Welcome to our new series that explores the elements of story structure and describes how they work together to form a framework for your story.
We begin with a fundamental question:
Does Story Structure Exist?
It might seem a silly question on its face, but dig a little deeper and it is worthy of an answer – especially if you want to justify putting time into studying it!
Some folks feel stories are so organic and fluid that they can’t possibly described by a fixed and restrictive structure.
Other folks note that the same elements and forms keep showing up such as protagonist, goal, and acts, and figure there must be some Great Wheel that drives a story forward.
Over the years theorists like Joseph Campbell championed the concept of the mythic Hero and his relationships with other archetypes who helped or hindered him along the way (based on archetypes of the Collective Unconscious originally outlined by Jung).
Other theorists, such as Chris Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey, adapted and extended Campbell into a practical guide for story development.
Many have found these perspectives useful forming and refining stories, but many others have found them limiting and incomplete. Still, the bottom line is that most writers sense there is some underlying mechanism that gives stories their spines, but they also tend to feel that the truth of it is foggy at best and obscure at worst.
And that is where we will leave things (until next time) with this conclusion: Story structure probably exists, but no one has ever gotten a really good look at it nor laid out a complete explanation for it much less a practical guide for employing it.
In our next installment, we’ll take our first step into a new way of looking at story structure that incorporates but also transcends the other theories mentioned here so far.
Step 1 | Introducing a new approach to story development
For most authors, the hardest part of writing is the raw invention needed to come up with an intriguing plot, compelling characters, a meaningful theme, and an involving genre. Once you have that all worked out, the actual writing is the fun part.
In this weekly series we’ll be using a new approach to story development called StoryWeaver. StoryWeaver is so named because it employs a technique for drawing story threads from your original concept much as a weaver might draw threads from wool. Step by step you grow and clarify your story as you twist your threads into yarn, spin that yarn, and eventually weave it into the tapestry of your story.
There are four stages in StoryWeaver’s story creation path, and you can see them as the top-level categories in the navigation menu to the right (or just below this text on smaller screens). They are:
The Inspiration Stage helps you draw new story threads for your plot, characters, theme and genre from your original concept. The Development Stage twists those threads to deepen and expand your ideas into greater detail. The Exposition Stage helps you spin your ideas together into a full bodied yarn. The Storytelling Stage weaves everything that happens in your story as it unfolds over time.
By the end of the path, you’ll have a completed story, fully developed and expertly told.
Step two will be coming next week but you can keep going right now with the interactive online StoryWeaver App. Check out the 14 day free trial at Storymind.com/free-trial.htm
Welcome to StoryWeaver – your step by step path to a completed novel, screenplay, or other narrative manuscript.
StoryWeaver is so named because it employs a technique for drawing story threads from your original concept much as a weaver might draw thread from wool. Step by step you grow and clarify your story as you twist the threads into a yarn, spin that yarn, and eventually weave it into the tapestry of your story.
Whether you already have a story you wish to improve or are just starting out with no more than a concept, StoryWeaver will help you grow your story, adding power to your plot, passion to your characters, humanity to your theme and richness to your genre.
StoryWeaver isn’t a web site, an organizational tool, or a series of fill-in-the-blank questions, but a sophisticated story development program. It runs on our servers and is accessed through your web browser, so you can use it on any internet connected device. As you work with your story, you can move seamlessly from laptop, to tablet, to smart phone, and from Windows to Mac, iOS, Android, or Chrome so you can follow your Muse wherever she leads.
NEXT WEEK’S STEP: Overview of the StoryWeaver Process
Although you have a clear plot that you have created from the position of author, it is going to look quite different to each of your characters, depending on their particular situation and tempered by where they are coming from and how they see the world in general.
Now your characters aren’t going to be thinking about the plot the way you do. They can’t even see that there is a plot. Rather, they see their situation and have attitudes and feelings about it – some modest and some passionate.
They do their best to understand what’s going on, where things are headed, what their options are, and what they might try to do to bend things more in a favorable direction for themselves and/or those they care about.
Your story will become much more involving if you can convey all your characters’ different perspectives, including information about why they feel that way, what they want, what they don’t don’t, and even how they feel about each other.
This information can be doled out over the course of your story – a little bit each chapter or act. In this way, an air of mystery envelopes each character and your readers or audience are drawn eagerly forward to learn more about these people that they are becoming attached to.
To begin this process, review what you have developed about your characters and your plot. Now stand the shoes of each of them in turn and write a first person description of how they see themselves and their situation, perhaps telling us about their hopes and dreams, but most of all, let them tell you about their place in the story and what it looks like to them, in their own words and through their own voice, mannerisms, and attitudes.
