Every great story is built on great story structure. And there are a lot of story structure frameworks out there.
Which one should you use in your story? The one that works for you!
That said, I do have a favorite, an approach to story structure that I apply to every single story I edit. And in this article, I’m going to share that structure with you.
I love this story structure framework. I rely on it and I use it all the time.
It did take me some practice to get really comfortable using it. I think it’s important to mention that because what I’m about to share with you is really meaty, and it might feel like a big, overwhelming info dump at first, and feel challenging to apply.
But I did practice with it. I practiced applying it to scenes. I practiced applying it to acts. I practiced applying it to entire novels. I practiced applying it to the movies and TV shows I watch.
The more I practiced, the more comfortable and confident I became using it. And I keep discovering ever more layers of insight as I apply it to the stories I edit every day.
So I invite you to explore this structure with me. Look for it in the stories you read and watch. And then see what it would look like to apply it to your own story.
What I Mean When I Say “Story”
Before we dive in, I want to note: throughout this explanation, I’m going to use the word “story” a lot. I’m doing that very intentionally. I’m not going to say “novel,” “act,” or “scene.”
That’s because this story structure applies to all those levels of story. You can find these six elements in your entire manuscript. You can zoom in a little closer and find them in each act. And you can zoom in even closer and find them in a scene.
So when I say “story,” I mean: whichever unit of story you’re working on right now.
Are you zoomed all the way out to look at the entire manuscript as a whole? You can find this structure in it.
Are you zoomed in really close to look at a scene? You can find this structure there, too.
Grab the Worksheet to Apply This Structure
I do have a worksheet that you can download that will walk you through this approach to story structure. It’s called the Scene Analysis Worksheet, and it includes everything I’m about to talk about.
But don’t get stuck on that “scene” word. Sure, I was thinking of scenes as I put that worksheet together, but everything in it applies just as much to every level of story.
Want to grab the worksheet and follow along? You can get it by filling in the form below:
All right, that’s enough preamble. Ready to explore this story structure that applies so magically to every level of story? Let’s dive in.
The 6 Elements of Story
My favorite story structure framework is what I call the Elements of Story.
There are six elements in this framework: the inciting incident, progressive complications, turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution.
A lot of those terms might be familiar. Which is both great, and a little annoying.
Great, because when terms become familiar, they start to feel less like inaccessible jargon and more like friendly concepts you feel confident and comfortable using in your own stories.
Annoying, because like I said before, there are so many story structure tools, and a lot of them use similar language, and sometimes the terms all mean the same thing, and sometimes the terms mean different things.
Let’s break all these terms down so you know what I mean when I talk about each element of story.
1. The Inciting Incident
First up: the inciting incident.
At the beginning of a story, before anything has happened, the world is normal. Your character is going about their life doing the typical things they typically do. Everything is going as well as it normally goes.
Until the inciting incident.
The inciting incident is a disruption. It’s something that happens to your character, something that interrupts their normal life.
Now things are not normal anymore. Something has happened, and whether they like it or not, your protagonist is going to have to respond.
2. Progressive Complications
Next up: the progressive complications.
The progressive complications are a series of events that make the situation—well—more complicated.
Some of the progressive complications might be good. Some of them are probably bad.
All of them escalate the problem. That’s the “progressive” part of the term “progressive complications.” As Merriam-Webster puts it, “progressive” means “increasing in extent or severity.”
Which is to say, if the disruption that was introduced in the inciting incident was a little bitty disruption, a minor problem, now it’s growing. The stakes are higher. Things are getting increasingly complicated.
There’s no set number of progressive complications that are required in this story framework. You might have just one or two, or you might have several.
The only thing you definitely need is for events to build on that inciting incident, whether that takes one page or many pages.
3. The Turning Point
Eventually, all those progressive complications build to element number three: the turning point.
The turning point is the biggest problem yet. Technically, it’s part of the progressive complications: it’s one of the events that makes the situation more complicated.
This one, though, is a big deal. It’s something that can’t be ignored. It demands a response from the protagonist.
Why is it called the turning point?
Because at this moment, the scene turns. It changes. Things were one way, and now they’re another way.
Here, I’m going to call back to another of my favorite story structure tools: the value shift. I have a full article on value shifts, which I highly recommend you check out if you haven’t already: Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story.
If the term “value shift” is new to you, here’s a crash course.
Stories are about change. At the beginning of every story, things are one way, and at the end of the story, they’re another way. Everything in the middle shows us how that change happens.
And the thing that changes is what I call the value shift.
Hot to cold, accepted to rejected, alive to dead, despair to hope. These are just a tiny sampling of all the value shifts you’ll find in stories.
And the turning point is where the value shift happens. It’s where the value . . . shifts.
To sum it all up: the turning point is the largest, most problematic progressive complication, the place where the story shifts from the starting value to the ending value, and the event that forces the protagonist to respond in some way.
If you’d like a fantastic visual representation of the turning point, there’s an incredible scene from the movie Children of Men that I think of and reference all the time.
Play it now and see if you can spot the turning point:
Did you spot the turning point?
At the start, a group of people are in a car driving down a road, and they’re nervous, but peaceful. And then a vehicle on fire rolls down the hill in front of them and blocks the road, and they reverse and start racing the other way, being chased and shot at by an armed group of rebels all the way.
That car on fire that rolls in front of them is such a clear turning point. They literally cannot keep doing what they were doing before. They have to literally turn around and go the other way.
The action is tragic, but the turning point is amazing. It’s so visual and so good.
4. The Crisis
What comes after the turning point? The crisis.
The crisis is a choice. It’s the choice the protagonist must make about how they’re going to respond to the turning point.
Here are a few features of a great crisis:
A great crisis is a binary choice
First, it’s a binary choice. Do this, or do that?
