What are Narrative Structures, and Which One is Best for Your Story?

Do you know the feeling when you’re excited because you’re about to read a long-awaited book? Or when you’re on your way to see a movie you like? When I was little, I remember being the kind of kid who could spend hours reading until the middle of the night to see what would happen in the story. That’s how powerful a story can be!

Believe it or not, researchers have found a scientific explanation for this pleasant feeling. Listening to or reading a good story can make you release oxytocin, a hormone related to empathy and love. So, you may ask, what does a story have to do with narrative? Are they the same?

First, the narrative is the term we use to define events happening in a story, usually told by a narrator. In this, different characters make the decisions and actions that cause the events. In simpler words, the story needs the narrative.

Even though the narrator can describe the events in the narrative with written or spoken words, the use of both of those has changed over the years. In medieval times, oral storytelling was the most common way to express a narrative, and people from different cultures used stories to teach values and history. Similarly, people used storytelling as a way to socialize. The main characteristic of oral storytelling is the physical proximity of the narrator to the listeners, and teachers also recognize this type of storytelling as an easy way to introduce literature in childhood. However, with the introduction of devices that allow communication such as radio, television, or computers, these practices are less common than before. Today, we use electronic devices that make it easier to communicate from far distances but also diminish face-to-face communication and oral storytelling.

The way of storytelling has changed significantly. We see stories everywhere. Even if, at first, it doesn’t seem like it, narratives are present not only in books, movies, or TV but also in songs, video games, or paintings. Consequently, if you want your story to work, it needs a structure, and today that’s what I’ll tell you about in this article.

What is the narrative?

It expresses the events in a story according to the eyes of a narrator. Some people use it as a synonym for story.

What are narrative structures?

It’s how the narrator tells those events to the reader. In addition, it includes the manner and the order to do it and involves two main definitions: plot and setting.

What is the plot?

On the one hand, the plot it’s one of the elements present in a story, and sometimes people use it as a synonym for the narrative. However, the plot as a device focuses more on the order of the events that create the story.

What is the setting?

On the other hand, the setting is where the narrative (and, therefore, the plot) takes place. Along with the plot and characters, it’s one of the elements you must understand if you want to write a story.

What are the types of narratives?

If the narrative is how the narrator tells events that happened, the type of narrative is the way it explains them. The most common ones in books include linear narrative and nonlinear narrative.

Linear narrative

Probably the most used in books, it’s where the narrator tells us everything that happens in the order it happened. In this type of narrative, one thing leads to another seamlessly, and it’s easy for the reader to follow since figuring out how the events occur is not one of the readers’ concerns.

There are lots of books with this narrative. A famous example includes Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, where we can see the main character’s development, Elizabeth, and her relationship with Mr. Darcy.

Romantic stories benefit from this type of narrative, but it also works with fantasy, science fiction, and young adult. If you want to tell and don’t want to stress yourself (and your reader), write a linear narrative!

One of the weaknesses of this type of narrative is that you cannot show events that happened in the past, only if a character in your story describes it, and sometimes this can be boresome. 

Nonlinear narrative

On the contrary, a nonlinear narrative will not tell us the events as they happened. Instead, we will learn the events in the order the narrator wants to describe them. Making this work is tricky since you count on the ability of the reader to discover by themselves how things happened, and it’s challenging to do it right. However, if you do it right, it will be memorable. It’s a type of narrative that gives the story more depth and works wonders in thrillers and mysteries.

One example is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne is the main suspect in his wife’s disappearance, Amy. While part of the book is in the present, a section with Amy’s diary tells us about events that happened years ago. In this case, Amy’s diary helps the reader understand what could’ve happened between her and his husband. Most important, it helps us know if Nick genuinely killed her wife.

The main disadvantage of this type of narrative is that you can confuse your reader, and a confused reader is a reader who may stop reading your book. You can ask someone who doesn’t know the plot of your book to read it for the first time and ask about their opinion: do you understand the chronological order, or is it too complicated?

Are there other types of narrative?

Way more common in video games, there is also interactive storytelling. It’s the kind of narrative where you learn clues that lead you to another one, advancing the plot. One famous example includes Detroit Become Human, a video game where you explore a fictional Detroit in 2038 through the eyes of three different androids. Depending on your choices, your character may have different results, including death. It is different from linear and nonlinear narratives in that there is no single outcome, and each event after the other will depend on the decisions made by the user.

What are the narrative structures?

Narrative structures seek to explain how events occur under a specific pattern of steps or acts, which, although they change according to the plot of each book, usually occur in the same order. For that same reason, they are crucial in storytelling. We need them to organize and present information to the reader, and depending on which one you use, you can use them to create suspense and keep your readers hooked.

There are different narrative structures, and I will explain the three most common ones: The Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Structures, and Dan Harmon’s Story Cycle. To make it easier to understand, I will explain it with the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Hero’s Journey

Without realizing it, you may have heard of this one. The Hero’s Journey is the most famous narrative structure in movies and books, and you don’t have to be an expert storyteller to realize why: we all love to see a hero winning! It uses the concept of the monomyth, a term that anthropologist Joseph Campell used to describe different epic tales along different cultures in the world. This anthropologist was not only the creator of the concept but also wrote a work where he exemplifies this narrative structure named The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Still, some say the popularity of this story structure is thanks to George Lucas, director of the Star Wars series.

