Writing a novel can feel like staring into the void. When you’re sitting in front of a blank page, anything could happen, and that feeling is both freeing… and terrifying. This is where a good story structure comes in.

As it turns out, experts say that limitless possibility might not actually be the best for your creative brain. Instead, setting limitations or having rules to follow—like a story structure—can give you a box to then think outside of.

A story structure is basically a map to keep you from getting lost as you set off into the unknown. It identifies the key elements of dramatic plot in any story. Once you know the path, you can chart your course and then play in the blank space from Point A to Point B.

Narrative structure and plotting systems come in many forms, some more complex than others. These 9 story structures range from the classic plot pyramid to the lesser known plot embryo to Aristotle’s ancient Poetics, but they’re all trying to answer the same questions:

  • What makes up a story?
  • What kind of stories please the reader?
  • What is it about a beginning, middle, and end that makes a plot really sing?

By analyzing the structure and plot of our favorite stories, we can find out how they work and why we love them so much. And then, you can see what sparks your own creativity and use it as a guide on how to structure your own story.

Story Structures

Here is the list of story structures that we think all writers should know:

  1. Plot Pyramid
  2. Tragic Pyramid
  3. Hero’s Journey
  4. Plot Embryo
  5. Tragic Plot Embryo
  6. Seven Point Plot Structure
  7. Poetics
  8. Snowflake Method
  9. Save the Cat

Many of these will share similar elements. They’re all based on the same traditions of storytelling that have existed for thousands of years. And if you know what all those stories have in common, that puts you one step ahead to write your own.

Let’s start with one of the more basic narrative structures, and one of the most famous:

1. The Plot Pyramid

Plot Pyramid

 Baby’s first story structure. In school, when you’re learning about what makes up a story but you’ve already covered “beginning, middle, and end,” you’re usually led to Freytag’s plot pyramid.

There are different versions of the plot pyramid that include more specific steps, like an inciting incident between the exposition and the rising action. These specifics usually have been adapted from other, more complex story structures, so we’ll save those for later. For now, the original plot pyramid gives us the basics.

Story Structure of the Plot Pyramid

  • Exposition: The beginning of the story sets up the main character(s) and setting. We get background information, just enough to get us started with the story. Everything is status quo.
  • Rising movement: The conflict begins. Suspense and tension rise, the plot picks up, and the reader is wondering what’s going to happen. How will our main character get out of this? How will they win?
  • Climax: Maximum suspense. This is the peak of the conflict and a turning point for the main character.
  • Falling action: The conflict unravels, pieces fall into place, our main character has the key to victory, and eventually we reach a resolution to the conflict.
  • Denouement: Outcome or conclusion. The conflict is resolved, the main character has won, and the story is over.

The Plot Pyramid in Action

To illustrate Freytag’s plot pyramid in action with a story you already know, let’s go through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

  • Exposition: Harry is an orphan living in a cupboard under the stairs in the home of his abusive aunt and uncle. He feels odd and out of place.
  • Rising movement: Harry finds out he is a wizard and attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He goes to class, makes friends like Ron and Hermione, makes enemies like Malfoy and Snape, and he learns about Voldemort, the evil wizard who killed his parents. He also learns that the sorcerer’s stone is hidden and guarded in the castle.
  • Climax: Harry decides to go after the stone to keep Snape from stealing it.
  • Falling action: Harry and his friends pass through trials guarding the stone. Harry meets Voldemort, and because he is pure of heart, he beats Voldemort and escapes with the stone.
  • Denouement: Harry recovers. He heroically wins the house cup and feels fully accepted at Hogwarts.

2. The Tragic Pyramid

Tragic Plot Pyramid

As we go through the list of popular story structures, you’ll likely notice that most of them end with our main character—the hero—winning in the end. But what happens if your main character is an anti-hero? Or a straight-up villain? How do you write a story that will get them to their unhappy ending?

As it turns out, Freytag’s original plot pyramid was designed with tragedy in mind. This explains why the climax is in the middle of Freytag’s original pyramid, instead of being closer to the end.