Here’s a couple of examples from a sample story of mine – a comedy about 105 year old man who was just elected sheriff in an old western town besieged by a gang of cutthroats:
James Vestibule – The New Sheriff
You’d think at 105 I’d be entitled to some peace. But NO! I was born in 1765 when there was no US of A and served in the Revolutionary War. Fought in the War Of 1812 too, and met my good friend Francis Scott Key. In fact, it feels like it was one war on the heels of another. First as a soldier, then as an instructor, and finally as an informal adviser in the war between the states. Too much experience for them to let me be, I suppose.
I had always reveled in the patriotism and glory, but this last conflict left me sour – brother against brother – father against son against grandson (oh, my dear beloved Jonathan). And I think it was that – the loss of Jonathan – that tore me and my wife Amoire asunder. My son, Jacob, had sided with the Rebels, and and he was a hard man, even cruel at times. His son Jonathan joined up with the Union. One day Johnathan came home on leave to visit us on our family farm in Kentucky, not knowing Jacob was already there. Jacob just saw the uniform and shot him dead. Once he saw it was his son, he turned the gun on himself and we lost both of them that day.
Amoire and I were cut with such grief we couldn’t even talk, and in short order we divorced. I left her to go out west and try to find some peace in my remaining years. But no sooner do I get here but they thrust a badge at me for the honorary position of sheriff (due to my military experience) and now I have to attend meetings, sit in that rat hole of an office from time to time, and coddle the drunks, cheats, and ne’er-do-wells. Fine life. Honestly, I was still dreaming of that ranch Amoire and I had always wanted, but under the circumstances, I guess that really is just a dream…
NOTES: Okay – this has clearly taken a more dramatic turn than I intended in a comedy. Can I use it? Don’t know yet. Sometimes a good dramatic foundation can enrich a comic character by giving it more depth than simple superficial laughs. You can be sardonic, cerebral, philosophic, and ironic. And in the end, you can make their dreams come true, adding a feel-good experience and a sense of relief to what would just have been a simple comedy if the dramatic depth had not been plumbed.
One thing is sure. This character inspires me.
Let’s try the same thing with a really minor character in my story and see what happens:
Nancy Lacy – Blacksmith
They made fun of me as a child. Mancy Nancy they called me on account of my size. And then I’d bash ’em in the face and they wouldn’t call me that no more. But truth be told, there’s a big difference between how you look and how you feel. You think I dreamed of a life as a blacksmith? Well, you’d be right. I did. I just love bending metal to my will. I love bending anything to my will. But don’t let that fool ya… I only do that to make my life genteel. I have iron daisies over my mantle, just above the 12-gauge.
I pretty much keep to myself, aside from clients – ‘cept for that new sheriff. He’s just so sweet. He sees beyond my looks and can tell that beneath it all, I have a heart of steel.
NOTES – Okay, a potentially comic character here. She needs more development and I can probably write some good material standing in her shoes. But, she doesn’t strike me as having the potential to be a major character at all. Nonetheless, I can see calling on her in the plot from time to time, and even perhaps a touching comic scene when she quenches a blade with her tears.
And that is why this exercise of having each character write about their situation in your story in their own words in first person is so important.
The whole point is to get to know how your characters see themselves, their lives, their role in the story and even how they see each other. Your story will be the richer for it.
Write down your stories. Each of us has a life experience no other human being will ever have. If we sift through that to find the nugget moments, we can share unique and wonderful perspectives.
Maybe each contribution to the flow is just a drop in the ocean (like this note itself), but I like to believe that the right insight will find the right person at the right time, like a message in a bottle.
If you discover something of personal value and choose not to share, perhaps that message that was meant for that person at just that point in their lives won’t be there when they get there, leaving a vacuum that nothing else will ever fill.
So don’t hold back. You may never see the result of your contribution but, as an artist, that is neither necessary nor does it diminish the power of your work.
The Antagonist and the Influence Character do two different things, but both of those jobs can be given to the same person in your story.
The Antagonist fights against the Protagonist over the goal; The Influence Character fights against the Main Character’s morals or philosophy.
When the Antagonist and Influence Character jobs are done by the same person, the story tends toward melodrama because both the plot and message are anchored in the same place, muddying the waters so that it is hard for your readers/audience to follow the plot and/or understand your message.
Similarly, the Protagonist and Main Character have two different jobs. The Protagonist tries to achieve the goal and the Main Character tries to solve the moral or philosophical issue that is causing them disquiet, angst, or difficulties with others.
Full-on melodrama occurs when the Protagonist is also the Main Character AND the Antagonist is also the Influence Character. Then, both the plot line and the message line are completely on top of each other, and the points you are trying to make are all mixed up with each other, losing the details and creating a much more “primary color” story than one of depth and shading.
