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A Classic Story Structure


Disciplines > Storytelling > A Classic Story Structure

1. Initial harmony | 2. Harmony disturbed | 3. Hero is found | 4. The quest | 5. The trials | 6. Harmony re-established | See also


Here is a common structure found in many stories, illustrated by examples from Tolkein's 'Lord of the Rings'.

1. Initial harmony

The initial state is one of general everyday happiness or humdrum. Nothing unusual is happening and the normality allows the reader to associate into leading characters.

The setting may be pretty much anywhere or any time, from family life in the 1950s to a military base on Mars in the 22nd century.

In Lord of the Rings, the Shire is portrayed as a happy and harmonious agrarian place, with beer and fireworks at Bilbo's birthday party.

2. Harmony disturbed

Once established, harmony is fractured in some way, creating a tension that forms the basis for the story. There are many ways that harmony can be disturbed, including:

  • An attractive other person is seen
  • A relationship is broken up
  • A crime is committed (from murder to fraud)
  • An opportunity appears
  • A natural disaster happens or is threatened
  • A war breaks out
  • A terrorist incident occurs

In the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo gives the ring to Frodo, Gandalf warns of danger and the Black Riders appear.

3. Hero is found

The disturbance of harmony leads to much machinations and fretting as people run around 'like headless chickens', seeking help from any quarter. The arrival of the hero is thus greeted with much relief.

The hero can come from a number of sources, including:

  • The police, military or other official organization
  • An outsider who mysteriously appears
  • An insider who steps up to the plate
  • The person most affected by the disturbance or some friend or relative

The hero may be a single person or it may be comprised of a group of people. In a group, all the attributes of heroism may be divided amongst various individuals.

In Lord of the Rings, although Frodo is the main hero who must complete the quest, the 'fellowship of the ring' has several other strong characters who support this ultimate goal. In common with many other heroes Frodo is not very happy to take on this role, but does so out of true courage and desire to do the 'right thing'.

4. The quest

The hero adopts or is given a quest, the goal of which is generally to restore order and harmony. This can include:

  • Restoring something that was stolen
  • Winning the heart of another
  • Rescuing those who are lost, taken or at risk
  • Capturing or vanquishing a criminal
  • Conquering an opposing force
  • Finding something new, from knowledge to artefacts

There can be multiple quests, particularly if there is a group of people involved, although there is often still only one main quest and other activities may well be steps along the way.

In Lord of the Rings the main quest was to take the ring to Mount Doom and thence defeat Sauron. Other quests by the party include rescuing Merry and Pippin and defending Helm's Deep.

5. The trials

Along the way, the hero may have to face a number of tests or trials. These form multiple episodes in the story and can be used to extend it almost infinitely. Trials include:

  • Battling with enemies
  • Enduring hardship
  • Solving puzzles
  • Finding hidden things
  • Demonstrating skill
  • Showing integrity

These may be combined, for example in a car chase, the hero may be demonstrating driving skill whilst battling with enemies in other cars, enduring the hardship of crashes and showing integrity in not harming bystanders.

Trials prove the character of the hero, as well as all others involved. It is through hardship that the strong, weak and evil are shown for what they are.

The story may be one long, exhausting stream of trials, although it these may also be separated by periods of respite.

In this period the hero is transformed, going from ordinary person to special person. This can be a metaphor for learning and growth in the reader's life.

In Lord of the Rings many characters are tried and some fail, such as Boromir (although he redeems himself in self-sacrifice). Other trials include getting through the mines of Moria, the defeat of Shelob and persuading the Rohirrim to join the quest. Respites include time with the elves in Rivendell and Lothlorien. 

6. Harmony re-established

Eventually, the problem is solved and the story comes full circle to a restored or new harmony. All outstanding tensions are resolved,

The hero is celebrated and rewarded, for example with the hand of a beautiful woman. In darker stories, the fallen are remembered.

The ending of the story may come immediately with solving with the quest. Endings may also be longer, with reparation of things wronged and a search for final harmony.

Lord of the Rings has a long ending, including the final end of the restoration of the Shire and the journey to the ship that takes heroes to the Undying Lands.

See also

Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale, Campbell's 'Hero's Journey' Monomyth

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