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.
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 This, in a nutshell, is the most common explanation for work that goes unpublished.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.
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