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What are Narrative Structures?

Literature has many forms, and each form has its own unique structure for telling a story. When studying, teaching, or learning about narration in literature, it is also important to understand its underlying arrangement. How is it created? What are the parts of a story? What aspects differ from one form to another?

The primary types of narrative structure, or story structure, come in these forms:

  • Novels
  • Poems or Poetry
  • Drama or Plays
  • Short Stories
  • Novellas
  • Myths, Legends, Folktales, Fairy Tales, and Epics

For novels, novellas, and short stories, you will see that the typical pattern of three or five parts of a story. This is referred to as the plot diagram. It is the foundation of many other structures and is the most commonly used. It can also be applied to other forms of media, like movies and TV shows.

A similar diagram can be used for understanding the patterns of drama or plays. This is known as the Five Act Structure. It too has five parts, each act coinciding with one part of the narrative diagram. Shakespeare was famous for structuring his plays in five acts: Act I is the introduction, Act II is the rising action, Act III the climax, Act IV the falling action, and Act V the resolution or denouement. This pattern is widely successful, and has been used by many playwrights.

Lastly, the narrative structure used for epics and some myths, legends, folktales, and fairy tales is often the "Hero's Journey", sometimes referred to as the Monomyth. Not every story will fit this structure, but it is commonly used for these types of narratives when the protagonist is considered a "hero". A famous example would be The Odyssey, a Greek epic where the hero, Odysseus, is forced to live, lost at sea, because of Poseidon's ill will towards him. Modern examples can be found in Disney movies animated adventures such as Toy Story or Finding Nemo.

Here at Storyboard That, we have compiled articles and storyboards created about the different structures of literature: Five Act Structure, types of Shakespearean plays, the plot diagram, and the Hero’s Journey.

The Five Act Structure

The Five Act Structure (also commonly referred to as the dramatic structure) is used to expose dramas or plays. The Five Act Structure, which has been redeveloped from Aristotle’s Three Act Structure, can be overlaid on a traditional plot diagram. The Five Act Structure follows the same five parts of the plot diagram; however, it does this with five acts. Shakespearean plays are known for following this structure.

Plot Diagrams

The plot diagram is a commonly known organizational device used by those studying novels, short stories, and novellas which tracks the major elements in the plot. The diagram's triangular shape visually represents the pivotal events of the story: the climax being the apex of the triangle, the introduction being the base, and the rising and falling action are the sloping sides, followed by the denouncement or resolution being the last base.

The Hero's Journey

The Hero's Journey is a common narrative structure known to epic poems or journeys. The most notable being Homer's The Odyssey. The Hero's Journey is a slightly more complex diagram that follows a similar pattern to the plot diagram. The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal narrative structure with various stages that a hero wades through to completion.

Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, created this cycle after researching and reviewing numerous myths and stories from different times and regions of the world. What he found was that they all share the same fundamental principles. This spawned “The Hero’s Journey”, also known as the Monomyth. The most basic version has 12 steps, while more detailed versions can have up to 17.

Shakespearean Play Genres

Shakespearean plays typically come in three varieties: tragedy, comedy, and history. Although these genres are not exclusive to Shakespeare, he is famous for producing highly successful plays based on his own structure for each. In the following article, each type of play and its structures are explained in detail - proving these genres were deliberately systematic!

Related Activities

How to Foster Creative Writing Skills through Narrative Structures


Introduce Narrative Structures

Provide an overview of different narrative structures, such as linear, circular, episodic, or nonlinear, explaining how they impact storytelling and create unique narrative experiences.


Explore Examples

Share examples of literary works or excerpts that showcase different narrative structures. Discuss the characteristics, effects, and creative possibilities of each structure.


Analyze Structure-Story Relationship

Help students understand the relationship between narrative structure and the story being told. Analyze how different structures can enhance or shape the plot, character development, pacing, and themes.


Brainstorm Creative Writing Prompts

Generate a list of creative writing prompts that specifically focus on utilizing different narrative structures. Encourage students to explore their imagination and think outside the box when developing their story ideas.


Provide Scaffolded Support

Offer guidance and support as students begin writing their stories. Provide graphic organizers, templates, or story outlines that correspond to specific narrative structures to help students structure their ideas effectively.


Share and Reflect

Create a supportive environment for students to share their creative writing pieces with peers. Facilitate discussions where students can reflect on their use of narrative structures, strengths, challenges, and the impact on their storytelling.

Frequently Asked Questions about Narrative Structure

What are Narrative Structures?

Narrative structures refer to the unique arrangement of elements in literature that are used to tell a story. These elements differ from one form of literature to another, such as novels, short stories, poems, plays, myths, legends, folktales, fairy tales, and epics.

What is the most common type of narrative structure?

The plot diagram is the most common type of narrative structure, consisting of three or five parts, and is commonly applied in novels, novellas, short stories, as well as movies, and TV shows.

What is the Five Act Structure?

The Five Act Structure is a commonly used narrative structure in drama or plays, consisting of five parts, each act corresponding to a part of the plot diagram. This structure was famously used by Shakespeare in his plays and is still widely used today in modern theater. By following this structure, playwrights are able to create a clear and engaging narrative arc that draws in audiences and keeps them engaged until the very end.

What is the Hero's Journey?

The Hero's Journey is a common narrative structure used in epics and some myths, legends, folktales, and fairy tales. It follows a pattern of a hero's journey through various stages to completion. This structure was first identified by mythologist Joseph Campbell and is also known as the Monomyth.

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