The 1 to 10 (and sometimes 8) of story structure

At Foxtrot Papa, we’ve noticed a lot of content out there claiming to be narratively driven. We’ve seen phrases like ‘The story of…’,
‘…Adventure’, and ‘A journey through…’. These promises of engaging storytelling are rarely kept as well as they could be. Which is a shame because a good story simply requires knowing the rules before you start bending them.

If you’ve been involved in writing, the creative industry, or you’ve read Joseph Campbell, you may have realised that all stories have a specific structure. A structure responsible for giving audiences that ‘satisfied’ feeling. This story structure is so pervasive because it reflects our lives as mortal beings: we’re born, we live, struggle, succeed, fail, and we’re changed by our experiences. Along the way, we meet allies, enemies, and obstacles.

The structure of all good stories looks like this:

  1. Start with a character in a normal place of comfort and ordinariness.
  2. Next, the character must need/want something.
  3. ‘The call to adventure.’ The plot presents a way for the character to potentially get what they need/want.
  4. ‘Meeting the mentor.’ The guiding figure or element in the story that helps the character get what they want.
  5. ‘Crossing the threshold.’ The part of the story in which the character enters a new world.
  6. ‘The road of trials.’ Sometimes called ‘trials, enemies and allies.’ Basically, the ‘training montage.’
  7. ‘The Supreme ordeal.’ Usually the protagonist confronts the enemy that’s preventing them from getting what they want (point number 2).
  8. The protagonist conquers their biggest enemy and gets what they want.
  9. They pay an unexpected price for getting what they want.
  10. They return to their ordinary world with new wisdom obtained during their journey.

You may be thinking you know a story that doesn’t follow this structure. If that’s the case, the story may not be very satisfying or, more likely, it’s interpreted this structure in a broader manner. Anything can be made into a compelling story using the above as a scaffold. E.g.:

  1. A new car sits in your neighbour’s driveway.
  2. But the new car has one flat tyre.
  3. A mechanic’s van drives passed your neighbour’s house.
  4. The mechanic’s van stops, reverses, and the mechanic gets out to examine your neighbour’s flat tyre.
  5. The mechanic returns to his van, opens the back, and steps into his mobile workshop. Tools and equipment surround him, he searches through various boxes, revealing countless screws, nuts and bolts.
  6. At first, the mechanic can’t find the tool he needs. He looks at his tool rack and sees an empty chalk outline where his jack should be.
  7. He spots the jack, buried beneath several heavy boxes.
  8. With great difficulty, he lifts the boxes and retrieves the jack.
  9. Lifting the boxes has injured his back. So, when he tries to use the jack to lift your neighbour’s car, he doesn’t have the strength to turn the crank. Luckily, you, who have been watching the entire time, go out and help use the jack and change the tyre.
  10. The mechanic gets back in his van and leaves, learning that his generosity encouraged others to join in his good deed, and that he should lift with his legs.

Stories haven’t really developed beyond this template because the human condition hasn’t really changed. We still strive, survive, succeed and fail. And we’re still changed and shaped by our circumstances. Even with all the advances in technology, industry, science, medicine, etc., our lives are largely unchanged since the days of ancient Greece. We’re simply pursuing our goals with more tools and more options.

Dan Harmon, the creator and show runner of NBC’s Community, simplifies the story structure like this:

  1. You
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Return
  8. Change

These elements are so fundamental to our identity as humans that they even sound like the early language of primitive homo sapiens. You want things, you try to get them, you eventually get them with some consequences, then you go back home and do it all again tomorrow.

Once you know these rules, it’s up to you to follow your curiosity and commit to something creative.

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