Not a lot of people know this about me, but before I studied writing in college, I was an architecture major. I’ve always been interested in design and construction, even landscaping and interior decor. Starting from scratch and making a home excites me, especially when I get to make amendments to the blueprints. (That’s probably one of the reasons my husband and I have built three houses for ourselves in addition to a flip. And decorating… one of the only things that kept me sane on any of our moves was getting to decorate a new house, and we’re on home number six now, not counting apartments.) But my university, then number two in the country for studying architecture, had a stringent focus on commercial applications. That wasn’t for me. Sure, it would be sweet to have my name on a well-known building, but I wanted to make homes.
So I switched majors to my first love—writing. And I get to have my name on my stories, which is pretty cool.
But even though I switched majors, I never lost my love for architecture, design, and structure. And guess what. Many of those same construction principles apply to writing fiction.
Let’s look at a simple A-frame house—it’s got a left and a right wall, a left and a right side to the roof, and the apex of the roof itself. Without any one of those things, the house would collapse. The same is true of story.
1. Left Side = Exposition or Introduction
This is the part of the story where characters are introduced and relevant information starts to be revealed. The inciting incident is in this part.
2. Left Roof = Rising Action
This is the part of the story where conflict is revealed and the story progresses. A series of challenges and setbacks occur in this section to add interest and advance plot.
3. Apex = Climax
This is the turning point of the novel, where suspense has built and the reader is caught up in the action or surprised by the turn of events. This is the part with the most on the line for the protagonist. Everything has built to this moment.
4. Right Roof = Falling Action
These events are the results of the decisions made during the climax, and therefore occur immediately after the climax.
5. Right Side = Denouement or Resolution
This is the ultimate conclusion of the story and resolves any unaddressed conflicts that progressed throughout the tale. There should be a release of any tensions at this point, and all mysteries should be solved.
It’s not about the size or symmetry of these pieces in story, though. In fact, you can end up with some really interesting structures if you vary the lengths of the parts slightly. However, in most successful fiction, the majority of the content takes place in numbers 2 through 4.
Levels of Fiction
But maybe you don’t think in terms of building blocks. Maybe you need to see a blueprint, instead. Let’s consider the average small house. It’s got the basement, the main floor, and the attic. Three levels. Doesn’t matter which rooms are where, just that you can understand and work with the plans for each story.
Sort of like the tried-and-true three-act structure of fiction.
1. Basement = Setup
This is the foundation. Here we see who the characters are and what their lives are like, right up to the inciting incident, or the thing that happens that sets the story in motion.
2. Main Floor = Middle
Here we see most of the action of the story. It’s where all the obstacles occur that keep the protagonist away from the goal. Setbacks and victories reside here, leading to the ultimate challenge.
3. Attic = Ending
Here we see the protagonist finally reach the pinnacle of the story. He or she has fought for this goal, and win or lose, everything gets wrapped up here.
So whether you think in terms of walls and roof pitches or levels and stories, one thing is consistent—structure matters, both in construction of buildings and construction of fiction.
Structure matters in the construction of fiction. Build wisely. (click to tweet)
It really doesn’t matter how you design your story. It can be a western with weathered wood siding. A southern Civil War historical with columns and a wrap-around porch. A legal thriller Bostonian brick brownstone with a stately pediment above the door. None of that is important. What matters is that you build three sturdy floors, with solid walls and a perfectly-trussed roof. After the structure, the style and design is all up to you.
That’s why, despite a finite number of possible plots in the world, we have—and get to enjoy—an infinite number of stories. Start with a strong foundation, and you can build anything.