Structure is the way writers organize their plots (the events of their stories). It’s the skeleton that supports and shapes the narrative. There are dozens of different kinds of structures; the key is finding which one best fits the story you want to tell.
Linear structure: The most common structure is based on chronological cause-and-effect; something happens, which causes something else to happen, which causes something else to happen, events acting on subsequent events like dominoes leading up to one final battle at the climax. Or as the King in Alice in Wonderland put it:
Linear structure is ideal for stories in which the actions of the protagonist and antagonist move the story toward a final goal.
Example: The majority of all the novels you’ve read or films you’ve seen.
Patterned structure: In a patterned story, the events in your story aren’t related by time, they’re related by meaning. Each event seems to be an isolated incident until the ending when the reader/viewer steps back and sees all the elements together as a whole. It’s the literary equivalent of a patchwork quilt. Patterned structure is great for stories that are focused on a central idea or realization, rather than a conflict.
Example: Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies,” Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Frame Stories: This kind of narrative opens with a character telling his or her story for a specific reason. Then the narrative shifts directly into the story he or she is telling. At the end, the story shifts again, back to the original narrator, although in some frame stories, the central narrative in interrupted by the narrator several times in the middle, too. The key is that the theme of the story is made clear in the frame scenes; the central narrative that is usually an action story is there to illustrate the theme in the frame.
Frames are a good structure for stories that want to emphasize theme through action.
Examples: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Henry James The Turn of the Screw, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
There are many more literary structures to choose from–epic, picaro, episodic, etc.–or you can borrow from fine art or music composition, or you can make up your own structure based on some aspect of your story. The most important thing about structure is that you have one. The second most important thing is that you choose the best structure to shape the story you want to tell. Since 90% of the time that’s classic, linear cause-and-effect, that’s the kind of structure we’ll be analyzing in the rest of this series, but it is by no means the only way to tell a story.
The shape of your story communicates its meaning as much as the events in your story .
If you’re having trouble structuring your narrative, forget about structure entirely and just write the story. Often writers can’t be sure what kind of structure a story needs until the first draft is finished and they can step back to see what they’ve written. At that point, all the pieces of the narrative puzzle are there, and it’s easier to see how to arrange them as you revise in later drafts.
For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents.