All stories follow a basic structure, and if you’ve ever watched a movie before, you’re probably familiar with most of them. Regardless, you will no doubt be familiar with the concept of the three act structure: the idea that every story is made up of a beginning, a middle and an end; a first, second, and third act. After all, such is the structure of each of our own lives; we’re born, we live and we die.
The Hero’s Journey, proposed by Joseph Campbell in his book of the same name, is perhaps the most recognisable of all story structures. Even the most subversive, unconventional stories still follow some of the same fundamentals. More recently, the Hero’s Journey has been repurposed and refocused and presented as new ideas of story structure, but each one is an echo of the last.
Structure is crucial to storytelling in all formats, but every example should be seen as a guide and not the rule. In the early stages of outlining your story, it’s important not to be directed exclusively by each step in a structure. Instead, you should let your story unravel and direct you from a beginning, through the middle, and to the end.
That being said, don’t ignore the fundamentals. Most examples of story structure include a Need or a Desire which should be identified in the protagonist. A desire is something that the protagonist wants to gain or achieve, whilst a need is something that they require to grow and develop as a person. In some cases, these two things may be at odds with each other. For example, in Shrek (2004), Shrek the ogre wants to reclaim his swamp, but what he needs is love and friendship. When your protagonist’s want and need are at odds with each other, you’ll have created a powerful conflict at the heart of your story which is going to be the driving force for the rest of your script.

Consider the use of Dan Harmon's Story Circle in Shrek (2004).

At this stage, it can be beneficial to identify other steps in the structure of your story such as the Equilibrium, this is the zone of comfort that your character is in before the Inciting Incident, which disrupts the equilibrium. Also, the Midpoint, at which point the rules of the game change, and your character is forced in a new direction. For example, in Shrek, this would be the point at which Shrek and Donkey rescue Fiona, which brings additional conflict and complexity to the already volatile relationship between the two. You may also want to consider how you break into the third act. Typically, this sees the characters at their lowest points. After all, the more our hero suffers, the more rewarding it will be to see them triumph. For some writers, an understanding of the ending is also advantageous. In which case, you will want to consider how the equilibrium is restored (return to normal) and how the character has changed (having changed). Bear in mind that, in many stories, there is no return to normal, and the character doesn’t change.
Naturally, every story is different, and every writer must find the process that works for them and their story. Story dictates structure, not the other way around. Quinten Tarantino, for example, never outlines his stories beyond the Midpoint, insisting that only by physically writing the screenplay does he get to know the characters well enough to write a suitable ending for them. On the contrary, many screenwriters will outline everything, leaving nothing left to surprise by the time they get to putting the words down on the page.
When developing your story, consider some of these fundamentals: Need and Desire, Equilibrium and Midpoint. Think about how they might shape your story, then start writing. Should you ever get stuck, there are plenty of examples of story structure to help you find the way.
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