Alternative Structures (Part 2)

In my last post we began our survey of alternative story structures. That post covered non-linear structure, episodic structure with an arc, wheel structure, and meandering structure.

Today we’ll continue to push past the traditional story structure idea of a mountain or triangle shape to consider branching structure, spiral structure, multiple POV structure, parallell structure, and cumulative structure!

Again, you could apply these structural ideas to a traditional mountain shape, or let them create their own rhythm and energy.

Branching Structure


This structure consists of “a system of paths that extend from a few central points by splitting and adding smaller and smaller parts … Each branch usually represents a complete society in detail or a detailed stage of the same society that the hero explores” (Truby). This is a popular structure used in non-fiction books.

  • Film Examples: It’s a Wonderful Life, Nashville, Traffic.
  • Book Examples: Gulliver’s Travels (Swift), Phineus Gage: A Gruesome but True Story about Brain Science (Fleishman).

Spiral Structure Image


Spiral structure “is a path that circles inward to the center…[wherein] a character keeps returning to a single event or memory and explores it at progressively deeper levels” (Truby).

  • Film Examples: Vertigo, The Conversation, Memento.
  • Book Examples: Before I Fall (Oliver), How to Tell a True War Story (O’Brien).


This structure has multiple protagonists and provides the point-of-view (POV) of multiple characters. Variations include one character telling his/her whole story and then another character telling a different version of the story. Another popular style is alternating viewpoints (chapter-by-chapter) as the story progresses. In film, multiple POV can sometimes be accompanied by a split-screen technique.

  • Film Examples: He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not, Rules of Attraction, Sliding Doors.
  • Book Examples: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Cohn & Levithan), The Scorpio Races (Stiefvater), Jumped (Williams-Garcia), Skud (Foon), Keesha’s House (Frost), Blink & Caution (Wynne-Jones), Tangled (Mackler).

Parallel structure


(Also known as: Parallel Substitution Structure, Multiple Personality Structure)

This structure has dual or multiple storylines that mirror and reflect each other. Stories can include different protagonists or a single protagonist in different “lives.” Storylines often exist within separate time frames, dimensions, or locations. In the instance of parallel substitution structure, actual events in a protagonist’s storyline are substituted with thematic stories such as fables, religious stories, myth, or a parallel thematic scene. The reader is meant to make the thematic and causal connections through the substitution. In the case of multiple personality structure, “multiple protagonists are the same person, or different versions of the same person” (Berg). Multiple personality structure can also be considered a variant of multiple POV or branching structure.

  • Film Examples: The Fountain, Sliding Doors, Identity, Fight Club.
  • Book Examples: The Powerbook (Winterson), Habibi (Thompson), American Born Chinese (Yang), Revolution (Donnelly).



This structure is most often used in picture books and songs. It builds a story through a “repetitive pattern or text structure: each page repeats the text from the previous page, adding a new line/plot element. As the details pile up, the tale builds to a climax” (Carver).

  • Book Examples: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (Mills), This is the House that Jack Built (Mother Goose).

Do you know of any other alternative story structures? I’d love to hear all about them!

Up next: Designing principals and how to make decisions on what the best plot type and story structure is best for your project!

Read all the articles in this series here: Organic Architecture Series

Works Cited:
  1. Berg, Charles Ramirez. “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect.’” Film Criticism, Vol. 31, Issue 1-2, 5-57, 22 Sept 2006. Ebsco Host. Web. 6 May 2011.
  2. Carver, Renee. “Cumulative Tales Primary Lesson Plan.” Primary School. 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 31 Aug 2012.
  3. Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Story- teller. New York: Faber and Faber Inc., 2007.

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3 responses to “Alternative Structures (Part 2)”

  1. L. Marie says:

    Outstanding post! I’m following the multiple point of view structure in a novel right now. It’s very, very challenging for me. I find that I have to write one person’s story on a given day, then switch to another person’s story. I can’t write more than one voice on the same day. It gts too complicated otherwise.

  2. I can’t seem to get away from multiple POV structure! I just want to see the story from everyone’s perspective!

  3. Shiakti Blanc says:

    Great post! Thanks a lot! I didn’t quite well understood the difference between the spiral and the cumulative. Could you explain a bit more?

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