Story Structure and the Craft of Writing

Story Structure in Scarab
Story Structure in Scarab

This is primarily a website that discusses how story structure underpins the art and craft of storytelling.

Its aim is to offer advice on how to get narrative ingredients, such as the various types of must-have-scenes, to flow together in order to form a tale; on why some stories work and some don’t – in short, it is about how an understanding of structure helps us write better stories.

This process is essentially a left-brain activity. Here, I use the terms left and right brain in the metaphorical sense to suggest analytical vs. creative thinking, rather than as a precise anatomical truth.

In terms of story creation, we associate the left side of the brain, in part, with collating and polling story material: of assembling and not, strictly speaking, of spontaneously conceiving. Conception occurs deep within the right hemisphere – the passionate and unfettered area of creativity.

Story Structure and Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

When I originally got the idea for my first novel Scarab, it was rooted in a series of questions: What if a quantum computer, exhibiting human-like consciousness, is used by unscrupulous people to change the laws of physics by utilising quantum mechanics’s “observer effect”, and in doing so, runs foul of a powerful threshold guardian?

What if the hero is a reluctant, middle-aged recovering alcoholic in love with a film student who is looking for a good story to put herself on the map? And what if their endeavours bring them into conflict with these same unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to fulfill their power-hungry ambitions?

These thoughts, which were to form the basis of my novel, had less to do with story structure and more to do with right-brain musings. I let my imagination wander around, gave my characters desires, beliefs, and goals, placed them in interesting environments, gave them a general direction, and let them write their own story while I tried my best to keep up with them.

But if stories spring from the imagination, where does all our hard-won knowledge of story structure come in? Part of the answer is: after the first draft.

This is when one reviews the story in earnest and checks it against structural requirements: does it contain the must-have scenes? Are the structural components such as turning points, midpoint, and pinches, in the right place? If not, would reshuffling them benefit the story?

Integration

There is, however, a longer term benefit associated with the prolonged study of story structure: The more we think and learn about the subject, the more we understand it, the more spontaneous the process of writing becomes. Corrections and adjustments that had to wait for revision to be applied, begin to appear in the first draft. Theoretical knowledge becomes practical knowledge, pointing to an increased integration of two largely different processes born in different hemispheres of the brain. It is this integration, perhaps more than any other process, that marks our growing maturity as storytellers.

Summary

An understanding of story structure helps the writer strengthen the first draft of a story. As the writer’s understanding of structure deepens, so does his ability simultaneously to apply analytical processes in tandem with creative ones – the mark of a maturing skill.

Story Tension

Story Tension in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Story Tension in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

 

Story tension arises from barely contained hostility or strained relations between individuals or groups.

This differs from conflict which is more about disharmony and opposition between people who hold different ideas, goals, and beliefs.

Both conflict and tension are invaluable in making stories more powerful and dramatic. In this post we look at seven ways to add tension to your scenes.

 

Drop your characters in uncomfortable situations. Think of the worst thing that could occur to them and make it happen. Your characters might hate you, but  your stories will be better for it.

Remember, tension is an antidote to boredom.

7 Ways to Increase Story Tension

1. Place your characters in a place they shouldn’t be in.
2. Have your characters make decisions that have severe consequences.
3. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that worsens conflict.
4. Have your characters participate in actions and dialogue that increases the danger to themselves.
5. Have your characters participate in socially, politically, and morally unacceptable actions.
6. Place your characters in a situation where they have to choose between two evils.
7. Have your characters overstep their natural boundaries.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, a retired theoretical physicist, has made a decision years preciously that changed his life forever. His thoughts and actions in the present continue to be impacted by that decision. The result is that he is unable to move on with his life until he can forgive himself for the consequences flowing from that decision.

Summary

Story tension hooks the reader or audience hooked into your story. Use one or more of the seven techniques mentioned in this post to help you achieve this goal.

Brevity, Clarity, Simplicity in Writing

Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Brevity, clarity, simplicity in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
If brevity, clarity, simplicity are important in specialist writing, they are crucial in a screenplay.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is full of laconic one-liners that crisply capture the essence of the characters.

