In Defense of Story Structure II

Two Hemispheres, One Brain

This is primarily a blog about the art and craft of storytelling, written from a structural perspective. Its aim is to provide 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, however, 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, not, strictly speaking, of spontaneously conceiving. Conception occurs deep within the right hemisphere – the passionate, unfettered, and fecund womb of creativity.

Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

When I originally got the idea for my first novel, Scarab, some thirteen years ago, it was as 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 – the Sphinx of Giza? What if the hero is a reluctant, middle-aged, recovering alcoholic in love with a young 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 wonder, 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, essentially a right-brain activity, 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 ball-park? If not, would reshuffling them and adjusting them benefit the story?

Integration

There is, however, a longer term benefit associated with the prolonged study of 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.

If you haven’t read the first installment of ‘In Defense of Story Structure’, and would like to do so, click on this link.

Summary

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

Invitation

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

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Story Structure II

  1. Mark Landen

    I really liked this post. Since I’m studying theory doggedly, reading this made it all seem worthwhile. It does seem my efforts are translating into everyday writing uses now that you’ve mentioned it. I’m finding elements of story structure in subplots, story threads, and even scene sequences. Studying theory is really, really helping me and is why I read your blog!

    Reply
  2. Michael Phinn

    Hi Stavros, Great blog! I’ve been looking through your other blogs. I’m interested in learning more about character development, and how i can create a main character that readers/ audience members can connect with, that isn’t some reworked version of the common protagonist which derives from the typical “heroes journey” story structure. Assuming you have a shred of time to spare, do you think you could post a blog about character development?? I know this is a very general question but i’m really struggling with keeping my character afloat in my story. (he’s just a typical guy, how can i make him interesting and not put the viewer/ reader asleep?

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis

      Hi Michael. Well, there are several posts already on character development – want versus need, the midpoint, the inner and outer journeys, and so on. If you place a character, (and this is to put it very succinctly) in peril, resulting from some undeserving misfortune, give him an almost impossible goal whose outcome is uncertain and fraught with danger, then scatter obstacles in the character’s way resulting from antagonistic pressures and threats, but also from the character’s inner weakness and failings, you are well on your way to creating interesting and engaging characters. Remember, the outer journey only has resonance if it arises or reflects some inner struggle.

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  3. Stavros Halvatzis

    Thanks for the kind words, Russ. Yes, stories from novels are always under consideration for adaptation into other media – games, films. Scarab, I think, is particularly suited to being turned into a film – a high concept one at that. One would have to go about it right, though, following all the steps, optioning it, etc. I’m deep into writing Scarab II, at the moment, so the whole concept is turning into a series. I’m also getting involved in the South African film industry here, especially in Cape Town where there has been much international flim-making activity in recent years, so my options are growing.

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  4. Russ Welsh

    I really ought to get my hands on another copy of Scarab. I have read it before but I kind of would like to read it again. ‘Twas GOODE! Another great post from the maestro. You know me, always waiting for the next one. I have given some serious thought to future projects and I will talk to you more in the future, but I wondered (albeit very briefly) whether you would allow one of your former students… as in, me… to adapt and (possibly) direct Scarab. Or anyone for that matter.

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