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Classic Narrative Structure

Todorov referred to it as 'equilibrium, disequilibrium, new equilibrium.'

Syd Field called it the 'three act structure.'

Your teacher at primary school called it 'beginning, middle and end.' 

Most narratives establish a problem or mystery (Barthes' ENIGMA CODE) and solve it. This leaves audiences feeling satisfied at the end (what Aristotle called CATHARSIS.) It does not mean that narratives have to be chronological - narrative and plot are not the same, remember - but most writing tutors would say that if you want your stor to feel like it is 'going somewhere' - if you want to MOTIVATE THE ACTION - you probably want to stick to the basic structure which has served us all so well. 

Freytag's pyramid is a well-known and much-used way to organise events. 








If your story follows this pattern, there is a good chance that audiences will find it engaging and comprehensible. It worked for Shakespeare!

This is Marry Me, the 2008 winner of Australia's Tropfest short film festival. Does it follow the structure above?
(Note also; Lehman has ensured that her story can actually be told in 7 minutes. It has 2 characters (plus one minor character), one location, a short time span and one main narrative thread. Keep it simple! Start with two characters - Levi-Strauss reminds us of the need for conflict or BINARY OPPOSITION, and thatgenerally comes about as a result of two people clashing. For every character you add after that, make sure that you have a very good reason!)


While a lot of students focus too much on plot, it's obviously an extremely importan telement of storytelling. There are plots which surface again and again in literature and film; Denis Johnston, writing about the stage, argued that there were 7 or 8 (taken from here):


1. Cinderella - Unrecognised virtue at last recognised. It's the same story as the Tortoise and the Hare. Cinderella doesn't have to be a girl, nor does it even have to be a love story. What is essential is that the good is despised, but is recognised in the end, something that we all want to believe.

2. Achilles - The Fatal Flaw, that is the groundwork for practically all classical tragedy, although it can be made comedy too, as in the old standard Aldwych farce. Lennox Robinson's The Whiteheaded Boy is the Fatal Flaw In reverse.

3. Faust - The Debt that Must be Paid, the fate that catches up with all of us sooner or later. This is found in all its purity as the chase in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. And in a completely different mood, what else is the Cherry Orchard?

4. Tristan - that standard triangular plot of two women and one man, or two men and one woman. The Constant Nymph, or almost any French farce.

5. Circe - The Spider and the Fly. Othello. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, if you want to change the sex. And if you don't believe me about Othello (the real plot of which is not the triangle and only incidentally jealousy) try casting it with a good Desdemona but a poor Iago.

6. Romeo and Juliet - Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy either finds or does not find Girl: it doesn't matter which.

7. Orpheus - The Gift taken Away. This may take two forms: either the tragedy of the loss itself, as in Juno and the Paycock, or it may be about the search that follows the loss, as in Jason and the Golden Fleece.

8. The Hero Who Cannot Be Kept Down. The best example of this is that splendid play Harvey, made into a film with James Stewart.


Then, author Robert Blake added another:


9.The homeless loner. The classics are the Wandering Jew and the Flying Dutchman, or Shane, The Fugitive, the Kung Fu TV series, and several Clint Eastwood characters. Mostly the drifter rides into the sunset or walks into the fog, but Aragorn, who starts as Strider in Fellowship of the Ring, transcends the archetype and becomes king.



How many actual plots are in existence is perhaps somewhat academic, but most people would probably agree that plotlines do get recycled again and again...

Pixar famously believe that 'story is king.' It would be a good idea to at least be familiar with their 'rules' of storywriting, available below (and discussed further here.).

It helps if your script looks like a script; the discipline of thinking through the necessary structures and details tends to mean the script is tight and focused.  Use a screenplay app - like Celtx - to take care of a lot of the fiddly formatting.


Other Stuff

Propps' Theory - the character-driven, 'fairy tale' narrative

Relevant links:

Quentin Tarantino Explains his writing Process - The master Tarantino talks about where his inspiration comes from and how is his process to write a script, considering he mostly only write original stories and tends to navigate in different genres. 

Creative Spark Series: This is gold! The Academy (read, The Oscars) created. This series where they interview famous screenwriters to ask how is their creative process. I highly recommend you to take a look at it. They offer incredible insight in the creative process of the top screenwriters. 

David Magee (Life of Pi, Finding Neverland) 
Aline Brosh McKenna (Devil Wears Prada, We Bought a Zoo)
John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) 
David Seidler (The King’s Speech, Tucker: The Man and His Dream).
Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar)
Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde).
Eric Roth (Forrest Gump. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Mike White (School of Rock, Nacho Libre)
Brenda Chapman (Brave, Prince of Egypt)
Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby)
Ava DuVernay (I will Follow, Selma)  

Thanks to Erick Pessoa for links!

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