Who can forget the Sundance Kid’s film-defining line: “I’ll do anything you want me to but I won’t watch you die.”

Hollywood has a notoriously short attention span. Readers have to wade through dozens of new screenplays daily, and their tolerance for poorly worded stories is short.

Of course, Hollywood is not the only place to peddle your screenplay, but if you’re looking to play the Lotto, there’s nowhere better.

Let’s look at two aspects of tight, vivid writing in screenplays: the use of verbs that capture the essence of character in the action block, and the use of metaphor in character descriptions.

Here are three examples of weak verbs:

1. Benjamin looks at the girl standing opposite him.

How does he look at the girl? Does he frown, gaze, leer, glance, squint, or peer at her?

2. Claire enters the room.

This is inadequate. How does Claire enter the room? Does she stride, limp, march, slink, flow, or pad in?

3. Olivia stands waiting.

How does she stand? Is she slouching, leaning, erect?

Never miss the opportunity to have a verb convey the personality and attitude of your character. Not only do you void the need for adverbs, you make your sentences crispier and more vibrant.

Character descriptions in screenplays, too, should be brief but impactful. Because they influence how we view the character, they should be crafted with care.

Brevity, clarity, simplicity at work

Consider this character description from one of my stories:

I started with: “SAMUEL is big and muscular, but with a surprisingly light gait that belies his enormous size.”

…but ended up with: “SAMUEL is built like an earthmoving truck, but can turn on a dime.”

or…

“A well-dressed John Flyn pads into the room. He is strong and graceful, with a feline quality that suggests a strength and agility that comes from years of training.” Too wordy.

“John Flyin pads into the room, a panther in an Armani suit.” Better.

Appropriate metaphors enliven character description and eliminate unnecessary words.

Summary

Use brevity, clarity, simplicity in describing your subject. Where appropriate, use metaphors to capture your character’s essence.

How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood
The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

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ALL great stories have a moral premise – a deep structure that shapes the narrative from below the surface of the novel or film.

The moral premise is why writers write stories. It is the expression of cause and effect seen from an ethical and moral perspective.

“The Moral Premise exists at a level below the plot, shaping narrative actions and their consequences according to its own internal logic.”

Some of the writers have only a vague notion of their moral premise upon commencing their stories. They know there will be good characters, evil characters and in-between characters, and they leave it at that, choosing, rather, to concentrate on the machinations of the plot. After all, the plot is where all the visceral, sticky, fun stuff happens.

Yet, the moral premise is inherent in every story whether we consciously put it there or not. It should, therefore, be as much a part of our conscious intent as the plot. Ignoring it may result in our thinking we are writing one sort of story while we are really writing another.

Even more importantly, the moral premise helps us understand the reason our protagonist acts in the way that he does. It helps us craft the trajectory of the story.

The Moral Premise in There will be Blood

In There Will Be Blood we follow the consequences of what happens when Daniel Plainview, a man with no scruples or morals, gains wealth and power through oil. His initial charitable act of adopting the son of one of his workers who has been killed in a drilling accident, soon gives way to relentless self-interest.

He sends the boy away because he has become deaf in yet another drilling accident and is now a burden to his operations. The boy later returns, but as Plainview sinks deeper into the mire he becomes incapable of maintaining friendships or family bonds.

He murders the man who has claimed to be his long-lost half-brother when he discovers he is an imposter. He rejects his adopted son when he learns that he wants to make his own way in the oil business. And finally, he murders Eli Sunday, the evangelist with whom he has been butting heads over land and oil.

If we take the moral premise of the film to be that the pursuit of wealth and power, at the expense of love and family, leads to loneliness and defeat, we can place each scene in the story along a trajectory that finally ends in Plainview lying drunk in the bowling alley in his home – bloodied, spent, alone. In a sense, he is as dead as the body of Eli Sunday sprawled next to him – the man he has just murdered with a bowling pin.

Summary

The moral premise guides the writer in identifying and placing narrative incidents along a trajectory in a story.

