Elements of Fiction: Structure
Every story needs a sequence of incidents and events, consisting of a beginning, a middle, a climax, and ending – places along the way where characters can hang their hopes, frustrations, dreams, joy, etc. The plot is the skeleton that holds all the details together and pushes the story to its conclusion. The structure of the traditional story can be charted as follows:
Beginning➔ Rising action➔ Climax➔ Epiphany➔ Falling Action➔ Resolution/Dénouement
Establishing a stunning beginning is very important because the opening must involve your readers immediately. How many stories have you started to read, only to put down them down because the openings left you unengaged? Some tips for a strong beginning: as a general rule, try to avoid openings with pronouns, articles, pedestrian summary, passive verbs, and/or abstractions. Strong openings include vivid concrete language, active verbs, and/or surprising summary. Sometimes, writers choose to open with dialogue, which can be very effective.
I cringe from the heat of the night on my face. I feel as bare as open flesh. Tonight I am much older than the twenty-five years that I have lived. The night is the time I dread most in my life. Yet if I am to live, I must depend on it. (From Danticat’s Krik? Krak? )
Also consider the opening sentence in Marly Swick’s story “The Other Widow”:
In the two months since David’s sudden death, Lynne has stopped eating, started wearing nothing but black, and found herself a therapist in the Yellow Pages. (From The Summer Before the Summer of Love: Stories by Marly Swick).
From that one sentence, what do you already know about Lynne?
After a writer introduces the story, he/she builds up suspense, also called rising action, until the story reaches its climax (turning or high point).
The climax is simply a turning or high point in the plot. For the “artist” in Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” the climax occurs when the protagonist is at the prime of his career; spectators flock to his cage and admire him. The conflict comes only later when the public grows bored and rejects his art.
When the protagonist experiences an epiphany, he/she discovers something important about him/her/themself. No need to use the flash of insight method so famous in 19th and early 20th century fiction. An epiphany can whisper its message to the protagonist. For example, Lynne, in “The Other Widow,” realizes that she will never know if David, her dead lover, had ever intended to leave his wife for her; with this new knowledge, Lynn can (and does) move on with her life.
After the turning point, the action begins to wind down toward the resolution, thus falling action.
For the most part, the conflict of the story needs to be resolved (not necessarily solved – know the difference between these two words).
However, some modern writers may opt for intermediate endings, in which the main conflict is never really solved or resolved – very much like real life.
Some modern writers incorporate less traditional story structures and with some modicum of success. However, this is the exception.
In the end, readers prefer a traditional structure in their fiction because it offers a complete and definitive package.
More Elements of Fiction: