Story Structure

We are, by nature, a creative animal. We’re driven to make our mark on the world in some fashion, beyond our need to survive. Some people satisfy their creativity in the business world. Some satisfy it with music or dance. We’re going to focus on that most ancient of trades…storytelling.

Mankind has been on earth for at least 40,000 years. Somewhere, in the midst of that time, people started telling stories. It all probably originated around the campfire when we lived in caves and hunted with flint spears. Stories began as one hunter bragged about some sabertooth he killed, or a fish that got away. As people’s tastes became more sophisticated, the demands on a story grew. There needed to be more at stake, more interesting things happening, and that required technique.

We don’t know when people first started formulating story technique, but we know from recorded history that they began doing it in Ancient Greece, about 2,500 years ago. The first known plays were performed there, in honor of the god Dionysius. Stories were acted out with pantomime and dialog before a live audience. Writers quickly saw the need for improving their craft when actors started speaking their lines. Before then, stories were told by one performer who was usually the guy who made them up. Or they were written on stone tablets where only those with the skill to read could appreciate them. Now you had a whole new art form where flaws in a story became more brutally apparent. Aristotle was one of the first to write a treatise on the subject of crafting an effective tale. In “De Poetica” he laid the groundwork for the theory we now know as Story Structure.

Story Structure is the foundation upon which all stories are built. It is the framework which holds a story together. You cannot write a story without employing it. However, if you don’t understand the principles of story structure, you can easily make a mess. This is one reason why so many stories are bad. The authors didn’t effectively employ the principles of structure. It’s like that old biblical parable about the man who built his house on the sand, while another built his house on stony earth. The house built on the beach got destroyed because the foundation was laid on unstable ground. The same thing happens to a story framed with poor structure. It falls apart. The last thing any good writer wants is to spend days, months, or years on something that ends up a mess. Aside from the blow to your self esteem and the rejection of the public, it doesn’t do your career a whole lot of good.

There’s a big problem with structure however. It’s such a vast and complex subject, many people mistakenly think of it as a formula. Aristotle and some of the theorists who followed didn’t help matters by actually defining the formula, as they saw it, rather than revealing structure as a series of principles, which is what it is. Think of it as a form, rather than a formula. Structure is the form your story takes. Formula writers mistakenly follow the notion that plot twists have to occur on a certain page, characters must be introduced a precise way, etc. By dogmatically following these formulas, they end up creating predictable, by-the-numbers plots that don’t do a whole lot to satisfy the audience. You can see this kind of writing in many Hollywood action movies from the 1980s on.

Structure is a theory, like numbers theory in math or music theory in music. The theory allows us to understand and affect things the way we would like. It provides a whole spectrum of methods to get from point A to point B. You don’t have to follow any specific path to get to where you want to go. You just need to understand the general rules and apply them as you see fit.

TYPES OF STRUCTURE

There are three basic types of story structure. Classical, Minimalist, and Surreal. This essay focuses on Classical Structure which is the most popular form with Audiences. But it’s important to understand the other two so you can decide if you want to play with them.

CLASSICAL: This structure is the one most widely used in fiction, especially in film. It has proven to be the structure that creates the greatest emotional response in an audience. We have thousands of years of fiction to prove it. Classical story structure means change for the characters. They don’t come away from the story without their lives being affected in some way. All the questions in the story are answered. All emotions raised are satisfied. In Classical structure the emphasis is mainly on external conflict and causality. The Hero is proactive. The time chronology in the story is usually linear. There is a consistent reality.

Examples are: In Comics: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Espers: Undertow, Kingdom Come. In film: Star Wars, Jaws, Die Hard.

MINIMALIST: This form of deals with stories that do not affect change in the characters lives. They come away the same as when the story began. These stories usually have open endings, unresolved climaxes. Some of the questions in the story get answered, but some are left for the audience to think about. The emphasis in Minimalist Structure stories is on internal conflict. The protagonists are often reactive, rather than proactive. And there can be more than one Hero.

Examples of Minimalist stories are most of the stories found in such comics as Eightball, Optic Nerve, Peep Show, Palookaville. In film: “Naked”, “Paris, Texas”, “Tender Mercies”, “Nashville”.

SURREAL: Also known as Anti-Structure. This form deals with conflicting realities. It delves into absurdity. Reality has no meaning. There are no rules. Anything goes. And like Minimalist stories, nothing really changes. The characters are pretty much the same going in as they come out. Time is usually broken up and random. Coincidence occurs more often than causality.

Examples of this form are: In Comics: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol Stories, Flex Mentallo, many of Art Spigelman’s or Robert Crumb early stories, Cerebus: Flight. In Film: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, “Bad Timing”, “Brazil”.

“STORY”

It’s possible for a story to fall somewhere between two of these forms. No story has to be purely one form or another. Classical Structure is the most popular because that is how the Audience sees reality. People want to believe the world is somewhat ordered and things happen for a reason. We all live in linear time and reality seems fairly consistent. Classical structure tries to emulate this. It relates the story in a manner people can understand as if it was their own life unfolding before them. Even though real life is nothing like fiction.

When choosing to do a story in one of the other two forms, it’s best to start out with a classical structure before you lead your story into the other form. This way, the audience won’t be too jarred by what you’re about to do. Take a look at the fiction out there, the movies you have at home, and study their structures. It will tell you a lot about them.

STORY VS PLOT

What is a Story? This is a subject many writers disagree on. The difference between a plot and a story has been argued since Aristotle stirred things up back in Old Athens. For the record, I’m going to take the side of writers like George Bernard Shaw who said: “There are only two stories. ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’” Translation: “Boy Meets Girl” and “The Hero on a Quest”.

However, I part company with Mr. Shaw on the number of stories. I really think there is only one story. The Hero on a Quest. Because Boy Meets Girl is about one or more characters questing for an object of desire. Love. Man Vs Nature is often quoted as another basic story. But that story is about a hero questing for peace and quiet, or surviving a storm in search of better weather. When you really think about it, all stories are about characters trying to get something. Either an abstract thing like love, or a material object, like money.

The definition of “quest” is: to seek for something, or a mission to perform a goal. Therefore, we find many completely different plots all end up with the same basic story.

Examples:

Comics: BATMAN: A hero seeks to create justice in a troubled world. SUPERMAN: A man’s world is destroyed so he seeks to save the one that adopted him. SPIDERMAN: A man seeks to create justice for others after he failed to prevent the murder of his Uncle. RITCHIE RITCH: A boy who has everything tries to find the things money can’t buy, happiness, love, and friendship. SPAWN: An undead man tries to find justice in an injust world.

Movies: JURASSIC PARK: Scientists seek to survive when monsters get loose. STAR WARS: A young man seeks justice in a troubled universe. JAWS: The sheriff of a beach town goes on a mission to kill a monster. THE GODFATHER: A young man seeks to create order in a troubled world. THE WIZARD OF OZ: A young girl searches for home when she is lost. GONE WITH THE WIND: A young woman seeks love in a troubled world. CITIZEN KANE: A reporter seeks for the secret to “Rosebud” FORREST GUMP: A retarded man seeks for love in a troubled world. SCHINDLER’S LIST: A Nazi seeks to save Jews from injustice.

As you can see, in all these stories we have a character, or characters, seeking to obtain something or achieve a goal. They are all heroes on a quest. Boil down any story and you end up with this formula: A>BB

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