If you want to write fiction, you need to understand story structure.
I am not saying you need to study literary theory or technical terminology. I am not saying you need to write an outline. I am not saying you need to follow a formula, like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth. I am not saying anything at all about your education or your writing process. You don’t need to go to school for this, and you can use whatever process you like. But whatever process you use, whatever education you have, you still need to understand story structure.
We have a built-in sense of story structure. If you’re reading a book to a child, try stopping in the middle. They will know they’re being cheated. We have this innate ability. It’s what qualifies every reader, regardless of experience or training, to judge their reading material. The subjective sense of “something doesn’t feel right” is a sufficient barometer of a story’s structure. But for some reason, when we sit down to write, this innate ability goes away. We have it as readers, but not as writers.
I have a theory about why this happens. When we write, we rely on our internal sense of whether the story is working -the same one we use as readers; we simply gauge, subjectively, whether the story feels satisfying. But when you are in the position of the creator, this feeling of satisfaction is muddled up by other sources of satisfaction: the satisfaction of seeing your ideas come to life; the satisfaction of imagining other people reading your story; the satisfaction of artistic creation; and so on. So the writer feels a sense of satisfaction that will not be shared by the reader. Their structural barometer is faulty because they are engaged in the process of creation, which rewards them in other ways besides the strength of their story. Relying on this faulty barometer leads to structural holes that a reader can identify, but the writer missed.
One solution to this problem is to let a manuscript sit for a few weeks, and then look at it with the eyes of a reader. This may help you see things that you missed the first time around. But to some extent, it’s impossible to read your own story as a reader would. No matter how long it sits in a drawer, it’s still your story, and you will have a fondness for it that other people simply won’t.
A better solution is to deepen your understanding of story structure. Hone your ability to diagnose structural problems. Learn to see a story in terms of its working parts. Understand the narrative forces that lead to compelling drama. This understanding needs to operate at two stages during the writing process: the creation stage, and the editing stage.
The creation stage is typically done in a flow state. We get into the groove, something like hypnosis. We simulate the characters in our head, we hear them talking, we let our imagination run wild, and the words flow on to the page. In a very limited way, we are doing the work of improv actors, running sensory impressions and experiences through the minds of characters that exist in our head, in order to generate plausible thoughts, dialogue, and interactions. I don’t believe all of this can be done while consciously juggling thematic and structural concerns; it needs to be done in a subconscious flow state.
Knowledge works in a flow state only to the extent that it is habitual or ingrained. So you need to practice story structure until it becomes ingrained -until your writing naturally tends towards well-structured stories. Seat-of-the-pants writers like Stephen King are able to write effectively without an outline because they have such a strong and innate understanding of story structure that their writing tends to flow in a structurally sound direction (and even Stephen King needs to rewrite and revise for structural purposes). You can’t hope to write that way unless you have a strong, ingrained sense of structure. You need to develop, through practice (both reading and writing) an intuitive sense of structure.
The second stage of the process is editing. In order to do this properly, you need to have an understanding of the mechanics of story structure, and an ability to consciously diagnose problems. Unlike the flow state, during the editing stage our knowledge of structure is applied deliberately. It is mechanistic. During this stage, we will rely on technical terminology for identifying the various narrative forces, and the ways in which these narrative forces interact to produce compelling drama.
Our skill at both of these stages is in large-part a product of our practice with story structure.
Those who have a strong intuitive sense of structure are natural storytellers, and we might say they have “talent”, but it is still a skill that can be developed through deliberate practice–reading and writing, while paying attention to narrative forces. Those who have a strong conscious command of story structure will be able to effectively diagnose structural problems and come up with solutions. In addition to developing our knowledge of story structure, learning the shared terminology allows writers and editors to communicate effectively with each other for the purpose of beta-reading and structural editing.
Develop understanding of story structure; learn story structure terminology; learn different definitions of “story”; apply story structure concepts to analysis of a story
Story Structure Basics
One of the most common problems with short stories written by beginners is that they aren’t actually stories. They are more accurately called vignettes. Or we can think of them as introductions–the writer succeeds in rendering the first act of a story, but thinks that it’s done as soon as it gets going. It happens a lot for people writing short stories, and it happens because they don’t appreciate what constitutes a complete story.
You can write thousands of words and fail to write a story. Or you can write six words and write a complete story. It’s not the number of words; it’s what those words manage to tell you. In order to constitute a story, the words need to reveal the right information.
A story is not merely something with a beginning, middle, and end:
“first go to the store. Then buy eggs and milk. Then come home.”
This is not a story. It has words and sentences and images, it has a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s not a story. Believe it or not, people will write thousands of words that fail similarly at qualifying as a story.
I will give a few different definitions of “story”. They can all be mapped on to each other; In essence, they are all saying the same thing. But looking at the definition in different terms may help to deepen our understanding.
Conceptions of Story
1. A story shows the life-cycle of a problem.
A problem occurs when someone wants something but they aren’t in a position to get it, either because of an internal or external obstacle, or (perhaps preferably) both. This is also called conflict. If something must be done for someone to get what they want, but that person is already in a position to overcome that obstacle, it is not a problem, but a routine step in obtaining their goal; If, on the other hand, they have to change something in themselves (by learning or growing or developing a skill), then it is a problem. For example, if someone’s goal is to get through a locked door, and they already have a key in their hand, it’s not a problem. If the key is lost, it’s a problem (they need to change their knowledge and strategy for opening the door). If they look for the key and find it in their pocket, it’s a story. It’s probably not a good story, but it’s a story. It shows the life-cycle of a problem.
