Story Structure — Just Possibly the Holy Grail of Storytelling

has written 584 posts on Storyfix.com.

You can follow Larry on Twitter, or Google+.

Email the author

by Larry Brooks on July 30, 2009

Storyfix is proud to introduce an 11-part series on the fundamentals of story structure.

Following this Introduction, each day will bring a new post in the series.  They’ll be filed in a separate category under Pages for future reference.

Introduction

One question pops up at nearly every writing workshop I teach: how do I know what to write, and in what order to write it?  Everything we set out to do as novelists and screenwriters is part of the quest to answer that question.

Sometimes the writers in my workshops are surprised when I have an answer.  And then, almost without exception, they become ecstatic when I show it to them.

Storytelling can be as precise a craft as you want it to be. 

You can regard it as a cloud-like amorphous shape-shifting process that defies definition — a great many writers do — or you can blueprint it down to the most minuscule details of plot and characterization.  Interestingly enough, either approach can work. 

Because the central issue here isn’t whether you outline or not, or whether you work your way into your story through a series of drafts.  That’s just a question of sytle and preference, when the central variable, the one that makes or breaks your story no matter how you write it, is really one comprised entirely of substance.

The most basic storytelling issue of all involves a basic understanding of story architecture.  Some writers have never heard of it, they just sit down and write write write, convinced that a lifetime of reading great books has sufficiently prepared their intuitive sensibilities to get it done.  Others simply ignore or reject it, preferring to patch together their stories according to a structure of their own creation.

Which is a little like trying to invent your own airplane without paying attention to something called wings.

Without building our stories on a framework of solid story architecture, writers are blindly exploring  their creative options without really understanding what they are.  This, in a nutshell, is the most common explanation for work that goes unpublished.  Doesn’t matter if you outline your stories or not… because if what you’re outlining or drafting isn’t hitting the page in context to solid and accepted – key word there — story structure, it’s doomed until it does.

You can make up your own structure if you want to, but good luck getting it sold.  The people buying your work –novels and especially screenplays – virtually demand that your story conform to this standard.

So what is that standard? 

That’s the million dollar question.  Literally, in some cases.  And the answer is available right here, over the next 10 posts in this series.

Story structure is actually a sub-set of story architecture. In the building trade, a finished project is more than a blueprint that leads to a big hole in the ground, a lot of concrete and steel and a bunch of pillars strong enough to withstand a tsunami of Speilbergian proportions.  It is also the fine finishes and intricate designs and delicate mouldings, the textures and aesthetics that comprise the heart and soul of a space, the intangibles that make it more than a big box into which you unload furniture.

So it is with stories. 

Story structure is but one of six core competencies that must ultimately come to the party before a novel or screenplay becomes fully empowered.  (The others are concept, character, theme, scene construction and writing voice.) And yet is at once the most complex and the most defineable, the most basic of the basics.  And therefore, one of the first things a writer should endeavor to wrap their head around.

In this series we will introduce a basic 4-part sequential story model…

… that is as universal as it is misunderstood.  Each of the four parts exist for different reasons and offer different contexts for the scenes they house.  We will also look at the major story milestones that separate them, and the various part-specific criteria that help them bring a story to full and glorious life.

In other words, you’ll learn what to write and where to put it in the sequence of your story.

If you want to think of 4-part story structure as a roadmap, even a blueprint, that’s precisely what it is.

Already there are writers who, hearing words like roapmap and blueprint, make the leap to words like formulaic and generic.  But are mysteries generic?  Romance novels?  Thrillers?  They all follow a rigid basic story structure, and they all remain at the front of the bookstore decade after decade.

Four-part story structure is both ancient and universal. 

In screenwriting it’s called a 3-act paradigm, but when you break it down it begins to look almost exactly like the more universal 4-part model upon which it is based, and which applies to novels with equal validity.  Virtually every successful novel you read and every commerical  movie you see (art films get to invent their own structure; do so with your novels and screenplays at your own peril) are built on this trusted and proven structural foundation.

Story structure is to novels and screenplays what wings are to airplanes. 

