We’ve all had an experience where we were listening to someone tell a story that lacked structure and, therefore, was difficult to understand. I think back to my kids telling me something that they were really excited about when they were toddlers, they were all over the place and it took a lot of extra effort to stay with them in order to understand exactly what they were trying to say. Everyone appreciates a well-told story and well-told stories generally conform to some sort of story structure. Think of these structures as the armatures for your work—you are going to build out from there, but it provides the general rigid support that allows you to do so.
There are lots of theories and ideas of story structures, but in this episode we are going to cover three, the three-act structure, the try fail cycle, and the hero’s journey.
The three-act structure dates back to Aristotle…well, he got it started anyway. Aristotle was looking at Greek tragedies and epic poems and broke them down into three basic parts, the beginning, the middle, and an end. I know, this seems simple to us now, but in 335BC this was a revelation, one that has been built upon ever since. Gustav Freytag took Aristotle’s idea and started to transform it into what we recognize as our more modern idea of a three-act structure.
Since this structure is broken into three different parts, I’ll take each one in turn.
The First Act:
The first thing you need is a hook. This is the opening scene that captures the attention of your reader and begins to make a promise to them about what you have to offer through the telling of the story. This promise doesn’t have to be explicit—but your reader should be able to tell what it is. If you are writing a murder mystery and that first scene starts to set the stage with the inspection of a dead body, you don’t need to tell your reader they will find out who the killer is by the end, they should be able to intuit it.
After your hook you begin to set the stage for your reader. They start to learn about your characters, their goals, and what is at stake for them as they go through the story. This is where your reader begins to care about your characters. They should begin forming opinions about your protagonist especially.
Once your reader starts to get their bearings on your characters, you need to craft an inciting incident. This is a distinct event, usually about halfway through the first act, when your character starts to transition from their normal status quo and into the excitement of the story. This is usually, but not always, marked by some form of conflict.
After the inciting incident there is a build-up. This is where the protagonist takes their place in the plot of the story. In doing so tension is usually created, which moves the conflict forward and maintains the reader’s interest.
The final part of the first act is the first plot point. This is the key event that signifies the transition into the second act. It usually has slightly higher stakes than the inciting incident that begins a build into the second act.
The Second Act:
The second act starts with the reaction to the first plot point. This is where your protagonist wrestles with understanding the obstacles the antagonist has put in his way. This reaction leads to the first pinch point.
This pinch point is where the protagonist begins to fully understand the nature of the antagonist. As this unfolds it’s not uncommon for clues about the nature of the conflict to be presented. The protagonist takes the clues and moves into the realization portion of the second act.
In the realization portion, the protagonist grows, becoming more knowledgeable about how the antagonist operates and we begin to see a shift as we approach the midpoint.
The midpoint is generally where the protagonist realizes the truth behind the nature of the conflict.
Thanks to this new understanding of the conflict, the protagonist begins to make headway against the antagonist. This takes the characters toward the second pinch point.
At this pinch point we start to see the foreshadowing of the third plot point. There is also usually something that is going to serve as a wake-up call to the protagonist that highlights what is at stake driving them toward renewing their push.
In the renewed push the protagonist intensifies their attack against the antagonist. It may even seem as though they will reach ultimate victory. That feeling is what pulls the reader into the third act.
The Third Act:
The third act starts with the third plot point, the one that was foreshadowed at the second pinch point. The protagonist usually has a low moment, a darkness, or depressive realization. This is a reversal after the sense of victory at the end of the second act. It’s an additional bit of tension that needs to be addressed.
This tension gets addressed in the recovery portion. The protagonist struggles against internal conflicts, usually questioning his choices, commitment, and ability before they are thrust toward the climax.
The climax is the turning point. The protagonist and the antagonist come face to face, not only externally, but internally as well. This leads to the height of the conflict.
At the height of the conflict is a confrontation. This is the duel. One in which there can be only one victor and they are playing for keeps. The stakes are the highest they will get in the story and this confrontation builds to the climactic moment.
The climax is where the protagonist meets their goal and the conflict has no option to continue. The internal and external conflicts begin their decline toward the resolution.
The resolution is the move to bring the reader back out of the story. A new status quo emerges and all of the excitement and emotion for the story becomes resolved. The promise that you began to make, as a writer, in that first hook has been fulfilled.
That’s the modern three-act structure. More complicated than Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end but still not overly prescriptive with a lot of room for a writer to work with.
Another structure that bears a lot of similarities to the three-act structure is the try fail cycle.
Try Fail Cycle
Unlike the three-act structure, which has three separate acts, each having their own subsections, the try fail cycle is a seven-point plot structure.
The first plot point is the hook. Just like in the three-act structure, you are capturing your reader’s attention, and beginning to form the promise to take them somewhere with your story. In this section you are also defining the starting state of the story as well as what your protagonist is up against.
