English Literature
Narrative Structure

Narrative Structure

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The Importance of Narrative Structure in Storytelling

When learning the fundamentals of storytelling, common terms like 'climax' and 'resolution' are often mentioned. However, these stages are critical in constructing a strong narrative structure, which can be found in all forms of storytelling. Whether it's a short story, novel, poem, or play, a solid narrative structure is essential in keeping readers engaged and effectively conveying the writer's ideas.

While there is no one-size-fits-all formula for narrative structure, there are various types that writers can utilize, such as the Fichtean curve, Hero's journey, and Freytag's Pyramid. Each structure has its unique elements that can create a desired impact on the reader.

What is Narrative Structure?

In simple terms, narrative structure is the framework of a story that includes both the content, such as conflict and setting, and the plot, the series of events that drive the action. It organizes the different parts of the story, including the beginning, middle, and end. The genre of the story also plays a significant role in determining the narrative structure, as a crime story would have a different structure than a fantasy story.

With a well-crafted narrative structure, writers can effectively convey the events and their significance to the readers. The structure of a novel is based on how the writer chooses to organize the text, while the plot consists of the actual events. As a result, the narrative structure can greatly influence the overall impact of the story. For instance, a linear structure would have a different impact than a circular one, as the order of events can enhance different themes in the text.

The Three Parts of Narrative Structure

Before exploring the different types of narrative structures, it's important to understand the three main components - the beginning, middle, and end. These three parts were first defined by Aristotle in his work, Poetics, written in the 4th century BC. According to Aristotle, a good story should have cohesion between these three parts, with one event naturally leading to the next.

The Five Types of Narrative Structure

  • Linear Plot Structure

In this type of structure, the events of the story are presented in chronological order, with the plot moving forward continuously. However, this doesn't mean there can't be flashbacks or jumps to the past. When this does occur, the writer typically indicates that it is a past event or one that is out of chronological order. An example of a story with a linear structure is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813).

  • Nonlinear Plot Structure

As the name suggests, a nonlinear plot structure does not follow a chronological sequence of events. Instead, the events are presented out of order, often through the use of flashbacks. This structure allows for more flexibility and can add depth to the story. An example of a nonlinear structure can be found in literature written by Holocaust survivors and their children, as it reflects their experiences of being trapped in trauma where linear time no longer exists.

  • Circular Plot Structure

Stories that follow a circular structure have a beginning that leads back to the end. The events ultimately come full circle to where the story started, whether it be the setting, scene, imagery, or event. An excellent example of this is John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), where the opening and closing scenes are nearly identical, highlighting the tragic events that occur in between.

  • Parallel Plot Structure

In a parallel plot structure, there are two or more plots happening simultaneously, often with overlapping events and characters. This structure allows for multiple perspectives and can add complexity to the story. An example of this can be seen in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where multiple storylines and characters intertwine to create a rich and intricate narrative.

  • Frame Story Structure

In a frame story structure, the main narrative is surrounded by a secondary story, often used as a framing device. This secondary story usually provides context or a different perspective on the main story. An example of this structure can be found in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), where the story of Jane's life is presented as a flashback within the frame of her conversation with the narrator.

By understanding and utilizing the different narrative structures, writers can effectively craft their stories, creating a cohesive and engaging experience for readers. A strong narrative structure not only helps with pacing and organization but also adds depth and impact to the overall storytelling. So, the next time you pick up a book or watch a movie, pay attention to the narrative structure and see how it enhances your enjoyment of the story.

Understanding Narrative Structures: The Impact on Cultural Beliefs

Stories are a powerful tool for exploring and understanding different cultural perspectives. One way to uncover these beliefs is by analyzing the narrative structures used in their storytelling. Each structure offers a unique lens through which we can view a culture's perceptions of time, life, and the world.

Exploring the Diversity of Narrative Structures

Whether in literature or film, there are various narrative structures that writers can utilize to tell a story. Let's take a closer look at some common examples:

Parallel Plot Structure

In this structure, multiple storylines are intertwined, often connected by a shared event, character, or theme. For example, Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" (1859) follows the stories of characters in London and Paris during the French Revolution. A more recent example is Nick Bradley's "The Cat and The City" (2020), which weaves together the narratives of different characters in Tokyo, all connected by their interactions with cats.

