The Four Part Structure of a Story

Every story follows a similar structure just as every car follows a similar form. That doesn’t mean that you can create stories using a fixed formula, but that stories, by their definition, must follow certain forms to engage an audience and provide a satisfying conclusion.

Every story is unique, yet every story follows a similar structure. The key to good story telling isn’t to mimic other stories, but to understand the basic structure of a story and then create your own story within the framework of that structure.

nFor example, detective stories and romance stories are different, yet they share the same pattern of a hero with a problem, a conflict, and a resolution of some kind. Without these basic story structures, you don’t have a story but a poem, an essay, or just random gibberish.

Here are the four parts of every story:

  1. Introduce a sympathetic hero with a problem.
  2. Hero achieves a false victory by applying old way of living.
  3. Hero meets defeat due to his old way of thinking.
  4. Hero confronts the villain and defeats the villain due to lessons learned along the way.

This four part structure of a story appears in the overall structure of a screenplay.

Act I — Introduce hero

Act IIa — Hero achieves a False Victory.

Act IIb — Hero appears defeated

Act III — Hero wins (or loses)

Now this four part structure of story telling appears in each individual act that includes:

Inciting Incident — Introduce problem

Rising Action A — Hero achieves a False Victory

Rising Action B — Hero appears defeated

Climax — Hero wins (or loses)

You can even apply this four part structure to an individual scene. Think of the opening scene in “Star Wars.”

Opening scene — Princess Leia’s starship is attacked and captured

Rising Action A — Her troops attack the stormtroopers coming through the blasted hole in the wall

Rising Action B — Her troops are defeated

Climax — Princess Leia is captured

The reason this four part structure of story telling works is because it wrings our emotion for maximum effect. Obviously, we can’t get involved in a story unless it appeals to us (Opening scene/Inciting Incident/Act I). Once we root for a hero, then we want to see him succeed (Rising Action A/Act IIa).

Seeing a hero succeed right away is a boring story, so next we must see the hero fail. This contrasts with the hero’s ultimate (we hope) victory at the end. Without this element of failure, the story appears flat and uninteresting. But constantly making the hero struggle makes the hero’s goal that much more in doubt and engaging (Rising Action B/Act IIb).

Finally, we want to know how the story ends (Climax/Act III). A story or scene that embodies these four parts of story telling will simply be much more interesting than a story or scene that omits or lessens these four parts of story structure. That’s just the way people like hearing and staying engaged in a story.

So when you write a script or a scene, keep these four elements in mind. Introduce a problem, show a seemingly solution, show the hero being defeated, and then show the hero rising up and succeeding (or not). That’s the four part structure of a story that every story needs to tell.

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