Once you move through the first plot point it’s time for your protagonist to try to make headway against your antagonist. This is their first try. Your protagonist is usually confronted by some force originating from the antagonist—they aren’t the ones seeking the confrontation. They generally haven’t gained enough knowledge to fully understand what or who exactly they are up against and likely don’t understand their capabilities. Their first try, therefore, ultimately fails, leading to the third point.
The first fail point is where the protagonist buckles down attempting to understand their abilities better. They also begin to uncover the nature of the protagonist and start to form a better understanding of what they are up against.
Once the protagonist makes it through the first fail point they attempt another interaction with the antagonist—this time it may have been initiated by the protagonist. This is an earnest attempt to defeat the antagonist, but the knowledge obtained and reflected upon in the first fail cycle usually proves to be incomplete. Throughout this try, the protagonist usually obtains more information about the antagonist, but they ultimately fail, which leads to the fifth point of the plot structure, another fail cycle.
This fail cycle usually finds the protagonist in a state of despair. They wrestle with internal conflict and question if what they are trying to accomplish is even possible. They continue to reflect on the new information they’ve learned about the antagonist and make the determination that they need to continue—bringing us to the sixth point, the last try cycle.
In this final attempt there is an epic conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. This conflict is usually initiated by the protagonist. There is substantial back and forth, and just when the protagonist looks as though they are about to fail a twist happens. This twist usually leverages some weakness that was reflected upon in the last fail cycle exploiting it against the antagonist, causing their downfall, and taking us into the seventh and final point, the resolution.
The resolution brings the protagonist out of the action and returns them, and the reader, to a new status quo. This step helps to transition the reader out of their emersion.
This structure may seem very familiar, particularly if you are an action movie fan. Many action movies use this structure—almost all Marvel movies do. However, this structure can also be used in dramas, romances, westerns, and other genres to great effect. Your try cycles don’t have to be physical battles, they could be the boy trying to get the girl, or the girl trying to get the job, or any number of things—the structure isn’t exclusively for action.
If you are looking for a structure that focuses on a singular character’s journey you may want to consider the third and final structure we are going to explore, the Hero’s Journey.
The hero’s journey structure has been explored by many different theorists Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and perhaps the most influential, Joseph Campbell, among them. Each theorist has their own take on what the journey should include and if you are interested in this structure I suggest you pick up your own copy of Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” to expand on what I’m about to cover.
I’ve taken the liberty of simplifying the hero’s journey into thirteen practical steps for the sake of this video.
The hero starts at step one, the status quo. They exist in relative normalcy, at least from their perspective. They may be living humbly or lavishly, but however they are living, they have become accustomed to it. Eventually, they encounter something that changes their perception of the status quo, leading them to step two, the Call to Adventure.
In the Call to Adventure, the hero struggles with the status quo. They find a failing that they determine needs fixed or understood. Ultimately, they determine (either by force or by their own volition) that they need to take on the challenge and begin their journey.
It is after they determine to embark on their journey, but before they leave, that assistance is either thrust upon them or sought by them. Either way, there is some form of assistance, guidance, or permissions granted to them before they move to the fourth step, the Departure.
The act of leaving is a powerful one and we start to see significant changes, often both internally and externally in the hero as they leave the world they once knew. These changes are frequently amplified through the fifth step, their trials.
The trials are a series of challenges that the hero must overcome. They often include both physical and mental aspects. As the hero completes these challenges, they continue to learn something about themselves and move closer to addressing the reason they left their status quo. They become more confident in their abilities, but frustration that their goal seems close enough for them to grasp yet still remains out of their reach often fuels doubt.
In the sixth step the hero makes the approach to their final goal. Through this approach they will face some type of crisis that they will have to overcome. This crisis is often much more of an ordeal than the trials they encountered previously and may include combinations of elements from the trials they have already overcome. Although they go through great struggle, they eventually make it through the crisis and move on to the eighth step the treasure.
The treasure can be a physical item or a new state of mental awareness which allows the hero to overcome the last obstacle they have in front of them.
The ninth step is the results step. This is when they finally defeat the ultimate obstacle and can see the solution to the failing that instigated their departure. They have come into full awareness of their abilities and seek to return to their status quo.
The return is step ten. The hero begins the return journey, often being recognized along the way. Upon his arrival he enters the eleventh step, the new life.
The hero enters the new life with much fanfare; they are celebrated by their former community. Often this is what the hero wanted, but they may feel uncomfortable with the recognition, especially since they now have full awareness of their abilities. This leads them to the penultimate step.
Resolution comes through the hero either embracing the recognition or shying away from it. They have directly addressed the root cause of why they left in the first place and are seeking a sense of normalcy again. This is the lead-up to the final step, the Upgraded status quo.
The hero often removes themselves from the public eye, however, they have an upgraded status and they have vastly improved the status quo for the community they came from. They finally get to rest on their laurels—if they are still alive.
The hero’s journey may not incorporate all of these elements, and may even have some of the elements in different positions, based on the nature of the hero. Depending on who you refer to, there can be many more elements incorporated into their journey including interactions with Jungian archetypes, but that’s for another video.