Interactive Plot Structure

In this approach, the reader or viewer is invited to influence the narrative by making choices for what happens next. This structure encourages active participation and can be seen in children's books like "Huff & Puff" (2012) by Claudia Rueda.

Examples of Common Narrative Structures

Here are some other narrative structures frequently used in storytelling:

  • Three-Act Structure
  • Fichtean Curve
  • The Hero's Journey
  • Seven-Point Structure
  • Freytag's Pyramid
  • Save the Cat Beat Sheet

Three-Act Structure

This classic structure divides a story into three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Syd Field's "Screenplay" (1978) further breaks down the acts into Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution.

  • Act 1: The setup introduces the setting, characters, and central conflict. It ends with an inciting incident that sets the story in motion.
  • Act 2: The confrontation builds tension as the protagonist faces obstacles and undergoes growth and change. A midpoint crisis leads to a turning point, where the protagonist is tested and must make a critical decision.
  • Act 3: The resolution culminates in the climax and denouement, where the protagonist faces a final challenge and either succeeds or fails.

An excellent example of this structure is the movie "Star Wars" (1977).

Fichtean Curve

In his book "The Art of Fiction" (1983), John Gardner proposed the Fichtean Curve, which follows a pattern of rising action, climax, and falling action. This structure is commonly used in fast-paced, character-driven stories.

An example of this structure can be seen in L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" (1900):

  • Rising Action: Dorothy embarks on a journey and meets new friends along the way.
  • Climax: The group confronts the Wicked Witch of the West.
  • Falling Action: With the witch defeated, the group returns to the wizard for a reward.

Uncovering Cultural Beliefs Through Narrative Structures

Narrative structures can greatly influence and shape cultural perspectives. By examining the various structures used in storytelling, we can gain a deeper understanding of how cultures view time and the world around them.

The Hero's Journey: A Universal Narrative Structure

One of the most widely recognized and utilized narrative structures is the Hero's Journey. This structure was first identified by writer and professor Joseph Campbell in his influential work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Through his analysis of mythology from different cultures, Campbell observed patterns and argued that they can be found in literary texts throughout history.

Christian Volger, a Hollywood screenwriter, has simplified Joseph Campbell's 17 stages of the Hero's Journey into 12 stages. These 12 stages form the basis of the Hero's Journey in many popular stories, including J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Let's delve into Volger's 12 stages and see how they apply to the journey of the main character, Bilbo Baggins.

The Ordinary World

The Hero's Journey begins in the ordinary world, setting the scene for the protagonist's normal life and the society they live in. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is a content hobbit living a peaceful life in the Shire, with no desire for adventure.

The Call of Adventure

The inciting incident of the Hero's Journey occurs when the hero is given a call of adventure. For Bilbo, this happens when Gandalf, a wise wizard, unexpectedly arrives and invites him to join a group of dwarves on a perilous quest. Initially, Bilbo rejects the call, unsure if he is ready to leave his comfortable life behind.

The Mentor

Next comes the mentor, a supernatural aid who guides and prepares the hero for their journey. In Bilbo's case, Gandalf takes on this role, using his powerful magic to assist the group on their quest.

The Crossing of the First Threshold

Once the hero has accepted the call and met their mentor, they cross the first threshold and leave their familiar world behind. Bilbo, with the dwarves and Gandalf, sets out on their journey.

The Tests, Allies, and Enemies

As the hero progresses on their journey, they face a series of tests, form alliances, and encounter foes. Bilbo and his companions face various challenges, such as losing their resources and being captured by goblins.

The Inmost Cave

The hero must eventually confront their biggest hurdle in the inmost cave. In The Hobbit, this is when Bilbo enters the Lonely Mountain and comes face to face with the dragon, Smaug, who is guarding a treasure hoard.

The Ordeal

To overcome the inmost cave, the hero must face an ordeal. For Bilbo, this is when he must outwit the dragon by solving riddles to learn its weakness. With cunning and courage, Bilbo obtains the information needed to defeat the dragon.

