Apples to Apples: Fundamental Story Structure

 
Story Structure
 

APPLES TO APPLES: FUNDAMENTAL STORY STRUCTURE

After studying nine popular models for structuring stories, I found myself noticing that there were certain touch points that occurred in all of the models. They wore different names, and were described a little differently, but they were there. 

I decided to make myself a chart in which those touch points were visually aligned and see what happened with the rest of the pieces of each structure model. What I discovered was that all of the models lined neatly up, and even more matching touch points appeared. Sometimes two or more were combined under a single label, or a single touch point was subdivided into several smaller pieces. But these touch points were present in each of the models, they performed the same function in each model, and they occurred in the same order

And it became very apparent to me, looking at the chart,  that all of the models were describing the same underlying structure. They aren't different structures for different kinds of stories at all, they're just different perspectives on the same structure--the Story structure. 

I have given brief descriptions of the nine models I dissected on other pages: 

The purpose of this page is to describe the structural touch points that emerged from my evaluation and briefly demonstrate how each of these nine structure models fit within this single Story structure. The story segments (touch points) I'm using here are, of course, just one more way of describing the same fundamental story structure, but I find these labels useful for examining the way the other models compare to each other.

 

1. OPENING

 
Opening
 

Each story structure model begins by introducing the main character, revealing the setting, and establishing what is at stake in the story. 

 

Three Act (Beginning)

In the three act structure model, the first act establishes the genre and tone of the story. It introduces the main character and the story world as they are before the events of the story unfold, and shows enough about them to engage the reader's empathy and curiosity. The stakes of the story are revealed, causing the reader to feel invested in the outcome of the story.
[Note: Act 1 of the Three Act structure model incorporates two of my touch points--Opening and Transition.]

 

Four Act (Set-up)

The set-up phase of the four act structure establishes the genre and tone of the narrative, grounds the reader in the world of the story, introduces and creates empathy with the main character, establishes, the stakes of the story, and provides context for the meaning of the story as a whole.  
[Note: Act 1 of the Four Act model incorporates two of my touch points--Opening and Transition.]

 

Five Point (Exposition)

During the first stage of this story model, setting and characters are introduced and the main character's situation and goals are revealed. 

 

Seven Point (Hook)

The Hook introduces the beginning state of the main character and the story world and shows what the character has to gain or lose. It also plants at least one question that the reader will yearn to have answered, or creates an "itch" that the reader wants to have "scratched."

 

Eight Point (Stasis)

(Once upon a time...)
The reader is shown what the main character's life is usually like--the status quo, business as usual. This allows us to see what the main character has to lose or gain over the course of the story. 

 

Save The Cat (Opening Image, Theme Stated, Set-up)

This model further subdivides the opening into three "beats" (though two of them are actually incorporated into the third): 

Opening Image -  The opening image comes at the very beginning of the story and shows the starting state of the main character and the world in which (s)he lives. It should establish the tone, mood, and type of story that's going to be told.

Theme Stated - Somewhere near the beginning, a character will subtly ask a question or make a statement that outlines the theme of the story, though the real impact of the statement won't be felt until later in the story. 

Set-up - The set-up is the beginning part of the story, and it incorporates the opening image and the statement of theme. This part of the story needs to grab the audience and make them want to stick around for the rest. It introduces the characters and shows us their strengths and weaknesses, and points out (subtly) the things in their lives that need to be fixed. 

 

The Hero's Journey (Ordinary World)

The hero is shown in his normal world, in his version of "life as usual." He may be content there, or he might be uncomfortable or discontent with his life as it is.

 

The Virgin's Promise (Dependent World, Price of Conformity)

This model subdivides the opening into two beats: 

Dependent World - At the beginning of the story, the Virgin is entwined with her community in such a way that she is dependent on it, or it is dependent on her. However, the expectations of her community are at odds with the Virgin's dreams for herself. 

Price of Conformity - The Virgin tries to conform to the expectations of those around her, but in order to do so, she must suppress her true self. 

Story Trumps Structure (Orientation)

The first part of this framework orients readers to the world of the story by locking in genre; giving readers a setting in time and place that they can picture; setting the mood and tone for the story; introducing the author's (or narrator's) voice; and introducing a protagonist readers will care for, an antagonist readers will fear, or both. 

 

 

2. TRANSITION

 
Transition
 

Next, an event, decision or realization changes the status quo and pushes the main character into the story's primary conflict beyond the point of no return. This event transitions the main character into a process of change that constitutes the main body of the story. 

Three Act (Beginning cont.)

At the end of the first act, an event, decision, or realization changes everything. It might be cataclysmic, or it might be subtle, but either way, nothing will ever be the same again after it happens. This is usually referred to as the Inciting Incident, and is considered the end of Act 1.  
[Note: Act 1 of the Three Act structure model incorporates two of my touch points--Opening and Transition.]

 

Four Act (Set-up cont.)

Like the three act model, the four act model ends Act 1 with an inciting incident, which  moves the story into Act 2. 
[Note: Act 1 of the Four Act model incorporates two of my touch points--Opening and Transition.]

 

Five Point (Rising Action)

When the exposition at the beginning of the five point model is complete, the primary conflict escalates, pushing the story into the Rising Action.
[Note: The Rising Action of the Five Point model incorporates two of my touch points--Transition and Struggle.]

 

Seven Point (First Plot Turn)

This is where everything changes. The change might be spectacular, or it might be just a subtle shift, but from here out, everything will be different. The main conflict and oppositional force are introduced here, but may not yet be fully revealed. The characters begin to react to the new reality, often by pulling back, denying the situation, or running away.

 

Eight Point (Trigger, Quest)

The eight point model breaks this transition into two parts:

Trigger - (...something out of the ordinary happens...)
Something beyond the main character's control happens, and changes the status quo, starting the chain of events that make up the story. It might be something big and dramatic, or it might be a quiet, subtle change that builds over time.

Quest - (...causing the protagonist to seek something...)
Because of the trigger, the main character begins a quest. It might be a quest to return things to the status quo, or it might be a quest for a new and different life. 

 

Save The Cat (Catalyst, Debate, Break Into Two)

In the Save the Cat model, the transition is described in three parts:

Catalyst - Something that happens that pushes the characters out of the everyday routine. Whether dramatic or subtle, without this moment, there would be no story. 

Debate - The main character reacts to the catalyst, evaluates the new situation, and decides what to do about it. It's the first moment of truth in the story, where the main character has to decide to step up and take on the challenge--or run away from it and take the consequences. 

Break Into Two - "Two" in this context refers to Act Two. The first five beats of this model constitute Act One. When the main character stops debating and acts, he steps across the threshold from his old life and moves forward into the new world of the story. 

 

The Hero's Journey (Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold)

The transition phase of the Hero's Journey model has four parts: 

Call to Adventure - Something changes. It might be external pressure from a challenge or crisis that arises in the hero's life, or it might be the internal pressure of his discontent urging him to look beyond the horizon. 

Refusal of the Call - Often (though not always) the hero will initially be reluctant to take on the adventure that is presented to him. He may be held back by his own fear of the unknown, a feeling of obligation to the people who populate his ordinary world, or (if he is content with things the way they are) an unwillingness to see things change.

Meeting the Mentor - The hero meets with a character who acts as an adviser--often an older person, or one who has experience dealing with the challenge the hero now faces. The mentor may give the hero training or equipment he will need on his journey.

Crossing the First Threshold - The hero commits to the journey and leaves (either literally or metaphorically) his ordinary world for the unknown world of the adventure. This is the point of no return. 

 

The Virgin's Promise (Opportunity to Shine, Dress the Part, Secret World, No Longer Fits Her World)

The transition phase in the Virgin's Promise model also consists of four stages. 

Opportunity to Shine - Something happens that allows the Virgin to express her true self for the first time, usually in secret. 

Dress the Part - She acknowledges her true self by dressing the part, even if only temporarily. 

