To speak of the structure of fiction is not to imply that fiction works by formula. Rather, the language of structure helps us understand some of the ways in which fiction writers shape elements such as character and setting.
Story and Plot
"Let us define plot," wrote E. M. Forster in a famous passage of Aspects of the Novel. "We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. . . . If it is in a story we say 'and then?' If it is in a plot we ask 'why?' That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. "Forster's distinction has become a touchstone for definitions of story and plot; a story is driven by events alone, a plot by events and motivations. Writers will also use both terms more broadly, but if one seeks a narrow distinction between them, one can find it in Forster's words.
Theme and Meaning
Perhaps no literary term has caused more boring, reductive conversations about works of fiction than theme. Beverly Lawn's definition of the term in 40 Short Stories: An Anthology is typical: "One of the elements of fiction, the theme is the main idea that is explored in a story. Characters, plot, settings, point of view, and style all contribute to the theme's development." Even if such a definition works for some pieces of fiction, how can it fail to close off avenues of reading that do not correspond to the reader's idea of the overriding theme? Fortunately, Flannery O'Connor has provided an alternative way of discussing something like "theme" that preserves the possibility of multiple overlapping readings: meaning. In "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor says, "I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
"When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully."
Conflict, Climax, and Resolution
The collision of forces (characters' contradictory motivations, for instance) in a piece of fiction produces conflict. The classic narrative of a story's development is that conflict gradually increases, often with initial conflicts becoming compounded by additional ones, until the climax arrives. The climax is the point at which some event or decision turns the action of the narrative and releases the building tension. Imagine, for example, a story about two cowboys gradually getting trapped into a duel neither one wants to fight. The obvious climax of such a story would be the duel itself. The resolution completes the piece of fiction; the name "resolution" is misleading because the resolution does not need to resolve the established conflicts. It can leave them unresolved in a way that completes the narrative.
In Stephen Hero and other works, James Joyce described a way in which capturing epiphanies, or sudden manifestations of beauty and spirituality in the course of human activity, is a primary goal of art. Joyce borrowed the term from Christianity, in which it refers to the celebration in early January of the infant Jesus' presentation to the magi, but Joyce established a secular meaning that has become one of the ways to describe the change or realization that transforms the primary character or characters in fiction. Epiphanies (or realizations more generally) are common but not necessary elements of works of fiction.