How a Story is Shaped: Narrative Structure

How a Story is Shaped

Beginning Narrative Structure

by Lynn (Webb) Whitlark


Basic Narrative Structure
Is the Pattern Consistent?
Is This Always How It Works?
What Else Follows this Pattern?

Basic Narrative Structure

Before I taught people how to construct English sentences; before I taught people to use their library for research; before I taught people to build a positive work environment; before I taught people about working with difficult employees; and before I taught people about their own evolutionary patterns — before all that, I was teaching would-be writers how to construct a story.

This is the standard model of Western narrative structure:

If it looks familiar, it should. If I’d used curves instead of straight line pieces (which I will explain in a moment) it would look like the common image of our heartbeat.

Let’s take the graphic apart:

Consider the bright blue X to be our starting point. The Status Quo of our story.

X Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom far away, there lived a beautiful princess named Snow White…

Now, in order for it to be a story, and not just a description of some status quo — there has to be an initial problem. That’s the pale blue section of our map.

Snow White’s mother died when she was very young, and so she was raised by her loving father, the King, and a palace full of devoted servants. One day, the King chose to remarry, and so brought his new beautiful wife home to the palace to meet Snow White.

This could be just a small problem in some households — we’ve all seen families that blend together easily and smoothly — so for the story to continue forward and not just stop here — another success story for family values — we need to explain why how this family works, how the kingdom works, and what Snow White’s world looks like. This is called Exposition, and is in bright blue again on our map.

Snow White was the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, and with each passing day, grew more and more beautiful.

And the new queen was also beautiful — so beautiful in fact that she hung her treasured and magical mirror on the wall of her bed chamber. Each day, she would go to her mirror and chant her magic spell:

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest one of all,
the beautiful maidens in this land,
tell me Mirror, wondrous grand…

To which the mirror would reply in truth,

You are most fair, my Queen
You and no other
no beauty surpasses
the good Queen mother

Which made the Queen exceedingly happy, because she loved being the center of her husband’s world, and the object of envy when other men visited the palace.

A nice, tidy little world this little girl lives in. But in order for it to be a story — it has to continue to move forward. And what propels action in a story is Complication, illustrated on our map with the purple line. In fact, for the story to work, we need a series of complications.

1. The first complication is already in place — it is the step mother’s vanity. That complication needs only to be exploited and exaggerated for the happy status quo to be broken.

2. The second complication is also in place — it is the step mother’s use of magic. In any story, the presence of magic signals possibility an volatility That it is introduced so early is a dead giveaway that there is excitement to come.

On the day the King set aside to celebrate Snow White’s sixteenth birthday, all the preparations had been made and all the guests were beginning to arrive.

Snow White was out walking in her garden, when a handsome prince on a beautiful white horse rode up to the garden gate and saw Snow White there. Thinking she was a beautiful servant girl, he stopped to ask directions to the stable where he might leave his animal while he attended a party in the palace.

At once, Snow White fell in love with the Prince, and seeing the invitation in his hand, decided to surprise him — and so did not tell him she was the princess whose birthday he was there to celebrate.

Upstairs in the palace, the Queen watched this exchange from her window, and grew jealous of Snow White’s beauty and the Prince’s attention. She turned to her magical mirror and recited her charm:

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest one of all,
the beautiful maidens in this land,
tell me Mirror, wondrous grand…

But this time, when the mirror answered with the truth, it was a different reply than the Queen had ever heard before:

Beautiful Queen your loveliness engage
but the fairest beauty is on another page
Her skin is fair, her eyes glisten bright
Her lips ruby red, her name — Snow White…

Let’s look at our map again. We’re on the build up course of complications. We’ve just seen a whole string of complications arise. The vanity, the jealousy, the prince’s attention, and the greatest blow of all — even the magic mirror is now on Snow White’s side. What’s a Queen/Wicked Step Mother to do?

More complications, of course. Time for the plot to thicken with a whole stew pot of complications.

So while the party was underway and the King was occupied with all his royal visitors, the Queen called for one of her loyal huntsmen and instructed him to take the beautiful Snow White into the deep dark woods and to shoot her with his bow, then bring her heart back to the palace in her silver jewel box as evidence of his deed.

Being afraid of the powerful and wicked Queen’s magic, the huntsman did as he was told, but when he got to the woods with Snow White, could not bring himself to kill the child for she was so innocent and beautiful. Instead, he told her to run into the forest to save her own life for the Wicked Queen wanted her dead.

To hide his disobedience, the huntsman killed a wild pig, and took the animal’s heart back to the Queen in the jewel box.

