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The Structure of a Story – By: Robert Waldvogel

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The Structure of a Story

By Robert Waldvogel


Stories, if graphically illustrated, are like the arcs of arrows shot from bows. They are launched skyward, reach an apogee or maximum height, and then sharply curve as gravity causes them to fall back to the ground. The first portion of the arc can be equated to a tale’s rising tension or suspense, its pinnacle can be considered its climax or turning point, and its fall is its resolution or denouement, at which point all loose ends are tied up and conclusions are reached.


Both short and long stories, such as novellas and full-length novels, can employ eight crucial aspects in the unfolding of their plots, but do not necessarily have to incorporate all of them. The eight include the following.

1). Stasis:

Stasis implies a condition of stability or normalcy. Life goes on for a story’s characters. The author needs to create the baseline of everyday reality for the protagonists and their world. Depending upon the novel and style, this may be short, even a paragraph, or somewhat longer.

Using a longer stasis, however, can quickly bore the reader, who may then proceed no further with the story. Flashbacks, providing back story, can serve as a remedy to this obstacle.

However you elect to begin your story, you must engage the reader as rapidly as possible. If you use a longer stasis, then you need a powerful writing style, perhaps creating intrigue about the protagonist’s early life or demonstrating something peculiar about his current everyday life.

2). Trigger:

A trigger can be considered the stimulating event that breaks the story’s stasis and animates the character or characters so that they become part of the plot or main action.

Triggers can be major events, such as killings or explosions, or may seem almost insignificant, such as something mentioned in a conversation. They can equally be positive or negative, noticed or unnoticed, sudden or gradual, short or long. Their key attribute and purpose is to spark the change that initiates the plot.

Any story can be begun with a bang if its trigger occurs immediately, such as on the first page.

3). The quest:

The quest can be considered the protagonist’s purpose, arising from the trigger. Ideally, this should occupy most of the novel and include the points listed below.

A stated or unstated purpose of the quest may be to return the protagonist to the original stasis, which an antagonist may oppose. Another possibly related quest may be to defeat the antagonist. The quest may also evolve as more is learned and the journey transforms the hero. Typically, simple personal goals, such as conquest or acquisition, evolve into broader and more social goals, such as saving others. If times become particularly tough, the quest may simply be one of survival.

4). Surprise:

Introducing surprises or twists sustains reader interest and intrigue in the story, and provide the opportunity for character development.

To be a surprise, an event must be unexpected, at least in part. To work within the story, it should be plausible and make sense to the reader, at least in retrospect. Surprises should add to the plot, increasing the involvement and ultimate pleasure of the reader. A poor surprise will only disappoint and disillusion him.

Surprises can often be unpleasant, such as, “Oh, no, not here and now,” but can be punctuated with occasional pleasant respite and reward. Unpleasant surprises challenge the hero as he battles through his quest, providing him with an opportunity for true heroism and personal growth. Pleasant surprises, such as “Hooray, I won!” include gaining treasures and meeting helpful other parties along the way.

5). Critical choice:

At times the hero will be faced with difficult decisions, such as should he continue or turn back before he reaches his goal.

Critical decisions are significant and essential elements in the continuation of a quest and may include factors such as pauses to help others along the way or fight evil obstacles. Such decisions should be consistent with the character, although they can also be transformational, changing the person, such as when a coward decides to act bravely. Showing the struggle to decide and the exercise of free will can be important.

Critical choices often build through the story, with each becoming more important than the previous one.

6). Climax:

A story’s climax occurs when the quest, built through surprises and critical choices, reaches its most heightened circumstances. It is the point where tensions must be resolved. It creates the plot’s ultimate tension, leads to a point of confrontation and/or realization, forces the protagonist to meet the unknown, and is the culmination point of all of the story’s conflicts.

There may be a number of minor and major climaxes through the story, leading to the grand one near or at the end. While minor climaxes resolve minor tensions and larger tensions are resolved at major climaxes, there is still an underlying and mounting tension that can only be resolved by the grand climax where the collective quest is finally resolved. It is through this sequence of climaxes that the story arc is built, binding the reader to the journey of the hero and other protagonists, almost as if he were vicariously a part of it.

Along the route of the story, there may be a number of sub-stories and side quests, each with their own surprises and critical choices. While these may be, in effect, little tales of their own, they should still contribute towards the final grand climax, where perhaps the significance of these side events finally becomes realized.

7). Reversal:

The reversal aspect enables the hero to integrate all he has learned throughout his journey and thus become the true hero, usually without losing his original charm and personality. Other characters may also change, particularly when they have journeyed and developed together.

Reversals are the result of the journey itself and are, as such, inevitable. A character cannot face obstacle and adversity, yet remain the same. Otherwise, it would obviate the need for the journey. His transformation(s), however, should be logical and believable.

8). Resolution:

The final resolution serves to create a new stasis or balance in the lives of the characters.

This is also inevitable as all tensions are resolved. This new stasis is seldom the same as the original one, however, because the characters have learned and grown. It may also serve as a platform for another adventure, perhaps where side characters take on a bigger role or where the hero develops more subtly into a broader, more rounded character. A new trigger may also provide a hint that a new or succeeding story can be anticipated, particularly a sequel.


Like fine dining in a five-star restaurant, whose experience is not just the food, but is elevated to an art by means of the various courses that complement each other and result in a completeness far greater than the sum of its individual parts, a story should whet the appetite (rising action), engage (at its pinnacle or conflict), and sate or satisfy (at its denouement or resolution). Diners invest money in their satisfying experience. Readers do the same with their time.

“(In so doing)… everything on the page must have a role in advancing the narrative, and the writer should take the most direct path to the telling of the complete story,” according to Mark Baechtel in “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction” (Pearson Education, 2004, p. 135). “As (it) moves through its rising-then-falling course and draws toward its conclusion, the writer must make sure there are no characters, scenes, passages of description, exposition, or summary that (do not belong there)… “

Article Sources:

Baechtel, Mark. “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction.” New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

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