A good story keeps the audience focused on what’s happening, while allowing them to subconsciously recognize the underlying the patterns. As a writer it’s important to understand how and why a story works. I will often start with an idea, character, or conflict, and wait until the revision process to try and understand what pattern I’m trying to create, but that is only a preference.
Here are a few examples of plot patterns & structures.
Linear stories are about characters in transition; something is changing in their life, often in the form of a role. Any story that involves a character moving to a new location, changing their profession, or getting married or divorced is a linear story. This is one of the more common story types. The key is at the end of the story the character does not go back to their old life.
Aladdin is an example of this type of story.
Circular stories end by restoring the status quo. The character had an adventure and now they’re back home, nothing has really changed. This is a good structure for any kind of serial story, such as Sherlock Holmes. It’s also popular among TV shows. The Hobbit is another example.
Inward spiral stories begin with several point of view characters, often separated by distance or other barriers. Over the course of the story these characters are brought together. Their separate goals either combine into a single shared goal or enter into direct opposition.
Dune is an example of a story that spirals inward. At the beginning of the story no less than five separate political factions are making plans for the future. Over the course of the story these various plans help and interfere with each other, until everything hinges on a fight between two characters.
Outward spiral stories start small, with a single protagonist and a single goal. Gradually more characters are introduced, adding new perspectives, goals, and plots.
Fellowship of the Ring is an example. In the beginning Frodo is trying to get the ring to Rivendell. By the end of the story there are at least 3 additional perspective characters and plots.
Reverse stories begin near the end of the story, during a particularly intense scene. The protagonist takes a moment to reflect on how they arrived at this moment. They think back to the “beginning”, retelling the story with their hindsight perspective.
This is a good solution for a story that starts off slow or drastically changes in tone or genre after the first quarter. Limitless, Fight Club, and Interview with a Vampire are examples.
Nonlinear stories are told out of chronological order, broken into segments or chapters. This allows the author to keep key pieces of information from the audience, regardless of when the protagonist learned them. The disadvantage is audiences still need to understand the order of events. One solution is to use memorable events as background for each chapter or segment; events like weddings, festivals, intense storms, or unique celestial events like a full moon, eclipse, or meteor shower.
Another option is to use documents within the story; articles, journals, anything with a date.
The 3 Act Structure
One of the more well-known and detailed plot structures is the three acts; sometimes expanded to five acts using a prologue and epilogue.
In the prologue/Act 1 the characters are introduced and the status quo established. Something begins to disrupt the status quo. The protagonist debates whether or not to intervene, and then decides to engage the conflict.
In Act 2 the protagonist participates in a series of challenges and conflicts. Both the protagonist and the opposition develop questions and look for answers, evolving their understanding of the situation. At the end of Act 2 something amplifies the conflict, setting the stage for the climax.
In Act 3 the protagonist and opposition meet and engage in some form of confrontation to definitively settle the conflict. The protagonist succeeds, restoring order, or falters and fails.
Many writers like the three act structure because it scales very well, from an epic novel to a single scene. Shakespeare’s plays are some of the most common examples, but there are many others. Try applying the three act structure to a novel or movie.
Tools like these can help a writer to better understand why a story works, and how the individual scenes build on each other. Many writers don’t set out with a specific structure in mind, but a familiarity with these patterns often subconsciously guides a writer as they create their story.