All stories have structure. Simple structures: the hero wants something, they attempt to get it, they are thwarted, and then they succeed. Complex Structures: frame narratives, flashbacks, multiple perspectives, subplots. Structure is the substance and shape of your story. It is the events that transpire, and it is the sequence and manner in which those events are related to the reader.
But what is structure? What are the different patterns, what are the accepted customs? How can I break from those set ways? These are questions I ask myself frequently. I researched them, but the answers proved vague and disparate. I hope to be able to synthesize what I’ve learned into more bite-sized chunks.
Choosing the structure of your story is an important part of the storytelling process. It helps your reader know what they are getting into. It gives them a pattern to follow in their head. And when you deviate from the structure, your reader knows to pay attention. But how do you choose which story structure is the one for you?
Everyone’s process is different. I can only speak for myself. In answering that question, I like to examine the accepted canon of story structures.
Types of Structures
I find it a little funny that almost every major writer will attempt to create a definitive list of every type of story. Kurt Vonnegut does this in his lecture titled “The Shapes of Stories.” Christopher Booker wrote a book called, The Seven Basic Plots, and the contents of that book should be self explanatory. Robert McKee in Story gives a list of the 25 different film genres. Joseph Cambell proposes a single unifying story in the hero’s journey. Film experts tell you the three-act structure is king, theater aficionados will tell you the five-act tragedy is the supreme form.
But of course, the end result of all these lists is that it’s super difficult to find anything definitive, so I mostly stopped worrying about it. Following any one of these formulas too closely will result in a, well, formulaic story. I’ve learned that I can express myself best in the ways that I deviate from these forms.
The crummy part is, in order to deviate from a form, I had to first learn what that form was in the first place. Which was kinda a pain. I’ll do my best to give an overview of the major ones.
The Hero’s Journey
This is a classic. You’ve probably heard of it. The above image is my summary of its different components. I made it in MS Paint, so it doesn’t look great, sorry about that. In essence, the hero’s journey concerns a single protagonist. He (most typically male, but as I said, true beauty comes from breaking the standards, which is why many people find heroes with other genders to be more compelling) is living an ordinary life, in a world that he understands.
Then an extraordinary figure calls him to adventure. He resists, then agrees. He leaves the world he knows and enters into a world of mystery. He meets friends, mentors, allies, enemies. He struggles and fails. He reaches the very bottom of misery or hardship, and then overcomes that to claim his reward.
Finally, he returns, his character changed by the events he encountered. The world he once knew is now different to him. Perhaps he’s removed from it, jaded. Perhaps he’s able to fix its problems.
Sound familiar? I could spend the rest of the article listing books that use this structure. Rather than following this formula to a T, I found picking and choosing elements from it to be really helpful. It turns out the hero’s journey has a lot of important lessons.
Characters should make decisions. Not a decision between good and evil — that’s hardly a decision. But decisions between equal options. Do I go on the adventure, or do I stay where I am? That’s a story beat that will never get old.
Characters should have allies. Friends are cool. Teachers are also cool. Positive relationships can bring out different aspects of your character’s personality, and when those relationships are taken away, it can bring out even more aspects.
Characters should have opponents. People who are searching for the same thing as your character. Rivals they can respect, or hate, or anything in between. Forcing your characters to overcome obstacles is how they grow.
The abyss is crucial. It’s a bizarre part of storytelling, but I’ve found that we all like watching characters suffer. It doesn’t have to be physical pain, and indeed, it probably shouldn’t be. Instead, find what hurts or terrifies your character the most, and then inflict them with it. That’s the abyss.
Redemption and reward is so satisfying to read, especially if I’ve just watched a character overcome their personal abyss. I love those moments where a character is recognized for what they’re truly worth.
Finally, the return. The hobbits come back to the shire. The juxtaposition of who the character is now and where they used to be highlights their growth (or downfall) and emphasizes the theme of your story.
As much as I find these elements interesting, an author truly grabs my attention when they break these elements. My mind walks along the pattern, ho-hum, and then boom! The mentor dies on page 3, instead of halfway through. Wow! Where is this story going?
Rising Action, Falling Action
I bet you were taught this in high-school. At its core, this is a simplified version of the hero’s journey. This structure is too simple to be useful, but it still has lessons to teach. Personally, this graph taught me the power of escalation.
Stories should increase in intensity over their duration. Economics states that though something may be originally pleasing, the more times we are exposed to that thing, the less pleasing it is. In order to maintain that original level of pleasure, we need to up the ante.
If your character gets injured, that’s exciting. If your character gets injured in the same way, that’s less exciting. But if they get even more injured, that’s just as exciting as the first time.
Finally, tensions should come to a head at the climax. Everything is realized. The excitement has never been this high. The story is resolved with a flash and a bang, and then things return to normal.
However, this graph is flawed. As a kid, my English class had a visitor from a local author. She showed us this graph:
Now this is cool. Just as the same injury, if repeated, loses interest, readers will also lose interest if the pace of escalation stays the same. Escalation itself becomes boring. To fix this, you can alternate between highs and lows. As the story progresses, the highs get higher and the lows get lower.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, is a good example of this. The story concerns a dad and his child walking through the post-apocalypse. If the story were just suffering, it would be boring. But the story alternates between suffering and hope, and then takes that hope away. Reading The Road feels like the author is tantalizing you with the promise of comfort for these characters. You keep reading because you want to know if they ever actually find safety. The answer would be too obvious if the story had no variation.
My Personal Process
I like starting with an archetype. Perhaps I saw a really cool movie about an antihero, so now I want to write about an antihero. I do a little reading. What are the conventions of the antihero story? Where can I subvert them? I learn that antiheroes need a foil, an innocent character. The antihero and the innocent need a reason to be forced together. Now I have the foundation of a story.
Next I add a genre. I throw it on top like seasoning. Perhaps I want to tell a story about a cyberpunk antihero. Oooo. What are the conventions of cyberpunk? I do a little reading. It turns out I need dystopic capitalism, virtual reality, and degenerate body modifications. Where can I deviate from those?
Now I turn to the hero’s journey. What does my character want? What prevents them? What helps them? How do they change over the course of the story? Answering these questions gives me a basic outline of start, middle, and end.
Finally, I create escalation and de-escalation. I come up with a moment of intensity, and I follow it with a moment of peace, and I repeat that process until my story reaches a climax. And each time, I increase the magnitude, until I have taken both ends to their logical extremes, and there I find the abyss and the reward from the hero’s journey.
I do this process for each character and each subplot. Usually genre stays the same, but perhaps in my cyberpunk story one of the subplots is a romance. Anything goes. I allow myself the freedom of having the story be as long or as short as it needs to be to realistically cause change or growth in my protagonist, antagonist, and secondary characters. Sometimes this results in a short story, other times, a novel.
At the end of the day, don’t stress about structure. It doesn’t matter if your story adheres to three acts or five or which of the seven basic plots applies to you. It’s your story. Ignore conventions, do it.
But it is helpful to pick an established structure and to change it. The hero’s journey, but female (The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood). The hero’s journey, but in space (Star Wars). Classic fantasy, but with realism and stakes (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin). Each of these stories follows some conventions, some pattern. And each of these stories subverts that pattern. Know the story you want to tell, know what is expected of you, and know how and when and where to defy those expectations.
The best way to research is to read. I like to write fantasy. So I read fantasy. Way too much fantasy, if my wallet is any judge. I read critically, I read to analyze the story for its component parts, and I learn a little bit more about the structure of fantasy. (Sometimes I’ll steal an idea from a story. Don’t worry, everybody does it. All you have to do is call it ‘inspiration’ and nobody bats an eye).
I’ll conclude by tentatively adding one more proposal to the lists and lists of types of stories. A story is a character who wants something and is prevented from having it. When the dust settles, that’s all a story is.