This first technique holds audience interest by revealing the true size of something over the course of the story until it can be seen to be either larger or smaller than it originally appeared. This makes things appear to grow or diminish as the story unfolds.
Conspiracy stories are usually good examples of increasing scope, as only the tip of the iceberg first comes to light and the full extent is ultimately much bigger. The motion picture All The President’s Men illustrates this nicely. Stories about things being less extensive than they originally appear are not unlike The Wizard Of Oz in which a seemingly huge network of power turns out to be just one man behind a curtain.
Most authors think of plot as what their story is about. And beyond that, they recognize key events and turning points in the story that are part of plot as well. That’s a good place to start, because it is how plot appears from the creative perspective as you are developing and writing your story.
But plot is quite a bit more than that. Structurally, a plot needs specific story points such as a goal, requirements that need to be met to achieve that goal, and even the price that will be paid if the goal is not met.
In this installment of our series on story structure, we’re going to reveal the key story points of plot and lay out the structural timeline as well.
By the time we’re done, you’ll have a much more refined understanding of what plot structure is, and how to manipulate it to create just the kind of story you want.
Let’s begin with the four most important plot points: Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings. All four of these work together to define what your story is about, what needs to be done, and what happens if the protagonist fails. Taken all together, these are the control knobs that adjust your plot’s dramatic tension.
Let’s investigate each of these four primary plot points:
Goal is really about as straight-forward as it seems: what the characters of your story are trying to achieve. Now, keep in mind that the protagonist is leader of the effort to achieve the goal. And, as we all know, there’s also going to be an antagonist who is working against the protagonist, either to prevent the goal from being achieved, or to achieve it for himself instead.
Without a goal, there is no clear cut destination your characters are trying to reach. So, you’ll need to describe that goal in no uncertain terms of your story will come off as unfocused and without a defined purpose. To your readers (or audience) it will seem to meander.
What kinds of things can be a goal? Just about anything: To escape from something or someone, to complete a task, to obtain something (could be a treasure, a diploma, or someone’s love), to discover something, to become a better person, to come to terms with the past. Really, almost anything can be a goal. It just needs to be something you don’t currently have, and can’t get just by snapping your fingers – you have to work for it.
Requirements describe the specific steps that must be taken or the necessary conditions that must be met for the goal to be achieved. If any step or condition is not completed, the goal will not be achieved.
Why are requirements important? Without them, your characters (and readers) have no idea what is needed to arrive at the goal. So, everything that happens seems arbitrary. And if they are ultimately successful, it comes off as if the characters just magically achieved the goal – it just happened, not because they worked to make it happen, but just because after running around in all kinds of directions, eventually the goal just plopped down in their lap for no apparent reason.
Like goals, requirements can be all kinds of things: getting the approval of all the members of the board of directors to stop an immoral project, gathering all the ingredients for the secret formula to saving the dying princess, searching the rooms in a haunted house to find an close the portal to hell, meeting the conditions necessary to prove you are worthy of someone’s love.
The key point in regard to requirements is that they be a limited set – a specific number of items or steps, well-delineated right up front, so the reader knows exactly what conditions must be met and can, therefore, track progress toward the goal.
Consequences are the bad things that will happen if the goal is not achieved. Why are consequences necessary? Because they double the motivation to achieve the goal. Without consequences, characters, just like real people, are likely at some point to say, “Hey, that goal would’ve been nice, but geesh, these requirements are just too darn hard. That goal ain’t worth it!”
But, with consequences in place, there is a price to pay if you just give up on the goal. If the goal isn’t achieved, you (and/or those you care about) will suffer. Achieving the goal not only obtains a good thing, but also prevents a bad one. And that is why your characters will push on to the end.
Forewarnings are the indicators that the consequences are gaining on you. They could be cracks in the dam that show it is getting closer to the consequence of it breaking and flooding the town if the goal of diverting the water upstream isn’t achieved or some unknown individual buying up more and more shares of stock until the consequence of him gaining control of the company prevents you from the goal of stopping an evil project.
As with requirements, forewarnings need to be clearly specified, but they don’t have to be a specific number of them. For example, how many cracks does it take before the dam breaks? With forewarnings, additional cracks, small pieces of concrete popping out, shuddering do to increasing instability, all these things can indicate the dam is getting closer to breaking, and collectively they ratchet up the motivation for the characters to push harder and faster because time and/or options are running out.
