Now that I've talked a bit about genre and how important it is to know what genre, and subgenre, your book falls into, I'd like to step back and look at what all genre stories have in common. What follows is a description of what I think is the most common structure for genre tales.
A Three Act Structure
The lion's share of stories can be broken into three acts.
Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter
Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfurls, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story is going to revolve around his quest. That's what a story is, after all: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.
The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure
I'll talk more about this in the next section, but The Ordinary World of the hero is relatively static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He has reached a false local optimum. He isn't happy, and he knows he's not happy, but fear prevents him from changing; the fear that if he tries to change things will get worse.
During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world, a change that will, eventually, shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.
For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's (understandably) afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.
When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairy tale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea.
Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp of fairytale creatures. Shrek accepts and, in the process, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.
The Lock In
At the end of the first act it often happens that the hero is locked into his quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if he does, there is no going back.
I've just talked about the movie Shrek. When Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest.
In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone.
I think the most obvious case of the lock in is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue bill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and will show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.
Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half
At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage.
In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies And Enemies. It is also here at around the beginning of Act Two that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of testing is also a time of Fun And Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.
The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the antagonist and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? What will be the cost? What will be the reward?
Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle, we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item, the same treasure. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. René Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars Luke discovers the Death Star.
Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but it marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the antagonist. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the Antagonist's--as well as the hero's--place in it.
After the confrontation at the midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the midpoint he will also fail at the climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the midpoint he will often win at the climax.
Regardless of whether the hero wins at the midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home (as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy) will lie in the balance.
Another important change that occurs around the midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is pushing the events, driving them, it is also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.
Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment. As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.
For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when he overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona was talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.
The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after when Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was talking against him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.
Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter
After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. As a result, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict. As a result, the hero is able to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal.
I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero understands how other people feel (he lacked empathy), or perhaps he had to release a certain way of thinking that was holding him back.
Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If this is the case, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero without any real internal conflict.)
One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.
Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes; he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One.
I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it.
But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.
In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? Tie up loose ends.
I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a structure and there are as many story structures as there are stories. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different.
The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right!
I like using story structures. Often, if I feel that something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be the bottom line.
1. Often stories have more than one main character. In these cases there is, still, often, one character whose arc is predominant. Where this isn't the case then I look at the story as really a combination of many stories that are held together by a common thread such as a person or theme.
Also, while I usually use the term "protagonist" to describe the main character of a story here the word "hero" seems more appropriate.