Most often, those two parallel story lines, the plot line and the message line, are pried apart at one end to separate them, creating a Dramatica Triangle. So, the Antagonist is one person and the Influence Character is another. But, the Protagonist and Main Character jobs are still done by the same person. This creates the typical Hero at the anchor point who is trying to defeat the Protagonist in the plot and also prevail against the Influence Characters in the message.
In Dramatic Triangle stories, the Antagonist is often the Bad Guy or Villain, and the Influence Character is often the Love Interest, or someone the Hero loves, as in a child or someone he wishes to protect. The Antagonist tries to stop the Hero and the Influence Character tries to argue for, or represents value standards in conflict with the Hero.
In the end, the Hero must choose to stick with his values or adopt those of the Influence Character, and how the Hero chooses (often in a leap of faith) determines whether the goal will be achieved or not.
And to make matters even more dramatically tense, you can have the Antagonist put the Influence Character in danger and arrange a dilemma for the Hero so can only save his Love Interest if he violates the Love Interest’s value standards, thereby losing their love, or he can hold to the Influence Character’s value standards and lose the one he loves. The message is, which is the right choice? And the proof often comes with a surprise boon of success if the Hero chooses properly, or with a surprise failure or cost if the Her chooses improperly.
Famous Influence Characters are the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Obi Wan Kenobi In the original Star Wars movie, and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, who pressures Clarice Starling to let go of her angst and ultimately asks her over the phone, “Tell me , Clarice… Are the lambs still screaming?” Clarice, the Hero, chooses not to give up her angst and still suffers for it into the future. But, on the plus side, it is that angst that drives her, which helps her solve crimes and protect others, so it is a good choice for her good works, but a horrible choice for her own peace of mind.
Finally, sometimes the plot and message lines are completely split, as in To Kill A Mockingbird. In this story, the Protagonist is Atticus, the lawyer in a small southern town in the 1930s trying to get a fair trial for a black man accused of raping a white girl. The Antagonist is the girl’s father, who wants the man lynched.
But the Main Character is Scout, Atticus’ daughter, and the Influence Character is Boo Radley who she has always presumed to be a dangerous child-killer, buying into the town rumors. Turns out Boo is simple-minded but good hearted and has been protecting Scout all along.
When the father of the girl tries to endanger Scout, Boo stops it and saves her. And scout comes to realize that she was wrongly basing her feelings about Boo on hearsay.
This makes the story’s message point. That any of us, even a child, can buy into prejudice, and it doesn’t have to fall along race lines.
So, in this case, it was important to separate the plot line to run in parallel to the message line, rather than anchoring them together in a Dramatic Triangle, in order for the point to be made.
Every writer knows a story needs a protagonist and an antagonist who battle over the goal, but equally important are the main and influence characters who battle over the message.
Typically, writers recognize that their plot would have no tension if they only had a protagonist trying achieve something. Without an antagonist working against the protagonist, there would be little tension in a story – just obstacles to overcome.
But when it comes to the main character who represents a way of looking at the world, such as Scrooge or Hamlet, writers often don’t consider that without a character representing the opposing point of view, the message is just a moral statement lacking the power to convince.
For example, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s world view is challenged by the ghosts (including Marley) so that the message that we must open our hearts to our fellow human beings is not just stated, but argued scene by scene and “proven” by the outcome at the end.
Hamlet seeks revenge and sets all kinds of conditions on obtaining it, such as when he cannot kill his father’s murderer because the kind is praying and might go to heaven. In the final battle, he fails to change and also fails to achieve revenge.
As you can see, the outcome of the plot is hinged to the personal or moral decision made by the main character as when Luke Skywalker (in Episode IV) finally comes to trust in his own inner voice (the Force), and shuts off the targeting computer. The message is that only by trusting in ourselves can we achieve our goals. Simple, but effective. Imagine how less involving it might have felt if that scene were removed where the spirit of Obi Wan tells Luke to trust in the Force. What if Luke just used the computer like everyone else? Then was he just lucky to win or just more skilled? Sure he achieves the goal, but where is the sense of personal fulfillment as when Scrooge changes to embrace compassion?
Some stories focus on the plot, like Star Wars, and others focus on the message, like A Christmas Carol. But if Star Wars had no message at all, or A Christmas Carol had no plot to carry the message forward, each would lose something essential that contributes greatly to their importance and staying power with each and every reader/audience member.
But we are here to discuss the Influence Character. Actually, just to introduce the concept for now. You can find all kinds of articles about that character just by searching on this blog.
So in the simplest sense, the Influence character has an opposing world view, philosophy, or moral outlook to that of the main character at the start of a story. These views are clearly delineated so the readers or audience understand the issue at the heart of the story’s passion.
