Story Structure – the basics, and why you should know it

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.

Learning Goals

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.

Final Words

I hope you’ve found this discussion of story structure useful and/or interesting!

 

 

 

Guide to Submissions (Short Fiction and Poetry)

I’m assuming you have some finished products (fiction and/or poetry) that you are happy with and ready to send out. So let’s do that.

This is a completely separate skill-set from writing, but it’s one you should develop. A lot of it is organization and research. Knowing what tools to use really helps.

Keeping tracking of your submissions.

You need a system to keep track of your submissions. You need to know which stories/poems are out where, and how long they’ve been there.

I use a spreadsheet on Google Sheets. I keep all of my stories along one axis, and all the markets along the other axis. When I make a submission, I put the date of submission in the appropriate cell. When I get a form rejection, I put “form” in the cell; if I get specific feedback for the story, I paste that into the cell. (There are other services available for tracking submissions; I like this system because of the flexibility and control it gives me).

This allows me to see at a glance what stories are out where, and how long they’ve been there. I can easily see if a story is sitting idle, in which case I should be thinking about what I want to do with it (whether it needs to be reworked and then submitted somewhere, or just sent somewhere as-is). It is also an archive of past successes and failures.

Here’s the (deliberately blurred) spreadsheet I use, which I include in case it helps to visualize my system:

publication_spreadsheet_screenshot_blurred

Next to my stories, I include a word count. Next to the markets, I include notes for that market, including pay, a link to the site, what they’re looking for, and any other important information.

I use color-coding. The pink entries are rejections (you’ll notice there’s quite a few); light green are active submissions; yellow/gold is for acceptances. Bright green on the market listing indicates pro rates. Red on the market listing indicates a closed market. (There’s no need to do any of this color-coding stuff, but I like it.)

If this big chart looks imposing, just remember it is built up over time. You start with one story and one market. You add stories as you complete them, and you add markets as you submit to them.

Being alerted to open submission windows

Often when researching markets you will find submission window openings several months away. It’s impossible to remember all these things, so you need to use an organizational tool.

I use Google calendar to alert me to open submission windows. I put the submission window opening as an event in my calendar, and I get a notification when the window opens up. If I have a suitable story, I can submit it then.

I paste the link to the website for that market in the event information, so I don’t have to track it down again when the market opens up.

Setting these reminders allows me to free up a lot of mental energy.

Researching markets

You need to know the markets.

Ralan.com is a great resource for finding out about anthologies.

Submission grinder is a great resource for searching markets -both poetry and fiction. You should check out the advanced search function, which allows you to narrow your search by genre, length, pay, and other criteria.

Poetrymarkets.com is a good resource for researching poetry markets. Here is a ranking of poetry magazines, if you want to submit to markets by order of prestige.

If you happen have Facebook, you can join “open call” groups, so you can get tips that way.

Understanding Guidelines

Make sure to carefully read the guidelines for any market you plan to submit to. Not following guidelines is a quick way to get your story rejected. Often, not adhering to guidelines will mean an auto-rejection. Even when it doesn’t get your story auto-rejected, it still looks bad.

Besides the obvious things, like submitting stories that are the right length and genre, you also want to watch out for:

  • Formatting. Most places ask for manuscripts submitted in Shunn Standard Manuscript format. Here’s a template you can use if you want (.doc format): @STANDAD_MANUSCRIPT_FORMAT_TEMPLATE
  • Font. Annoyingly, despite the implication of “standard manuscript format”, font is not really standard across various markets. It seems like most markets ask for Times New Roman or Courier, but Arial sometimes shows up as well. If a market doesn’t specify, you can safely submit in Times or Courier, but if they do specify a font, then take thirty seconds and change it to suit their preference.
  • Anonymity. Standard Manuscript Format includes your name in three places on the document. But some places ask for anonymous manuscripts for the purpose of blind judging. In that case, make a copy of your manuscript and scrub all identifying information. If a market asks for an anonymous manuscript, and you include any identifying information, your submissions will be auto-rejected, guaranteed.
  • “No Simultaneous Submissions”. This means that the editor is requesting that you not submit the same manuscript to any other markets while it is under consideration at their market (your story should only be out to this one place). If you ignore this request, you risk burning bridges in a very small community of editors who absolutely talk to each other. Sometimes it can seem unfair to newer authors, who have to sit for long stretches of time while they wait for what is in all likelihood going to be a rejection. If this bothers you, consider markets that allow simultaneous submissions. Also, keep in mind that you are not sitting idle while your story is out, because you should be moving on to writing the next story.
  • “Multiple Submissions”. If “multiple submissions” are allowed, this means you can send multiple stories at once to the same market. This is pretty rare. Most markets request that you only have one submission sent to them at a time. Send your best work, then wait for a response.
  • Pasted in the e-mail. Some venues ask that you post the work in the body of the e-mail, instead of including an attachment. This is more common for flash markets and poetry markets.

Form Cover Letter

You don’t want to type the same thing a thousand times.

I use a form cover letter, copy and pasted, and changed to suit the specifics of the market.

A cover letter should be really simple. My template looks like this:

To/Dear [The Editors],

Please consider [story title] for publication in [Publication Name].

[line for third person bio (optional)]

[line to address specific guidelines (optional)]

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

You can find the name of the editor(s) on the website for the market you are planning to submit to.

The bio line, where it appears, might look something like this:

[Your name] writes from [Someplace], where [pronoun] also works as a [profession]. [Pronoun’s] work is featured or forthcoming in [list of publications].

If you don’t have any publications, just don’t mention it. The first sentence of the bio is enough in that case. If you have special experience or expertise relevant to the story, you can mention it.

The “specific guidelines” section might look like this:

As suggested in your guidelines, the poems appear in the body of this e-mail.

Finally, if the guidelines ask you to specify word count, you can do so following the mention of your story’s name:

Please consider [story title] (2000 words) for publication in [Publication Name].

If the guidelines request particular information in the cover letter, make sure to include it wherever it makes sense to do so. (If they ask for a one sentence summary of the story, for example, you can put that in a sentence following the first mention of the story.)

That’s it.

Final Words

Good luck! I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and I look forward to hearing about your successes with publication!