The Five-Point Narrative Structure
Not every writer has the same way of working. Some prefer to write by ‘the seat of their pants’ (a so-called ‘pantser’) while others are meticulous planners who prefer to map out their story before they begin (a ‘plotter’). To be fair to both methods, great writing often comes from a mixture of the two, but there is always something to be said for learning about narrative structure beforehand and getting yourself organised.
No matter which way you cut it, most novels do tend to share common rules and foundations. Therefore, somewhere along the way you will be compelled – either by unconscious self-editing during the drafting process, or the urgings of a literary agent or publisher – to impose a framework on your story. Contrary to what some may think, this is a lot easier than you might expect it to be.
One of the most popular forms of narrative structure is known as Freytag’s pyramid. Dating back to Aristotle, this ancient methodology forms the basis of dramatic structure in stage plays (and, later, even films), of which the Ancient Greeks and even Shakespeare were key exponents. However, there’s nothing to say the same rules outlined in Freytag’s analysis can’t be applied to novels either.
Put simply, Gustav Freytag argued that most stories had a ‘Five-Point Narrative Structure’ – hence why many plays are divided up into five acts. Once you examine the components of each Act, writers may well be able to plan their novels accordingly, following the ebb and flow of Freytag’s pyramid as you write your story. To assist with a basic understanding of this, here is a short run-through of each part of the Five-Point Narrative structure.
Act 1: Exposition
Consider this the reader’s introduction to your story. This is where you outline your setting, the time in which your story is set, the place in which your characters live and, most importantly, who your characters are. By devoting the first part of your story to giving background information about your characters, you will allow your reader to properly understand your story from the offset, such as introducing internal/external conflicts your protagonist has to deal with, or introducing any early stages of a rivalry with an antagonist. Act 1 ends with what’s called ‘the inciting moment’ which ultimately sets your character’s journey into motion, and without which there would be no story at all.
Act 2: Rising Action
Following ‘the inciting moment’ in Act 1, the initial conflicts you’ve already introduced will be exacerbated in some way in Act 2. As a result, the second part of your story can take many paths, but what’s clear is that there is an escalation of the challenges your character(s) face and obstacles they must surpass. There may even be secondary conflicts or other characters which enter your story at this point, engineered either to assist your character or to antagonise them, or both. Either way, Act 2 is all about building upon the ‘inciting moment’ in Act 1 and upping the ante.
Act 3: Climax
It’s easy to see Act 3 as a logical continuation of Act 2, whereupon the ‘rising action’ continues to rise for your character(s) until it reaches a ‘climax’ or a turning point by the end of the act. Writers can either choose two different eventualities for this: 1. Your story could be building to a point where things go from bad to worse for your character (in other words, a tragedy), or; 2. Everything could be coalescing to the point where things begin to improve for your protagonist (a comedy). No matter what, Act 3 should be where your character(s) have a change in fortune, either for good or ill.
Act 4: Falling Action
Depending on what’s happened to your character by this point, Act 4 should be defined by ‘falling action’ a de-escalation of the conflicts which have been bubbling over throughout the first three acts. It’s here where writers will need to start thinking about the ending of your story, perhaps by placing the final outcome in doubt at some point, or maybe by introducing plot twists, before eventually resolving the conflicts between the protagonist(s) (and the antagonists) and ending with a positive or a negative conclusion. The end of Act 4 should be where your story settles scores and it should therefore finalise itself in the most impactful way possible.
Act 5: Denouement
Clearly, despite the big dramatic moments in Acts 3-4, the final act of ‘Denouement’ is where writers will need to tie up loose ends and put the story into context. If things ended well for your character, chances are your story mirrors the formula of a comedy where the protagonist is improved as a result of the events in the novel. If things ended badly, we’re obviously looking at a tragedy. However, don’t fret about whether your story fits into neither of these categories; all that matters is providing clarity to your reader about what the point of your story was. How have things changed? What moral lessons have been learnt? In the end, these are the things that all good stories are made of.
Once you’ve learned the key elements of each Act, a savvy writer could then, in theory, divide up the desired word count of their novels by five. By imposing such word limits on each distinct part of your story while you’re writing, you’ll find this will ensure your final draft adheres closely to Freytag’s pyramid and the Five Acts can ensure your story has rigour and remains focused.
The Five-Point Narrative Structure will also help you to discover how much time you should dwell upon certain parts of your story. This is much better than rambling on too much about exposition, or blathering on about non-essential details, when what readers really want in the end is for things to change gear and your story to get started. In the end, that’s why structure is so important. Pansters be damned.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.