4 Unconventional Ways in Which You Can Structure a Story

4 Ways in Which You Can Structure a Story

While writing a story, the narrative structure plays an important role. The structure of a story refers to the framework of the narrative. It is essentially the manner in which the plot or storyline unfolds for the reader. The most simplistic formula available is to begin with “once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after.” Traditionally, all stories were said to have a  beginning, middle, and end. However, as literary styles evolved, writers adopted and even created novel ways of structuring a story. In order to keep the reader engaged till the end, they have not hesitated to deviate from the age-old convention of developing a linear plot.

While one can choose from a plethora of narrative structures today, each story must contain the following plot components. Together, they make up the “action” that takes place in a book, culminating in an interesting and satisfying ending. 

  1. Exposition: This is where you introduce the characters, establish the setting, and present the primary conflict.
  2. Rising action: This is the second stage where the primary conflict is introduced and the story is set in motion. The events create tension and excitement as the story builds.
  3. Climax: This is the high point of the story—the moment of maximum tension and conflict. It should leave the reader wondering what’s next.
  4. Falling action: In this stage, the story falls into place and begins to work towards a satisfying ending. Loose ends are tied up, explanations are revealed, and the reader learns more about how the conflict is resolved.
  5. Resolution: The main conflict is resolved and the story ends.

The way a story rises and falls creates an arc shape. The narrative arc is the fundamental framework for developing a book’s plot. Through the ages, writers have played with the order in which these components are placed in the story. In doing so, they have created the following unique narrative structures-

In Medias Res

In medias res is a Latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things.” As a literary term, it denotes the opening of a story in the middle of action. Some writers craft the opening scenes of their books with details of the environment and set up where the story takes place. Other writers prefer to drop the reader right into the middle of intense action, allowing the physical aspects of the world to unfold as the story progresses. This narrative technique serves to capture the reader’s attention and brings them to the centre of the action.

Some examples of stories beginning in medias res are-

  • Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem The Divine Comedy. It starts off with the protagonist in the middle of a dark wood with no explanation for how he got there or why. The reader, sharing in the confusion, wants him to find answers. This creates an emotional investment for the audience, who will continue to read in hopes that the hero figures out how to escape his current predicament.
  • Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. Within the first lines, the reader is dropped directly into the battle and the ongoing events of the Trojan War. They witness the action unfold between the warring Greeks and Trojans. The initial scenes feature kidnapping, bribery, plagues, and death.

Circular plot structure

In a circular narrative, the story ends where it began. A circular narrative presents one event at a time and ends where the story originated. Rather than providing a clear conclusion by tying together the remaining pieces of the story, a circular narrative provides closure through a return to the opening material. Circular narratives often use flashbacks and dream sequences to create a sense of departure from and a return to the original scene. They often conclude with the same theme or subject matter that opened the story. Although the starting and ending points are the same, the characters undergo a transformation, affected by the story’s events. 

Some examples of stories with a circular structure are-

  • James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opens with Mitty escaping life’s monotony in a more exciting fantasy and closes with him doing the same.
  • Homer’s The Odyssey opens with Odysseus leaving Ithaca to go to war and closes with his triumphant return to the same setting.

Interactive plot structure

In this plot structure, the reader makes choices throughout the book. The narrative involves the reader, leading to the creation of new options and alternate endings. These stories are most prominent as “choose your own adventure” books. Interactive plots are designed to keep readers engaged till the very end. Often, the narrative offers choices like- “participate in the battle or escape into the forest”. Popular genres for writing interactive plots are fantasy and science fiction. Many interactive plots allow the reader to choose their own ending to the story.

Some examples of stories with an interactive plot structure are-

  • John Fowles, in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, provides the reader with three possible endings to the story.
  • Ryan North’s book To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure is a creative choose-your-own-path version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It allows the reader to assume the role of different characters and make choices on their behalf.

Parallel plot structure

In a parallel plot structure, the writer interweaves two or more dramatic plots. These plots are usually linked by a common character and a similar theme. Often, the events of the two narratives overlap throughout the novel or come together in the novel’s climax or resolution. More complex story structures may contain three or more parallel stories. They may feature a new narrative point of view in each plot segment. A parallel plotline is highly experimental- it jumps around, skips between timelines and protagonists. One way to create a parallel plot is to feature two journeys. A “double journey narrative” has two equally important protagonists. The two protagonists journey towards, apart, or in parallel with each other – physically, emotionally or both. Sometimes one character is shown in more detail than the other, with the second as more of a mystery.

Some examples of stories with a parallel plot structure are-

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby follows the parallel lives of the narrator Nick Carraway and the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby.
  • The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton features the parallel narratives of Nell and her granddaughter Cassandra, who each, at different times, try to piece together the mystery of Nell’s past.

“Every story needs structure, just as every body needs a skeleton. It is how you ‘flesh out and clothe’ your structure that makes each story unique.”

Caroline Lawrence

The art of storytelling has evolved to include unique ways to keep the reader engaged. Writers have broken away from the convention of devising a simplistic and linear plot. If you’re about to begin the journey of writing a new story, consider creating a non-linear plot like the ones mentioned above. A story with a unique structure not only makes for an enjoyable read, but its creation is also an enriching experience even for the writer. We hope that your next story is unique and unputdownable!

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