Secret World - The Virgin begins to practice being her true self in secret, while still appeasing the community. 

No Longer Fits Her World - As the Virgin becomes increasingly excited about her dream, and confident about her true self, she is less able to fit into the conventions of her community, and begins to realize that she can't ultimately do both.

 

Story Trumps Structure (Crisis/Calling)

A life-changing event disrupts the equilibrium of the protagonist's world and creates a point of no return for the protagonist. 

 

 

3. STRUGGLE 

 
Struggle
 

The main character reacts to the transitional change, encounters transforming challenges and obstacles, gathers allies, and faces enemies. The stakes rise and tension grows.

 

Three Act (Middle)

In act 2 the main character reacts to the Inciting incident.  There is no going back, only forward. In the process, the character encounters obstacles, gathers allies, and faces enemies. More is revealed about the character's backstory, goals, needs, and motivations. Complications crop up. The stakes rise. Drama builds. The tension increases to the breaking point.  
[Note: Act 2 of the Three Act Structure incorporates three of my touch points--Struggle, Midpoint, and Combat.]

 

Four Act (Response)

In act 2 the main character responds to the inciting incident. Under attack and on the defensive, the character struggles to survive, to understand, to make preparations, to gather allies. Obstacles arise. Complications abound. Enemies are around every corner. More is revealed about the character's backstory, goals, needs, and motivations. The stakes rise. Drama builds. Tension increases. 

[Note: Act 2 of the Four act structure incorporates two of my touch points--Struggle and Midpoint]

 

Five Point (Rising Action cont.)

Tension continues to rise,  conflict escalates, and obstacles increase.  
[Note: The Rising Action of the Five Point model incorporates two of my touch points, Transition and Struggle.]

 

Seven Point (First Pinch Point)

The first "pinch" occurs about half way between the first plot turn and the midpoint. It puts pressure (thus the term "pinch") on the main character, pushing him or her toward the midpoint change, and reminds the reader of the nature and ramifications of the oppositional force. The stakes are raised.

 

Eight Point (Surprise)

(...but things don't go as expected...) 
As the main character pursues the goal of the quest, obstacles and complications arise, and must be overcome. Surprises should rise naturally out of what's happening in the story, but not be easily predictable. 

 

Save The Cat (B Story, Fun and Games)

The Struggle stage of the Save The Cat model has two components.

B Story - This is the beginning of a major sub-plot, often "the love story". Often, the main character is introduced to new characters who belong to the "new world" of the story (s)he has entered, and begins to learn about how things work outside the comfort of the "normal" world we saw in the set-up. 

Fun and Games - In this part of the story, things begin to really happen, as the implications of the catalyst event begin to play out. Complications abound, and the main character is caught up in the whirl of it all. 

 

The Hero's Journey ( Tests, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave)

The Hero's Journey also divides the Struggle into two pieces. 

Tests, Allies, Enemies - In the new, unfamiliar world of the adventure, the hero has experiences that challenge his abilities and understanding. He meets characters who become allies or enemies (or sometimes one masquerading as the other). 

Approach to the Inmost Cave - The hero and his allies become more proactive, not simply responding to the tests as they come, but actively preparing for, and seeking out solutions to the overarching challenge of the adventure.

 

The Virgin's Promise (Caught Shining)

The Dependent World and the Secret World collide, and the Virgin suffers the consequences she feared, often shame or exile (literal, or figurative). 

 

Story Trumps Structure (Escalation)

Complications and obstacles come into the story that intensify the protagonist's struggles. This isn't just a laundry list of unrelated things that happen to go wrong, it's a series of causally related events that raise the stakes and interfere with the protagonist reaching his or her goal. 

 

 

4. MIDPOINT

 
Midpoint
 

A critical confrontation, decision, discovery, etc. raises the stakes and alters the direction of the story.

Three Act (Middle cont.)

