The Typical Story Structure
99.99999% of films follow the same structure, as do 95% of books. And, once you know this typical structure, you can’t watch a movie or read a novel without noticing it again.
It isn’t necessarily important to follow the structure rigidly in your own writing - but you still need to know the rules to be able to break them.
If you know this structure so well that you can use it instinctively as you write a book then you will see improvements in your story and plot. What's more, if you get writer's block, just have a look at the structure and you'll know where to go next!
Generally, the structure is divided into three parts:
Act One – the first quarter
Act Two – the second and third quarter
Act Three – the final quarter
So, for example, say your book was 100 pages long. Act One would last roughly 25 pages, Act Two 50 pages and Act Three 25 pages.
And this is how they go:
The Hook – sometimes there is an opening scene that provides a hook to the story. This isn’t essential, but is often used particularly if you know it's going to be a little while until big events start happening, as it gives the reader an incentive to keep going.
- James Bond – any opening scene.
- Harry Potter – when Dumbledoore, Hagrid and McGonaghall appear on Privet Drive to put Harry on the Dursley’s doorstep.
Ordinary World – firstly, we see your protagonist in their ordinary world, going about their ordinary life. This is whatever their life looks like before the story starts.
- Shaun of the Dead – Sean gets up, yawns, and walks downstairs.
- The Hunger Games – Katniss hunts in the forest.
- Harry Potter – Harry comes out of the cupboard under the stairs and makes breakfast for the Dursley’s.
Call to Adventure – something happens that brings the character out of the ordinary world and makes the story start. Usually, there is a refusal in there somewhere, where the protagonist declines the call to adventure, then something happens which means can no longer refuse.
- Harry Potter – Harry talks to a snake at the zoo.
- Star Wars – Luke Skywalker sees the message from Princess Leia through R2D2.
- Macbeth – the witches appear and tell Macbeth that he will be Thane of Cawdor then King. The refusal occurs when he says it’s not possible, then he is forced into the call to adventure by hearing from a messenger he is to become Thane of Cawdor.
First Trigger – at the end of the first act an action happens to push the character fully into the story world. They are pushed out of the realm of the ordinary world fully into the world of conflict.
- Harry Potter – The letter from Hogwarts arrives.
- Star Wars – Luke Skywalker returns home to find that his aunt and uncle have been killed, meaning the farm he called home is destory, and he is forced to go on the adventure with Ben Kenobi.
Watering Hole – the protagonist goes somewhere to acquire information.
- Star Wars – Luke and Ben Kenobi go to Mos Eilsey to acquire Han Solo.
- Harry Potter – Harry goes to the sorting hat to find his house.
First Twist – a twist in the story.
Mid-point – as the name suggests, this occurs in the middle of the play.
Two things happen at the mid-point:
1/ Everything is revealed. You think this happens at the end, but it doesn’t – it happens now!
- Star Wars – they see the death star.
- Revenge of the Sith - Anakin turns to the dark side and the Emperor calls him Darth Vader
- Sleepy Hollow – we see the headless horseman for the first time.
2/ It is now completely impossible for the protagonist to return to the ordinary world. In the first trigger, he leaves the comfort of his ordinary world, but now it is completely impossible for him to return to it. Perhaps that home is destroyed, or the protagonist has changed in some way that means his former live is irreparable.
- Titanic - Jack and Rose make love.
- Romeo and Juliet - the two lovers get married.
- Revenge of the Sith - Now Anakin has turned to the dark side, there is no way for him to go back.
Second twist – another twist in the story line.
Second trigger – this is at the end of Act Two. This is an unnegotiable event that really has to happen for the tension of your piece. It is also known as ‘the big slump.’ This is when everything is at it's worse and it looks like the protagonist will never get what they are after. Achieving their goal seems impossible now.
- In a romantic comedy, this will be when the love interest has left on a plane and is never coming back.
- In a detective story, this will be when all the clues are gone, the killer has escaped, and they stand no chance of winning.
- In an action, it's when the villain has captured the hero's mentor and the hero has no idea where they are taking them
Divine Intervention – something happens that brings the protagonist out of the big slump.
- In a romantic comedy, they see the love interest’s glasses on their dresser and realise they do love them after all, so decide to chase after them.
- In a detective story, the protagonist suddenly realises what one of the clues means, or notices a piece of information they missed, and now they know how to catch the villain.
- In an action, they realise what one of the lessons their mentor taught them is, and use it to regather their strength
The final battle – the big, final scene. Luke Skywalker fights Darth Vador, the protagonist chases after the love interest, the detective uses their new clue to find the antagonist.
Resolution – the story is resolved. Everything is tied up and the goal is either achieved or not achieved.
Return to ordinary world – the protagonist in their new ordinary world. We see what has become of them after the story, where they are, and how they have changed.