“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”Mark Twain (Samuel Clements)
Most stories, especially modern fictional ones, are the same story over and over and over again. Which is a good thing! It helps the audience follow along and know what they are seeing, without having to explain how stories work. It’s also because this is the most exciting way to tell stories. We are going to take a look at the story structure, and go from five steps to thirteen.
If you’re like me, you recognize the below drawing from 8th grade English. This is a super simplified version of the story structure we will be looking at today. It was created by Gustav Freytag, a German playwright from the mid-1800s.
The story starts with some information (exposition) introducing us to the status quo of the major characters, the world around us, and any more info we will need to enjoy the story ahead. Then things become more and more exciting (rising action) until we reach the ultimate point in the story (climax). Then we get a few loose ends wrapped up (falling action) until we see what is the new status quo of the world and characters (resolution/denouement). Pretty simple, right?
The exposition is supposed to give all of the information about the upcoming story, such as major characters and locations. Of course, it’s also supposed to hook your audience, convincing them that the story is worth paying attention to. How do you do that, while also showing the status quo?
Step One: Hook and Sink. Before you show your heroes status quo, give a hint of the action to come. Perhaps you show your villain, starting their dastardly plan, but without any information as to who they are, what they are doing, just the result of the first step of their plan.
Step Two: Back to the Shire. Now we cut to the hero in their simple life. We show what is at stake, what information the hero knows about the villain, if any, and what else we should know about this world.
Of course, all of the exciting stuff is in the rising action, and the climax. The end three pieces are just there to support those two. So why don’t we expand on the Rising Action a little, into three more pieces?
- Exploration – Learning about what’s changing the status quo, whether the hero has new skills, or the villain has affected the surroundings.
- False Victory – The hero’s failed attempt at returning to status quo.
- Learning – The hero learning what they need to succeed.
The False Victory is, what I believe to be, the most important addition in the story structure. Here we see the villain collide with the hero, and we get what was promised at the “Hook and Sink” stage. The hero tries their new skills, but fail to the strength of the villain. It legitimizes the threat of the villain, shows the hero humility despite their new skill set, and gives the hero something specific to work towards.
On either side of the False Victory moment, in the Exploration and Learning stages, we want a pinch in the story, and a plot turn on the other side of that.
So far we have:
Exposition: We meet the hero in the Exposition
Plot Turn: The Hero is involved in the story
Pinch: the Status Quo is in danger
False Victory: The Hero tries, and fails to stop the villain
Pinch: Consequences of the Villain winning
Plot Turn: The Hero finds the missing piece to defeat the villain
Climax: The Hero wins
Joseph Campbell and others have added a few more pieces to the story, and have created what is known as the “Monomyth” or the “Hero’s Journey.” There are different versions of the Monomyth, ranging from 8-17 steps, but I will show the 14 most common ones.
- Ordinary World – The Status Quo
- Exploration Plot Turn
- Call to Adventure – The plot turn that causes the hero to join the story
- Refusal of the Call – Often times, heroes don’t want to be flung into a world of danger.
- Meeting the Mentor – Every hero needs someone wise to help them.
- Supernatural Aid – What gives the hero an advantage over regular people?
- Exploration Pinch
- Crossing the Threshold – The moment the Hero accepts their new role.
- False Victory
- Ordeal, Death, & Rebirth – The hero attempts to stop the conflict, fails, and has to learn to continue anyway.
- Learning Pinch
- Allies and Enemies – The hero learns more about those that can help them, as well as who helps the villain.
- Learning Plot Turn
- Reward – What is the hero’s new goal?
- Seizing the Sword – The hero succeeds!
- Falling Action
- Refusal of the Return – The hero doesn’t want to go back to a normal life.
- Return Threshold – The hero returns home.
- Return with the Elixir – The hero returns home with their new skill set.
- Master of Two Worlds – How will the new skill set affect their life?
Pixar follows a version of this, but they have tweaked aspects of it to make sure the story is engaging. They focus on the biggest consequence of each action, so that you only see the most important parts of the story.
- Once Upon a Time – Pixar has a tendency to change their world from the one we know. This establishes the world itself.
- And Every Day – The Ordinary World for our Main Character.
- Until One Day – Call to Adventure
- Because of That – Direct Consequences
- Because of That – Repeat as Necessary
- Until Finally – Climax
- And Ever Since Then – Resolution
To show the similarities, let’s look at Star Wars: A New Hope, Iron Man, and Pixar’s Cars. While these are all currently Disney, only one of them was when they were released, so no using that excuse. These films skip some of the final steps, because audiences today are less concerned with wrapping up the story, instead in favor of sequels.
- Story Structure
- Star Wars
- Iron Man
- Pixar’s Cars
- Hook and Sink.
- Vader Captures Leia
- Jericho Missile Display
- The Big Race
- Ordinary World
- Luke’s Blue Milk
- That Is Tony Stark’s Ordinary World
- That Is Lightning McQueen’s Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- “Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi, You’re My Only Hope”
- Being Attacked by the 10 Rings
- Being Left in Radiator Springs
- Refusal of the Call
- Toschi Station
- Tony Doesn’t Want to Get Kidnapped
- I Have to Escape Radiator Springs
- Meeting the Mentor
- Old Ben Kenobi
- Dr. Yinsen
- Doc Hudson
- Supernatural Aid
- Lightsabers and The Force
- Build a Body Suit to Escape
- Turn Right to Go Left
- Crossing the Threshold
- Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru Die
- Kills the 10 Rings and escapes
- Agrees to Repave the Road
- Allies & Enemies
- Han Solo & Stormtroopers
- Pepper Potts & Obadiah Stane
- Citizens of Radiator Springs & His Own Ego
- False Victory
- Save Princess Leia, Lose Kenobi
- Obadiah Steals Tony’s Arc Reactor
- Poorly Paved Road
- Reward / New Goal
- We Must Save the Galaxy
- He Must Defeat Stane
- Leave Radiator Springs
- Seizing the Sword
- Luke Blows Up the Death Star, Becoming Attuned to the Force
- Tony Kills Stane
- Leaves for California, Knowing How to Drift
- Refusal of the Return
- When the Press Ambush Him
- Return Threshold
- Press Conference
- Makes it to the Big California Race
- Return with the Elixir
- Remembers What Happened to Doc Hudson
- Master of Two Worlds
- “I Am Iron Man”
- Helps The King Finish His Final Race, Despite Crashing
Lastly, here are 13 authors all showing their version of story structure, again with between 3 steps for the three acts, or 12 steps.