What mathmatics are to software.  What the human reproductive system is to childbirth… and when you consider that no two human beings come out of the womb exactly alike, even twins, you see the metaphoric wonder of it begin to blossom.  Formulaic… I don’t think so.

It’s just the way it is.  If you want to sell what you write, then you need to understand it and use the principles of basic story structure in your work.

Tomorrow’s post: #1: Introducing and Defining the Four Parts of Your Story.

If you haven’t subscribed to Storyfix.com, I encourage you to do so now.  The posts will be delivered daily to your inbox so you can experience each installment in this series without missing a beat.

Want to get storyfix posts delivered by e-mail? Sign up here:

Prefer to use an RSS reader? Subscribe here.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Gabriel T July 30, 2009 at 10:12 am

Hey Larry!

Just wanted to say that you have an amazing site here. This little nugget of gold has opened doors to writing that would’ve taken me years to open myself. Can’t wait for the 101 tips and the next posts in the Story Structure-series. Keep it up man, and good luck with your writing!

“Fix your story you must.” – LarrYoda

Adam July 30, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Hi Larry,
I just discovered your site from a link that a friend of mine posted on facebook. All I have to say is, this is EXACTLY what I have been looking for. I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. Like the young Stephen King, I always had a book in my hands. It was early in high school that I decided that I also wanted to write. I’ve been pursuing that dream for 13 years now. Over the years I’ve played with ideas and gotten a few pages cranked out, but I always just kinda gave up because I never felt that it was “good enough”. I thought the idea was great, just not the actual writing. I could never figure out HOW to write my stories. Now with this structure, this story architecture, I feel that I can let out my director and find my writing voice. I’ve spent the last 5 hours or so reading through all of your posts and I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am about the Six Core Competencies. I’ll do whatever it takes to get a copy of that book when it comes out. I look forward to reading more posts, especially the upcoming story structure series.
Thank you for your devotion to teaching the rest of us how to break in to the industry. I’m in it for the long haul, utterly dedicated to making this a reality.

Shirls July 30, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Larry, this is incredibly generous. Thank you so much: I am looking forward to your series with wild anticipation. Is 101 Tips nearly ready to roll? Meanwhile I’m reading SERPENT’S DANCE to observe you in action.

Lori July 30, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Oooooh, ooooooh, I can’t wait!

I’m headin’ for eleven straight posts to freedom. I’m strapping on my seat belt–this is going to be a wild ride.

Thanks again, Larry, for putting your ideas here for us to enjoy and learn. Great stuff!

poch July 31, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Hi Larry,
Great lecture!
But is there a difference between story structure and story architecture?

Larry July 31, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Thanks for the comment. I address your question directly in the next post (actually the first of the actual series), but I’ll touch on it here.

Story “structure” is a sub-set of story “architecture.” Think of the analogy of a building. Structure is the foundation, the girders, the skeleton upon which you hang walls. Architecture implies finished beauty and finish. There is exterior design and interior design. With stories, architecture includes the finishing touches, the nuances of character, the power of theme, the poetry and/or power of the words themselves. Architecture is built on structure, so that’s why I’m starting with it.

It’s not a perfect analogy, because “architecture” has become a somewhat generic descriptor. But we rarely look at the skeleton of a building and say, “wow, look at that architecture.” Only when the structure has evolved into a finished thing of beauty does is become architecture.

Hope this helps. Don’t hesitate to ask more questions as we move forward through the series.

Larry

poch July 31, 2009 at 4:33 pm

I think my Q was premature Larry- lol.
I forgot that structure is just a part of architecture. Sorry.
Thanks for the clear-up.
I’m not satisfied that you’re only on my blogroll at pochp09.wordpress so I would re-pub most of your pieces there if you don’t mind?

janice August 1, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Looking forward to the series! (You know I’m an organic girl with an analyst’s brain and no novel in her – things could get interesting in the comments…)

I braved Twitterland last week to tweet that post I hallelujahed here. Big things are going to happen for you on this site, Larry -great things. I feel it in my organic story teller’s gut ;) .

Leave a Comment

(Spamcheck Enabled)

{ 12 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: