Story Structure
Children's Books, Novels and Beyond

A short explanation of story structure

The basic structure of story has been passed down through the ages. These basics apply to any form of fiction (novels, picture books, movies, theater) and are often applied to non-fiction as well.

Why? Well, because stories written in a particular form have a way of speaking to us. Stories written in a different form usually leave us uninterested.

Are these basics of story structure a little too basic for you? Take it to the next level. Is it possible you've made one of the 10 most common picture book mistakes?

As a professional writer of fiction, I like to think I have a decent sense of story structure. And as the owner of this site, I also have a fair sense of when a writer doesn't know the basics of structure.

If you visit our free stories from visitors page, you'll see many examples of imperfectly structured stories.

I could be wrong, but I think you'll find them less satisfying than the books you buy in stores or online.

After you read this page, I think you'll have a better idea of why.

Character and Story Structure

Protagonist, definition: The character to whom the events of the story mean the most.

Why is this the case?

Because a protagonist is a character in crisis. The reason a story is worth telling is because it features a protagonist trying desperately to improve his/her unfortunate circumstances.

Consider the story structure of The Cat in the Hat. The protagonist is not the cat! (Nor is it the fish or the sister.)

The protagonist is the boy trying desperately to get the cat out of the house and the house cleaned up. He is in crisis because his mother is coming home and he's responsible for having let the cat in in the first place!

And that makes the cat...

The antagonist

Antagonist, definition: the person (or animal or object or situation) that is operating in most direct opposition to the protagonist.

An antagonist is an essential part of story structure. A story without an antagonist is boring, because it lacks conflict. If the protagonist isn't facing opposition, there's little to hold a reader's attention.

Even a young reader.

Q: Does an antagonist have to be an enemy?

A: No. An antagonist is just an entity whose actions create problems for the protagonist. An antagonist could be, for instance, a storm. Or a loved one!

In a romance, the two people who are "meant to be" are typically protagonist and antagonist. They tend to spend a lot more time causing trouble for the other than they do being in love. Watching two people simply be in love would get tiresome quickly!

Story Structure and the Arc of a Story

When writers talk story structure, you'll hear some speak about three act structure while others insist a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end.

They're all saying the same thing.

A properly structured story begins with a protagonist in what I like to call stasis.

Stasis means balance, or steadiness. It describes a state of existence in which no major surprises are in store. In stasis, your protagonist knows that he/she is going to wake up in the morning, do something pretty typical during the day, then go to sleep at night.

In other words, your protagonist is living a life not worth telling about! But then...

Something happens.

Stasis is the first act, or beginning, of your story. Then something happens, and it quickly becomes apparent that this occurrence is the end of your protagonist's stasis. He/she can no longer live life as before!

If we're talking about The Cat in the Hat's story structure, the cat is now in the house and doing damage.

Something has to be done!

Once something has happened, and now that something has to be done, you are into the second act (or middle) of a story.

The middle of a story is always the story's longest part. It's the part that makes the story worth telling.

This second act of a story consists of the protagonist trying to get his or her life back in order.

Of course, if the first thing the protagonist tries results in success, you end up with a very short story. So fiction is usually characterized by protagonists doing lots of things that DON'T result in success. In fact, good story structure features the protagonist's circumstances getting worse before they get better.

In The Cat in the Hat, Thing One and Thing Two are introduced after the cat has already made his own mess. They only make things worse!

So when does the second act (or middle) of a story end? Well, when the awfulness of everything that's happened reaches a climax and the protagonist takes his or her most dramatic and heroic action. In The Cat in the Hat, this happens when the boy manages to catch the Things in a net and tells the cat to get out.

The third act, or end, reflects a new stasis, or life as it will be from this time forward. That is, resolution.

The Cat in the Hat could have ended with the cat and his companions locked out of the house and the boy and his sister facing the mess that resulted. In all likelihood, they would have been unable to clean up before their mother arrived home.

Their new stasis probably would have included punishment and new rules regarding staying home alone. There would probably be an unwanted babysitter in their future.

But instead Dr. Seuss decides to reward the protagonist's moxie with a more positive resolution.

The cat suddenly reappears with a device capable of rendering the house as tidy as it was before!

As a result, the new stasis looks like the original stasis, except the kids now are faced with a moral dilemma regarding what happened:

Should we tell her about it?
Now, what SHOULD we do?
What would YOU do
If your mother asked YOU?

Think of three act structure as looking like this:

  1. Stasis, then something happens, resulting in
  2. Crisis and craziness, leading to
  3. Climax and new stasis (resolution).

Got all that? Great. We're gonna take this to a new page now in order to start discussing character arc/character development.

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