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The Process: Story Structure

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STORY STRUCTURE

We all know the old adage that a story needs to have a beginning, middle and end.  And that is indeed correct, even if it’s a huge oversimplification.

The truth is, there are many different approaches one can take when it comes to structuring a story. Hell, you could fill up several textbooks deconstructing and examining the narrative structures of modern Western storytelling – let alone Eastern storytelling, ancient Greek and Shakespearean storytelling, etc. – and admittedly, I have neither the time nor qualifications to really explore the subject on a level that intricate.

Having said that, there are some core elements that pretty much any type of story has – and while specific trends in storytelling may come and go, the way we structure our stories has remained rooted in similar fundamental concepts, regardless of the time or place. So, here are some things to think about when approaching story structure.

LAY OUT YOUR BASIC STORY ARC

What kind of story are you telling here? Sure, there are a lot of different stories in terms of subject matter, setting, etc. but when you boil most stories down to their basic beats, there’s far less variance than you think. The trajectory of most stories can be charted by what the main character goes through – there is almost always a “rise” or “fall” component.

Most antihero stories, for instance, tell “rise-fall” arcs. Case in point, let’s look at the majority of mafia stories: Things start out with the characters on the rise – the mob gains more power and influence as the story progresses, up until things reach their breaking point, characters turn on one another, people finally get their comeuppance, etc. – and then we’re in the “fall” part of that arc.

On the flipside, most stories about heroes usually follow the opposite trajectory – a “fall-rise” arc, where the protagonist is hindered and held back by obstacles (the “fall”), which they must learn to overcome in order to achieve their victory at the end (the “rise”) – often using tools or techniques they acquired during the “fall” part of the story (there isn’t a satisfying story if the hero simply wins as the version of themselves they were when the story began – they generally must go through some form of self-improvement first, whether it’s a physical transformation, or an emotional one – such as simply becoming more humble – in order to earn that final victory, which may also need to come at a greater cost depending on the stakes that have been established).

Once you know all the basic beats of your story, you can construct a framework around it accordingly. A well-structured story should allow time for each individual story beat to land and resonate. For instance, in a “rise-fall-rise” story, we need to actually experience some time with the character at their lowest point in order to relate and invest. If the character’s fall from grace is immediately followed by their final victory without any time to let their new status simmer with the audience, you’re gonna lose your audience. No one will care about the protagonist’s ultimate rise without any frame of reference for what they experienced during their fall. This leads us to the next point…

FIGURE OUT HOW MANY ACTS YOUR STORY HAS

The way one structures a two act story can differ significantly from how one structures a three act story, and so-on. Once you know the basic arc you’re telling – your story’s start point, end-point, and the basic beats that happen in between – you should have a good idea as to just how many acts your story has.

From there, ideally, each act should be comparable in length. If you’re writing a two-act novel, for instance, and act 1 winds up taking up twice as many pages as act 2, that’s a good sign that something’s wrong. Have you ever watched a film and felt the ending was far too rushed and unsatisfying? That’s pretty much always the result of poor story structure. (SIDE NOTE: I think it can actually be valuable to consume some poorly-regarded media from time to time – knowing what NOT to do, and actually seeing first-hand HOW those poor creative decisions can affect the finished product? That can prove to be a genuinely educational experience.)

ACCOUNT FOR YOUR STORY’S MEDIUM

There’s a reason that a lot of work is required when adapting a story to another medium – why an acclaimed novel doesn’t automatically translate to an acclaimed film, for instance. Each medium has its own rules and conventions, and this applies tenfold to story structure (particularly in this age when we’re experimenting more and more with interactive stories – the rules are being revised and rewritten every day as we veer into the unexplored territory these new formats present).

Take a serialised tv show, for instance. Every episode has to have its own beginning, middle and end (and, if you’re airing on network tv or basic cable, you have limitations as to how long each act can actually run, AND expectations as to how much story needs to unfold between each commercial break) – effectively serving as a chapter or volume in a much larger piece. You don’t just have to consider the structure of each individual episode, but how it fits into the structure of the season as a whole, and the entire series, for that matter – ensuring that the overarching narrative of the season has its beginning, middle and end happen at approximately those points in the season, the sub-plots unfold at steady rates and are given satisfying amounts of screentime, etc.

I could go on, but the point is that each medium presents its own set of challenges, and the medium you choose to tell your story in should compliment the story and vice-versa. If you’re working exclusively or predominantly in one medium, you should know that medium as intimately as possible. You want to write a book? Read as many books as you can. That’s really the best advice that I can give here. Because you can consume all the tutorials you can find, take all the classes going and study up as much as possible, but the most effective way you’re going to understand the conventions of a medium is through sheer experience (I truly believe that all great art takes influence from what came before it, and the ultimate aspiration for an artist should be to bear influence on what comes next).

OTHER TIPS

  • One reason stories can wind up poorly structured is that us writers can often get attached to our work and find it difficult to look at it through an impartial lens. You may have a clearly-plotted and well-structured arc in your head, but can the same be said of what you’ve put on paper? Try taking a break from your work then looking at it again once it’s a little less fresh in your memory, or if possible, get a second opinion from someone else (ideally a person with no attachment to the work).
  • The narrative structure of a story can often go out the window a little when one dabbles in non-linear plotting. However, the emotional structure of a story should still be as a coherent, straightforward and logical as you can possibly make it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can forgo basic storytelling rules just because you’re experimenting with non-linear storytelling; they are still vital to anchoring the emotional beats of your story and retaining your audience’s investment level.
  • I think we all have a fundamental understanding of story structure – telling stories has been a constant in every single culture. It’s ingrained in us from a young age, and most people can tell when something’s wrong with a story, even if they can’t necessarily pinpoint what it is. It could be something as simple as a genuinely solid anecdote being botched in the way its told, to a big-budget blockbuster film that put more emphasis into visual spectacle than its core narrative. When you experience a story and feel that it doesn’t quite work, take a closer examination as to why that is. It’s a great way to gain understanding of the “don’ts” when it comes to story structure.
  • Formulas exist for a reason – they’re tried and proven – and there’s absolutely no shame in sticking to what you know works. We all want our creative voices to be as unique as possible, but there are plenty of other ways to achieve that. You can still bring plenty of new things to the table without reinventing the wheel.
  • If you find yourself noticing flaws in your own story’s structure, go back to the drawing board and consider what the basic beats of your narrative are. Ask yourself if you’re devoting the appropriate amount of time to each beat, and if your work contains any superfluous elements that might be corrupting its structure. Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board if you find yourself unsatisfied with how your work is panning out. Sometimes we can lose track of our foundations when we build too much on them.
  • Story structure is a skill that’s honed with experience. You better you want to be at it, the more you should write. It’s really that simple.


For those who missed it, here’s the previous installment of The Process – an excellent piece on character development written by the very talented Qualifiersrep.

The next installment is on action scenes, and will be hosted by Tereglith. You can expect it in the final week of February!