Story Structure | The Four Families of Story Structure
Take a moment to consider all the different kinds of structural things you know ought to be in stories. For example: a protagonist, some sort of goal, a personal issue that needs to be resolved and perhaps even the type of story, such as a chase or a tale of self discovery.
If you put all those items in a list, you’d find it would be a mixed bag of all sorts of story parts without any kind of order to them. So in this segment, we’re going to provide a means of organizing all the structural elements of story into families so you can draw on them when you need them.
To begin with, there are four broad categories into which all story elements fall: Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre. These groupings are like the primary colors of story structure. By mixing them together, you can create any shade of story you like.
No doubt you are already familiar with those four terms, but we’re now going to explore how they all work together as the four key drivers of the engine of story structure. We’ll start by seeing how you can easily sort any element of structure into one of these four groups.
Characters are pretty easy to identify. In most stories, characters are all people. But in some, of course, they might be animals or an intelligent machine or even a thinking tree, an evil spirit, or even the wind.
What makes a character a character? Simply put, a character is any entity in a story that is self-motivating and exhibits human characteristics, be it animal, vegetable, mineral, or some ethereal form.
So it is pretty clear that a goal isn’t a character, a message isn’t a character, and a setting isn’t a character- UNLESS – it is used by the author as an entity that is self-motivating and exhibits human characteristics. Example? In the Spencer Tracy / Robert Wagner movie, The Mountain, the mountain itself is portrayed as the antagonist, as if it has it in for Spencer Tracy, who was almost killed by it decades ago and now must lead an expedition back up to rescue plane crash survivors.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to say about characters, and we’ll get to that in future segments. But for now, we can see how you can toss some dramatic elements into the bin marked “Characters” with a good degree of confidence.
Let’s move on then to the next family of structure elements:
In a nutshell, plot is anything that happens in a story. This can be a train wreck, a fight in a saloon, or the attempt to traverse an ocean in a hot air balloon. But it can also be the progression of events in the effort to obtain a law degree, prove a theoretical concept, change the course of history. And it can also be what is said in an argument between lovers, the struggle to overcome an inner demon, or the process of learning to “let it go,” whatever “it” is.
As you can see, plot isn’t just about events, and it isn’t only about things that unfold over time. And most important, you can also see that a lot of plot has a big impact on characters, such as in the argument, or on theme (message) such as learning to let things go.
This is a crucial point: Each of these four families – Characters, Plot, Theme, and Genre – impacts the other three. They are all connected in the web of human considerations we call story structure.
For example, an argument between characters is not a character itself, but something that happens (plot) that affects characters. And learning to let things go is also not a character (because it isn’t an entity with human qualities). It is a process (plot) that describes how a character changes over the course of the story. We call this a character arc. The arc is not a character, it is a path the character takes, which makes it part of plot.
The bottom line is that all four families affect each other and all four are intimately interconnected. And yet, if you take the time to think about it, you can sort them into the four bins by their natures, rather than what they are all tied up in.
And when you do this, you find that all elements of structure can be organized into four families that are, as mentioned earlier) like the primary colors of story structure. And, just like the primary colors, sometimes it is hard to see where blue becomes green becomes yellow, but at the very least you can say that some element of structure is on the line between blue and green – between plot and character.
So, if the wind is what a character is up against, is it just a plot element they are battling or an entity that is aware of the conflict and intentionally trying to overcome the character? The answer, of course, is that it can be either. It is your choice as an author.
You can choose to make the wind a character, as in a story in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology book where the wind is out to get a fellow who learned how to kill it. Or, you can make the wind an unthinking for of nature as in the movie, Twister. Note that at one point in Twister, the wind makes animal like sounds, just like in the movie, Backdraft, the fire makes a growling sound. The filmmakers weren’t trying to say the wind and the fire were actually characters, but to compare them to wild animals almost as if they were out to get you. But not really thinking entities.
The point is, though conceptually some story elements can be hard to classify into one of the four families, that problem disappears when you, as author, make a choice as to which bin you want them in. And when you do, your readers (or audience) will see it that way to and understand what you are trying to say.
Now as it turns out, each of these families can be subdivided into smaller families of greater detail, such as when you divide the primary color of Red into Scarlet or Crimson. And when you work down to the smallest elements of structure, you end up with something like the Periodic Table of Elements in Chemistry. And that isn’t far off. These elements are how you create the chemistry of your story.
We’ll look into that down the line. But for now, give the four families of structure elements some consideration and look for them in your own stories.
This entire 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.
Until next time, May the Muse be with you!
Melanie Anne Phillips