Book Structure Examples: 6 Options for Plotting Your Novels
"All you need to do to write a book is write a little bit each day."
Technically, this chestnut is true… but anyone who’s actually sat down to try to write a book knows it’s a pretty outrageous oversimplification.
The first time I tried to write a novel, I was stoked. I had an idea I was certain was going to be the next number-one New York Times bestseller. So, I sat down, day after day at my kitchen table after work, tapping away at my keys and watching my story take shape.
Except… it didn’t really take shape.
Sure, I was putting words on the page each day, but what I ended up with was more of a meandering stream of consciousness than a coherent, compelling story. What was this now long-abandoned first attempt missing? You guessed it: Structure.
Let’s go over six different book structure examples you can use to create your own stories.
Does Your Book Really Need Structure?
There are roughly nine hundred and seventy-six schools of thought on the topic of novel-writing. Some writers swear by plotting their stories ahead of time, claiming that failing to plot makes it harder to build toward the ultimate conclusion of the story. Others will say that plotting a story robs them of the joy of exploration, making their story feel less organic and more forced.
I’m not here to tell you how to write your book. It’s your book and you need to write it however works best for you. God knows writing a book is hard enough without trying to follow a bunch of rules someone else thrust upon you to do it.
You may look at this list and decide none of these structure examples work for the story you’re trying to tell. However, I’ve found it can be helpful to work from a framework. Aiming for high-level beats and emotional moments can help you bring your story through a satisfying arc and help you stick the landing on your conclusion.
1. The Hero’s Journey
Let’s start with a classic: The Hero’s Journey. This structure is attributed to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Volger. When you’re following the Hero’s Journey, the book is divided into three acts, known as Departure, Initiation, and Return.
These acts are broken down further into twelve total story beats, which I’ll explain here using a classic example: Luke’s hero arc in Star Wars: A New Hope.
Ordinary World: Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on a moisture farm on the desert planet, Tattooine. He has dreams of becoming a pilot but is stuck in one place until…
Call to Adventure: Luke’s uncle gets two droids: One of whom happens to be carrying a message for Obi-Wan Kenobi from Princess Leia.
Refusal of the Call: Luke has no intention of helping Princess Leia because she is too far from home.
Meeting the Mentor: R2-D2 runs away, forcing Luke to chase after him. As a result, Luke finds Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Crossing the Threshold: The point of no return. Luke returns home to find his farm burned and his aunt and uncle dead. He has no choice but to follow Obi-Wan, leaving from the Mos Eisley spaceport.
Tests, Allies, Enemies: Luke finds allies in Han Solo and Chewbacca and runs into enemies in the form of stormtroopers.
Approach the Inmost Cave: The inmost cave is symbolic for the place of greatest danger: The Death Star, in this case.
Ordeal: Luke and Han Solo must rescue Princess Leia aboard the Death Star while Obi-Wan turns off the tractor beam. Luke succeeds in rescuing the princess, but witnesses Obi-Wan’s death.
Reward: Luke gets his original goal: He becomes a pilot for the rebellion. A one-in-a-million shot later, the Death Star is destroyed.
The Road Back: This is sometimes literal if the character actually returns home. For Luke, it’s more symbolic—returning to a world where the Death Star is no longer a threat (or so we think, at that point).
2. Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle method of structuring stories is similar to the Hero’s Journey, but with some key differences. This method takes into account the “known world,” or territory familiar to the character, and the “unknown world,” or territory unfamiliar to the character.
This method is based more on character motivations, and consists of eight beats. Let’s look at them, again through the lens of A New Hope.
Familiar Zone: Luke begins his story on Tattooine working on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm.
Character Desire: Luke wants to leave Tattooine and become a pilot.
Unfamiliar Situation: Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen are murdered and the moisture farm is destroyed.
Adapt to Unfamiliar Situation: Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan and wants to try to save Princess Leia.
Incremental Victory: Luke saves Leia after breaching the Death Star.
Pay a Heavy Price: Luke loses Obi-Wan, who is killed at the hands of Darth Vader.
Return to Familiar Situation: The situation isn’t familiar, but the desires are: Luke now pursues being a pilot, but for the rebellion instead of the Empire. He destroys the Death Star using the Force and his pilot skills.
Change: Luke is no longer the same person he was in the beginning. He is ready to begin his Jedi training.
You see, there are several important plot beats missing from this outline, but the emotional beats are present. That, to me, is one of the key differences between the Story Circle and the Hero’s Journey.
3. The Classic Plot Pyramid
This is the Freytag Plot Pyramid. We all learned this method in Middle School English class. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it’s actually robust enough to work for plotting out a full story in a way that’s helpful, but you may disagree!
This may also be a good “middle-ground” structure plotting exercise for natural Pantsers who are trying their hand at plotting for one reason or another.
Here are the beats of this classic plot structure:
Exposition: We see Luke living his life on Tattooine. He’s a moisture farmer, his uncle’s a moisture farmer, his aunt’s a moisture farmer… you get the picture.