Act 2 ends with an event, realization, or decision that changes the direction of the narrative once more. This might be a false triumph or a crashing defeat. It might be obvious, or it might be inconspicuous. Whatever form it takes, it changes the character in a way that leads inevitably toward the final confrontation that will end either in ultimate triumph or inescapable defeat. Not only is there no way to go back, there is now no way to move forward except by facing the oppositional forces head-on.
[Note: Act 2 of the Three Act structure incorporates three of my touch points--Struggle, Midpoint, and Combat.]

 

Four Act (Response cont.)

Act 2 ends with another event, realization, or decision that, again, changes everything, empowering the main character to stop merely reacting, and to go on the offensive.
[Note: Act 2 of the Four act structure incorporates two of my touch points--Struggle and Midpoint--though the midpoint is really the tipping point that happens in the space between the Response and the Attack when the character makes the choice to become proactive.]

 

Five Point (Climax)

At the climax, the main character makes a crucial decision that changes the course of the story, and defines who the character is as a person (for better or worse). This is the turning point of the whole story, and the rest of the story serves to demonstrate the consequences of what happens here.

 

Seven Point (Midpoint)

At the midpoint, an event or epiphany occurs that shifts the context of the story.  This is the tipping point that causes the main character to stop merely reacting to the oppositional force and instead begin to go on the offensive. Armed with a new understanding, a new plan, new allies, weapons, etc., the main character begins proactively moving from the beginning state of the story toward the ending state. (For example, from weakness to strength, from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to understanding, from antipathy to love, etc. )

 

Eight Point (Critical Choice)

(...forcing the protagonist to make a difficult decision...) 
Eventually, push really comes to shove, and the main character must make a difficult decision--one on which everything hinges, one that will alter the course of the future. This choice is one that demonstrates the true nature of the main character. For a happy ending, the character makes the right choice, even though it's difficult and may require some sacrifice. For a tragic ending, the character makes the wrong choice and must face the consequences. 

 

Save The Cat (Midpoint)

At the midpoint, the action reaches a peak in which the main character is either "up" (seemingly having reached a pinnacle of joy and fulfillment in the new life) or "down" (the main character's new world has completely collapsed around him/her). However, things are not as they seem, at the midpoint something happens that demonstrates this, and raises the stakes for the main character. 

 

The Hero's Journey (Supreme Ordeal)

Near the middle of the story, the hero has a confrontation with the antagonistic force, which results in either a temporary (but hollow) victory, or a temporary (but not utterly hopeless) defeat. The hero faces his greatest fear, often with a "taste of death" in one form or another--a narrow escape, loss of an ally (especially the mentor), a death-related setting such as a tomb, etc.
[Note: The "taste of death" may make this seem like a Combat touch point. However, the Supreme Ordeal is the Midpoint because this confrontation is the change point where everything that has been winding chaotically around solidifies, and focuses, and begins to move inexorably toward a now inevitable outcome. ] 

 

The Virgin's Promise (Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck)

The crisis gives the Virgin a moment of clarity in which she is able to give up what has been holding her back from being her true self and following her dream.  This is a major turning point for the Virgin. 

 

Story Trumps Structure (Escalation,  Discovery)

Complications and obstacles continue to intensify, building tension until the main character arrives at a crisis point where all seems lost. 
[Note:  The Escalation phase carries the lead-up to the moment of epiphany, and then the Discovery picks up after that by showing the implications of the epiphany. The "epiphany" itself occurs in this model but isn't given its own story segment. ]

 

 

5. COMBAT

 
Combat
 

Armed with the new information, realization, weapon, or situation that the midpoint change brought, the characters redouble their efforts and take the fight to the enemy. Obstacles increase, tension rises, and darkness closes in. Now it's serious

 

Three Act (Middle cont.)

Act 2 continues with more conflict, obstacles, revelations, and tension. 
[Note: Act 2 of the Three Act structure incorporates three of my touch points--Struggle, Midpoint, and Combat.]