What’s the Hero’s Journey Structure?

Today, the most famous version of The Hero’s Journey is the version popularized by Christopher Vogler, consisting of 12 steps. 

  1. The Ordinary World. First, we see how the main character lives their ordinary lives. For example, Harry Potter lives with his family in England, who bully him and make him feel powerless.
  2. The Call of Adventure. Also called the inciting incident, in this case, Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard, and from here, the plot begins to unfold.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The hero doesn’t want to accept the call. Harry thinks there must be a mistake; there’s no way he’s a wizard.
  4. Meeting the Mentor. The hero encounters someone who will teach them how everything works in the magical world. In Harry Potter’s first book, this mentor is Hagrid.
  5. Crossing the Threshold. Also known as stepping out of the comfort zone. In this step, Harry goes to Hogwarts. 
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Harry meets Ron and Draco, a friend and an enemy, respectively. Harry is also struggling to keep up with his school lessons.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. Our hero almost gets what he wants. In this step, Harry Potter learns he can be good at Quidditch and get recognition for it. He will no longer feel powerless.
  8. The Ordeal. Our hero was having a good time in his new environment and getting used to it until The Ordeal arrived. We see the biggest challenge for our hero: a troll threatens Hermione’s life. Harry and Ron save her.
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword). Thankful to them, Hermione becomes their friend. She’s smart, and she would become one of their best friends.
  10. The Road Back. Even if this isn’t present in Harry Potter, it would be the moment when the hero realizes that overcoming the challenge in The Ordeal wasn’t the end. Things might get worse.
  11. Resurrection. Also called climax, here is where the final challenge happens. For the first time, we see Voldemort as he tries to kill Harry.
  12. Return with the Elixir. The hero gets what he wants! Harry escapes from Voldemort, and people recognize Harry as a hero. Harry returns to his family.

The Hero’s Journey has helped different authors across different media, who use it mostly in fantasy or science fiction.

Three-Act Structure

Have you heard that classic phrase that goes, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end? Well, they were probably referring to the three-act structure. It’s similar to The Hero’s Journey but way more simplified.

What’s the Three-Act Structure?

Act 1. Setup

We meet Harry Potter, an orphan who lives in England with his closest relatives. However, they bully him, and on top of that, Harry doesn’t have any friends. Still, Harry’s life changes when he learns he can make magic and will study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Act 2. Confrontation

When Harry starts attending Hogwarts, he makes friends and enemies. But most importantly, he learns about Voldemort, the most dangerous threat in the magical world.

Act 3. Resolution

In the final act, Harry fights Voldemort and manages to escape. All along the way, Harry has changed. He is now a wizard with friends who love him.

Dan Harmon’s Story Cycle

This one is one of my favorites! Created by Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick And Morty, it’s a variation of the monomyth structure. However, the main difference is that the Story Cycle focuses more on the main character and their needs to move the plot forward. The Story Cycle wants the main character to have character development, giving them different arcs as the story progresses.

Harmon explains the narrative of his characters with the philosophy that human beings love stories that follow a cycle. The phrase to describe this narrative goes like this: when you have a need, you go somewhere, search for it, find it, take it, then return, and change things.

What’s Dan Harmon’s Story Cycle?

  1. You. Here, we learn how the main character is in their comfort zone. For example, Harry lives in England without friends, and his family bullies him.
  2. Need. The main character needs something. It could be something the character has wanted for a long time, but it could also be something recent after a specific incident. For example, Harry wants friends, and after he learns he is part of the magical world, the story allows him to change his situation.
  3. Go. To change, the protagonist has to get out of his comfort zone. In this step, the character goes into an unfamiliar situation. Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts.
  4. Search. The protagonist adapts to the new world they entered and begins their search. In this case, Harry started a new life in this new school.
  5. Find. The protagonist wins a small victory by getting what he wants, but why doesn’t it feel like a victory? We call this a false win. Harry’s success, in this case, is learning he can be good at Quidditch, but getting deeper and deeper into the magical world has consequences. The protagonist needs to pay for it.
  6. Take. It can be a moment to reflect that maybe what the character wanted wasn’t worth it. Harry now has friends and popularity, but it doesn’t stop there. Entering the magical world brings him closer and closer to his villain and main threat: Voldemort. The character doesn’t have other options, so they pay the price. In Harry’s case, he has to fight Voldemort.
  7. Return. After escaping Voldemort, we go back to the familiar situation. Harry goes back to his home.
  8. Change. The protagonist has changed. We see their character development, and whether it was for better or worse depends on the other seven steps and the final you want to achieve. Harry now believes in himself and his abilities. He has friends, and he is loved.

Conclusion

Narrative structures exist because they work, but today, nothing says you have to follow one of those to make a good book. On the contrary, your book may be following a narrative structure without you realizing it.

However, you can search for narrative structures when you think your writing is bland or the reader doesn’t feel as immersed in the story as they should be. If you are not convinced, you can always practice! You may find one that suits you and your writing style.

Finally, these structures can help you if you’re a beginner, but you could also use them if you consider yourself a writing expert.

Remember, the best way to practice writing is by writing, of course, but also by reading, so have a good read!

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Remember, the best way to practice writing is by writing, of course, but also by reading, so have a good read!

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