The version we know, which includes “denouement” and allows for a happy ending, isn’t in Freytag’s original writing. Instead, Freytag’s last step in his plot structure is “catastrophe.” As you might be able to guess, that’s when everything goes wrong and or protagonist meets their tragic end.

When to Use the Plot Pyramid

This story structure is a classic because it focuses on elements necessary to any story, regardless of genre or character type: at its core, this is just a model for a beginning, middle, and end.

It can also be especially handy when a story revolves around a climax in the center of the plot, as opposed to the finale. This way, you as a writer can clearly visualize equal and parallel amounts of rising and falling action.

3. The Hero’s Journey

Hero's JourneyHere’s where things get interesting.

Meet Joseph Campbell, creator of the monomyth, more commonly known as the Hero’s Journey. A famous and beloved folklorist, Campbell noticed that most stories follow the same pattern, and they’ve been doing this for thousands of years.

The Hero’s Journey works on a lot of different stories, and it’s interesting because unlike the plot pyramid, it’s specific to a single character’s journey within a story.

Campbell wrote about the Three Act Structure in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. These acts are the foundation of the Hero’s Journey and they make up the original concept.

Campbell’s Three Acts

  1. Departure: The hero leaves the Known World in search of something.
  2. Initiation: The hero overcomes trials and tests in the Unknown World and achieves success.
  3. Return: The hero comes back to the Known World, victorious.

Volger’s 12 Steps

While the Hero’s Journey is often attributed only to Campbell, it turns out that a man named Christopher Volger, a screenwriter, actually looked at these three acts and broke them down even further in his book The Writer’s Journey. Volger’s 12 steps are almost always connected to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and for good reason—he made them as a tool that writers could easily use to construct their own stories.

The multiple layers of storytelling are usually represented by a circular story structure chart. In some charts, the 12 steps are divided up by the 3 acts, and in others, there’s just a focus on the threshold between the Known World and the Unknown World. We do right by you, so we’re doing both.

Story Structure of the Hero’s Journey

  1. The Ordinary World: This is pretty similar to “exposition” in the plot pyramid. Here, we see the status quo. The audience meets the hero, and we see how the world is for them before the story really gets going.
  2. The Call of Adventure: This is sometimes called the “inciting incident.” Something happens that rocks the hero’s world, and they can choose to go on an adventure. Or, sometimes, adventure chooses them. Either way, the hero gets their first idea of leaving what is comfortable.
  3. Refusal of the Call: The hero experiences some hesitation. This can be an outright refusal of the call of adventure, and they can change their mind when the stakes are raised. Alternatively, this can be a moment when a hero feels reluctant but knows they must leave home anyway.
  4. Meeting the Mentor: Someone helps the hero on their journey. They act as a guide to get the hero started and give them an extra nudge of help. Think “wise old wizard,” or a similar character type.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero crosses the threshold from the Known World into the Unknown World, and they fully begin their adventure. Now that they’re in a new world, they realize that nothing will ever be the same again.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Now, we get to meet some fun new characters that exist in the world of the Unknown. We’ll have allies to hep the hero, enemies to stand in their way, and obstacles to overcome.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The “inmost cave” is the purpose for venturing into the Unknown World. It’s as far into the Unknown as the hero needs to go, and the hero is almost there. Suspense!
  8. The Ordeal: The hero must face their biggest fear. They’re in their worst situation yet, and this dark moment changes everything. Or at least, it changes the way the hero sees everything.
  9. Reward: The hero finds what they’ve been seeking. This is the key to getting what they really want. Also called “seizing the sword,” the hero gets ahold of the crucial tool that they’ll need for the rest of the story.
  10. The Road Back: Crossing the threshold back into to the Known World, the hero must face more obstacles than they expected. Some unforeseen tough trials and tests still stand in their way.
  11. Resurrection: This is the climax. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. Maybe it’s a near death experience (hence “resurrection”) or maybe the hero simply leaves the encounter forever changed, as if they’re a new person.
  12. Return With the Elixir: Finally victorious, the hero is home again. We’re back where we started, but the hero has grown and changed, so everything feels different.