(They might also break through the window; this solves the door problem, but creates a new problem. Solving problems in this way is called “yes, but”–yes, the problem has been solved, but it created a new one–and it is a way to maintain narrative momentum through a story; another method is “no, and”–wherein the problem remains, and the action taken has actually made things worse–you can read more about these methods of plotting here).
2. A story is a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to equilibrium (usually a new equilibrium).
An event occurs that disrupts a character’s equilibrium (equilibrium is the state the character was in before the problem arose). They are now missing something in their life; there is something they want, but they can’t get it. This is disequilibrium. It is also called conflict. It is also called a problem.
The person takes steps to regain equilibrium. They change either something about themselves or something about the world. Equilibrium is reestablished. This is a story. It is a transition from equilibrium to disequilibrium and back to equilibrium.
Encountering a locked door that you want to pass through, but not having a key to open it, is a state of disequilibrium. Finding the key in a pocket re-establishes equilibrium.
3. A story is an account of change in response to conflict.
Somebody wants something. This is a goal. There is a reason they want it. This is called motivation. Something gets in the way of the goal, but the person is not presently equipped to resolve the situation. This is called conflict. They do something to make themselves equipped to resolve the conflict, either by changing something in themselves or their relation to the world, or (perhaps preferably) both. This is called change, or an arc. All of this together is a story. It shows how someone changes in response to conflict.
4. A story is three dramatic acts.
Somebody wants something. Something creates a problem, and the person is not presently equipped to handle that problem. This even that causes a problem is called the inciting incident. Whatever action the person takes will not solve the problem at this point, because they are not yet equipped to solve the problem. The action they take initially in response to the problem is called the first plot point. The period in which they are not equipped to handle the problem is called the second act. Something affects them in such a way as to force them to react in a different way. This event is called the climax. The character acts in such a way as to move towards resolving the problem. This action, taken in response to the climax, is called the second plot point. The problem moves towards resolution. The movement towards resolution is called the third act.
(Note: three act structure has nothing to do with relative duration of various parts. Many people think that the first act needs to be, say, something like 25% of your words. That’s nonsense. It can be anywhere from 0% to 100%, provided the narrative structure is somehow implied or reasonably inferred from the words on the page. The three act structure is not a recipe or a formula for generating stories; it is just a definition of the word “story” that comes from Aristotle trying to figure out the essence of a “story”)
Exercise: Applying Story Structure to Identify Parts of a Story
Here is a poem called “Maybe, Someday”, by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:
I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?
Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,
so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone. And really,
there’s nothing over there where I pointed.
Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.
But I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said,
because if you too don’t see, it will be as if I hadn’t –
I’ll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes –
and maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.
As it happens, this poem is also a complete story, in each of the four definitions given above. The exercise is:
- Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “life cycle of a problem” definition of story. Your answer should identify the problem, explain why it is a problem for the protagonist, and explain what changes to resolve the problem.
- Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “equilibrium” definition of story. Your answer should explain the disequilibrium the protagonist encounters, why it is a disequilibrium, and how equilibrium is reestablished.
- Describe in a single paragraph why this poem is a story according to the “change in response to conflict” definition of story. Your answer should use the words “motivation”, “conflict”, “change”, and “arc”.
- Describe why this poem fits the three act structure. In your answer, identify the inciting incident, the first plot point, the climax, and the second plot point, as well as the first, second, and third act.
Exercise 2: Identifying a Story
Consider the following six words, possibly written by Hemingway:
“for sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
This sentence is sometimes touted as the shortest story.
- Is it really a story? Prove it, using two of the definitions of story.
- If this is a story, what percentage is the first act? What percentage is the second act? What percentage is the third act?
- Hint: elements of a story can be implied.
Exercise 3: Identifying the central narrative arc
Choose a published novel (excluding your own) with which you are familiar. Choose any of the four definitions of story, and use that type of definition to summarize/capture the entirety of the work; distill the entire novel’s story structure to the simplest skeleton you can, using the terminology of the story definition you have chosen. (For example, if you are using the equilibrium definition, identify the initial state of equilibrium, the state of disequilibrium, and the new equilibrium, and discuss how the story transitions between these states).
Exercise 4: Diagnosing Structural Issues – Redundancy and Narrative Forces
Choose any story with multiple scenes (someone else’s story or your own).
- Identify the central narrative arc (as in exercise 3) using whatever definition of story you prefer.
- Show how every scene contributes to or ties into the central narrative arc, using terminology appropriate to the definition you have chosen (for example, discuss how the scene changes the state of equilibrium for better or worse). Or if, it doesn’t, explain why that scene is redundant and can be cut without affecting the central story.
- If any scene feels “slow”, see if you can account for that feeling in terms of narrative forces. Use the terminology appropriate to the definition of story you have chosen.
I hope you’ve found this discussion of story structure useful and/or interesting!