Rags to Riches Structure

Leah
4 min readAug 5, 2021

One More Post on Story Structure

Fancy woman dancing in forest

NOTE: This is part of a series on story structure. I will be collecting them all up and putting them into a book once I’m finished, as part of my Business for Breakfast series.

Fair warning: I’ve never written either a short story or a novel completely in this format. But I’ve used this format in pieces, I’ve read both short and long fiction using this form, and I have opinions about it.

The rags to riches structure is considered one of the basic Western-style plot structures. You’re probably very familiar with it from fairy tales, such as Cinderella. It could also be considered the American Dream writ large.

The basic template for a rags to riches structure starts with the main character in horrible straits. Generally, they’re impoverished both monetarily as well as in terms of social class. The main character tends to be young. Sometimes they were born into these conditions, often they had a tiny bit of a better life first, then a tragedy and they’ve been stuck ever since.

They may or may not be impoverished socially, that is, with few social resources. They may have good friends who are outside of the family unit who can help them feel better, though not for long. The friends may even be an impediment to improving their situation, always asking why the main character can’t be happy with how things are currently.

Then, there’s the call to action. In the case of Cinderella, it’s a literal call, the announcement of the ball. It might also be a set of circumstances, and the main character is forced to leave their home. Squalid though it may be, it’s still the only thing that they know. The call is too great to ignore, however, or the circumstances that force them away can’t be resisted.

At first, the main character is going to have success in the new location or circumstances. They charm the prince with their cleverness, they find the magic lamp and get their wishes, or they fall in with the right street gang and manage to rob a very rich lady on their first try. This is crucial because the main character has to believe that everything is going to be fine, regardless of how they got there.

Then, things go wrong. The success happened too quickly, and the main character…

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Leah

Leah Cutter sold her first short story back in 1997, and continues to write and sell both her fiction and non-fiction. She supports herself with her writing.