Snow White ran and ran through the forest, terrified of her step mother’s jealousy and not understanding at all what darkness and creatures were threatening her.

She ran until she couldn’t run any more — and then she got up and ran again. Across miles of forest and into the deep darkness of night she fled. Afraid to stop even for a moment, she ran all night and then collapsed near a tiny brook that was running out of a mountain side. She took a long drink of the crystal clear water, and when she looked up, she realized she was at the mouth of a clearing where a small cottage was built into the side of the mountain.

Notice all the layers of complication? She’s now far away from home. Alone. Lost. In a dangerous place surrounded by potentially dangerous creatures. Under the constant threat of magic. Tired, hungry and sleepy….

She walked up to the door of the cottage and knocked — but no one answered. But she was so hungry and tired, she pushed the door open, and went inside.

Okay. So we’ve got a new little status quo going. Rather than retell the whole story of Snow White, let’s just grant that she makes friends with the dwarves or thieves or whoever lives in the house; she does a little cooking and cleaning. Maybe she even helps them out in their work. Basically, she relocates to this new part of the forest and makes a new life for herself — this is the calm before the storm — which could be the end of the story except for a couple of further complications:

When the huntsman returned to the palace, he cast his glance down at the ground beneath his feet to avoid looking the evil queen in the eyes. He held out the silver box which contained the wild pig’s heart.

Bad choice. Never NEVER deceive a wicked, magic-using Queen. This is a serious complication. The plot thickens even further.

The Queen took the animal’s heart to the palace kitchens and set it to stew in a pot of soup she intended to feed the King for his dinner.

Just in case the reader doesn’t already know this is a wicked, evil person — the story here shows her doing something absolutely barbaric and disgusting. (No ambiguity allowed in fairy tales….)

So confident was the evil Queen that she had destroyed her only rival, that she forgot to consult her magic mirror for a few days. Then, one day she passed the enchanted thing and asked it her favorite question:

Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest one of all
the beautiful maidens in this land,
tell me Mirror, wondrous grand…

And the mirror told her the truth:

Beautiful Queen alone at last
but the fairest beauty is not past
Her skin is fair, her eyes glisten bright
Her lips ruby red, her name — Snow White…

The queen was furious! She crashed tables into chairs and ripped the draperies from her walls in her fury. When at last her madness subsided, she turned again to her mirror and commanded it to tell her where Snow White was, if she was not dead.

And the mirror told her the truth:

At this point, the plot is about as thick as anybody can stand. Lies. Deception. Jealousy. Magic. Attempted murder. Attempted cannibalism. Complication after complication after complication. How much worse could it get? We are approaching the point of no return….

How much worse could it get? A lot worse. We’re about to enter the phase of the story called Crisis, which is identified on the map by a red line. This is where the story heats up. And this is the part of the story where there’s no going back. Once the Crisis has begun, there is no way out but through (as they say). Up until that moment, as long as we are still in complication — a change of heart in the ANTAGONIST could stop the story cold and everything would return to the initial Status Quo.

The ANTAGONIST is the character in the story you might think of as the “Bad Guy” or the villain If this were a western, the antagonist would be wearing the black hat. In more general terms, the antagonist is the character who stirs up the status quo and causes or uses all the complications. The Wicked Queen is a great antagonist. In many fairy tales, the step mother, the witch, the evil queen and the old crone are often the archetypal antagonists. In this story, we get them all rolled into one convenient package.

By contrast, the PROTAGONIST is the good guy. The hero. The white hat. The innocent, the child, the victim… An antagonist has to have someone to antagonize — or there’s no story. Without a protagonist, a story would just be a biography of a terrible person.

Horrified that her servant huntsman had deceived her, the wicked Queen immediately commanded that he be put to death.

With Snow White’s whereabouts revealed to her by her Magic Mirror, the mad Queen tore the treacherous scrying glass from her chamber wall and threw it from the window into the garden below. Then, the Queen prepared a poison potion that would kill the girl. She dipped a bright red, shiny apple into the potion, then transformed herself into a kindly looking old woman and set out to find Snow White.

The dwarves were away from the cottage when the Queen arrived, and so she approached Snow White without fear of being discovered.

Murder and mayhem are hard to ignore. There is no going back now.

The apple was crisp when Snow White took a bite — but before she could even swallow it, she fell to the ground.

The wicked Queen cackled with delight at her victory and transformed herself back into her original form, then left straight away for the castle. But the purity of Snow White’s heart would save her yet again. When the dwarves returned home, they found her there and as they lifted her to take her inside, the bite of apple fell from her lips to the ground below. Instead of dying from the poison, she fell into a deep and magical sleep.

