Thursday, May 13, 2021

Which Story Structure Is Right for Your Novel?

By Savannah Cordova

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: All novels have a narrative structure, but finding the right one can be tricky. Savannah Cordova shares tips on which structure best suits the story you're trying to tell.

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.

Take it away Savannah...

It’s a less existential question than Hamlet’s, but it’s sparked fierce debate nonetheless: to structure or not to structure your novel?

As a natural-born pantser, I’ve always seen the merits of just plowing ahead with a story and letting the structure work itself out. That said, I’ve come to agree with Janice that following an established structure is much more helpful than not, especially for new authors who may feel lost or overwhelmed by the possibilities.

But having committed to structuring your novel, another important question remains: which structure would best suit the story you’re trying to tell? This post expertly weighs the pros and cons of six different story structures with regards to your writing process, but if you’re looking to choose a structure based on plot or genre, you may still be wondering which would be ideal.

Here, I’ll lay out five well-known story structures and the types of stories for which they work best, with examples to demonstrate — including a few that might surprise you! So if you’re worried your story won’t “fit” into a standard structure (or fretting that if it does fit, that means you’re hopelessly formulaic), never fear. There’s a story structure out there for everyone, and a strong story will make even the most well-worn structure feel fresh.

1. The Hero’s Journey: for tales of grand adventure and personal evolution

Speaking of well-worn structures, there’s none more tried-and-true than the Hero’s Journey. It’s been the blueprint for many intrepid protagonists over the years, from Frodo Baggins to Luke Skywalker, and goes back as far as Greek mythology (as Joseph Campbell highlights in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, calling this structure “the monomyth”).

Indeed, anyone with a working knowledge of literature will be familiar with the hero’s journey: the hero is called to adventure, resists at first but soon gives in, makes friends and allies, meets opponents and obstacles, faces their biggest test of all, and finally wins, usually saving the world in the process. All in a day’s work!

From that description and the examples given above, it’s clear that the Hero’s Journey is great for epic adventure stories — especially fantasy and science fiction, which combine magical problems and solutions with inherently human ones. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy: the heroine, Alina Starkov, must call upon her “Chosen One” powers, her pre-Chosen One instincts, and her loyal allies in order to defeat evil. (I won’t go into spoiler-y details, but those watching Shadow and Bone, you’re in for a treat.)

The Hero’s Journey can also be used for stories that don’t feel “epic” in scale, but instead portray a life-changing experience for the main character. Many consider Jane’s path in Jane Eyre to be a hero’s journey of sorts; likewise with Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. They don’t fight dragons or dark lords, but they are called to adventures, their beliefs and abilities are tested, and they emerge with stronger self-identities and satisfying endings.

So if you suspect the hero’s journey structure would work well for your novel, but you’re concerned because it’s not SFF, give it a shot anyway! The hero’s journey is universal, and can lend high stakes and gravitas to even the most understated of stories.

(Here’s more with Plotting With the Hero's Journey)

2. In medias res: for dramas, thrillers, and suspense

Starting a story in medias res is great for grabbing readers’ attention, and can be used in almost any context. However, following the in medias res story structure — a separate phenomenon that involves backtracking to see how the character(s) got there — is a bit tougher, requiring a specific kind of story. If you can pull it off, though, you’ll have your readers hooked from the beginning and raving about your brilliant unveiling by the end.

Examples of this structure are probably already jumping to mind, and they’re probably all domestic thrillers: Gone Girl, Big Little Lies, and so on. To be sure, kicking off a story with a disappearance or murder has become a popular M.O. over the past decade. But even among these titles, there are distinct variations; for example, Gillian Flynn’s in medias res story relies on shifting perspectives between past and present action, while Big Little Lies is technically almost all “in the past” compared to the in medias res event.

So if you’re writing a thriller, proceed with in medias res, but give it your own flavor. Don’t limit yourself perspective-wise, and don’t fixate on flashbacks if they don’t mesh with your story (if they do, make sure to read that post on how to use them!). Think about what’s compelling and different about your own novel, and adapt in medias res to accentuate those elements.

And as with the Hero’s Journey “epic” caveat, you don’t need non-stop thrills to employ this structure! In medias res can be just as useful for quieter suspense stories — both of Celeste Ng’s novels, for example, follow this structure by unfolding to an in medias res tragedy, but neither explanation is terribly violent or shocking. If you’re hoping to create any degree of emotional or psychological suspense, in medias res is a strong choice.

(Here’s more with Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers)

3. The Fichtean Curve: for satire and character-driven stories

The Fichtean Curve structure involves a series of heightening crises that lead to the story’s climax, followed by a small amount of falling action. It’s not quite as well-known as the first two structures on this list, but it has a long history in dramatic literature, especially mysteries.