 

Four Act (Attack)

In the third act, the main character shifts into a proactive mode. Instead of just reacting to what's happening, the character takes the fight to his opponent. A plan is made, assets are gathered, and the character begins to push actively toward a satisfactory resolution. But it's not enough! The opponent has also been gathering strength and pushes back with even greater force than before. The main character needs more. More courage. More resources. A better plan. A mightier weapon. And the enemy just keeps on coming. It seems as though all is lost. 
[Note: Act Three of the Four Act structure incorporates two of my touch points--Combat and Confrontation.]

 

Five Point (Falling Action)

This is the part of the story where all the little dominoes that have been lined up during the first half of the story begin to topple. Tension builds as events hurtle toward the exciting conclusion. 

 

Seven Point (Second Pinch Point)

This pinch applies even more pressure. It raises the stakes. Makes the main character's situation even worse. The plan fails, the mentors die, companions are lost, and everything goes wrong. The second pinch point is the "jaws of defeat" from which victory must be snatched.

 

Eight Point (Climax)

(...which has consequences...)
The climax is the outward manifestation of the decision made during the Critical Choice. Everything comes to a head, and decisive action is taken. Tension and excitement are at their highest points during this phase of the story. 

 

Save The Cat (Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, Dark Night of the Soul)

In the Save The Cat model, three beats comprise the Combat touch point. 

Bad Guys Close In - The antagonists regroup and get serious. If things were good for the main character, they go bad. If things were bad, they get even worse. 

All is Lost - Everything comes crashing down. The bad guys seem to win, and the main character(s) must change their way of thinking, let go of the past, and change in some way in order to move ahead into the future. This part of the story often includes a "whiff of death." 

Dark Night of the Soul - This beat shows us how the main character feels about all hope being lost. It is the darkest darkness before things change and dawn begins to break. This shows the despair of hitting rock bottom. 

 

The Hero's Journey (The Reward / Seizing the Sword)

The Reward (a.k.a. Seizing the Sword) -  Devastated by his losses and harried by the enemy, the hero regroups and prepares for a final confrontation. In the dark aftermath of the Supreme Ordeal, the Hero realizes that although he didn't win the day, he has gained something from the ordeal that will allow him to ultimately overcome the challenge he faces. 

 

The Virgin's Promise (Kingdom In Chaos, Wanders in the Wilderness)

The Virgin's Promise divides the Combat touch point into two parts. 

Kingdom In Chaos - As the Virgin's ties of dependency are broken, those she depended on, or those who depended on her are thrown into chaos because she is no longer filling her expected role. 

Wanders in the Wilderness - Having lost her community because of her dream, the Virgin's conviction is tested, and she may experience a dark moment of self-doubt. She must decide whether to submit to the community's expectations, or be true to herself and follow her dream. 

 

Story Trumps Structure (Discovery)

The climax toward which the story escalates is a decision that leads to a changed situation, or a discovery that leads to a changed self. The protagonist "discovers" the key to solving his problems, or moving on from them. 
 

 

 

6. CONFRONTATION

 
Confrontation
 

The tension is at its highest here. The character finalizes preparations and sets off for the last time to confront the antagonistic force.

 

Three Act (End)

The tension reaches the breaking point. The main character confronts the forces of opposition.
[Note: Act 3 of the Three Act model incorporates two of my touch points - Confrontation and Resolution.]

 

Four Act (Resolution)

In Act 4, the tension reaches the breaking point. The main character launches into battle one last time. 
[Note: Act 4 in this model incorporates two of my touch points - Confrontation and Resolution.]

 

Five Point (Denouement)

There is a final confrontation between the main character and his opponent, during which one or the other decisively wins. All the complications are untangled, and the conflict is resolved. 
[Note: The Denouement of the Five Point model incorporates two of my touch points - Confrontation and Resolution.]

 

Seven Point (Second Plot Turn)

The second plot turn is the catalyst that moves the story from the midpoint toward the final resolution. The main character acquires the last "piece" needed to win--which might be an actual object, such as a weapon or tool, or it might be something less literal such as information, a new skill, or an increase in self-confidence. Hope is rekindled, resolve is increased, and the main character flings himself once more into the fray. 