Rising Action: Luke’s uncle gets the droids. R2-D2 runs away. We meet Obi-Wan. The farm burns down. We escape Tattooine. We get scooped up by the Death Star. We rescue Leia. Obi-Wan dies. That’s right: Basically, the whole story goes in this part here.
Climax: Luke joins the Rebel X-Wing fighters in their battle to take down the Death Star.
Falling Action: After winning the battle and destroying the Death Star, Luke and Han get medals on Yavin IV.
Resolution: Luke makes plans to find Yoda and begin his Jedi training.
4. Fichtean Curve
On its face, the Fichtean Curve is actually pretty similar to Freytag’s Pyramid. This structure, attributed to John Gardner, splits your story into the same three parts: Rising action, climax, and falling action. The difference here is that, when you’re using a Fichtean Curve, you really suss out all the episodic crises of your story from the start, creating a building sense of action and tension.
You know the drill, let’s use Luke’s journey in A New Hope as our sample.
Inciting Incident: Luke’s uncle buys two droids from the Jawas on Tattooine. Luke discovers that one of the droids has a message from Princess Leia.
First Crisis: R2-D2 runs away, forcing Luke to chase after him across the desert, deal with Sand People, and ultimately run into Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Second Crisis: Luke’s family home is destroyed and his aunt and uncle are killed.
Third Crisis: Luke and Obi-Wan hire passage out of Mos Eisley spaceport on the Millenium Falcon, but are chased by Imperial Star Destroyers.
Fourth Crisis: The Millenium Falcon is pulled in by the Death Star’s tractor beam.
Fifth Crisis: Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are trapped in the trash compactor aboard the Death Star after rescuing Leia from her cell.
Sixth Crisis: Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan.
Climax: Luke joins the Rebellion’s X-Wing fighters in their plan to take down the Death Star. Luke uses the force to hit the exact right spot and KA-BAM!
Falling Action: Medals for everyone but Chewie, Luke prepares for Jedi training with Master Yoda.
This type of structure works well if you’re looking to get right into the meat of the action with your story planning. It’s also useful to measure your story against this structure to make sure you have enough conflict during the “rising action” piece of the puzzle.
5. Seven-Point Story Structure
Next, let’s talk about the seven-point story structure. Attributed to Dan Wells, this is the first story structure I ever used when I started plotting out my novels on purpose. It has some striking similarities to the Hero’s Journey and also shares some of the emotional and character moments found in the Story Circle method, in my opinion.
What are the seven points?
Hook: If we’re looking at the story in general, our hook is the moment Leia sends the message and is captured. For Luke’s side of things, I’d argue the hook is the moment he sees the message hidden on R2-D2.
Plot Point 1: The moment of no return—the farm is burned and his aunt and uncle are dead at the hands of the Empire. Luke has no choice but to go with Obi-Wan.
Pinch Point 1: We see how dangerous our enemies are. This is when Luke and Obi-Wan escape the Mos Eisley spaceport in the Millenium Falcon under fire.
Midpoint: Everything changes when Luke sees the Death Star for the first time. They’re pulled in by the tractor beam—yikes!
Pinch Point 2: Luke, Chewie, and Han Solo save Leia, but they get stuck in the trash compactor and barely escape.
Plot Point 3: The dark moment, Obi-Wan dies on the Death Star.
Resolution: The rebels fight the Empire and destroy the Death Star. Luke gets a medal and goes off to train to be a Jedi.
6. The Snowflake Method
This method of structuring a story is radically different from any of the others on this list—it’s actually also the only one I haven’t tried yet myself. Attributed to Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is essentially a method of plotting out your story starting from a single sentence that summarizes your entire concept, then continuing to break it down and flesh it out until you have a first draft.
I won’t be able to use A New Hope as an example here, and when I describe the steps you’ll see why.
Start with a single-sentence summary of your concept.
Expand that sentence into a paragraph.
Create a one-page character summary for each major character, and a half-page summary for each minor character.
Expand your plot paragraph to four pages.
Expand your character summaries to full character charts.
Break your four-page plot summary into individual scenes.
Continue to add detail to each scene until you have a draft
This is one of those things that sounds a hell of a lot easier than it is. As a person who really struggles through first drafts, though, I have to say this method sounds fairly appealing.
This method of structuring your novel is another one that might be appealing for usual Pantsers looking to test the Plotter waters.
Putting these Book Structure Examples to Use
These six structures aren’t the only valid ways to lay out a novel. There are several recognized story structure examples I didn’t have a chance to cover in this post. Also, you may find that the story you feel called to write doesn’t fit with any of these structures.
What matters when you’re writing a novel isn’t following someone else’s rule for what a book “should be,” what matters is telling your story in the way that feels most organic to you. But hopefully understanding these structures can help you get started telling the story you want to tell.
Go forth and write!