Here's a collection of story structures and plots to help develop your
story, especially to build dramatic tension:
Seven-element story structure
Based on Algis Budrys' Writing to the Point and others.
Here's the classic story structure. Note that the character goes through repeated attempts to solve or understand the problem, failing between each attempt
(and learning something new), raising the stakes, and trying again with the new information:
In a context
Encounters or has a problem
And tries to solve the problem
But fails, then learns something new
So tries and fails with greater stakes, and finally
Tries and fails again, the stakes escalating with each attempt. After each failure, the character learns something new and applies this knowledge.
This is the try-fail cycle, and a story is most satisfying with three.
(In the idiot plot, the characters don't learn, or the failures arise from behaving foolishly.)
Until reaching the climax, when things are as bad as they can possibly be, which leads to
Success, or failure, or death: The best resolution and denouement uses outside validation:
"Yep, Jim, he's dead," or "You've saved the world! Kisses and medals for everyone!"
Anatomy of a short story
A simplified way to look at story structure, by James Gunn:
- Situation: "interesting character in difficulties."
- Complication: The situation moves the protagonist to action; efforts to resolve the situation create rising action.
- Climax: Point of greatest drama and emotional interest for reader. Also called "crisis," because pressures of the situation must
be resolved: Do or die time!
- Resolution: Problem solved! Or failure, or success that means failure in another way.
- Anticlimax or denouement: Everything that comes after. Keep as short as possible.
We read fiction because the world around us doesn't make sense, so we expect fiction to make sense of things. If you change the natural story order that
readers expect, it's a risk. Is it worth it? (Why did Memento do the story in reverse? Did it work for you?)
We are annoyed when things go too smoothly for the characters! Whenever the character acts:
- Add conflict!
- This might come from inside (doing something is a challenge for her: doesn't fit system of beliefs, or she doesn't understand the nature of the
- From outside (the previous action might raise conflict from other characters, or an outside force reacts against the action).
- Ways to build your story:
- Whenever possible, make things worse.
- Don't make the solutions simple.
- Make it clear that the bad things in the story have happened before and will again if the characters don't learn or change: Horror does this a lot,
mysteries, and so forth. The movie Alien wouldn't be nearly as scary if the characters hadn't discovered the derelict ship; or later, if the
monster weren't born.
- A character who suffers is one we care about; one who inflicts suffering becomes a villain.
- Complicate the problem when the character thinks she's solved something.
- Make that solution present new problems.
- Put the characters in jeopardy (anticipated pain or loss).
- Consider using romantic tension.
- Signs and portents (especially in horror and fantasy).
Shapes of stories
W-plot is a very useful way to think about story structure visually. It's anchored by five turning points that make up each of the points of a W
(see image to the right).
A series of events connects each dramatic moment or turning point in the story to the next point, and each segment
(which doesn't need to be straight, of course) of the W represents a different phase in the story.
You can imagine that a whole lifetime comes before the initial Trigger Event,
but don't waste your reader's time with that.
Open at the main character's (MC) moment of crisis (the Initial
Trigger Event), the defining moment in a person's life after which nothing will ever be the same.
The problem the MC encounters can be external (danger!) or internal (personal
issues, dissatisfaction in life, deciding to make a change or achieve a goal, or
Act or Scene 1 (or the first arm of the W) is all
about things getting worse as the problem manifests or as the MC attempts to
change their life, getting Joseph Campbell's
"Call to Adventure / Refusing the Call / Finding the Mentor" (from
Campbell's Hero's Journey),
and otherwise falling into a pit of worsening trouble, because they're not yet equipped to deal with it...
...until the 1st Turning Point. That's when the MC learns something, tackles a smaller problem or aspect of the bigger one,
achieve a milestone on the road to happiness, or otherwise actively tries to
solve their issue and either return to the happy state before the story started
or move toward achieving the goal they were aiming for at the beginning of the
Act or Scene 2 is when the character recovers from the
initial problem, crosses Campbell's "First Threshold," passes tests along the
way, and prepares for encountering their greatest fears and the most dangerous
antagonists they've ever faced at...
...the 2nd Triggering Event (middle of the W). This is the
end of Act 2 in a longer work or Scene 2 in a
short story, the point of no return. This is the moment when the MC discovers
they haven't yet solved the problem, or trying to do so raised a new one, or
discovers a bigger underlying issue, or so forth - many writing teachers call
this the "rug-pull," when everything goes wrong at once...
...and the MC falls into a new, worse situation: Act or Scene 3.