We’re not talking about an open-ended question like “what would you like for dinner?” This is a choice with two options. This or that. Yes or no.
A great crisis has consequences
Second, both options have consequences.
Those consequences can happen in one of two ways:
In an “irreconcilable goods” crisis, they’re choosing between two good things, and selecting one means giving up the other.
And in a “best bad choice” crisis, they’re choosing between two bad things, and they’d rather have neither, but that’s not possible.
That said, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to categorize a crisis by whether it’s an irreconcilable goods or a best bad choice. I find that for most crises, both options have some good consequences and some bad consequences, so they can go either way depending on how you look at them.
Just make sure that the crisis has consequences—even if the protagonist isn’t fully aware of what all the consequences are.
A great crisis might happen quickly or take a long time
And third, the crisis choice might take a long time to happen, or it might not.
Sometimes, the protagonist makes their choice quickly. We barely even see the decision-making process because they react so fast.
Sometimes, the protagonist has to waffle for a while, considering their options, debating between the two choices.
I actually have a full episode on how long it might take a character to make their decision: How Long Should it Take for Your Character to Make a Decision?
Regardless of how long a crisis takes, the key here is that your character must make a decision. Characters challenged to make decisions is at the heart of storytelling. That’s what we’ve come to story to see.
5. The Climax
After the crisis comes the climax.
Of all the terms I’ve used so far, this is the one I’m absolutely sure you’ve heard before. Here’s what I mean when I say the climax of a story.
The climax is the moment when the protagonist takes action on their crisis choice.
Let’s walk it back and see how this works:
The turning point throws a problem at the protagonist that they can’t ignore.
In the crisis, they’re faced with a decision about how to respond to the turning point: do this, or do that?
And in the climax, they take action. If they picked “do this,” now they “do this.” If they picked “do that,” now they “do that.”
This moment is the big event. It’s what we came to the story to see. It’s probably the most exciting event of the story.
And I think a big part of that is because it’s when we get to see the value shift in action.
I know that I said that the turning point is where the value shift happens. And that’s true, to an extent.
But really, I think of the value shift as in flux from the turning point through the climax. Especially when it comes to internal value shifts, to the changes happening inside of your protagonist, the change isn’t always instantaneous. It’s a shift that happens inside of them that’s triggered by the turning point, but isn’t fully realized until they act on it in the climax.
So in the climax, we’re seeing change at work. And remember, stories are about change.
Things are not the same as they were at the beginning of the story, back in the inciting incident, or even before.
So seeing this big, climactic moment when the protagonist takes action and experiences the consequences of that action is really exciting.
6. The Resolution
And after the climax comes the resolution.
Of all the elements of story, I’d say the resolution is the one I hear people talk about the least. But I love a well-executed resolution. Let me tell you why.
We know everyone wants an exciting climax. We know we’ve spent the whole story on the edge of our seats waiting for the climax.
So once we get there, once we have that big event, it can kind of feel like, hey, that was it! We did it! We did the thing. That’s what we came to this story for, and now we’re done.
But the climax actually isn’t what we came to the story for. At least, it’s not the whole thing.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a million times more: stories are about change. We came to the story in order to see a change happen.
And in the resolution, we get to see what the changed world looks like now.
In the resolution, we see the new world order, the aftermath of the climax. And consciously or unconsciously, we’re comparing it to the beginning, to the status quo world that we saw before the inciting incident shook things up.
That contrast—the difference between the original status quo and the new world order—that is what we came to story for.
So don’t skip your resolution!
The resolution doesn’t need to be long to be effective. But it does need to exist. We need a chance to take one final breath and see what the world looks like now.
The 6 Elements in Brief
So there you have it: the Six Elements of Story, my favorite approach to story structure.
Here they are again:
- The inciting incident: Something disrupts the character’s “normal” and kicks off the action of the story.
- Progressive complications: The conflict escalates as more complications happen. These events might make things better or worse, but they certainly make things more complicated.
- The turning point: The largest, most problematic progressive complication, which forces the protagonist to respond in some way.
- The crisis: In order to respond to the turning point, the protagonist must make a difficult choice. This is a choice between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods).
- The climax: The moment when the protagonist takes action on the crisis choice and experiences the consequences.
- The resolution: The “new normal” after the climax. Something has changed since the scene began with the inciting incident, and readers want to see what the world looks like now.
These six elements form one arc of change. Things start one way, and they end another way, and these six elements are the journey that we take from that starting state to the ending state.
And the starting state and ending state? Those are the two sides of the value shift.
I gave you a really brief introduction to the value shift in this article, but if that term is new to you, I highly recommend that you check out this article all about the value shift.
When you are armed with a value shift and these six elements of story, you can tell absolutely any story you want.
Can You Spot These Elements in the Wild?
Now, this was a whole lot of material. It can feel a little overwhelming to try to digest all at once. So don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’ve mastered it just from reading one article.
I’ve got more resources coming for you where I’ll go into more depth about how to use this structure and hopefully help you get more comfortable playing around with it yourself. I’ll talk about why I love this structure so much, where you can use it in your story, and examples of this story structure applied to a story I love.
For now, though, why not give it a whirl?
Take these six elements and see if you can spot them in a story—whether it’s something you’re reading or watching, or the novel you’re working on right now.
Don’t forget to grab the worksheet with all six elements, as well as questions to help you identify the value shift. Yes, it’s called the Scene Analysis Worksheet, but remember, you can apply these elements at any level of story.
Get that worksheet by filling in the form below:
The more you practice with these elements, the more familiar they’ll become, and the more comfortable you’ll feel applying them to your own editing process.
And who knows? Maybe this will become your favorite approach to story structure, too!