The Reward

Having faced and overcome their ordeal, the hero receives the reward they have been seeking. For Bilbo, this includes the treasure hoard and the knowledge to help the dwarves reclaim their home.

The Road Back

The hero's journey is not over yet, as they must now face the road back to their ordinary world. Bilbo encounters challenges and learns valuable lessons along the way.

The Resurrection

In the resurrection stage, the hero faces a final challenge that requires them to use everything they have learned on their journey. In The Hobbit, with the help of their allies, Bilbo and his friends emerge victorious against a military attack.

The Return with the Elixir

Having completed their journey, the hero returns to their ordinary world, but with newfound knowledge and a changed perspective. For Bilbo, this is when he returns to the peaceful Shire, bringing with him the treasure, the friendships he made, and the personal growth he experienced.

The Seven-Point Story Structure

Another popular version of the Hero's Journey is the Seven-Point Story Structure, popularized by author Dan Wells. This structure involves determining the ending of the story first and then working backwards to plan the narrative arc. The seven elements of this structure are the Hook, Plot Turn 1, Pinch 1, Midpoint, Plot Turn 2, Pinch 2, and Resolution.

Although there are variations in how the Hero's Journey is presented, it remains a powerful and universal structure that has been used in countless stories throughout history. Whether authors follow Volger's 12 stages or the seven points of the Seven-Point Story Structure, the Hero's Journey continues to captivate audiences and inspire storytellers across the globe.

Dissecting the Narrative Structure of Casablanca

Casablanca (1942) is a classic film that utilizes a well-crafted narrative structure to captivate its audience. Let's dive deeper into this structure and see how it contributes to the film's success.

  • Opening Hook: The movie opens with a glimpse of the society in which Rick, the protagonist, lives. The turmoil of individuals trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe and getting trapped in Casablanca sets the stage for the rest of the narrative.
  • Plot Point 1: The story's inciting incident occurs when Rick's friend, Ugarte, desperately seeks his help while being pursued by the police.
  • Pinch Point 1: The introduction of Major Strasser, a Nazi officer, and his attempt to strike a deal with Rick's former lover, Ilsa, and her husband, Lazlo, intensifies the conflict.
  • Midpoint: The plot thickens as Ilsa realizes that Rick possesses the letters of transit that can help them escape, but she grapples with her feelings for him and her loyalty to her husband.
  • Pinch Point 2: Tension rises when German officers get into a brawl with French patrons at Rick's bar.
  • Plot Point 2: The climax of the story is reached when Ilsa begs Rick for the letters of transit, revealing her love for him.
  • Resolution: In a thrilling finale, Rick shoots Major Strasser, and Ilsa and Lazlo finally make their escape.

In summary, the movie's structure follows Rick's journey and builds suspense through various plot points, ultimately leading to a satisfying resolution.

The Power of Freytag's Pyramid

Freytag's Pyramid, also known as the five-point narrative structure, has been a widely used storytelling technique ever since its introduction by Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century playwright and novelist inspired by the classical Greek tragedies.

The structure's success lies in its ability to guide a story and keep it engaging throughout its five main points:

  • Introduction/Exposition: The status quo is established, and the inciting incident happens, setting the story in motion.
  • Rising Action: The protagonist actively pursues their goal, and the stakes continually escalate.
  • Climax: The peak of the story is reached, and the protagonist is unable to return to their normal life.
  • Falling Action: As conflicts remain unresolved, tension continues to build.
  • Catastrophe: The protagonist hits rock bottom, consumed by their fears.

A classic example of a story that follows this structure is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Let's see how the events of this tragic love story align with Freytag's Pyramid.

  • Exposition: The events before the Capulet household's party are shown, setting the stage for the story's events.
  • Rising Action: Romeo and Juliet secretly get married, and a series of events, including the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, lead to Romeo's banishment.
  • Climax: The story's highest point is reached when Romeo takes his life, followed by Juliet upon waking up, seeing him dead.
  • Falling Action: The aftermath of Juliet's death and the events that follow.
  • Resolution: The feuding families put an end to their feud, concluding the story.

