Stories are powerful and at times even transforming in our lives. Whether we're reading a gripping novel, listening to the yarn of a bard or seeing a dramatic portrayal on stage or screen, the narrative is an art form with multiple levels of meaning. But not all stories are the same. They develop differently depending on their particular narrative structure. Knowing something about a few of the most common forms of narrative structure will help deepen your appreciation and understanding of the stories you encounter.
The most traditional and most common narrative structure is the linear or chronological one. Such a story is organized around a series of events and key moments that have often been labeled and ordered as follows: the rising action or precipitating incident, the conflict, the obligatory moment, the climax, the resolution, and the falling action. Most children's stories and many of the classics in literature and film move through this predictable, archetypal structure.
Some writers and storytellers prefer to structure their narratives less linearly, so they are able to jump back and forth in time. If you think about scenes in films where there is a flashback, you'll get a sense for how time can be fractured or bent to alter or intensify a story. William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" is a powerful example of a fractured narrative structure in that the entire book looks at a single brief event through the eyes and voices of a half dozen characters. To pull this off, Faulkner has to move his narrative back through time as each character tells the tale as he experienced or witnessed it.
Some stories are actually stories within other stories. In Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," for example, the narrator Marlowe is on a boat out on the Thames with a handful of other seamen when he tells them the story of his trip into the heart of the Congo region. While engrossed in the Congo portion of the story, the reader might even forget that the narrator is actually finished with the Congo journey, retelling it to his fellow sailors on that boat. "The Wizard of Oz" is a similarly framed narrative. The Oz portion of the story is only occurring inside Dorothy's head; it is a dream sequence embedded within Dorothy's "home" life in Kansas.
Some tales end where they begin, with the hero or protagonist returning home after his epic journey. Homer's "Odyssey" is a prime example of this. Odysseus must leave his beloved island Ithaca and his soul mate Penelope to take what amounts to a 30-year odyssey. But ultimately, the journey ends with his return home. Joseph Campbell, one of the foremost authorities on myths and heroes' journeys, found this circular narrative to be a prominent narrative structure across cultures, religions, and time periods.