Crisis is a touchy thing. It has to end the old world forever — and yet leave room for a new one to form. That TURNING POINT between the old way of life and the new one is called the Climax, and is identified on the map with a Red Dot .

The prince who had first met Snow White in the garden had searched the kingdom high and low to find the missing princess. When at last he found the dwarves’ cottage nestled in the side of the mountain — and saw the beautiful girl he had met in the palace garden sleeping her magical sleep in a glass coffin — he couldn’t bear the sadness of having lost her forever, and so he

shattered the glass coffin and kissed her on the mouth..

Boom, crash, climax.

What happens after the climax? In narrative structure terms, it is called the denouement, which is a French word (pronounced day-nu-moan) which means “what happens after the climax.” This is the cigarette after the story is finished that lets everybody take a deep breath and relax. It is the little drop — the let down and release of energy after the breathlessness of all that sharply building crisis and climax. (Any run up an incline that STEEP will end in breathlessness….) All the wickedness is over. All the monsters have been slain. The good guys in the white hats have won their victory — or if they haven’t, they’ve at least had a good run.

Snow White’s eyes opened slowly and she smiled at the Prince.

Ahhhhhh.

In narrative structure, there are two things which make a story end — a REVERSAL or a RECOGNITION. That is, either the story changes direction thereby establishing a New Status Quo (the dark blue X on the map) or somebody learns something that changes their Status Quo forever. Either way, the original status quo X is gone, and a new status quo X is now in place.

In the case of Snow White, the reversal is the resurrection of the Princess, combined with the impending reversal of her fortunes (she’s got her prince now….) and the probable reversal of fortune for the wicked queen who now will be exposed. The recognition is the Prince’s discovery that the girl he has found and kissed back into consciousness is the King’s missing daughter. There is also a hidden recognition buried in there — because now EVERYONE, except possibly the King, knows what a witch his wife is.

And if the story includes a description of the New Status Quo, then that is what is represented on the map by the green line. In our telling of the Snow White story, this might be a description of how the Prince returns Snow White to the King’s place and the Wicked Queen is revealed and punished. Or perhaps a description of how he simply carries her off on his horse to his own kingdom where they live happily ever after. Or maybe the story just ends with them leaving the woods on his horse and the audience is never told how they live their lives after that.

Is this pattern consistent?

Look at Cinderella:

X Status Quo Man and his wife living happily with daughter
Initial Problem mother dies
Exposition father remarries and new family is formed including step sisters, then
Complications father dies, jealousy (again), greed, giving water to the prince, prince’s ball approaches, dirty messy Cinderella not included, nothing to wear, tired from dressing sisters, lonely and alone, fairy godmother helps, magic gown shoes and carriage…
Crisis clock strikes twelve, magic wears off, sisters and step mother lie, prince and his footman are about to leave…
Climax boom, crash, the shoe fits
Denouement the prince and Cinderella marry
Description of New Status Quo everybody kisses and hugs
XNew Status Quo and everybody lives happily ever after

Or, look at E.T., the Extra Terrestrial

X Status Quo little botanist aliens going about their botany business
Initial Problem “Keys” and his men catch them in the act and E.T. is left behind by his friends
Exposition Elliot’s family life, Elliot alone in the world, E.T. alone in the world
Complications E.T. doesn’t speak English, he can’t get home, he has to build his telephone, the kids have to help him, the govt. agents are tracking him, he has to build his phone in the woods on a cold night,
Crisis E.T. is dying from exposure and being here too long and Elliot is connected to him and dying as well — E.T. separates from Elliot and sacrifices himself to save the boy and dies
Climax boom, crash — E.T. is suddenly resurrected and the alien ship returns for him to take him home
Denouement E.T. tells Elliot he will be always be with him and then leaves
Description of New Status Quo everybody hugs as E.T. gets away safely and all is right with the world
XNew Status Quo and Elliot and his family live happily ever after

Try Casablanca

X Status Quo Everybody goes to Rick’s
Initial Problem The long lost love of Rick’s life shows up at his bar in Casablanca
Exposition World War II milieu; the Nazi influence; the mix of refugees and misfits in Casablanca; Rick’s status as the shady friend of the downtrodden; passive resistance
Complications Ilsa’s husband; Ilsa’s husband is a freedom fighter; the value of the papers required to successfully leave Casablanca for safety; Nazi interference; Rick’s love of Ilsa; murder and mayhem, jealousy
Crisis will Ilsa get the papers to successfully escape with her husband
Climax boom, crash — the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans — kiss good-bye — Ilsa and her husband escape
Denouement Rick and Henri Renault (the gendarme) find they both like Vichy water
Description of New Status Quo Everybody goes to Rick’s; less passive resistance
XNew Status Quo Rick and Renault are now 2 protagonists joined forces and fighting the same antagonist

