Story: What it is and How to Structure One


A story is a communication that expresses an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve. It follows a specific structure of seven organic steps taken with human change.

Any story requires the following three things:

  1. There must be a protagonist who will take action to achieve something.
  2. This protagonist meets with conflict that attempts to stop him from achieving his goal.
  3. When the story ends, it must mean something.

The short formula goes like this:

Story = Conflict -> Action -> Resolution

The long formula goes like this:

A story is how something happens (plot) affects someone (protagonist)
who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal (story question)
and how he/she changes (subject of story) as a result.

The character change

Hero's change = C = W x A

C = the changed person
W = weakness, both psychological and moral
A = the struggle to accomplish the basic action (the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change) in the middle of the story.

The hero’s change starts with his need and ends with the eye opening self-revelation during the final conflict. True character change involves a challenging and changing of core beliefs. This challenge/change leads to new moral action.


You start organising your structure by forming a premise: the story states in one sentence, in the simplest combination of character and plot. It should give a sense of the main character(s), the events that start the story and some sense of the outcome. Every decision you make will be based on the premise. It’s your core.

The designing principle

Designing principle = story process + original execution

The designing principle organises the story as a whole. It’s the logic underneath, the binding element between parts. Because of this, the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

How do you give a story meaning?

Give meaning by showing the effects of conflict. Develop meaning by showing the impact of conflict both physically and emotionally on the character. The audience needs to see the consequences to fully understand the weight of the conflict. Real conflict is life changing. How a person responds to a problem and how the problem changes him and or his life, conveys meaning. A proper story shows how a character is changed, the circumstances that forced the change and the reason it happened.

The story structure: the seven steps that form a change

The following seven steps are fundamental because they are basic human action. To achieve the best impact upon the audience, they must be organic, implied by the premise and linked properly.

1 Weakness and Need

At the start of the story, the protagonist has a fundamental flaw that is ruining his life, though he isn’t aware of it yet. Ideally, there is both a psychological and moral need. To create a moral need, the protagonist must be hurting at least one person (other than himself) from the start of the story. To achieve this, you can exaggerate a virtue until it becomes a weakness or identify the moral weakness and need that stems naturally from the psychological need. These needs require the protagonist to overcome something within himself.

2 Desire

Desire is the goal outside of the protagonist, which fulfils his need when achieved. A story becomes interesting the moment a desire comes into play. The need is hidden in the story, the desire is in plain view of the audience. The desire should be specific and build steadily in importance and intensity as the story moves towards the climax.

3 Opponent

A true opponent is in competition with the protagonist and wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire. The real goal is often hidden and stays hidden, but it is the very thing that ties the two together. For example, a detective story isn’t about a detective’s desire to catch the killer and the killer’s desire to get away from it. This is the surface goal. The real goal is their competition for the version of “truth” that will be known. Will a killer be caught at all? Will the right killer go to jail for the crime? Who will the public think, committed the crime?

The opponent must be necessary to the protagonist. He is the one person who can attack the protagonist‘s greatest weakness relentlessly. He must be as complex and valuable as the protagonist, and equally human. You can build a set of opponents that attack the protagonist‘s greatest weakness in different ways.

square of opposition

square of opposition american beauty

3.5 Conflict

Stories are about conflict. Happiness is dull. Life isn’t about coping with happiness, it’s about achieving happiness. The same goes for stories. Mind the golden rule: If the characters are happy for a moment, don’t dwell on it. If the characters are happy longer than that, the reader isn’t. If all is going well, the story isn’t going anywhere.

Give the readers a desire and an obstacle. You must have both, and both must be strong. The author creates the want and the obstacle, the characters should then do their job. The character’s energy and determination is what drives the story, not the author. (Read more about conflict)

Conflict = Desire / Need + Obstacle

Each scene must set your character back further, rising the tension. Things get worse and worse, until they get better.

4 Plan

This is the strategy employed by the protagonist to overcome the opponent and reach his goal. The plan organically links to both desire and to the opponent. Remember, conflict should force the character to act. This action must be a direct attack on the obstacle or a defence against it. A thought-process can also be an action.

5 Battle

The final conflict between protagonist and opponent. This battle determines the outcome, who wins and who achieves his goal.

6 Self-Revelation

The protagonist endures three revelations.

First, a revelation that forces him to make a decision and move into a new direction. It adjusts his desire and motive. The plot thickens. Between the first and second revelation, the protagonist suffers some kind of apparent defeat.

Second revelation is more explosive than the first and builds on it. A new piece of information shows him victory is still possible. His desire is now turning into obsession, along with a moral decline.

The third revelation is even more explosive than the second, while still building on the first two. If a fake-opponent features in the story, this is where he is outed. Next, the protagonist passes through a gate (while under attack) and realises he could die soon, though this only strengthens his motivation to push on. The final battle causes the protagonist to have a major revelation about who he truly is. Show (don’t tell) this insight,  through his actions.

The setup towards a revelation should have these qualities:

  • The hero hides something from himself.
  • The hero is a thoughtful person, capable of seeing the truth.
  • The self delusion hurts him in a serious way.

The moment of revelation has the following qualities:

  • It should be sudden, for maximum impact.
  • It creates a burst of emotion.
  • The information should be new to the protagonist.
  • It triggers him to take immediate new moral action.

6.5 Resolution

The golden rule: the ending is in the beginning. The beginning always starts with the dramatic conflict. This conflict puts two forces of equal strength against each other. The story doesn’t end until one of the forces prevails after an all-out battle. Many times, the ending reflects a defeat or victory but it can also be a mixture of the two. There can be partial victories, compromises, but only after an all-out struggle. The ending can never be achieved without extreme effort. (Read more about endings)

7 New Equilibrium

The fundamental and permanent change has occurred within the protagonist. The desire is gone and all returns to a new form of normal. If the hero fails to undergo change, the hero has fallen or has been destroyed.

Cowgill, L. (2008) The Art of Plotting – Add Emotion, Suspense and Depth to your Screenplay.
Cron, L. (2012) Wires for Story: the Writer’s Guide to using Brain Science to hook the Readers from the very First Sentence.
Truby, J. (2007) The Anatomy of Story