How to Contrast Scenes in Scripts and Novels

ScriptsHow many scenes are necessary in writing good scripts? In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger notes that this number varies. Some have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred.

In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Contrasting Scenes in Scripts and Novels

Some scenes are extremely short. Those include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or the inside of a vehicle. These are meant to place the viewer or reader in a specific time and place. Others, engaged with plot and character development occur over several pages.

Film scripts that comprise of only a handful of scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that runs into hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

The secret to a well-paced story is to balance scenes through contrast. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones.

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This prevents the sense of sameness that leads to boredom.

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In my own novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, scenes that enact the slow pace of a man in physical and moral stasis are contrasted with the immense force of a category five cyclone that threatens to destroy the protagonist’s world.

Summary

Contrasting the number and texture of scenes creates rhythm and movement. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to stasis and boredom.

What is Storytelling?

StorytellingStorytelling, as Robert McKee succinctly tells us, is the creative demonstration of truth.

A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action. A story’s event structure is the means by which you first express, then probe your idea … without explanation.

The Moral Theme in Storytelling

This idea, I would further argue, must contain a moral premise – a guiding moral principle that traces the consequences of character actions in the story. We can also think of this as the theme of the story.

Think about the crime genre. What idea, or moral premise lies at its core? How about: Crime does not pay?

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite and on-the-nose dialogue. Do not write:

“You see, Frank? I told you. Crime does not pay!”

Terrible.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, or crimes, then expose the consequences.

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how crime, in this instance, manufacturing meth, draws in those directly involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from several angles. The protagonist represents one angle. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining angle, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proved – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral idea, wins or loses the conflict to the antagonist.

In my novel, The Land Below, for example, the correctness or incorrectness of Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine, a decision which will result in his being banished from the community, can only be established at the end of the novel.

If things go well for Paulie and his followers, then the theme of the story might be: Courage, imagination and steadfastness lead to freedom. If things go badly, then the theme might be: daydreams and stubbornness lead to defeat.

As with all stories, the outcome can only be established at the end. It is only then that the reader can definitely say what the story has really been about.

Summary

Storytelling is the process of narrating events that prove a moral theme.

The Hero’s Journey

Man and camel in silhouette on a dune
Journey to the light
A student recently asked me how he could bolster the credibility of his hero’s actions in a story he’d written.

Was there a guideline, other than instinct and experience, he could glean from a structured approach to storytelling?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Assuming your hero’s decisions and actions respect his background and character traits, you should ensure they reflect his current emotional, moral, and spiritual status too.

Let’s look at the pivotal action which occurs at the first turning point. This is the moment, we are reminded, when the hero decides to accept a challenge, choose a goal, and embark on a course of action that sets into motion a series of cascading events. It is the true start of the story.

Let’s also remind ourselves a hero typically has the most to learn at the start of the tale. We refer to this as his developmental arc.

Perhaps he is morally naive and misguided, or emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt, and tends to confuse his want with his need.

It stands to reason, then, his initial plan for pursuing the goal is flawed. It allows his nemesis to stay a step ahead, handing him a series of defeats.

It is only towards the end of the story when the hero has reached the zenith of his moral, spiritual, and emotional development that he is able to choose the right plan and find the strength and self-belief to defeat his nemesis.

In The Matrix, Neo is unable to beat agent Smith in hand-to-hand combat before he discovers who he truly is. Were he to achieve victory before this moment, he would not only throw the pacing off, but his actions would appear inauthentic.

So, when are your hero’s actions credible? When his outer experience tracks his growing maturity.

Summary

Tie your hero’s actions to her developmental arc to ensure her inner and outer journeys stay in sync.

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How to keep your story interesting through reversals

Arrow and sun graphicKeeping our story interesting as we navigate towards the major pivot points (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the midpoint, and climax), takes some doing.

This is because we need time to lay out essential information and perform certain tasks in support of character development and plot that will only pay off later. But this may cause interest in our story to wane. Reversals are one way to keep our readers or audience engaged.