I would argue, however, that the Fichtean Curve is best applied not in a dramatic fashion, but in dark comedy and satire, as well as in character-driven stories — categories that often overlap, as satire frequently depends on characters and their vices. The case study outlined in the post above, from A Confederacy of Dunces, is a perfect example: the novel satirizes fools who think themselves geniuses, and there’s no better embodiment of this than Ignatius J. Reilly.

But your main character doesn’t have to be foolish for the Fichtean Curve to work. As a more recent example, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is as sharp (and correspondingly prickly) as they come. Naturally, when she descends into low spirits, she lands on the elegant solution of sleeping it off... for an entire year.

Crisis after crisis follows as her relationships deteriorate, her sleep medications fail, and a new pill starts giving her disturbing side effects. No matter what happens, though, the narrator (who remains unnamed) is determined to stay unconscious, and the consequences and climax that stem from this make for a riveting — if often uncomfortable — story.

This is the point of the Fichtean Curve: putting your main character through their paces reveals who they really are and if they’re willing to change (spoiler alert: they’ll either have to, or will meet their downfall resisting). To that end, it’s an incomparable strategy for satire in which the thesis is distilled in a single character — and a solid structure for any character-driven story, or even as an exercise to imagine how your main character might respond in crisis.

(Here’s more with 3 Shortcuts to Character-Driven Stories)

4. Freytag’s Pyramid: for tragedies with a message

Allow me to name-check Hamlet again, because Freytag’s Pyramid is the classic structure associated with Shakespearean tragedies. It’s unusual in the sense that the “climax,” which here signals a point of no return, comes in the middle of story rather than at the end — Hamlet kills Polonius, Tybalt kills Mercutio, Macbeth kills Banquo (or technically has him killed).

Basically, this apex of Freytag’s Pyramid is the midpoint reversal, but without recovery or redemption. Instead of spurring the protagonist(s) to think smarter or work harder, it sends them into a downward spiral, culminating in a final “catastrophe”: Hamlet dies, Macbeth dies, Romeo and Juliet die. Of course, the more avoidable the death seems, the more tragic it is.

“But why would I ever use this structure for my novel?” you might be thinking. “Who writes these kinds of stories anymore?” Well, authors like Franz Kafka and Arthur Miller brought Freytag’s Pyramid into the 20th century, complete with newly relevant themes — namely, the depressing futility of much of modern life (thanks, guys).

But more intriguingly, contemporary authors like Donna Tartt — whose first novel, The Secret History, follows Freytag’s Pyramid and has experienced a recent resurgence in popular culture — use the structure to denounce specific human weaknesses. In The Secret History, it’s right there on the first page: “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

Though you don’t need to be quite so immediate about it, this is the key to using Freytag’s Pyramid: make sure you’re commenting on something pointed and at least somewhat relevant to readers today. Freytag’s Pyramid is far from a one-size-fits-all structure, but if you’re interested in writing a tragedy with a message, it could be just the fit for you.

5. Save the Cat: for contemporary fiction and romance

Finally, we arrive at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet — which, I will concede, is best to consider first through the lens of your writing process. If you’re a diehard pantser, you may not enjoy the rigorous structure of Save the Cat, which breaks down a story into no less than 15 parts. But if you want clear, detailed guidelines for writing a great novel, look no further!

The specific beats and documented successes of Save the Cat are why I’d recommend it for pretty much anyone trying to write contemporary fiction — as well as modern romance, since (as a hobby romance writer myself!) I find it’s all too easy to end up heavy on fluff and banter, light on plot. Save the Cat ensures your story hits all the points necessary to satisfy readers and that those points are paced effectively. You can’t go wrong with this one in any genre, truth be told, but it’s especially helpful if you’re attempting to write commercial fiction that maybe, just maybe, will be turned into a movie someday.

(Here’s more with Plotting With the Save the Cat Beat Sheet Structure)

All that being said, don’t let preconceived notions of story structures influence you too heavily! With the exception of Freytag’s Pyramid, these structures are quite versatile. Indeed, arguably all of them work within the classic three-act structure, so you can always start there if you want flexibility on when your story will peak, how the characters will react, and where it will end.

Remember, story structures can be very useful, but they’re just that: structures, frameworks, not final products. How your novel unfolds is ultimately up to you, and whether you decide to plan it using a specific structure or not, the crucial thing is that you’re telling the story as you believe it should be told. Best of luck!


  1. Thanks for this breakdown. It was so refreshing to see the structures side by side and compare their strengths instead of reading a list of "shoulds" and then forcing my story to fit. Thank-you, as always!!

  2. Great breakdown of the various structures.