Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Narrative structure is the scaffolding on which all stories rest, giving them shape and function. The easiest way to think of narrative structure is as a story’s skeleton. Like the bones inside our bodies, structure exists to support the story’s moving parts: characters, setting, and plot. While each of these parts can vary from story to story, the structure underneath them maintains the same basic configuration.
The most basic story structure is the one everyone knows instinctively: beginning, middle, and end. We recognize this pattern because it’s an essential part of our lives. Just as we wake up, go about our days, and fall asleep, so too are we born to live and die. It’s no coincidence that this pattern shows itself again and again in the stories we share to make sense of our lives.
As the art of storytelling has progressed, our understanding of story structure has grown with it¹ . The Three-Act Structure grew out the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s belief that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. The Five-Act Structure, promoted by the Roman poet Horace and commonly associated with William Shakespeare, expands on the Three-Act Structure by breaking it into smaller parts: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Centuries later, the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell took a different approach to structure with his monomyth, a character-oriented structure that takes its cues from the basic myths that persist between cultures. His work has gone on to influence playwrights, musicians, and screenwriters, shaping discussions of structure to this day.
Although the basics of story structure have remained unchanged for some time, modern writers are still finding new ways to break down narratives into their component parts. Screenwriter Blake Snyder developed a fifteen-point ‘beat sheet’ that has been used by writers worldwide for decades; author Christopher Volger took Joseph Campbell’s seventeen-step monomyth and pared it down to a twelve-step Hero’s Journey. Television writer Dan Harmon has since expanded on Volger’s work and stripped those twelve steps down to eight with his Story Circle, demonstrating that Campbell’s initial theories can be compressed while still maintaining their integrity² .
When video games first emerged as an entertainment medium in the mid-20th century, the limitations of the current technology made stories an afterthought. It wasn’t until the 1980s that developers were able to add elements of story to their games, though those elements were still rudimentary³ . Some game stories that required more extensive explanations of their worlds relied on the paper manuals that came with the cartridges to explain the backgrounds of their narratives. Thanks to both advances in technology and the rising popularity of the medium, game writers have been given the freedom to include narratives so detailed that they can be critiqued with the same rigor as any novel or screenplay.
1 Lanouette, Jennine. A History of Three-Act Structure. Screentakes, 2013.
² Harmon, Dan. Story Structure 101. Channel 101, 2009.
³ Stone, Chris. The Evolution of Video Games as a Storytelling Medium, and the Role of Narrative in Modern Games. Gamasutra, 2019.