Narrative Structure

My first post was supposed to be about what makes a good movie ending, but to understand that, my readers need a good understanding of narrative structure. So instead I wrote this post, a rundown on narrative structure, and my next post will be about what makes a good ending in film. I know, my first post and I’m back tracking. This should be a great blog. Any-ho…


Narrative structure is the skeleton of a story. It’s allows us to recognize a work as a narrative instead of poem, or an essay, or maybe something far stranger. The idea of narrative structure has its genesis in Aristotle’s Poetics.  His idea was that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. Since Aristotle a lot of trees have been killed for writings about this subject. Smarter people than I have come up with a lot of theories and nifty diagrams to explain it. The most basic narrative structure is exemplified in the diagram bellow.


All story start with exposition. This is where we meet the protagonist(s) and the world that they inhabit. Next, we move on to the inciting incident. Some conflict is introduced, and the protagonist(s) must then spend the rest of the story attempting to resolve it. As the story progresses, the tension increases and stakes are raised. Usual during the rising action the protagonist(s) is changing and developing in some way. This continues, until the story reaches it’s climax. The climax is where all of the tension that has been building comes to a head, and the protagonist(s) finally faces the conflict that was introduced in the inciting incident. The resolution is whatever happens that causes the conflict to be resolved. At this point, the protagonist(s) should have changed in some way because of what happened during the rising action. They don’t have too though. Some have the best stories involve characters who fail to change despite the conflict. The dénouement is just wrapping up the story, tying up any loose ends that need to be resolved.

This is narrative structure in its most basic form. The structure I use when writing my own stories, and the one I’ll mostly use to analyse films is the three-act structure.


This particular structure is just a more detail version of the structure I just explained.


As you can see, three-act story structure incorporate all of the elements of narrative structure, it just organizes them somewhere within three acts. This structure was created for theater, back when theater was the only visual medium. Despite how it’s age, it still commonly used when writing or analyzing films. The only other thing that’s different and worth mentioning is disaster and crisis at the end of act 2. The disaster is when the protagonist(s) are utterly defeated by the antagonist(s). The crisis is when the protagonist(s) give up all hope. The disaster is an external conflict and the crisis is an internal conflict. This defeat before the climax is extremely prevalent in most films. I think the rest of the structure has either already been explain or is self-explanatory. If you have questions, ask them in the comments. Or you can check out this video by indie filmmaker Darious J. Britt. It’s about 12 minutes long. He gets into more detail about three act story structure and gives great examples. It is an awesome video and you should definitely watch it right now. I mean if you’re here, you’re probably not that busy.

One more thing. It is important to know that narrative structures are guideline not a law. Feel free to break them in your films and feel free to enjoy film that break them. But remember, this structure has been around in one way or another for a few thousand years because it works. Often, if you find yourself unfulfilled after watch a film it’s because it failed to execute this structure.

If you have any question, comment, concerns, a shrewdly worded haiku please leave them in the comments.

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