This is the “Inverted C.” I learned this basic story structure about twenty years ago during a 9-month Writers Workshop at the University of Washington in Seattle. I really, truly desperately wanted to become a novelist, and I had no idea how to get started. Being a voracious reader of novels did not make me adept at writing them.
The Inverted C is very similar to the Joseph Campbell’s narrative structure that is known as the Hero’s Journey. I like the Inverted C because it is simple and flexible. However, if anybody struggles with a Quest cursed with a sagging middle, the Hero’s Journey would help to flesh out the meat of the story.
The Inverted C is perfect for beginners. Over the years, I’ve shared this in 5-10 minutes with friends who were natural writers, but didn’t know what to do when it came to structuring a story.
When it comes to the Inverted C: 1. The arc of the entire novel is to fit the curve of the Inverted C; 2. Every chapter is to be structured on the Inverted C; 3. Every character should have an inverted C storyline, even the minor players.
For the purposes of simplicity, I’ll stick with the protagonist.
Cage: This is where the Protagonist begins. The Cage could be attractive, the protagonist a Lucky Dude who has everything – beautiful and loving wife/girlfriend (or both), exciting career, beautiful home, Master of the Universe status, etc. Or the cage could be the prison of misery. A Wretched Dude has a broken spirit, broken bank, addiction, depression, despair, etc.
Escape: Enter the Intruder and the Protagonist leaves the Cage. The Intruder can be a friend or a foe. A murderer could kill the Lucky Dude’s beautiful wife/girlfriend (or both), and the character is now kicked out of his Cage of a wonderful life. Or Wretched Dude could be visited by an angel or a demon (or both) and be challenged to change, heal, grow, or perish. Thus Wretched Dude leaves his miserable life to start the Quest.
Quest: What does Protagonist want? What does Protagonist yearn for? No Longer Lucky Dude wants vengeance for his dead and beautiful wife/girlfriend (or both). So he has to find the killer, find why the killer chose him and his loved ones, figure out the best revenge for killer, and meet all kinds of characters along the way, one of whom is a Comely Lady Cop. Wretched But Wanting a Better Life Dude yearns for wholeness, healing, abundance, and redemption. Wretched Dude is in a battle against himself and his inner demons that lead him to make such bad decisions. He still meets friends and foes along the way, those who would help him grow and heal, and those who would keep him stuck, addicted, and toxic. These adventures and journeys make up the bulk of the novel story.
Dragons: The moment of truth. Challenges/confrontations lead to the Crucial Choice. Not Lucky Dude finds the killer of his wife/girlfriend (or both), and they battle. He has his chance to torture and kill the killer, and avenge her death (or their deaths). But he has met the Comely Lady Cop is on his tail, knowing that he is on the killer’s tail. Does he let Comely Lady Cop bring killer to justice or does he take it in his own hands? Not So Wretched Dude has conquered his addictions and is feeling renewed hope in life. He goes to a party to celebrate his acceptance into school, but there are cocaine and a Hooker there. The Hooker’s Pimp is a dealer and it is her job to get Not So Wretched Dude back into his addictions. She pressures him to snort and swallow. Wretched Dude feels an uprising of his self-loathing and takes that silver straw to snort. But then he thinks of all he could have ahead of him. Does he give in to habit and the temptation of his weaknesses, or does he choose redemption and the unknown of a sweeter life?
Home: The destination at the end of the Quest. Back to the original Cage, on to an open wide Vista, or descending into a deeper and darker Cage. Has the protagonist changed? Or did the protagonist remain the same. What did the protagonist learn? Did the protagonist find liberation or did the protagonist die? Home can be anything from a happy ending to the abyss of despair to emptiness. Lucky Dude could become Transcendent Dude if he forgives killer enough and chooses a second chance at joy and love with Comely Lady Cop. Or Lucky Dude could become Convict Dude in the Cage of prison by killing killer and getting caught by Comely Lady Cop who lives by her Cop-ly duties even with a man she’s fallen in love with. Wretched Dude could become Healer Dude if he says no to cocaine and the Hooker, goes on to school, and becomes a therapist. Or Wretched Dude could become Homeless Dude because he succumbs, and goes down the spiral until he loses absolutely everything.
If every chapter and every character has the story curved on an Inverted C, and you’re golden. This works for short stories, novellas, plays, screenplays, novels, and it would probably work well with poems too. This is a structure, not a formula. And it is ancient. Myths and fairy tales are structured along the Inverted C. Even Pulp Fiction was told along the Inverted C. Every character in that crazy movie had an Inverted C storyline that was spliced up and rearranged.
Hope this helps. Thank you for reading and happy writing!