Or how about:

Climax Boom, crash — the huntsman crashes the door of grandmother’s house and slays the wolf so that out jumps grandma from his belly!

or

Climax Boom, crash — the wolf jumps down the chimney straight into a pot of boiling water!

or

Climax Boom, crash — Beauty kisses the beast just as he is about to die, and he magically transforms back into the prince he was born to be. (but tragically — and contrary to the Disney hatchet job on the story — he still dies in her arms.)

or

Climax Boom, crash — “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

or

Climax Boom, crash — Jet Rink passes out at the banquet he has thrown in his own honor, proving his own (lack of) metal for all the world to see.

or

Climax Boom, crash — the cellar door swings open, revealing the mummified body of Mother Bates in her rocker.

or

Climax Boom, crash — the deathstar is blown to smithereens!

or

Climax Boom, crash — an American tank with an American G.I. in the perch rolls into the concentration camp announcing that the game is over and our hero’s little son has WON!

or

Climax Boom, crash — Juliet sees her dead Romeo in the crypt beside her and stabs herself in her broken heart with his daggar so as to join him in death.

or

Climax Boom, crash — Hamlet dies, his mother dies, his stepfather dies, his friends die, his court dies, everybody dies! Well — almost.

Or, try a slight variation on this theme — the serial structure:


In the serial structure, one narrative cycle ends and another begins, but together they form a complication-tree, leading to a final climax and resolution.

Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark:

XStatus Quo Indy is doing his archeologist digging
Initial Problem It’s dangerous
Exposition looking for something looking for something looking for something
Complications traps, spikes, spiders, holes in the ground, dead guys, natives with poison darts, cowardly hired hands, weighted statue pedestal, betrayal by sidekick, lost whip, rolling ball, more dead sidekick
Crisis opposing archeologist with natives and poison there to steal the statue
Climax boom crash escape
Denouement lost the statue
Description of New Status Quo snakes in the plane
XNew Status Quo good guy looses but lives


XStatus Quo Indy as college teacher
Initial Problem Govt. needs help
Exposition description of ark, description of Hitler, description of the headpiece to the Staff of Ra
Complications finding the jewelry in question, getting it from Marion, old relationship business with Marion, Nazi’s following, Nazi’s threaten Marion, bar room fight…
Crisis bar burning down, Nazi’s killing everybody, hidden jewelry
Climax boom crash the jewelry is found and the bad guy gets away
Denouement Indy and Marion are alive
Description of New Status Quo Indy and Marion are partners
XNew Status Quo Two protagonists instead of one
X Status Quo Two protagonists go in search of the ark
Initial Problem finding the ark without being captured by the Nazis
Exposition new country where you don’t know who your friends are, New ally — Sallah and his family and friends
Complications get jewelry translated, Marion killed, find the map room, Marion seduced, find the Well of Souls, deal with the snakes, save Marion, hoist the ark out
Crisis Indy and Marion caught in the act and sealed in the Well of Souls with 10,000 snakes and no flashlight
Climax boom, crash, escape through the walls
Denouement Indy and Marion live
Description of New Status Quo Indy still on the trail of the ark
XNew Status Quo Adventurist protagonist on his own again to rescue the ark

And on and on it goes, with each complication-crisis-climax cycle progressively more intense than what went before — until the final boom-crash — the hand of God wipes out the Nazis — and Indy and Marion live in a world where there is an ark somewhere buried in a new U.S. Government Well of Souls.

Is this always how stories are structured?

No. But it’s the most natural way to tell a story. It’s in the shape of a heartbeat for a reason — because it is organic and natural to us.

There are other alterations — but only in the hand of a master storyteller can they work. Steven Spielberg used a false climax in Poltergeist and scared his audience to death when the real one finally showed up — they had already smoked their narrative cigarette and were preparing for the credits to roll so they could go home. Then BOOM-CRASH-CLIMAX and the unsuspecting audience was caught off guard and therefore in shock rather than just typical movie theater horror. (A really really effective tool once, but subsequent copy-cat scripts were far less successful because the savvy audience had learned the trick….)

In the case of The Metamorphosis, the story doesn’t get much further than the initial complication (waking up as a cockroach) and an exposition of the new world that reveals.