 

Eight Point (Reversal)

(...the result of which is a change in status...)
The reversal results directly from the critical choice that has been made manifest in the climax. It changes the main character's nature and situation to the opposite of what it was at the beginning of the story arc (from poverty to wealth, weakness to strength, fear to courage, rejection to acceptance, defeat to victory, etc.).

 

Save The Cat (Break Into Three)

The answer is found! The B-story characters come through, or the main character finds the humility to change, or whatever. The real problem is identified, and a real solution for it is found at last. 

 

The Hero's Journey (The Road Back)

The hero sets off again on the journey, determined to see it through this time for good. He makes a conscious decision to finish what he started. 

 

The Virgin's Promise (Chooses Her Light)

The Virgin decides to be true to herself and follow her dream, regardless of the consequences. At last she is free to fully become her true self. 

 

Story Trumps Structure (Discovery cont.)

The character solves, or irrevocably fails to solve, his problem. 
[Note: The Discovery phase of the Story Trumps Structure model incorporates two of my touch points - Combat and Confrontation.]

 

 

 

7. RESOLUTION

 
Resolution
 

The final battle plays out to its inevitable conclusion of ultimate victory or absolute defeat. After the final confrontation, the consequences of the story experience are shown. 

 

Three Act (End)

The main character confronts the forces of opposition and either triumphs decisively at last or is completely and irrevocably defeated. The effects of the final outcome of this confrontation--the changes wrought by the story--are then shown to the reader, and the story comes to a close. 
[Note: Act 3 of the Three Act model incorporates two of my touch points - Confrontation and Resolution.]

 

Four Act (Resolution)

The main character either triumphs decisively at last, or is completely and irrevocably defeated. The effects of the final outcome of this confrontation--the changes wrought by the story--are then shown to the reader, and the story comes to a close. [Note: Act 4 in this model incorporates two of my touch points - Confrontation and Resolution.]

 

Five Point (Denouement cont.)

There is a final confrontation between the main character and his opponent, during which one or the other decisively wins. All the complications are untangled, and the conflict is resolved. We may also see a glimpse of the consequences of the outcome of the story, as life goes on.
[Note: The Denouement of the Five Point model incorporates two of my touch points - Confrontation and Resolution.]

 

Seven Point (Resolution)

The hero wins the day! Victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat! Or conversely, the hero suffers permanent defeat. Either way, the conflict is resolved, the loose ends are tied up, and life resumes in its new form. 

 

Eight Point (Resolution)

(...and they all lived happily ever after.)
The resolution ties up all the loose ends and establishes a new stasis--a new status quo. We see how life will go on after the story ends.

 

Save The Cat (Finale, Final Image)

Finale - The solution is put into practice, and everything changes once again. Victory is real this time, and the main character has become someone who can truly appreciate it. 

Final Image - The final image shows us the result of the solution--the way the world is now better, and has reached a new point of stability and routine. Everything is different, but in lasting, positive ways.

 

The Hero's Journey (Resurrection, Return With the Elixir)

Resurrection - This is the final battle, the ultimate test presented by the story's call to action. This is the make or break, life or death moment of the story, in which the hero either fails completely (if the story is a tragedy) or experiences total victory. It is the battle out of death and darkness, and the return to life and light. 

Return With the Elixir - At the end of the journey, the hero returns to his ordinary world with something that will make that world better. It might be a literal object, but often it's something less substantial, such as protection, a message, or a moral that will show people how to live more abundantly in the ordinary world. The hero is changed by his journey, and he takes that change home with him to share with others so that they (and the reader) may also gain from his experience. 

 

The Virgin's Promise (The Re-ordering, The Kingdom Is Brighter)

The Re-Ordering - As she blossoms fully into her true self, she begins to see her true value, and those around her also begin to see it. She reconnects with her community in a new capacity. 

The Kingdom Is Brighter - The Virgin's challenge to the order of the community has revealed flaws, and given the community a chance to make needed changes. The whole community is benefited through the Virgin's experience.

 

Story Trumps Structure

The problem is resolved, and the story reveals how the protagonist and/or his situation has changed. A new "normal" is established for the character.