The Hero’s Journey in Action

  1. Ordinary World: Harry is an orphan living with the Dursleys in a cupboard under the stairs.
  2. Call to Adventure: Mysterious letters arrive via owl, all addressed to Harry.
  3. Refusal of the Call: The Dursleys try to keep Harry from opening his letters, going so far as bringing him out to a shack on a rock in the middle of the sea.
  4. Meeting the Mentor: Hagrid appears in the shack and tells Harry he’s a wizard. He takes him to Diagon Alley to get him everything he needs.
  5. Crossing the Threshold: Harry takes the Hogwarts Express to arrive at Hogwarts.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Harry faces tests in the form of his classes, joining the Quidditch team, and taking down a runaway troll. He befriends Ron and Hermione, and he finds enemies in Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape.
  7. Inmost Cave: Harry learns about the sorcerer’s stone and fears that Snape is trying to steal it. Because of this, Harry feels a threat to the world he has come to love.
  8. Ordeal: Harry, Ron, and Hermione face a series of trials to get to the stone before Snape can steal it. Harry enters the final test alone and discovers that Quirrell has teamed up with Voldemort, and they’ve beaten him there.
  9. Reward: Because he is pure of heart, Harry gets ahold of the stone.
  10. Road Back: Harry resists Voldemort’s touch, and Voldemort is weakened.
  11. Resurrection: Harry is rescued while unconscious and wakes up in the Hospital Wing. (Note that this step is abbreviated—Harry isn’t active in this step. It’s the first book in a series, so we can cut it some slack.)
  12. Return With Elixir: Harry returns with the sorcerer’s stone, also known as the Elixir of Life. Once he’s healed, he is a hero for winning the house cup. He returns to the Dursleys forever changed.

When to Use the Hero’s Journey

This story structure is fit for an epic hero. Also, it might spark some creativity with a story in which the idea of home is a big deal. A literal traveling quest would work well with ideas of the Known and Unknown World, and all that those stages represent.

4. The Plot Embryo

Plot Embryo

 

The most modern of all the story structures we’re looking at, the Plot Embryo is an evolution of the Hero’s Journey created by Dan Harmon. This plot formula is similar to the Hero’s Journey in many ways, but it has a few key changes.

For one thing, there are more layers: we’re still working with the the Known World and the Unknown World, but we’re also working with a transition from Stasis or Ignorance into Change or Enlightenment. This new threshold is perpendicular to the original threshold, creating four quadrants for our character to move through.

Unlike the Hero’s Journey, there are only 8 stages instead of 12.

Story Structure of the Plot Embryo

  • You: Once again, we have the exposition where we establish our protagonist in the normal world.
  • Need: As Harmon says, “something ain’t quite right.” The motive appears, and our main character now has a goal.
  • Go: The protagonist crosses the first threshold from the Known to the Unknown World.
  • Search: Our character must face tests and trials to get the thing they need. As they do so, they’re forced to adapt, and our character might break down.
  • Find: At the bottom of the circle, this is once again a crucial, pivotal, vulnerable moment for our character. Here’s the big thing: they have to make a choice. In doing so, they pass over the threshold from Stasis/Ignorance to Change/Enlightenment.
  • Take: There is a high price to pay. The protagonist experiences their lowest point, and they must make a sacrifice of some kind.
  • Return: Our character brings home what they set out to gain, and they cross back into the Known World.
  • Change: The main character has changed, and they can now create change in their home. The conflict is overcome once and for all.

The Plot Embryo in Action

  • You: Harry is an orphan who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. He feels odd and out of place.
  • Need: Harry wants a sense of belonging. When he receives mysterious letters and finds out he is a wizard, he wants to learn all about this new world that he’s from but never knew about.
  • Go: He goes to Hogwarts and is sorted into Gryffindor.
  • Search: As he adapts to the wizarding world, Harry develops his character by finding friends (Ron and Hermione) and foes (Malfoy and Snape).
  • Find: Harry learns about the sorcerer’s stone. Learning this secret connects Harry more deeply to the wizarding world, and he realizes he wants to take action to protect it.
  • Take: Harry risks his life to protect the stone from Snape. He encounters Voldemort, but his pureness of heart lets him rescue the stone and weaken Voldemort.
  • Return: Harry makes it back to safety and wins the house cup to prove that he has fully earned his place in the wizarding world.
  • Change: Harry is a new person. As a result, life during the summer with the Dursleys will not be the same—he knows that he truly belongs at Hogwarts and that he has a real home.

5. The Tragic Plot Embryo

Tragic Plot Embryo

 

Yet another adaptation! Created by Rachael Stephen, this version of the plot embryo has a lot to offer tragic heroes, villains, or antagonists.

The character’s journey is different, because a tragic hero does not learn enough over the course of their story to get what they want. In other words, the tragic hero doesn’t finish the arc. The tragedy is that they are never able to “return” or “change.”

Ignorance and Enlightenment are also complicated when the sections are rebranded as Fatal Flaw and Insufficient Realization, respectively. The fatal flaw is at the forefront of their ignorance, and it’s what leads them to never reach enlightenment.

As we already know, the tragic hero ends their arc early, so the Tragic Plot Embryo has 6 steps instead of 8.

Story Structure of the Tragic Plot Embryo

  • You: Essentially the same as the regular plot embryo with an extra emphasis on the character’s backstory and what might have led them to gain their fatal flaw.
  • Anticipation: The main character wants something, and it’s informed by their backstory. We learn why they might want it, even if it’s morally wrong.
  • Dream: The character goes looking for what they want. In doing so, they have an opportunity to start making bad choices to get there.
  • Frustration: The conflict picks up, and the character must adapt in the face of the forces that oppose them.
  • Nightmare: Our character learns the “awful truth.” Maybe they get what they want, but it’s at too great a cost. This is a revelation, but instead of being changed, the character doubles down on their mistakes.
  • Destruction: The character pays the price, even though it’s too high. This price makes our character lose, and they end their story without success. They are never able to escape the Unknown World.

When to Use the Plot Embryo

If a character has a big revelation, using the plot embryo could help the author think about where to place that revelation and what crossing from Ignorance to Enlightenment might imply for the rest of the story. Additionally, the symmetry built into every step of the plot embryo could help a writer to decide on what comes next. Each action on the circle has an equal and opposite reaction, or something like that.

It’s also awfully handy to have a resource that can flexibly represent a villain or antagonist.

6. Seven Point Plot Structure

7 Point Plot Structure

We’re back to straight lines! Well, mostly straight. Still a bit curvy, but definitely linear.

Dan Wells favors a 7 point story structure, and in a unique twist, he recommends a specific order in which to write these seven points. (If you hadn’t guessed, it isn’t chronological.)

By pairing elements of the plot that are symmetrical or seem to run parallel to one another, Wells says that it’s easier to craft a story that is coherent overall.

Story Structure of the 7 Point Plot Structure

  • Hook: This is our starting point, and it should feel like the opposite of the ending. (A character starts weak and ends strong, for example.)
  • Plot turn 1: This is the call to adventure, the inciting incident. Something changes in the world of our character that gets the story going.
  • Pinch 1: A moment of conflict. The protagonist has to solve a problem. This is a moment for the author to apply pressure to their story—something goes wrong, and the character has to step up to the plate.
  • Midpoint: A switch from reaction to action. Kind of like the switch from Ignorance to Enlightenment in the Plot Embryo, this is a moment where our main character makes a choice to move actively toward the end of the story.
  • Pinch 2: Something bigger goes wrong, and the main character must adapt to the new situation. More pressure is applied. This can also be a dark “all is lost” type moment where the character faces “the jaws of defeat.”
  • Plot turn 2: Right when all might be lost, the character learns something crucial and/or gains the key to the resolution of the story. They now know how to win. It can be the moment where the character learns, “The power is in you!”
  • Resolution: Simply, this is where we end with our character now that they’ve changed and come out victorious. This should be the opposite of where they were in the beginning.

And here’s the order Dan Wells recommends working in. Similar plot elements are grouped together so that the writer can intentionally create elements of plot that build upon, connect to, or parallel each other:

  1. Resolution
  2. Hook
  3. Midpoint
  4. Plot turn 1
  5. Plot turn 2
  6. Pinch 1
  7. Pinch 2

7 Point Plot Structure in Action

Even Dan Wells uses Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as his example in his original presentation, so you know it’s got to be a good fit.

  • Hook: Harry is an orphan living in a cupboard under the stairs.
  • Plot turn 1: Harry learns he is a wizard and goes to Hogwarts.
  • Pinch 1: Harry fights the troll and befriends Hermione and Ron.
  • Midpoint: Harry has an experience in the forest where he sees someone sucking blood from a dead unicorn. He learns what evil looks like and opposes it.
  • Pinch 2: When rescuing the stone, Ron and Hermione can’t pass all the tests, so Harry goes on alone.
  • Plot turn 2: Harry learns the truth about Quirrell. Because he is pure of heart, he gets the stone and learns he has an upper hand because Voldemort cannot touch him.
  • Resolution: Harry defeats Voldemort and becomes a hero at Hogwarts.

When to Use the 7 Point Plot Structure

If parallels play a significant role in how you imagine your story or the symbolism you would construct in your world, this could be the story structure for you. Additionally, of course, if you’d like a recommended order in which to write that isn’t chronological but heightens the way you imagine those parallels, Dan Wells is your guy.

7. Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle Poetics Story StructureThis text is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, written in 335 BC. If we’re talking about story structures that have been adapted and reinvented, well, they all probably came from this one.

It isn’t as specific or comprehensive as some of the other story structures we’ve talked about, but Aristotle has some key terminology that’s definitely worth visiting.

Story Structure of Poetics

  • Dramatic action: This is made up of two parts: a character and what it is that they’re trying to do. For example, “Sarah tries to uncover the truth about her brother’s disappearance.” This is the central action that makes up the story.
  • Inciting incident: The catalyst, the kickoff point of the action of the story.
  • Super-objective: What a character wants most of all in the story. If we’re talking about the main character, this can be the same as the dramatic action.
  • Objective: What a character wants, scene by scene. A character will likely have many objectives throughout a story, and each one will help them get to their super-objective. To continue with our earlier example, Sarah’s objective in a scene might be to persuade her aunt to have lunch with her… because she thinks her aunt might know something about her brother.
  • Recognition: A moment near the end of the plot when a character encounters some enlightening information that changes everything. A common tragic example is from Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus discovers that he has killed his father and married his mother.
  • Reversal: As a result of the recognition, the character makes a choice. This is the very end of the story, and the main character either achieves their super-objective or doesn’t. Oedipus, after learning the truth, blinds himself.

Poetics in Action

  • Dramatic action: Harry Potter protects his newfound home. (This could also be Harry’s super-objective.)
  • Inciting incident: Harry discovers he is a wizard and attends Hogwarts.
  • Objective: On Halloween, Harry’s objective is to make sure Hermione is alright. (To accomplish this, he and Ron find her hiding in the bathroom and fight a troll to protect her.)
  • Recognition: Harry learns that the person after the stone wasn’t Snape, it was Quirrell in cahoots with Voldemort.
  • Reversal: Harry is in a much bigger showdown than he expected. Harry’s takes the stone himself because he is pure of heart. He resists Voldemort’s attack and escapes, victorious.

When to Use Poetics

If the discovery at the end of your story changes everything the characters and audience have come to know so far, Aristotle’s theory might help contextualize and set up that importance within the rest of the narrative. It’s also interesting to think about characters consistently in terms of what they want. Shaping your story around goals and objectives can clarify character motivations.

8. The Snowflake Method

Snowflake Method of Story Narrative

Developed by Randy Ingermanson, self-dubbed “the snowflake guy,” The Snowflake Method builds outwards from a small story seed. Starting with a single sentence, the author can then build outwards into a complete novel draft with all the crucial elements of a compelling plot. The process of exploration will naturally lead you there.