Some stories begin with the crisis, or even the climax, and then “flashback” to the original status quo to reveal the complications which led to that dramatic point. This is a common technique for murder mysteries. Still the same structure — just in a different order.

Modern story tellers intertwine many stories so that they all unfold together and others, like Quinten Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction don’t use a full narrative structure for any one of those intertwined stories, but instead let each story and set of characters carry different parts of the structure. This is a very complex and unusual form — but still the same basic narrative structure.

The award winning playwright, Sam Shepherd, wrote an experimental one-act play called “Action” — which has none. Not only is it difficult to watch because of it’s static structure — according to many actors, it is nearly impossible to learn because there is no “narrative flow” to attach lines to. It isn’t performed often because the experience often described by audience members (those not interested in experiencing drama-less drama, or story-less story) as pointless. With no reversal or recognition to learn from, and no complications and crises to vicariously overcome — there can be no catharsis and no audience resolution. And unless you’ve already got your Pulitzer for drama or Nobel for literature, you may want to leave such experiments to the professionals.

Another variation on our theme can be seen as “nested” story arcs in Orsen Well’s classic movie, Citizen Kane. In this film (I use film, myth, and fairy tale to illustrate most often because they are the stories most of us have in common) there is an over-arc story — the life of Kane; but there are smaller story arcs included in the “testimony” of each of the witnesses who are interviewed by the newsman in search of Rosebud. Each testimony is an independent narrative, but contributes a complication to the wider story. In this case, Kane’s death — the climax — is the first thing the audience sees and the rest of the movie is a solving of the mystery of his last words. By the time the movie ends, the jolting new status quo solves the riddle by way of the furnace and is nothing more than the audience and the filmmaker sharing their cigarette.

In the text above, reference was made to biography and descriptive prose. Narrative structure is not absolute in either of these forms — but in both cases, it will make them more interesting and easier to read or hear. A lot of what readers are describing when they use words like “boring” and “dry” is prose devoid of narrative structure. Any life story will be more captivating if it follows this pattern. Consider a telling of Lindbergh’s life — where the complications, crisis and climax of his transatlantic flight, and then the complications, crisis and climax of his son’s kidnapping etc… are told in this structure — as opposed to a telling of his life that merely recites the facts, dates, names and places. The difference between a great biographer and one who is merely accurate — is in how well they tell the story.

Likewise, descriptive prose takes on a much more interesting quality when the “drama” of what is being described is also included. Describing the House of Representatives as

“a building full of men and women about the work of the nation”

may be accurate — but it is completely different than talking about

“a cold stone structure full of men and women just like us, who must daily consider the weighty matters of government and the future of their nation.”

Within the adjectives, imperatives, and comparatives there is an allusion to past, present and future — the stuff narratives are made of. The implication of the second description is that there are eight million stories in the naked city…. And that is a conservative estimate.

What Else Follows this Pattern?

Listen to a classical symphony and maybe you can find parallels to narrative structure there.

Look at the little “birdline” that decorates this page. There is narrative structure built into it. Birds on the telephone line are status quo — then some complication interrupts their rest (wind? noise? bigger birds? electrical burst?) — the interruption becomes critical and boom-crash — birds fly. Or maybe these birds are landing instead of taking off. In that case, the story is completely different….

A lot of things follow this heartbeat shape and narrative pattern. Why? Because it is basically a graph and description of how change occurs. From flying to resting. From resting to flying….

Any individual or organization which goes through a series of complications, a crisis, or any turning point in their existence — and experiences a REVERSAL or a RECOGNITION (a learning) — is following this pattern. If they’re experiencing complications and crises without learning or changing coarse — then they don’t climax and their story doesn’t end. They just keep climbing to higher and higher levels of crisis management.

Almost all management consulting is an attempt to bring a narrative cycle to denouement (exhale) and a new status quo.

The same is true of any therapeutic situation: the client is on his way from X to X . And if the therapist is good — he or she will get there without too much trauma along the way!

Narrative structure is simply a map of how these changes happen. And this only makes sense, because a good story is ALWAYS about change. That is the very definition of ACTION — which is the primary ingredient of a good story. Movement from point A to point B. Movement from X to X .

And what all does that include? Everything. Including psycho-social evolution —

Any change in evolutionary development will occur along this map and follow this pattern.

Amazing, isn’t it?

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4 thoughts on “How a Story is Shaped: Narrative Structure

  1. Pingback: Healing Narratives: Rhythm | Holistic Unconscious:

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