Reversals are well-placed surprises. No story can really function without them. They occur when you create a certain expectation in the reader or audience, only to surprise them a moment later with another:

1. A child enters an abandoned house on a dare and hears a sound coming from the steps leading down to the basement. Suddenly, a shadow appears on the wall, growing impossibly larger. The child shuts her eyes, unable to face the source of the shadow. After what seems an eternity, she hears another sound and opens her eyes, only to discover that the shadow is cast from a mangy cat caught in a slither of light from below.

2. A mother enters her daughter’s room to find the bed empty and the window wide open. We assume by her expression that her teenage daughter has snuck out of the bedroom, despite being grounded. The mother hears the toilet being flushed and smiles with relief, but the smile quickly evaporates when the bathroom door opens and a young man exits, followed by her daughter.

Here, within the space of a few seconds, we have two reversals that keep us engaged through the mechanism of surprise.

3. In The Wild Bunch a robbery results in a tremendous gunfight. Lucky to get away with their lives, the robbers reach safety and open the bags to count their loot only to discover they are filled with washers. This is both a reversal and a pivot point since it changes the plot. We should remember, however, that reversals are most useful when applied to smaller dramatic beats, since major turning points are potentially interesting enough on their own.

Summary

Reversals are dramatic beats placed between major turning points of a story designed to keep interest from flagging.

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How to Structure your Reveals

Girls whispering in ear
Revealing Secrets:
When and how do you reveal that big secret in your story? All at once? Through smaller increments and surprises? The latter encourages your reader to follow the bread crumbs with heightened interest.

In his chapter on structure William Akers stresses the importance of placing your reveals at the right place. He uses an example provided by UCLA’s screenwriting programme head, William Froug, about an old man feeding pigeons from a park bench. Does he dump the whole bag of crumbs on the grass right away, or does he scatter a few at a time to keep the feeding dispersed and the pigeons interested longer?

Clearly the second option is the better one.

The book upon which the film Notes From a Scandal is based starts with a big scene in which it is revealed that the Cate Blanchett character has had an affair with one of her students. The book handles this information as the inciting incident. It’s a heck of a start for the story, but it does give away the biggest secret right away. The film version handles this differently, revealing the news a little later. It keeps the audience on a string and loads up the reveal with more punch.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, screenwriter William Goldman saves the small surprise that Butch is from New Jersey for when the movie is well under way, and only offers an even bigger reveal a little later when the men are about to hit the payroll guards in Bolivia. During the face-off with a bunch of rough-looking bandits, Butch tells Sundance that he’s never shot anyone in his life before. It’s not a good time to let your partner-in-crime know of your lack of experience, but it is a hugely impactful moment for the audience.

Imagine, if you will, if Goldman had started the story by having Butch introduce himself to Sundance with,”Hi there. My name’s Robert Leroy Parker. I’m really from New Jersey. I’ve never shot anyone in my life before!”

Pretty lame.

Summary

Withholding crucial information for as long as possible, and releasing it at dramatically heightened moments, makes for keener audience interest and improves the quality of your story.

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How to Pace Your Story

The Darkest Moment:
The Darkest Moment:
One of the reasons that we, as story tellers, need to master structure is so that we may position our narrative events, the high and lows, tension and release, in a way that keeps our readers and audience on their toes. Too much of a good or bad thing makes for boring stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular structural element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act, way after the midpoint has occurred, the writer needs to craft a low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point, which unleashes the third act, the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom, and others have called the lowest ebb, or the darkest moment of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’s phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet—that he will never find what he seeks and that his destiny will forever remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic, but safe, hometown.

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he earlier thought he wanted to be rid of.

Although these examples are triggered by outer journey events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero down to the deepest depths of doubt and despair, the story positions itself to tell of a final resurgence that is uplifting and engaging—a story with exciting variations, highs and lows which will keep readers and audiences breathless with anticipation.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It occurs before the beginning of the end, and defines the point in the outer and inner journey where the Hero seems the furthest from achieving his goal.

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If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

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