The 15 'Beats' of Save the Cat! Beat Sheet

Another popular narrative structure used extensively in Hollywood films is the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet, developed in 2005 by Blake Snyder. This structure breaks down a story into 15 'beats,' resulting in a cohesive and entertaining narrative.

Let's examine the 15 beats that make up this structure:

  • Opening Image: The story's setting is introduced, immediately grabbing the reader's attention.
  • Theme-Stated: A glimpse of the central theme of the story is provided.
  • Set-Up: The protagonist's ordinary world is established, providing context for their journey.
  • Catalyst: The inciting incident occurs, propelling the story forward.
  • Debate: Initially, the protagonist resists the call to action but ultimately gives in to the inevitable.
  • Break into Two: The protagonist decides to embark on their journey, leaving their ordinary world behind.
  • B Story: A subplot is introduced, emphasizing the story's theme.
  • Fun and Games: The story's entertaining side is explored, keeping the audience engaged.
  • Midpoint: A turning point occurs as the protagonist faces a crucial decision.
  • Bad Guys Close In: The antagonist's power increases, building tension and conflict.
  • All Is Lost: The protagonist reaches their lowest point, with seemingly no way out.
  • Dark Night of the Soul: The protagonist reflects on their journey and the challenges they have faced.
  • Break into Three: A new plan is formed, giving the protagonist a glimmer of hope.
  • Finale: The protagonist must overcome one final obstacle to achieve their goal.
  • Final Image: A satisfying conclusion wraps up the story, leaving a lasting impact on the audience.

Narrative Structure: The Key to Crafting an Engaging Story

Narrative structure is an essential aspect of storytelling, serving as the foundation for a well-developed and captivating narrative. It encompasses both the content, such as conflict and setting, and the form, which includes the events that drive the plot. By understanding the different components of narrative structure, writers can create a cohesive and engaging story that resonates with readers. Let's take a closer look at this crucial storytelling element.

The Beginning, Middle, and End

Every story follows a basic structure of beginning, middle, and end. The beginning introduces the characters, setting, and conflict, setting the stage for the story. In the middle, the plot thickens as the protagonist faces challenges and obstacles, increasing the tension. Finally, the end brings resolution and often a final twist or revelation.

Types of Narrative Structure

  • Linear: This structure follows a chronological timeline.
  • Nonlinear: It may jump back and forth in time.
  • Circular: The story ends where it began.
  • Parallel: It follows multiple plotlines that eventually converge.
  • Interactive: The reader can interact with the story through choices or alternate endings.

Examples of Narrative Structure

There are various examples of narrative structure, such as the Hero’s Journey, Fichtean curve, and Freytag’s Pyramid. The Hero’s Journey follows the protagonist's transformation through a series of trials and challenges. The Fichtean curve follows a rising and falling action pattern, while Freytag’s Pyramid has five distinct acts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

Understanding Character Arcs

Character arcs are an integral part of narrative structure, focusing on the development and transformation of a character throughout the story. There are three main types of character arcs: positive/growth, negative/tragic, and static.

  • Positive/Growth Character Arcs: In this type of arc, the protagonist overcomes their flaws or fears and becomes a better person by the end of the story. An example of this is Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
  • Negative/Tragic Character Arcs: Contrastingly, characters with this arc hold onto their flaws and false beliefs, leading to their downfall. An example of this is Voldemort from the Harry Potter series.
  • Static Character Arcs: In a static arc, the protagonist's beliefs and values are challenged, but they remain unchanged by the end of the story. Sherlock Holmes in 'The Five Orange Pips' is an example of a character with a static arc.

Analyzing Narrative Structure

To analyze narrative structure, it’s essential to look at the plot, setting, and characters. Organizing the events of the story can also provide insight into the narrative structure. Additionally, examining the author's writing style and choice of point of view can offer a deeper understanding.

In conclusion, understanding narrative structure is crucial for creating a well-crafted story. It provides a framework for the plot and characters, ensuring a cohesive and engaging narrative. By analyzing the narrative structure, readers can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the story. So next time you're crafting a story, consider using one of these structures to take your readers on a journey they won't forget.

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