You can easily see how Goal, Requirements, Consequences, and Forewarnings work together as the master controllers of any plot’s structure.
These are the four power-drivers of the plot. However, there are many other plot points that fine tune how the dramatic tension of the Big Four is channeled through your story. But that is a subject for a future installment in our ongoing series on story structure.
This entire story structure series is referenced from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Also, you may wish to try our Dramatica Story Structure Software with the world’s only patented interactive Story Engine. The Story Engine cross-references your answers to questions about your story to generate a structure that perfectly supports your intent, free of holes or inconsistencies.
A common misconception sees genre as a fixed list of dramatic requirements or a rigid structural template from which there can be no deviation. Writers laboring under these restrictions often find themselves boxed-in creatively. They become snared in the Genre Trap, cranking out stories that are indistinguishable from a whole crop of their contemporaries
In fact, genre should be a fluid and organic entity that grows from each story individually. Such stories are surprising, notable, memorable, and involving. In this article, you’ll learn a new flexible technique for creating stories that are unique within their genres.
How We Fall Into the Genre Trap
The first step in escaping from the Genre Trap is to understand how we fall into it in the first place. Consider how wrapped up you become in the details of your story. You slave over every plot point, struggle to empathize with every one of your characters, and perhaps even grieve over the effort to instill a passionate theme.
The problem is, you become so buried in the elements of your story that you lose sight of what it feels like as a whole. So while every piece may work individually, the overall impact may be fragmented, incomplete, or inconsistent. To avoid this, we fall back on “proven” structures of successful stories in a similar genre. We cut out parts of our story that don’t fit that template, and add new sections to fill the gaps. We snip and hammer until our story follows along the dotted lines.
And lo and behold, we have fallen into the genre trap – taking our original new idea and making it just like somebody else’s old idea. Sure, the trappings are different. Our characters have different names. The big battle between good and evil takes place in a roller rink instead of a submarine. But underneath it all, the mood, timber, and feel of our story is just like the hundred others stamped out in the same genre mold.
A New Definition of Genre
Rather than thinking of your story as a structure, a template, or a genre, stand back a bit and look at your story as it appears to your reader or audience. To them, every story has a personality of its own, almost as if it were a human being. From this perspective, stories fall into personality types, just like real people.
When you meet someone for the first time, you might initially classify them as a Nerd, a Bully, a Wisecracker, a Philanthropist, or a Thinker.
These, of course, are just first impressions, and if you get the chance to spend some time with each person, you begin to discover a number of traits and quirks that set them apart from any other individual in that personality type.
Similarly, when you encounter a story for the first time, you likely classify it as a Western, a Romance, a Space Opera, or a Buddy Picture. Essentially, you see the personality of the story as a Stereotype.
At first, stories are easy to classify because you know nothing about them but the basic broad strokes. But as a story unfolds, it reveals its own unique qualities that transform it from another faceless tale in the crowd to a one-of-a-kind experience with its own identity.
At least, that is what it ought to do. But if you have fallen into the Genre Trap, you actually edit out all the elements that make your story different and add others that make it the same. All in the name of the Almighty Genre Templates.
How to Avoid the Genre Trap
Avoiding the Genre Trap is not only easy, but creatively inspiring as well! The process can begin at the very start of your story’s development (though you can apply this technique for re-writes as well).
Step One – Choosing Genres:
Make a list of all the Stereotypical Genres that have elements you might want to include in the story you are currently developing. For example, you might want to consider aspects of a Western, a Space Opera, a Romance, and a Horror Story.
Step Two – Listing Genre Elements:
List all the elements of each of these genres that intrigue you in general. For example:
Western – Brawl in the Saloon, Showdown Gunfight, Chase on Horseback, Lost Gold Mine, Desert, Indians.
Space Opera – Time Warp, Laser Battle, Exploding Planet, Alien Race, Spaceship Battle, Ancient Ruins.
Romance – Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Misunderstanding alienates Boy and Girl, Rival for Girl throws out Misinformation, Last Minute Reveal of the Truth leading to Joyful Reunion.
Horror Story – Series of Grizzly and Inventive Murders, The Evil Gradually Closes in on the Heroes, Scary Isolated Location, Massive Rainstorm with Lightning and Thunder.
(Note that some genre elements are about setting, some about action, and some about character relationships. That’s why it is so hard to say what genre is. And it is also why looking at genre, as a story’s Personality Type is so useful.
Step Three – Selecting Genre Elements:
From the lists of elements you have created, pick and choose elements from each of the genres that you might like to actually include in your story.
For example, from Western you might want Lost Gold Mine, Desert, and Indians. From Space Opera you might choose Spaceship Battle, Exploding Planet and Alien Race. Romance would offer up all the elements you had listed: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Misunderstanding alienates Boy and Girl, Rival for Girl throws our Misinformation, Last Minute Reveal of the Truth leading to Joyful Reunion. And finally, from Horror Story you might select Scary Isolated Location, Massive Rainstorm with Lightning and Thunder.
Step Four – Cross Pollinating Genres:
From this Master List of Genre Elements that you might like to include in your story, see if any of the elements from one genre have a tie-in with those from another genre.
For example, Indians from the Western and Alien Race from the Space Opera could become a race of aliens on a planet that share many of the qualities of the American Indian. And, the relationship between the boy and the girl easily becomes a Romeo and Juliet saga of a human boy colonizing the planet who falls in love with an alien girl.
Step Five – Peppering Your Story with Genre Elements:
Once you’ve chosen your elements and cross-pollinated others, you need to determine where in your story to place them. If you are stuck in a Genre Trap, there is a tendency to try and get all the genre elements working right up front so that the genre is clear to the reader/audience.
This is like trying to know everything there is to discover about a person as soon as you meet him or her. It is more like a resume than an introduction. The effect is to overload the front end of the story with more information than can be assimilated, and have nowhere left to go when the reader/audience wants to get to know the story’s personality better as the story unfolds.
So, make a timeline of the key story points in your plot. Add in any principal character moments of growth, discovery, or conflict. Now, into that timeline pepper the genre elements you have developed for your story.
For example, you might decide to end with a massive spaceship battle, or you could choose to open with one. The information about the Alien Race being like the America Indians might be right up front in the Teaser, or you could choose to reveal it in the middle of the second act as a pivotal turning point in the story.
Because genre elements are often atmospheric in nature, they can frequently be placed just about anywhere without greatly affecting the essential flow of the plot or the pace of character growth.
As you look at your timeline, you can see and control the reader’s first impressions of the story genre. And you can anticipate the ongoing mood changes in your story’s feel as additional elements in its personality are revealed, scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter.
What about Re-writes?
Not everyone wants to start a story with genre development. In fact, you might want to go through an entire draft and then determine what genre elements you’d like to add to what you already have.
The process is the same. Just list the genres that have elements you might wish to include. List the elements in each that intrigue you. Select the ones that would fit nicely into your story. Cross-Pollinate where you can. Pepper them into your existing timeline to fill gaps where the story bogs down and to reveal your story as a unique personality.
Summing Up the Sum of the Parts
Genre is part setting, part action, part character, and part story-telling style. Trying to follow a fixed template turns your story into just another clone. But by recognizing that genre is really a story’s personality type, you can make it as individual as you like. And by peppering your elements throughout your story’s timeline, you will create first impressions that will capture your reader or audience and then hold their interest as your story’s one-of-a-kind personality reveals itself
This might seem an easy question to answer because you’ve been thinking about your story quite a bit and know the essence of what you want it to be pretty well.
Yet if a friend asks you, “What’s your novel about?” it can often be difficult to give them a short answer that does justice to all you have in mind. You might start by explaining about all the key elements of your story – the character and their problems and their quests. Or, you might relate a sequential timeline of all the major things that happen, essentially telling them the plot.
At some point, their eyes begin to glaze over and you know that not only have they lost interest, but you never actually explained the core of your story so that they really know what your novel is about.
This is a symptom of a larger problem for novelists: If you can’t describe the essence of your story in a single sentence, your story really has no core.
Sure, you may have done all kinds of work, have scores of compelling ideas, and a real sense of how it is shaping up. But without identifying the central spine of your story, your tale is likely to meander around aimlessly without a central spine to give it purpose and structure.
To solve this problem, both for you and your friend, you should create a log line for your story. A log line is a short (preferably one-sentence) description of what it’s all about.
The remainder of this article will provide some examples of log lines, methods for creating your own, and a discussion of how to use it, once you’ve got it
A log line sums up the essence of what your story is about in a concise little nugget.
For example, a log line for Hamlet might read:
A prince of Denmark seeks revenge against his uncle for murdering his father and feigns insanity to buy time to plan the best method, but ultimately fails to achieve his goal.
Now clearly everything that makes Hamlet amazing is missing from the log line. But it does serve to capture the gist of what is going on and most important answers the question “What’s Hamlet about?”
For a longer example, here’s a log line for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
At Christmas time, an unhappy and miserly man has isolated himself from emotional attachments as a shield against his own childhood pain of loss and rejections, but through the intervention of three ghosts who force him to confront his past, present and future, he ultimately sees how he has victimized both himself and others, repents, seeks to make amends and rediscovers the joy of Christmas.
Though this log line meets the requirement of being a single sentence, it’s a run-on sentence. That defeats the purpose of refining your story concept until it’s sharp as a tack.
A better attempt would be:
A wealthy but stingy businessman who has become bitter due to great personal losses in his youth learns the value of giving after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas eve.
In this shorter version there’s a lot of important and meaningful material that wasn’t covered, but the longer the log line, the less focused your story concept becomes. Of course, the Log Line Police are not going to bust down your door and confiscate your keyboard if you exceed one tight sentence, but the point here is to boil down the heart of your story to its essence in the least number of words you can manage.
Now it’s your turn to write a log line. After you do, make sure it is only one sentence. And no cheating by trying to cram more information into it by writing a big long convoluted James Joyce sentence. Seriously – you’d be surprised how many writers hate leaving anything out. They hate it so much they would rather bloat their log line to the point it is unusable rather than lose a single thing, which completely defeats the purpose!
Don’t do this! The whole point of this exercise is to get your wonderful, passionate, inventive, compelling story boiled down to one dull, boring (but informative) line.
The example log line we’ll be using for the next few steps is:
“A sheriff is trying to stop a gang of cutthroats from repeatedly robbing his town.”
Sound like dozens of cliché stories you’ve read or seen before, right? Your story’s log line might seem the same way at this stage. Not to worry… As we progress through the next few steps, you’ll see this simple example expand and refine until it becomes a truly rich story world, just as yours will.
And finally, some additional information from StoryWeaver about the log line concept:
Creating a log line centers your story, provides it with an identity, and ensures that all your story development work will be guided by this beacon so your story becomes sharply focused and every element is clearly connected to the hub. It is like when a huge cloud of dust and gas condenses into a solar system and ignites into a sun around which all your story concepts orbit.
Without a log line, a story often remains just a cloud and the telling of such a story tends to meander aimlessly. Rather than forging ahead with a clear direction, it stumbles forward, tripping over its own unfocused feet and landing in the lap of your readers or audience with a dull thud as an amorphous lump with no form, no purpose, and no meaning. Now isn’t that sad, perhaps even pathetic? So let’s avoid that.
As you write your log line, think about the story notes and any initial material you may have written into the Notes and Story windows. Think about the reason you want to write this particular story in the first place, and then enter your log line in the Story Development box below.
Once you have your log line, it becomes the seed from which your story can grow with focus and purpose. In the steps that follow we’ll draw on your Notes and also develop new material to expand your log line into a full-blown story concept called a synopsis that includes all your major plot events, your principal characters, your thematic topic and message, and the elements of genre that give your story its personality.
In future steps we’ll explore how you can pull loose threads on your log line to weave a detailed synopsis that will provide a solid foundation for your novel, 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
Story Structure | How Did Structure End Up In Stories?
In previous installments of this series, we’ve looked into where story structure came from and what it really represents. In this segment we’ll explore how structure ended up in stories in the first place.
To begin, consider an old Gary Larson cartoon that showed open pasture land with a number of blobs with beaks scattered on the ground. The caption was “Boneless Chicken Ranch.”
That’s pretty much why stories have structure. Without a framework or some kind of scaffolding, stories would be no more than amorphous lumps of passionate wordplay that make no sense and hold no meaning.
We know stories are more organized than that. We can see it in characters that interact in essential but predictable ways. We can sense it when we intuitively know an act is coming to an end and a new phase of the story’s journey is about to begin. And we can feel it when a story comes to a conclusion and we find ourselves satisfied that everything is all wrapped up with no loose ends.
Story structure, then, is a pretty sophisticated enchilada, which begs the question, how did it worm its way into storytelling.
For the answer, let’s travel back in time before there were any storytellers at all – back to the beginning of communication itself.
Let’s consider a fundamental issue: how is communication even possible? Here’s why…
Scientists tell us that the first thing a baby learns is that there are things that are part of it (its fingers and toes, for example) and things that are not part of it (such as a bottle or toy). That’s a pretty big leap, actually: “Not everything I perceive is part of me.”
The next step is to recognize that one is not alone; “There are others like me who are not me.” And finally, we come to realize that we have physical attributes in common with those others – we also have eyes, hands, feet, etc.
For a baby, it cries when it is hungry or when it needs to be changed, or when it accidentally slams its arm onto the hard posts of its cradle. And then another epiphany happens: the baby makes the connection that when one of the others does something like bump their arm on the cradle, they exclaim an audible pain sound as well.
Soon the baby begins to realize that these others react the same way it does to the same stimuli (not in those words of course). And from this, the final step of connection is that if the others respond the same way to the same things, they must be having the same experience (pain in this example) as the baby experiences.
This is the fundamental human connection and the foundation of communication: You look like me and feel like me, so I can understand what is going on with you by considering what would make me act that way.
From there, it is a pretty small step for a child to understand what’s going on when an adult steps on a toy, for example, and this leads to the ability to anticipate the reactions of others by knowing how one would react oneself to the same situation.
What’s more, the child can now learn by seeing an adult or other child do something that has never happened to it before and watch how the other person responds. All these things we do in common because our brains, and therefore the seat of our minds, is the same. Where we differ are in the unique experiences we have.
Now all this happens without any intent to communicate. But what if we want to get some help from others with a problem? For example, we’re hungry and we would like someone to give us some food.
We might approach this by trying present some physical actions that we anticipate the other person would understand because if they did those actions it would have a certain meaning.
So, we rub our belly with a pained expression on our face and point plaintively at our open mouth. Most anybody on the planet is going to see that and understand we wand to eat. That’s because underneath it all we’re really all the same.
In this manner, sign language develops, and at its most basic level, it conveys meaning across cultures and time. Even complex descriptions of a journey and what was found can be transmitted and received.
For example, you point in a particular direction and use your finger to indicate walking, then walking up and down a series of hills, then being surprised by something. You reach out and start pulling small items off the thing you found, putting them in your mouth, chewing, swallowing, and rubbing your belly with a satisfied smile on your face.
It’s really just charades, and a lot of communication can be sent using nothing more than this. You can even move beyond simply reporting your condition or something you did and begin to warn folks off from things you’ve seen turn bad the same way over and over again.
For example, you discover a certain kind of berry bush and, through personal experience, have come to know that such a bush often has a bear nearby because they lover this particular kind of fruit.
So, you train your children to avoid those kinds of bushes, and tell them why – all using sign language and example, perhaps by showing them such a bush and using charades to illustrate a bear attacking, then pointing at the bush and illustrating, “No!” non-verbally.
Now we’ve moved into a new kind of communication. We are no longer trying to relate an actual event or a current condition, but are trying to convince others to act in a certain manner based on summing up our personal experience. We might do this out of compassion or altruism, or for some self-serving reason, ranging from giving folks bad directions to keep them away from something you want for yourself, or even to increase your power or hold over them, or to target an enemy.
Next, we bring language online. Now we have words for things like hills, and walking, and berries, and bears. And we also have words for complex concepts such as love, hate, jealousy, and selflessness.
And this is where stories really begin. And, honestly, they really haven’t changed all that much since then, save for being a bit more sophisticated and detailed.
But here’s the crux. When you are telling a story to manipulate people’s hearts and minds, no matter why you are doing it, you take on a burden of proof if you are to convince them to accept your point of view and adopt it as their own.
Prior to this, simply describing a series of events or a quest or journey (whether true to life or a made up fiction) only required that it made sense and felt right. Simply put, there are no holes or missteps in the logic of it and the emotional path of the people you are talking about follows a believable flow from one feeling to the next – no gaps, no unmotivated changes. This mirrors real life and your audience will think, “Sure, that could happen.”
In short, just conveying information is a simple statement that this leads to that and ends up here.
But now that you are trying to manipulate your audience by telling them they should never take a particular path or always so something particular in a given situation – well you’ve moved beyond a simple statement to a blanket statement. There will be some who say, “Well what wouldn’t happened if the fella in your story tried this” or “What if he had done that instead?”
If you are an early storyteller and your audience is right there, you can counter that rebuttal to your blanket statement by adding additional information by explaining how your character would have ended up worse off if he had done as the audience member suggested, and therefore your proposed approach is still best.
If you could counter any rebuttals that come up while you are telling the story, you’ve made your case and your audience will likely buy into it. So, if your point is strong, you’re likely to prevail in your efforts to convince your audience.
But a problem arises when the story is repeated by others who haven’t thought it through and can’t counter those rebuttals. And, if it become a ballad, or is published in written form, there’s no countering argument at all, so the blanket statement is rejected.
The solution, of course, is to include in the story all the counter-arguments necessary to counter any reasonable rebuttal. In this way, the story become pre-loaded with a complete supporting argument for the author’s point of view, rather than just a blanket statement born of experience.
Such a beast is a much more powerful kind of story and has much more impact on an audience than the unsupported blanket statement.
Problem is, how can you anticipate all the exceptions an audience might take to your story so you can incorporate counter arguments? Well it turns out, the same kinds of rebuttals keep coming up over and over again, regardless of the story.
For example, audiences want to see what happens if you try to figure things out and also what happens if you just charge on ahead driven by passion. Eventually, this leads to the creation of a couple of archetypal characters who represent these two approaches: the Reason archetype and the Emotion archetype.
You see these two characters (and a lot of other archetypes) in every single story that feels complete. And you see these characters in every day life as well. We all know someone who always tries to figure things out and someone who just follows their heart.
We all have a sense of logic and a passionate heart, but we tend to favor one over the other. So, in an audience, we’re likely to see a hole in a story if we don’t see our favored approach taken. And those are just the kinds of holes the author needs to fill if they are to have an airtight argument that their blanket statement is sound.
And so, in our characters, our plot, our theme, and our genre, storytellers began to see what dramatic elements were always necessary to include to make a sound argument to make their point.
Very gradually, these elements became the conventions of storytelling – to have a protagonist driven by a personal issue, to have a goal with specific requirements to be met and a consequence to face if they aren’t – these and scores of other items became nuts and bolts that form the framework of story structure – the scaffolding that holds the story up so it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the boneless chicken ranch.
In other installments, we’ll see how these essential dramatic items fall into families of similar traits, and can actually be accessed through something of a Periodic Table of Story Elements, providing a really clear look at story structure and a really useful way of accessing it.
This entire series is drawn from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Until next time, May the Muse be with you!
Melanie Anne Phillips
Posted inStory Structure|Comments Off on How Did Structure End Up In Stories?
Story Structure | Where Does Story Structure Come From?
In previous installments of this series, we’ve determined that stories do, in fact have structure. And, we explored how each story’s structure is something of a map that shows us how to go about solving a particular kind of problem or how to improve something our lives. This could be by achieving a goal, learning how to cope, learning a new way of looking at life, etc.
But that’s all pretty nebulous. So, if stories have structure, it has to be something more tangible. And yet, it also has to be flexible enough to account for all the different kinds of stories that have been told.
That’s a pretty tall order! And yet, here we are: with an innate sense that some sort of structure does exist, yet a frustrating inability to see it clearly, though we can almost make it out, moving around in the dark waters beneath our subject matter and storytelling style.
In this installment, we’re going to strip all that away and take a good look at the beast. And to do that, we’re going to explore where story structure comes from in the first place.
Story structure begins with us. Not surprising since stories are about people, after all. But more specifically, story structure begins with how each of us, as individuals, go about solving problems and trying to improve our lives.
When confronted by something we’d like to change or something new we’d like to attain, we look at from all sides: with our logic, how we feel about, or with a skeptical eye, for example.
We consider the issue through each of these perspectives (or filters) and see how things look. Do any of these suggest a course of action? Which ones look promising, and which ones set up a red flag: “Best to not do anything at all!”
Then, our mind takes over and collates all those assessments, “This feels right, but it makes not sense at all,” or, “I know it’s the right thing to do, but I just can’t tolerate it.”
At some point, we’ve thought about it enough, and we determine our plan for what we’re going to do and/or how we are going to respond.
That’s pretty much how problem solving works for you (at a greatly simplified level) and for your main character too!
Story structure for your main character (excluding the rest of the story) boils down to this: It shows the timeline of how your main character examines the central issue at the heart of their personal journey and then makes a decision about the best path to take.
But what about the rest of the story? What about all those other characters beside the main character – the ones who are in all kinds of relationships struggling with each other over the goal at the center of the plot? Where does that story structure come from?
Actually, the same place – just bigger.
Here’s how it works…
When people get together around a common issue (like a goal or a cause), after a while that group begins to self-organize. One person will emerge as the Voice Of Reason for the group, another as Passionate Heart, and yet another as the Resident Skeptic.
You see, when we work together to resolve something of common interest, we still use the same tools and perspectives we do as individuals. The difference is, that for ourselves we do all of those jobs like general practitioners because there’s just us to do them.
But in a group, if each individual tried to do all the jobs, it would be a mess! Everyone would be overlapping their effort, and since each one would be doing many jobs, they couldn’t devote all their time to any one job.
So socially, we understand that intuitively. And that’s why in a group, people begin to specialize. One looks at the issue solely through the eyes of Reason. Another is the Skeptic who questions everything. Both are essential perspectives to take, but by specializing, each one can devote all their time to a single perspective and go for a deep dive. They can work their way down into the details that no one person could do if they were trying to do a lot of other jobs too.
In this way, by specializing, the group can see deeper into every issue it encounters, and that serves every member of the group.
But here’s the cool thing… Because all those jobs in the group are the same ones we use as individuals, the structure of the group is nearly identical to the structure we use in our own minds. In a sense, it becomes a map of our own minds’ problem solving processes, but something external to ourselves – visible in the way the group is organized. In short, we can see the workings of our own minds in the workings of any organized group. Whoa…
Just as the structure of the main character is based on the structure of our own internal problem solving processes, the structure of the overall story is based on the structure of how a group goes about solving problems.
So you have two identical maps of the problem solving process in a story: 1. The individual trying to work out what’s best for him or her. 2. The group trying to figure what’s best for it (and all its members).
But here’s the clincher:
What’s best for an individual is not always what’s best for the group he belongs in. In other words, the needs of the one are often in conflict with the needs of the many. And the truth of the matter is, all dramatic tension is created by that conflict between what the individual wants to achieve for himself or herself and what their group’s agenda demands of them as a member of the group. Again, whoa.
Think about that. Story structure is like a wheel within a wheel. The individual is struggling to navigate their life to resolve their issues, all the why trying to negotiate their participation the the group effort.
Kinda feels like everything from A Christmas Carol to Hamlet and touches on genres from Romance to Action to Buddy Stories, Comedies, Westerns, Spy Thrillers, you name it.
And that is why story structure was so hard to see: Since stories unfold over time, everyone was looking for a timeline kind of structure. But the truth is, stories are only timelines from the perspective of the reader or audience, because that is how they are exposed to it.
From an author’s point of view, the story is a done deal. They see it complete – beginning, middle, and end all at once. An author stands outside of time and works out his or her structure as if it were a framework for the story – scaffolding that supports their message or intent.
A tweak here, and adjustment there, and the dramatic forces that represent the kinds of things we encounter in everyday life are fine-tuned to provide just the point of view the author wants the reader or audience to arrive at, once the storytelling is over and they look back at everything they experienced to understand what it meant.
Well that’s quite a journey we’ve taken here ourselves. But it led to a new way of looking at story structure that brings brings it into greater focus by seeing where it came from in the first place.
In other installments in this series we’ll talk about the specific dramatic elements and components that make up structure, and how you can use them together to create just the impact you want to have.
This entire series is drawn from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story. Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.
Until next time, May the Muse be with you!
Melanie Anne Phillips
Posted inStory Structure|Comments Off on Where Does Story Structure Come From?
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