Here's when they either need to succeed or die trying.
The 2nd Turning Point is when the MC finally learns what
they need in order to succeed, or survive, or defeat their demons, or so forth -
or when they don't!
Act or Scene 4 can be the path to ultimate success, or a
further decline if the MC doesn't get or learn what they need before facing the
Final Confrontation, and the Climax and
Resolution doesn't have to appear higher than the
Initial Trigger Event if things go wrong!
For a more-realistic, less-literal-W, set of visualizations, see "Vonnegut
But Campbell's conflict-based structure is not the only way to design your
If you're looking for a non-conflict-based structure for your story, check
out the concept of "Kishōtenketsu,"
a way of structuring stories more common to China, Japan, and Korea. Two great
articles on the subject:
Basic plot structures
Based on Robert Heinlein:
Boy Meets Girl / Girl Meets Boy / Boy Meets Boy / Multiform Meets Girl / etc.
A Romance: meets, loses, seeks, finds but has to work for it, finds love or
The Clever Tailor.
Based on the fairy tale: an individual triumphs over enormous odds through cleverness.
Similar: "Rags to Riches."
The Person Who Learned Better.
Includes coming-of-age and personal growth stories; based on epiphany, seeing through the veil into that which was
previously hidden. Often centered around an over-arching metaphor that reveals the "whatness of things."
Rise and Fall
Secret Princess (think Cinderella and Jupiter Ascending)
The Idiot Plot. One not to use! We quickly grow impatient with fools. Events unravel because the character is foolish or unobservant.
"The big subjects"
Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio
Family: inspiration and obstacle
Death and grief
For a fuller discussion of Orson Scott Card's "The MICE Quotient," see this page.
: situation, place-time, world. It's all about the world - planet, society, environment, etc. (Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity; much
fantasy). In this kind of story, drop us directly into the world.
: concept, question, theory. It's all about the idea - start by raising a question, end with answer (mystery).
Why did this beautiful and ancient civilization disappear? In Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star," it's because their sun went nova.
What's this monolith on the Moon and who buried it? ("The Sentinel.")
: person. All about a character's transformation, coming of age, coming to terms, learning better. Really, all stories are character stories,
but as opposed to an idea story where too much character development gets in the way of the story, this type requires deep, comprehensive, and
believable characters more than other types.
Begins at moment protagonist encounters Gunn's "complication"; something drives her to find a way to become happy again, whole, without pain,
free… whatever is causing her pain drives her to action.
Begin as close to moment of change as possible. In a character story, we quickly grow tired of a character who seems unable or unwilling to change.
Plot of this type often arises from character's resistance to change.
: action, plot. Something is wrong in the world and must be corrected or understood.
A monster is terrifying the populace!
The prince is visited by his dead father, the king!
A boy is born into the role of the Kwisach Haderach!
A powerful and ancient enemy has reappeared at the time when the Ring of Power has been recovered!
Starts at the moment of change or difference. Protagonist is pulled into the story: Frodo discovers that Bilbo's ring is the key to overthrowing
Sauron, but by fulfilling his destiny he will end up diminishing the magical peoples of Middle Earth.
Any of these can be the center of your story.
Individual against individual
Individual against nature
Individual against him- or herself
Individual against society
Individual against the gods
Individual against machine
June and William Noble:
- Love and hate
- The chase
- Grief and loss
The story of resolution (the hero has a problem and solves it)
The story of revelation (something hidden is revealed: "The Lottery")
The trick ending story (surprising twist)
The story of decision (ends in a decision, not necessarily action "Cold Equation")
The story of explanation (explains a mystery)
The story of solution (solves a puzzle)
- Trauma (starts with a crisis)
- Specimen (centers on an unusual person)
- A Day in the Life
- Onion (layers within layers)
- Visitation (a stranger comes to town)
- Aha! (reader's surprise)
- Bear at the door (outside threat)
- Blue Moon (unusual event changes everything)
Science Fiction story types
The wonders of science
Humanity/the individual and the machine
The individual and society
Humanity/the individual and the future
Humanity/the individual and the environment
Humanity/the individual and the alien
Humanity/the individual and religion/spirituality
Miscellaneous glimpses of the future and past
Fantasy story types
People and the powerful/omnipotent other
People and/or animals
People and magic (or other unscientific sciences)
The individual and society
Wonders we can touch
The power of one
Good vs. evil
Written and edited by Chris McKitterick. Stay tuned - this page will continue to grow.
back to Workshop resources page