his bravery and skills beyond what he thought were possible.

Finally, against all odds, Bilbo arrives at the deepest cave, the lair of the terrifying dragon Smaug, which houses the ultimate goal of his journey. Bilbo must reclaim the dwarves’ treasure from Smaug.

Bilbo soon realizes that in order to survive, he must overcome his greatest fear.

Step 3: Bilbo tries to return to his life in the Shire.

Although Smaug has been vanquished, the dwarves face another battle against others and an orc army.

Bilbo is hit on the head during the climactic fight near the end of the novel and is considered dead. But he makes it through and goes back to the Shire. He is not the same Hobbit who used to hate adventure.

  1. The 7-Point Story Structure

This method advocates starting with your resolution and moving backwards.

This ensures that your hero has a compelling character arc.

For Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling employed the 7-Point Structure.

The Seven Points

  • Hook:The beginning place of your protagonist

This is where we meet Harry in The Philosopher’s Stone, living under the stairs.

  • Plot turn 1 presents the conflict that brings the plot to its halfway point. Harry discovers he is a wizard.
  • Pinch point 1: put pressure on your protagonist while he is pursuing his goal, usually while facing an antagonist.

When the trolls attack, Harry and his companions realise they are the only ones capable of saving the day.

  • Midpoint: Your character takes action in response to conflict.

When Harry and his pals learn about the Philosopher’s Stone, they vow to find it before Voldemort.

  • Pinch point 2:Increasing the pressure makes it more difficult for your character to attain his aim.

After losing Ron and Hermione on their journey to find the stone, Harry is left to face the evil alone.

  • Plot turn 2: Moves the plot from its halfway point to its conclusion. Your protagonist has everything he needs to succeed.

Harry Potter gets the Philosopher’s Stone after the mirror tells him that his goals are good.

  • Resolution:The climax is everything in your story that builds up to this point, which is in stark contrast to how your character began his trip.

Voldemort is defeated by Harry.

  1. Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method is for you if you enjoy story planning.

If, unlike me, you prefer to write by method of discovery, a story framework like Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure or In Medias Res may feel less organic.

The 10-step Snowflake Method

Begin with one basic idea and gradually add more ideas to form your plot.

  • Create a one-sentence synopsis of your novel (1 hour).
  • Extend this into a full-paragraph overview of key events (1 hour).
  • Create a one-page synopsis for each character (1 hour each).
  • Each statement in #2 should be expanded into a paragraph summary (several hours).
  • Write a one-page account of the story from each significant character’s point of view (1-2 days).
  • Each paragraph you created for #4 should be expanded into a full-page synopsis (1 week).
  • Make comprehensive character charts out of your character descriptions (1 week).
  • Using the summary from #6, make a list of every scene you’ll need to complete the novel.
  • For each scene, write a multi-paragraph description.
  • Make your first draught.
  1. The Three-Act Structure

The ancient Greeks employed this method, and it’s one of Hollywood’s favorite ways to tell a story.

It’s about as straightforward as it gets.

Act I: The Set-Up

Introduce your primary characters and set the scene.

Brandon Sanderson, a famous fantasy writer, calls this the “inciting incident”—a crisis that forces the main character out of his comfort zone and sets the story’s direction.

Act II: The Confrontation

Make a problem that appears easy at first but quickly becomes difficult. The more your protagonist attempts to get his way, the more difficult it appears to be to solve the situation.

Act III: The Resolution

A good ending has

  • High stakes: Your reader should have the impression that one more mistake would spell disaster for the protagonist.
  • Challenges and expansion: By the end of the novel, the protagonist should have matured as a person as a result of facing numerous challenges.
  • A solution: All of your character’s experiences and tribulations have helped him solve the problem.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young adult trilogy, employs a three-act format.

James Scott Bell’s A Disturbance and Two Doorways

Bell introduces this concept in his acclaimed book Plot and Structure.

  • Early in the novel, a disturbance upsets the status quo—anything that threatens the protagonist’s usual life.
  • Doorway 1 transports your character to the action of the story. There is no turning back once he walks through this door.
  • Doorway 2: The final battle is accessible through Doorway 2. It’s another door with no way out, but it generally ends in calamity.

Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy employs this plot pattern.

Six siblings return to their birth home after learning that their adoptive father has died (the disturbance).

They learn here that the world will end in a few days (Doorway 1). While the siblings do everything they can to avert a global catastrophe, they unintentionally create another peril within themselves.

This results in a final battle (Doorway 2).

Additional Story Structured charting resources:

  • James Scott Bell created the plot and structure.
  • M. Weiland’s The Secrets of Story Structure
  • The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
Phantom Writing