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.

The Ticking Clock in Stores

Ticking clock in Next
Next derives much of its tension from the ticking clock narrative device

A ticking clock in stories is a structural device that imposes a time limit during which a problem has to be solved.

Failure to do so in the allotted time renders the story goal unachievable and the mission a failure.

The ticking clock in films

Examples abound: In Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the pilots flying the aircraft carrying an atomic bomb that will start the next world war have to be persuaded not to drop it.

In Next, Nicholas Cage has to foil the villain’s plans before a nuclear device wipes out LA.

In my own novel, Scarab II: Reawakening, the Hero, Jack Wheeler, has to get to the quantum computer before the appointed time to stop it from running the programme that may destroy the world.

36 Hours has a ticking clock that is even more tightly woven into the story’s structure. The invasion of Europe is but days away. The Nazis have little time to extract the date and landing site of the Allied forces from James Garner. The story might still work by concentrating on how Garner is seduced into talking. The ticking clock, however, imbues the story with a tension that could not be otherwise achieved.

The ticking clock in stories is often, quite literally, a clock counting down to zero before the bomb explodes.

In Armageddon, a shaft has to be drilled and a bomb placed deep into the comet that is headed for earth.

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, the bridge must be built under the most trying circumstances and finished by a specific date. The explosion must occur in time to send both bridge and train crashing into the river. The tension is almost unbearable.

Summary

A ticking clock defines a specific time for the main story goal to be achieved to avoid calamity. The device increases tension and helps to maintain the forward thrust of the story.

How the Story Premise Drives the Tale

The dramatic premise in The Matrix
The dramatic premise in The Matrix
In his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lagos Egri offers a great way of pinpointing the premise of our tale prior to commencing the writing of the story itself. He instructs us to identify the story’s essence or theme—-the moral of the story.

Here are some examples of the story premise:

King Lear: Blind trust leads to destruction.

Ghosts: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Othello : Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Tartuffe: He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

The story premise reveals the protagonist’s motivation pitted against some cosmic justice. It is intimately linked to the character’s inner journey and his ability to learn from the threats arrayed against him.

The hero’s inner motivation relentlessly drives him to complete his journey—to reach for his goal. Importantly, the premise contains direction and momentum arising from the conflict between the hero’s emotions, other characters, and the world.

With that in mind, we can say that the premise explains the hero’s internal and external conflict, the outcome of which finally proves this very premise.

If we plug in the premise of The Matrix into this formula, for example, we come up with: Self-belief, though hard-fought, leads to victory over the enemy.

With this firmly in place, we can generate the log-line (the one-line synopsis of the plot), before moving on to the synopsis itself, the treatment, and the fist draft of our screenplay, or novel.

But these are topics For another article.

Summary

The story premise, or theme, is the foundation of the tale and drives the protagonist to achieve his goal by completing his inner journey.

Character Development in Stories

Scarab and Character Development
Scarab and Character Development

At the end of his chapter on character development, in Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge offers the following useful advice:

In order to have effective character development, identification and sympathy, place your protagonist in jeopardy.

For example, in my bestselling novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is under constant threat of being murdered by the man in the black suit. This sustains the suspense, keeping the reader turning the pages to find out if Jack lives or dies.

Additionally, make your protagonist likable. Introduce him to your audience early. Make him powerful, witty, or good at his  job. Position him in a familiar setting. Grant him familiar flaws and foibles.

Ensure originality in your character development by researching specific historical figures whose lives are authentic, unique, and interesting.

Go against cliche by altering the physical makeup, background and personality to make your character less predictable. Pair one character up with an opposite or contrasting character and cast him, in your imagination, by assigning his role to an actor that is best suited to the part.

Character Development Essentials

Remember that there are two levels of character motivation: outer motivation, which is the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story, and inner motivation, which is the reason he strives for the goal in the first place—the why to the what and the how.

Conflict also spurs a character to develop. There are two sources of conflict: outer conflict, which is the conflict between other characters and nature, and inner conflict: the conflict between warring aspects within the character herself.

Finally, there are four main categories of primary characters: hero or protagonist, whose motivation drives the plot, the nemesis or antagonist who tries to prevent the hero from achieving the goal, the reflection or guardian who most supports the protagonist, and the romance character, who, according to Hauge, alternatively supports and quarrels with the hero.

Create secondary characters as needed, in order to provide additional plot complications. Add obstacles, bring relief, humour, depth and texture to your story.

Summary

This post offers concrete suggestions for successful character development in your stories.

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.