Story Structure in Humans

As I tell this story, think back over your life. We’ve all gone through hard times, some worse than others. Humor me, and if you’re struggling with story structure, you’ll at least begin to grasp it by the time you’ve read this post. That’s my hope, anyway.

Humans have structure — flesh, organs, tissue, arteries, veins, water, and muscle all have their place. No matter what race, religion, or creed, we are the same. What braces up our bodies is our skeleton — story structure.

We may look different on the outside — some have big noses, full lips, different skin and eye color — but we all started the same way…

As an egg — story idea.

Once fertilized, the egg grew in the womb, but still hadn’t fully formed yet — concept.

We evolved into a living, breathing human and entered the world — character.

We each grew to think and feel differently, have different world views, religions, heart, and soul — theme.

And we lived our lives, our story — premise.

Some people are more giving, outwardly loving. Some are more reserved. But it’s all because of how our parents raised us, or because a tragedy changed us — backstory.

So, we’ve been born and we’re growing up, maturing or have already matured. Whichever applies to that specific time in your life.

We scored a job. Perhaps married and had children. But we retained our inner demons, our flaws — Act I — 1st quartile: Set Up << which begins character arc, introduces characters, sets up FPP, foreshadows future events, etc. 

And then something happened to throw our lives out of balance. This defining moment demanded that we act. We could not hide from it. It forced us to do something — First Plot Point, at 20-25%.

After this crucial moment occurred, an antagonist force entered our lives, or it was there all along and only now revealed itself — 1st Pinch Point, at 3/8th mark or 37.5%.

We reeled, flailed, resisted, and failed — Act II — 2nd quartile: Response 

We either did something to fix the problem, or the problem worsened. All the while we kept thinking things could not get much worse. Or we believed we’d finally solved the problem. But it was a false victory or a false defeat — Midpoint, at 50%.


So, we needed to attack the problem head on, because it’s wasn’t going away — Act III — 3rd quartile: Attack << our true character changes again and we become a warrior.

We stopped our pity party because it wasn’t doing us any good. Besides, we’re stronger now than when we started this quest.

And then, the antagonist force emerged again. Only now, it was more terrifying than ever because it too had upped its game — 2nd Pinch Point, at 5/8th mark or 62.5%. Learn more about Pinch Points.

We realized we hadn’t actually solved the problem. We’d only made it worse. Or the victory was short-lived because we didn’t realize X,Y,Z was around the corner, waiting to explode. Things looked bleak. Could this situation get any worse? — All Is Lost Moment.

But how did we really feel about this? What sort of impact did it have on us? — Dark Night of the Soul.

Then something changed. Or we discovered something new that helped us see a glimmer at the end of a dark road — 2nd Plot Point, at 75%.


In fact, there was a way we could fix our lives — Act IV — 4th quartile: Resolution << this act completes character arc

The only way to defeat the antagonist was to overcome our fears, inner demons, flaws, and meet this force head on. We had to fight this battle (not be a bystander), with everything we’d learned in life thus far, about ourselves and the world around us — Climax.

After which, we lived happily ever after, or as happy as we could be in our new world. We grew as individuals, faced our fears, and had come out stronger for the effort. We’d settled into our new lives — Resolution.

Boom. The end. Obviously, we need a compelling hook first, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Could you think of a time in your life when this applied to you? Hold tight to that memory, and you’ll never forget story structure at its basic level.

“The more Shawnee digs, she ends up with more questions than answers and then add bloody body parts showing up on her doorstep, crows stalking her every move, unreachable friends, a serial killer on her heels, harrowing situations, and she’s just really not sure she’s up to the task at hand. Lines blur with truth and lies, deceptions and facts, and everything about her past will come into question. I loved everything about this book!” — Denise H, book reviewer

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

24 thoughts on “Story Structure in Humans

  1. Sue, this is a brilliant analogy! Wish I’d read this years ago.

    Once upon a time, there was a writer with excellent craft skills who created interesting characters in unusual settings. She wanted to publish a novel. She wrote book after book, submitted them to agents and editors, and received rave rejections. She won contests and scored her first agent. Didn’t work out. Setback.

    Wrote more novels. Another agent. More contest wins, more rave rejections. Close calls but no publication. Something was missing from her stories but she didn’t know what.

    The second agent fired her. At that time, her life was also full of personal strife. No matter how hard she banged her head against the wall, the wall kept winning. During the dark night of the soul, she wondered “Why write?” She nearly gave up but the compulsion to write wouldn’t let her go.

    She studied harder. Teachers like Jim Bell, Larry Brooks, and Dennis Foley kept hammering about structure. She sorta understood but not quite. Was that the missing element that kept her novels from being published?

    Finally she grasped structure and implemented the tools into a new novel. This one was different from the nine or 10 she’d written before.

    And it was published.