Story Structure of the Snowflake Method

  • The starting sentence should be a summary of the novel.
  • Then, that sentence turns into a whole paragraph. This is where you come up with “story setup,” or exposition, conflict, and a resolution. Ingerman suggests that if you’re going for a 3 Act Structure, you can come up with “three disasters” for your character to go through, and each one is the central point of that act.
  • Next, write a one page summary sheet for each major character. Here’s where we want to decide on their names, storylines, motivations and goals, conflict, and their epiphany (what they’ll learn at the end of the story). Write a half page for other minor (but still important) characters.
  • Expand the plot summary into four pages.
  • After that, expand character descriptions into full character charts.
  • Write a scene chart developed from the plot summary.
  • Ingerman says this is optional, but the next step is to write out a one-to-two page summary of each chapter, as a prototype of a first draft.
  • Finally, you’re ready to write the real first draft.

The Snowflake Method in Action

(I’m not going to write out a fifty page prototype draft example for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I’ll get us started on how one might use The Snowflake Method for this story.)

  • Sentence summary: An orphan boy discovers he is a wizard and attends a magical school.
  • Paragraph summary: An orphan boy lives with his abusive aunt and uncle until he gets an acceptance to a magical boarding school. At school, the boy makes friends and enemies, and he learns about something magical and important hidden in the castle. One of his enemies, a teacher, might want to steal whatever is being guarded, so the boy and his friends protect it. The boy goes up against the most evil wizard in the world, saves the magical item, and returns to school a hero.
  • Character creation: Harry: wants a sense of belonging/home. He wants to fit in at school, succeed at Quidditch, learn about his past, and make sure the magic item in his new home is safe. Professor Snape always seems to be out to get him. Harry learns that Voldemort and another teacher called Quirrell are really to blame, and he defeats them with pureness of heart. He proves he does belong in this world.

When to Use The Snowflake Method

This strategy is focused more on building a story idea than structuring the story itself, but it does include all the components of a novel that may then be arranged and rearranged. It’s extremely flexible and a great option for creativity and more intuitive plotters who want some structure, but not too much.

9. Save the Cat

Save the Cat Plot Structure

Hopefully you loved the many stages of the Plot Embryo, because now we’re on to Save the Cat, a method developed by Blake Snyder which offers you a glorious 15 beats to work with.

Made for scripts, this method even gets so specific as to tell you how many pages you should spend on each beat. The famous “beat sheet” divides up a plot very neatly, and this sense of pacing is an added bonus.

Story Structure of Save the Cat

  1. Opening Image (1): This is a snapshot. There’s a focus here on the main character, but also on the look and feel of the whole story—the tone. Like the 7 point plot structure, there’s a focus on having opening and closing images that will match, or “rhyme.”
  2. Set-up (1-10): Here is the rest of the exposition, continuing to explore the normal world. We get more context for the rest of the action.
  3. Theme Stated (5): The theme appears for the main character in a way they may not understand yet, but they will eventually. Mostly, it’s a hint for the reader.
  4. Catalyst (12): This is the “inciting incident.” This is the moment where the story takes off.
  5. Debate (12-25): There’s conflict, doubt, or hesitation for the protagonist about this journey. This stage is like the “refusal of the call” in the Hero’s Journey.
  6. Break into Two (Choosing Act Two) (25): We enter Act Two when our main character makes the choice to go and begin their quest or adventure in pursuit of their goal.
  7. B Story (30): Here’s where we’re introduced to the emotional undercurrent of the plot, a second arc running parallel to the main story. For example, while our hero is saving the world, maybe they’re also falling in love. This is a sub-plot to evolve alongside the main action.
  8. Fun and Games (30-55): Just what it sounds like! Here, the main character has time to have fun with the new powers they might have gained, to enjoy the adventurous world they’ve found themselves in, or to bond with other characters.
  9. Midpoint (55): Plot twist. Some big plot movement happens here, and it’s something that will redefine or alter the rest of the story, namely, our main character’s goal. Maybe new information or a new character changes how the main character sees things, and the story feels different from this point on.
  10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): Again, just what it sounds like. The forces opposing our main character are picking up speed, and the stakes get higher.
  11. All is Lost (75): The main character experiences a significant loss. This could be a person, like a mentor, or a tie to home—it’s something that gave the main character comfort and guidance.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): Our character’s in a rough spot. Hope is fading or lost, and things are really looking bleak. Suspense for the reader is high.
  13. Break into Three (Choosing Act 3) (85): Once you’ve hit rock bottom, you can only go up from there. At this point, a discovery, a piece of information—a key—brings us into Act 3. Usually, this key comes from the B story, tying it all together.
  14. Finale (85-110): The resolution. Everything our character has learned so far comes into play, the key is used, and our character is successful.
  15. Final Image (110): This brings us right back around to the beginning, like the circular Plot Embryo or Hero’s Journey. This image sets in stone the theme of the story, what the main character has learned, and how they’ve changed. This should remind us of the opening image.

