The Basics of A Story

This post is also a podcast episode! To learn more about the podcast you can visit this post.

All stories can be broken into pieces and most of them follow familiar patterns. Here are the six most common structural elements of stories, and how you can use them for the most effect.

1. Exposition

This one is often used as the introduction which probably sounds pretty self-explanatory, but it’s less so than you might think. Exposition is setting the scene, usually establishing a normal routine for the protagonist to be existing within, so that the reader can get established in the story. Introductions are more often than not crafted from exposition, which is why it’s so much fun to subvert that tradition.

For an example of introductory exposition, you could meet the protagonist on page one as they go about their normal day, say they stopped at a gas station to pick up some snacks on their way home. This sets the stage for later action, and gives the reader a chance to get a feel for what this character’s life is like. It can be an introduction to character mannerisms, settings like homes or workplaces, and what life for the protagonist has been like up to this point.

On the other hand, you can start page one with the protagonist in the middle of a conflict. Let’s say that the gas station is robbed while the protagonist is trying to get their snacks. It’s definitely not a normal event for them, which means that the true exposition wouldn’t start until maybe chapter two. The exposition in chapter two could be a flashback to before the robbery, or following the protagonist in their normal life after the robbery. This second option gives you, as an author, the chance to give your readers a lens through which they view your protagonist. Maybe the protagonist only happened across that gas station by chance and they should never have been there which can cause internal conflict. Maybe the protagonist now avoids that gas station, or gas stations entirely.

The point of exposition is to let readers get to know your protagonist, but no one says it has to be at the beginning of the story. I’ve written both for different reasons, but if you approach exposition with purpose then it gives you more power over your story. And, more importantly, how your readers interact with your story.

2. Inciting incident

The inciting incident is the thing that kicks the plot into gear. Whatever your protagonist is going to end up doing in your story, this incident will be, or contribute to, the driving why for them. Inciting incidents don’t have to be full-blown conflict or even come from an outside source. Maybe your protagonist loses their job, which spurs them to go back to school. Maybe they reach a certain age, which has a significance in your story. Whatever the case may be, this is the part of the story that, once it happens, sets the plot in motion.

The inciting incident almost always happens after at least some exposition, if not in writing then in story chronology. There has to be some kind of “before” established so that the inciting incident can create an “after” in which the protagonist has to navigate your plot.

3. Rising action

The rising action occurs after the inciting incident but before the climax. This is the part of the plot that lays stepping stones for the eventual climax. Think of this part of your story as checkpoints in a video game that your protagonist has to hit before the final boss. Maybe they need to pick up items or learn new skills so that they can be prepared for the climax. Maybe they need to learn lessons or meet key characters.

This part of your story will have a much higher word count than the exposition or inciting incident. It needs to be enough of a chunk that you can build tension and make your climax more effective. The rising action is also a great place to hide information that your protagonist will realize later. That way, in the climax, your reader will have an “aha!” moment as pieces fall together. It’s very satisfying as a reader to follow the protagonist through not just physical growth but mental growth as well.

4. Climax

If you’re a reader, or a consumer of any creative work, then you’re familiar with the concept of a climax in a story. It’s the crux of the plot, the big happening that the exposition, inciting incident, and rising action has led to. The climax is usually a “make or break” moment for your protagonist, and it should have all the necessary drama that this concept entails. It’s dramatic for your protagonist, so make sure you let your reader know the stakes.

When I write, I often outline the climax first, that way I know what needs to happen to prepare for it. If my protagonist has a big showdown in the mountains, then they have to first gather their supplies, meet and gather their supporting characters, and then make it to the final location. At minimum. The point is that once you establish what the climax is, you can begin to determine what needs to be included to make the climax plausible and believable.

5. Falling action

The falling action is the recovery from the climax on the way back to a new normal. The trial has been completed, successfully or not, which leaves your protagonist to collect their marbles as it were. In the mountain example, this could be the journey back to their home with side characters in tow. Maybe there’s an aftermath of the big conflict and the protagonist has to pick up the pieces.

The falling action is also a good place to begin setting up a sequel if your project calls for one. This part of the story is a good place to introduce more information that will lead to the next installment’s inciting incident. The idea is to set up breadcrumbs for the reader to follow and keep interest and investment sparked so that it can carry momentum into the next story. I’ll go more into that later, when I compare arcs, tropes, and motifs.

6. Resolution

The resolution is a sigh of relief for your reader. The climax is done, the falling action has put the pieces back together, which means that your protagonist is back to some sort of normal. This is the section of your story where your plot should be resolved in some way, even if you’re working in a series. You have to let your reader breathe. This is also the place for your happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) if you decide to go that route. Then again, if you’re working on a tragedy there may not be a happy ending for your protagonist, which is okay, too.

The resolution, similar to the exposition, should set your protagonist on some sort of “after” that the reader can follow. If it’s a HEA or HFN, then let your readers know that there will be a period of time in which the protagonist and/or side characters get to be happy. If it’s a tragedy, let your readers know that your protagonist’s life has been changed after making it through this plot and they are stuck with their new reality. Project your story into the future so that your characters stay alive even after the book has been closed or the credits have rolled.

In Conclusion

These are the main elements of most stories, but in all creative writing endeavors, rules are meant to be broken. Your story may be mostly exposition, or have multiple climaxes, or end on a cliffhanger with no resolution. There’s no wrong way to do it, but keep in mind that there needs to be a purpose if your story is going to be effective. Breaking rules for the sake of it won’t get you anywhere, but breaking the rules for a reason will elevate your story into new heights of complexity. Or you can stick with a straightforward plot that turns out as, or more, interesting.

What do you think? Are you more of an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” person, or a “break as many rules as you can” person? What kinds of story plots do you like to work with? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!


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