    After only 30 years, she achieved overnight success.

    She lived happily ever after…except for marketing, advertising, social media, Windows “updates”, computer crashes, etc.

    The End.

  2. Good thoughts, Sue. The three-act structure is like life. We are born and have a childhood, then a long adulthood (we hope) and then fade into the sunset. We have our morning, then face the day, then get ready for bed. It’s how we make sense of things. Thus, structure is what gives story legs. It gives a blob a body. It enables the sharing of our fictive dream with readers.

  3. A wonderful analogy, Sue! And one we can all relate to.

    I was more than fortunate to have been told about JSB’s Plot and Structure early on when I was writing my first novel. Without that book, I’d probably still be writing my first novel.

  4. Great post, Sue.

    Thanks for sliding in the quartiles along with the parts. They help me plan my plot better. There is just too much happening in that big bad Act II.

    Like Jim mentioned, I can see my entire life “hanging” from the skeleton of structure. PP1 – first doorway of no return – leaving the nurturing (and control) of family to go off to college and begin to see the real world (not a pretty sight). Midpoint (beginning of second quartile) establishing my own business, breaking free from organizations and groups who sought to control me. I’m still in that last half of Act II (third quartile) looking for that magic knowledge and words of wisdom (second PP) that will carry me into Act III (fourth quartile) where I will find a clear path forward to finding purpose and meaning in life for an old fart.

    Great post, great analogy, and best of all – great way to remember how to tell a story.

    Have a wonderful week!

  5. Wow, Sue! Such an insightful demonstration of story structure in this post. I’m a major story structure junkie myself–it truly made the difference in my own writing. I have five unpublished novels in my virtual writers trunk, it wasn’t until I finally put together novel six, Empowered: Agent, that things came together. That was after having read JSB’s “Plot & Structure”, “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks, and taken Kij Johnson’s two week novel writing workshop at KU in Lawrence, and practiced what I’d learned on the fifth and final unpublished novel, The Hardscrabble, a six guns and sorcery novel set in a fantasy world.

    Even though that novel didn’t work, it gave me practice for the first time at working with story structure, and that helped hugely when I finally wrote Empowered: Agent. I’d hired my friend and mentor, Mary Rosenblum, to story edit my outline for Agentand the novel’s structure benefited from that, as did the next two. books in the series. She passed away in 2018 when the small plane she was piloting crashed at a grass airstrip, but I felt her spirit with me in the writing of the final two books. I published the fifth and final novel in the series, Empowered: Hero in late May 2020 as the pandemic raged. That was the true resolution of my story in writing first series.

    My “next story” became the realization that I wanted to jump genres from fantasy to mystery, and final begin writing that library mystery I’d idly thought about for years. What started out as Death Due became A Shush Before Dying and has taken longer than I dreamed, with breaks for an urban fantasy novella about werewolves and publishing my story collection. But I’m now in Act IV of my own story of working on A Shush Before Dying and I’ll reach the resolution soon as I go through the process of beta readers and editor.

    I didn’t mean to write such a long “story” of my own–your post today truly hit home.

    Have a great day, dear friend!

    • I’m so glad it resonated with you, Dale! That’s what it’s all about, right? Once we learn story structure, we see it everywhere…in books, movies, TV, life, nature, etc. etc. etc. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. That sounds like an awful way to die. {{{hugs}}} I have no doubt her spirit was with you!

      Wishing you a fantastic day, sweet friend! xo Oh, btw, what was the name of the full moon that just past? I meant to reach out on Twitter, but it’s the last day of my editing deadline before submission.

      • Last Friday’s full moon was the Wolf Moon! Cue werewolf jokes 🙂 Got a brief glimpse here, but our skies have largely been cloudy thanks to yet another aerial river.

      • Yeah, we’ve been having trouble for the last month, Azali. Thanks for continuing to try to comment. Means a lot to us. It’s frustrating, no? Our tech guru is in the process of bringing TKZ into 2023, so we shouldn’t be having the issues for much longer.

        Thank you! I’m so glad the post resonated with you.

  6. After writing 16 stage plays, I read every screenwriting book at the library, then spent $135 at the nearest community college. The film instructor covered it all in one quarter, including the Hero’s Journey, similar to the above. He said the HJ resonates with something in us, meets our unconscious expectations of 𝑠𝑡𝑜𝑟𝑦. I imagine a grizzled storyteller of prehistoric days, his hero having apparently won, shocking the fireside audience with, “Then, suddenly . . .” and the story goes on. There is something innate about these structures. Let the story go on.

      • Thanks! I finished #25 late last year.

        Our mind is designed not only for dramatic tales, but for acting, as well. “Stockholm Syndrome” is due to our innate ability to emulate others as protective coloration. Did you ever cross your arms at a meeting and see how quickly everyone else did so?

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