Save the Cat in Action

  1. Opening Image: Mr. Dursley is proud of his normal life and his normal job.
  2. Theme stated: Mysterious goings-on occur, like owls flying and people seen in cloaks, but Mr. Dursley assumes it won’t affect him
  3. Set-up: Harry lives in a cupboard under the stairs with the Dursleys. Soon, letters arrive via owl, but the Dursleys keep them away from Harry.
  4. Catalyst: Hagrid arrives and tells Harry he’s a wizard.
  5. Debate: Harry and Hagrid visit Diagon Alley to prepare Harry for his new life as a wizard, and Harry tries to catch up on all he’s missed out on for the first 10 years of his life.
  6. Break into Two: Harry arrives at Hogwarts and chooses to befriend Ron over Malfoy.
  7. B Story: Harry’s friendship with Ron grows and Hermione joins the trio when they defeat the troll together.
  8. Fun and Games: Harry becomes seeker on the Quidditch team and explores the magical castle that is now his home.
  9. Midpoint: The trio discovers a three-headed dog guarding something mysterious in the castle, and they suspect Snape of trying to steal it.
  10. Bad Guys Close In: Harry and his friends learn the hidden object is the sorcerer’s stone, and they believe Snape is on the verge of trying to steal it.
  11. All is Lost: Hagrid reveals that he taught a stranger in a cloak how to tame Fluffy, and the trio knows that Snape is several steps ahead.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul: When they try to tell Dumbledore, they learn that he’s gone away to the Ministry of Magic. As a result, they’re all on their own.
  13. Break into Three: Harry and his friends decide to protect the stone themselves.
  14. Finale: Harry, Ron, and Hermione pass through a series of trials and tests. Harry must go on to the final test alone, and he faces Quirrell and Voldemort. His pureness of heart lets him get the stone and weaken Voldemort.
  15. Final Image: The Dursleys pick up Harry at Kings Cross, but Harry has changed enough to see that they don’t have as much power over him as they used to.

When to Use Save the Cat

If you’re writing a film, of course! Or, if you’ve found yourself spending ages writing your beginning and skimming through the middle to get to the end, the pacing suggestions Blake Snyder offers could lend you a hand. This better understanding of the 3 Act structure tells the writer how much time should be spent in each section of their plot.

It’s definitely the most detailed of all the plot structures collected here, so if you’re looking for maximum guidance, this structure could be the one for you.

Evolve and Adapt

It’s almost like humans have been telling the same story, over and over again, in millions of slightly different ways, as long as we can remember. Kind of beautiful, right?

These story structures all go to show that there’s a fascinating history of analyzing and reanalyzing stories to see what works, what makes sense, and what system best reflects the creative work we do as writers. They have shaped the way dramatic theory has evolved over the years, but they’re always growing and evolving.

We encourage you to use the information gathered here as a way to visualize your next novel draft if it’s helpful to you. But if you want to break away from the typical story structure, do it! Each of the creatives mentioned above had to do that at some point—why shouldn’t you be next?

And please let us know how it goes. We want to hear your thoughts—which of these story structures do you think works best overall? Which do you come back to in your own writing? Is there one you find more inspiring than others? If you were to adapt one of these story structures, which would it be, and how?

Leave a comment below if you have any suggestions or ideas! And then get writing! Go join the great legacy of storytellers!

Write Better Books.

Receive a free copy of "DEFEAT WRITER'S BLOCK"

when you subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit