The difference between a tale and a story is that a tale is just a linear step by step progression through plot events and character growth in which the next step can be anything at all, as long it makes logical sense, within the logic of the tale’s “universe that you establish as an author.
But a story is more like a mosaic. As with a tale, it progresses step by step. But in a story, each dramatic moment, each next step, is like a mosaic piece. So, as the story unfolds, as each mosaic piece is laid down, a bigger picture emerges – a message or moral – the story’s meaning, and the underlying “argument” made by the author in the story’s structure to convince the reader of the author’s professed moral conclusion about the proper way to think or feel in regard to the core issue of the story (the message issue).
As an example, you can look to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in which all the events that happen are part of the effort of the ghosts (and others) to convince Scrooge that his point of view is flawed and he should learn to embrace love, and joy, to be generous toward others, and to keep Christmas in his heart. If that message were not argued, scene by scene and act by act, Christmas Carol would be a simple tale of a mean old man who comes to care about others and finds joy. But the message – the structure that compels the readers to embrace that moral and make it a cornerstone of their own life, would be missing without the complete story argument.
I assume you might like to transcend writing a simple tale or series of events and instead create a story in which all the parts eventually work together to a greater purpose. If that is the case, I can guide you to organizing your story elements in a structural way that is consistent with the timeline you have presented but simultaneously fashions that “bigger picture” that can move your readers to change their own lives.
Here’s how we begin.
The single most important dramatic in a story (that is not needed in a tale) is the “message argument” between the main character (who begins with one world view, attitude, or philosophy) and an influence character who represents the opposing moral or philosophic view. The moral argument between them runs from the beginning of the story to the climax at which the main character either sticks with his original perspective or decides to change his mind/heart and adopt the alternative view of the influence character.
To help you get a good sense of this relationship, here’s a link to a short article I wrote about these two characters that includes a video clip showing these two character as they appear in several different well-known stories.
Here’s the article with the clip, and after you view it, read on for the first step in creating structure for your story:
Now that you have seen the clip, you can easily recognize the main character who begins with one outlook, and the influence character who pressures him or her to change – either by direct pressure or by influence alone.
The entire message of your story will hinge on whether or not the main character changes, and whether or not that was a good or bad choice. (Sometimes it is better not to change and to stick with our beliefs; other times it is better to abandoned our long-held beliefs, update how we see the world, and try a different tack.)
Not having a clear message issue and/or not having an influence character is the biggest source of structural failure in a story because it leaves the story without a passionate throughline and without real human meaning in the end.
So, your first step in creating a sound story structure after you have your main character is to specify your message issue and identify your influence character who has a moral or philosophical belief system in direct opposition to that of your main character.
Melanie Anne Phillips
Learn more about the main and influence characters
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