Narrative Structure and Conflict – What Makes a Story Interesting

A story that goes nowhere is pretty dull. Even simple fairy tales like The Three Little Pigs or Little Red Ridinghood move forward in a predictable, understandable way. Complex stories follow this same progression, with Shakespearean plays serving as a good example. This narrative structure is critical to understanding how and why stories work, and how to improve your own storytelling skills. This post goes into detail about narrative structure and conflict, and how the two work together to keep a reader’s attention.

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is known as the exposition, the middle is the climax or turning point, and the end is the resolution. The path leading from the climax to the turning point is the rising action, and the path from the climax to the resolution is the falling action.

This is the traditional model for dramatic structure and one of the most common structures in writing.
This is the traditional model for dramatic structure and one of the most common structures in writing.

The exposition gives background information to what’s happening in the story. It explains the world, the characters, and what’s happening. It also should include some kind of inciting incident, a moment in the story where the main character is faced with a decision or event that changes the course of their story. In The Three Little Pigs, this is when the pigs are sent out into the world by their mother to make their own fortunes. It establishes who the characters are and their differences.

The rising action is the build up to the climax. This is the three pigs building their own houses out of various materials, and the wolf destroying each house in turn, with the little pigs running to the next brother’s home for safety. The rising action concludes when the wolf tries to blow down the brick house and fails.

The climax or turning point is where things change for the protagonist. In our fairy tale, it’s when the wolf tries to force his way into the brick house via the chimney.

The falling action is where conflict of the story somewhat resolves. For The Three Little Pigs, it’s when the wolf falls into the pig’s soup and gets burned.

The resolution (or denouement if you want to be French about it) is where the conflict in the story is resolved. This is the wolf running away and leaving the pigs alone in Three Little Pigs.

More complex stories follow this same pattern. Take Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The story starts on the walls of Elsinore Castle, with two guards and Horatio confronting the ghost of Hamlet’s father (exposition). Hamlet faces his father and learns that his uncle, the new King Claudius, murdered his brother. Hamlet vows to get revenge on his father’s killer and makes elaborate plans to confirm his uncle’s guilt. Hamlet confirms that Claudius is guilty when he has an extreme reaction to a reenactment of his brother’s death. Hamlet is challenged to a duel by Laertes after Ophelia dies (rising action). Hamlet and Laertes fight (climax), and everything immediately starts to go wrong. The queen drinks from a poisoned cup, Hamlet’s poisoned by Laertes’s sword, Laertes’s is poisoned by his own sword when Hamlet uses it instead of his own, and Claudius is stabbed (falling action). At the very end, Fortinbras breaks into the room to find pretty much everyone dead, and Hamlet is buried in honor (resolution).

Understanding this structure will help you direct your story. You don’t have to follow it, and there are many other structures out there that work just as well, but if you’re just starting, it’s a solid foundation for storytelling.

Your story also has to have conflict to succeed. If there’s no conflict, there’s no interest in the story. The Three Little Pigs is less exciting if the wolf never shows up to blow

This drawing covers the main conflicts you'll find in stories, as well as the general period that they occur.
This drawing covers the main conflicts you’ll find in stories, as well as the general period that they occur.

down the houses. Hamlet doesn’t happen if Hamlet doesn’t try to get revenge against his uncle. Conflict occurs between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist (the thing acting against the protagonist). Because the antagonist can be many different things, the conflict is defined in terms of man vs. the antagonistic element. In Hamlet and The Three Little Pigs, the conflict is man versus man (or wolf for the pigs). There are many other kinds of conflict, but all of them drive the story.

By understanding structure and conflict, you can get the bones of your story together. In my next post, I’ll talk about how you can take these and use them to outline your story. I’ll also show you how I go about creating an outline involving multiple plot lines and conflicts.

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