The main character is defined by embracing one of these views and the influence character is defined by the other. The plot promotes the author’s opinion as to the best way to solve a logistic problem, and the theme promotes the author’s opinion as to the best way to solve a passionate problem.
Sometimes both of these lines are closely intertwined so that the protagonist is also the main character and the antagonist is also the influence character. This often results in melodrama since he entire story is reduced to all the good traits in one character and all the bad ones in another.
One solution to this is to have one character anchor both stories, such as in Star Wars where Luke is both protagonist and main character, but have the plot battle with the antagonist and the message battle with a separate influence character. In Star Wars, it is Obi Wan who provides the moral influence to Luke to let go and embrace his inner Force, even while Luke must battle the empire (Darth, Gran Mof Tarkin, Stormtroopers and all) in the plot.
This creates a classic “Dramatica Triangle” in which both logistic and passionate forces converge on one character, but each line is separate so that each can be explored individually. This is often done with a love interest that has a philosophy or moral view opposite to that of their lover, the protagonist/main character. The love interest is the influence character, and the protagonist battles the antagonist in the plot.
This often leads to an opportunity when the antagonist holds the love interest in danger, and the protagonist / main character must, due to circumstances, go against the love interest’s moral view in order to save them. This really puts the p/mc on the spot since they really are making a choice between losing the life of the love interest or losing their love – a classic dilemma requiring a leap of faith. And then, as an author, you can have them go with the morality or go against the morality, and as a result of their choice succeed or fail in the goal. The choice is really up to you as to the meaning you want your story to have.
Other times, the split between plot and theme is into two completely separate lines, such as in To Kill A Mockingbird where the plot is all about the protagonist a lawyer trying to get a fair trial for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small 1930s southern town, and the antagonist, the father of the rape victim, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial. But the theme is all about the lawyer’s young daughter and here unwitting prejudice against a mentally challenged neighborhood man she has never met. He turns out to be her protector, and through his actions, convinces her (just as the ghosts convince Scrooge) that she was wrong to pre-judge him. Two message of prejudice – one of fighting against it, and one a word of caution to look for it within ourselves.
Well, I could go on and on, and in fact I have in many articles over the years on the same topic that you can find just by searching on this blog.
But the concluding point is that if you are only writing with a protagonist and antagonist and have the protagonist grappling with some personal issue, you are missing the push-back on that issue that could be provided by an influence character. If you add one to your story, your message will be far more powerful, and your outcome will be far more satisfying.
Characters have two jobs. One, they must respond as real people so we can identify with them. Two, they must function as part of your plot to they contribute to the message.
Characters who don’t ring true drop your readers (or audience) out of their involvement with your story.
Characters who don’t have a plot function seem pointless and can disrupt the flow of your story.
That being said, there is no need to develop the personality of a character who is simply a vehicle of exposition to provide some necessary information to your readers.
Similarly, characters can provide color and passion to a story, even if they have no impact on the course of events.
Think of these two approaches to character as the “play by play” and “color commentary” on a sporting event. One announcer tells you what’s happening and how it fits into the big picture. The other announcer provides interesting information about the backstory and personality of each player, helping us see them as people, and drawing our interest and involvement.
In your story storytelling, review your work from time to time to ensure your critical characters are working to advance the plot. And then take an emotional picture each character in your story verify that they have sufficient personality traits and personal information to attract your readers, hold their attention throughout the story, and lead them to identify with your characters or at the very least, identify them as a “type” they see in everyday life.
More on character types in future Beginning Writer Tips from StoryWeaver.
What a character likes and dislikes takes the curse of its larger than life stature. Whether you are writing a novel, play, screenplay, or teleplay, your characters loom in the hearts and minds of the audience. No one can relate to a loom. To humanize your characters and bring them down to size, give them preferences rather than just points of view.
You work in an office. Everyone does their job. The place runs like clockwork. Who ARE these people?! Until you know if they love football but hate sushi, you don’t really know them all. Who CARES what their functions are; more important to your readers is what do they take in their coffee, or tea, or do they not touch either but guzzle cola and pistachios.
Red. Does it do anything for them? What about wall paper patterns with thousands of little ducks? The things your characters like and don’t like set them apart from the crowd. And letting yourself go a little bit off the wall can bring forth attractions and repulsions that can suggest settings for a whole scene, sequence, or even the whole story itself.
Work yourself into the words. If you have pet likes and dislikes, this is the place to spout off about them. Assign them to your characters and you can get back at all those hated things, and express all those yearnings for the loved ones.
Follow StoryWeaver's path of 200 interactive Story Cards from concept to completion of your novel or screenplay.
Every step of the way you'll know what you need to do and get examples of how to do it, continually evovling, expanding and improving your story.
You'll develop your story's world, who's in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.