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What Is a Narrative Structure?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 July 2014
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In literature and film, stories generally follow a narrative structure, which is basically a framework for telling a story. The specific elements included in this framework can vary, though in most cases, the narrative structure will include the buildup, the climax, and the resolution. Often, a story will include other elements, such as the exposition, in which background information is presented in order to orient the reader or viewer; and the falling action or denouement, in which story elements begin to get wrapped up before the final resolution.

A typical narrative structure may go something like this:

  • The introduction or exposition, in which characters and setting are introduced.
  • The rising action, in which problems start to develop and the characters must face adversity.
  • The climax, in which characters confront the adversity and either overcome it or become defeated by it.
  • The falling action, in which plot details are explained and characters undergo change as a result of the climax.
  • The resolution or denouement, in which plot elements are wrapped up and the story ends.

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Not all stories will follow this narrative structure, but this is perhaps the most common structure stories will follow. Subplots may complicate the structure, and some writers may choose to tell the story out of order to place emphasis on certain events, characters, or themes. A popular practice in films, for example, is to start the story at the end, showing viewers the result of the climax. The film will then backtrack, start from the beginning, and give viewers a glimpse of how the aftermath occurred.

Another type of narrative structure that alters the way a story is told will include the use of in media res, which basically means starting in the middle. When such a story is told, the reader or viewer will find himself or herself in the middle of the action right at the beginning of the story. As the story progresses, the reader will need to piece together the events that happened before the narrative began, and what will happen from then on. Such a narrative structure can create a sense of unease in the reader, which lends itself to the development of a particular plot, theme, or tone. The writer runs a risk, however, of disorienting the reader so much that plot elements do not make sense or become less and less clear as the story progresses.

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