Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of story structure, is brought to you by Christine Hunt.
Story is Structure
Story is structure. From Gilgamesh to Harry Potter, stories follow the same path. Each begins with a Central Question, the hero struggles through various trials on his way to learning the moral of the tale, and in that ending we see the answer to the beginning question. We inherently recognize this structure. As naturally as we expect food to taste good and sleep to revitalize us, we expect stories to be delivered in this systematic, fulfilling way. When that structure is broken, we lose interest
Great minds have spent decades attempting to define this structure. Joseph Campbell, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Christopher Vogler produced volumes of dry, academic, but fascinating conclusions showing that, like a house, story has a framework that keeps it stable (Nehring. You Are What You See. Right Line. 2010. 104-7).
For the last five years I have worked with film critic, author, and story-structure guru Scott Nehring on the specifics of story structure and have developed a unique understanding of how to use this structure in the development of storylines taken from complex series of events.
Stories often bog down in the middle. The first fifteen pages may be concise and captivating, but they are too often followed by a jumbled mess of disjointed (often preachy) episodes—they may contain lots of action but do not move the story forward. Readers are relieved to finally enter the antagonist’s lair, face the final conflict, and find a semblance of resolution.
In these stories, the writers did not understand the important facets, characters, and occurrences which belong in a well-told story.
Houses can be ranch style, split-level, or Cape Cod bungalow. Trained architects and builders use identical principles and techniques to build each.
Whether a writer first plots out every detail or writes ‘by the seat of the pants,’ recognizing story structure and understanding how to rightly use it is a valuable tool to help build a smooth, entertaining, satisfying storyline, regardless of genre. It even works for non-fiction.
In Part 1, below, I introduce these basic structure components. Later, I’ll introduce their inhabitants and show you how I used Nehring’s structure to weave a jumbled and complex series of true events into an entertaining story.
Life is messy. The alarm fails to wake us, the baby spits up on our new shirt, the car won’t start, road construction has traffic backed up two miles sooner than normal, and we don’t notice the gas gauge is bumping the big, red E until we’re stuck in the middle of honking horns and heat waves. But that’s not a story, that’s life.
What we want to be entertained by, to lose ourselves in, is how those events effect a heroic character as she journeys to conquer an overwhelming opponent, and along the way we want to learn a little more about how we can be heroic, too.
That is what story is all about: the transmission of wisdom from one generation to the next. As human beings, we are hard-wired to receive this vast storehouse of understanding. We instinctively grasp the moral of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but we would miss that valuable nugget if the tale did not follow the prescribed path.
Traditional understanding of story structure is of a beginning (Act 1), a middle (Act 2), and an end (Act 3). In Act 1 we are introduced to the hero and her current dilemma. In the final act we usually like to find problems resolved, with everyone comfortable in their new, improved normal, or at least having learned their lesson; the question asked at story’s beginning has been satisfactorily answered.
It is the middle section that gives many writers indigestion: How do I get there from here? Okay, so my hero is stuck in traffic with a nagging boss on the cell phone and at story’s end I want her to have shown upper management what an incompetent jerk that boss is and have my hero be well on her way to promotion into the boss’s chair. But how do I get her from the traffic jam to the corner office?
Scott Nehring and others (Michael Hauge and P. D. James, to name two) have broken down that middle section into bites of delectable details which not only bridge beginning to ending but add depth to the story’s meaning and intrigue to its plot. We should learn to see this “how” of the story in two progressive steps.
Rather than three acts, Nehring breaks story structure into four acts and has named the story’s middle The Rise of and The Fall of the Hero.
- Act One – we learn the world of the story, meet the hero and her friends, the villain and her cohorts, and learn the question being posed by the problem the hero faces. At first, the hero does not want to upset her status quo to take this impending journey and must (by circumstances) be forced to weigh options until she finally realizes the new path is the only right way to proceed. At that point she Crosses the Threshold into
- Act Two – The Rise of the Hero. She enters a new world and begins her journey, usually instructed along the way by a Mentor from whom she receives a special gift, instruction, or wisdom. She collects allies, skills, and knowledge which will be used to win in the end. She experiences her first direct confrontation with the villain and is established as a viable threat. But before she can win her ultimate goal, everything falls apart in
- The Reversal. This occurs in almost the exact middle of the story and is one reason why Nehring has broken story’s middle section into two parts. In a two-hour film, the reversal occurs at the 60 minute mark. This reversal establishes a defined point from which, going forward, nothing can or will ever again be the same for the hero. She now tumbles into
- The Fall of the Hero. No matter what she does, she fails. Her second big conflict with the villain ends dismally. She becomes exhausted, and it seems all hope is gone. In fact, this is often the point when the cherished Mentor is lost. Often the hero does something distinctly not heroic (breaks a promise, tells a lie, turns her back on someone who needs her). Then in one form or another
- The Hero Dies. Whether it’s financial, social, or physical, this always happens. She’s fired from her last hope of a job, her car explodes, or she runs away and everyone is left with no means to contact her. The other characters believe she is really and truly gone. Then, beyond reason (and sometimes explanation), she
- Is Reborn. The hero reappears, better, stronger, more confident, more determined, and somehow more heroic. She rallies her allies and abilities and plunges toward
- Act Four—the final conflict and conclusion. The hero enters her enemy’s dark domain, gets rid of the villain’s forces, and uses what was received in Act 2 to win the ultimate victory. Now the hero or someone close to her makes a clear statement of fact—the story’s moral, the answer to the question asked at story’s beginning. [It is important to note that if the hero cannot overcome the villain and win, alone and without gimmickry, then she is not really the hero of the story and you have some major rewriting to do.]
- All that is left is the Denouement—seeing the results of the hero’s journey upon the world. It is important that we see the benefit of the hero’s sacrifices. Her world has changed, and the people in that world are significantly better because of what she has done.
Obviously, the hero does not go through this journey alone; nor are her qualities, characteristics, and background chosen arbitrarily. Part 2 will offer an overview of those character distinctives before we put the pieces together in Part 3.
For additional information see http://www.youarewhatyousee.com/blog/free-booklet-morality-points or http://www.dramatica.com/theory/articles/hauge-plot.html.
That was great, thank you, Christine, and perfect timing; I finished final edits to one of my novels today!
Christine will return with part 2 on Tuesday 23rd October and then part 3 on Thursday 29th November.
Christine Hunt is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and author of the non-fiction book The Orchid Murder: Untangling a Web of Unsolved Murders and Legal Malpractice (RightLine. 2013. http://theOrchidMurder.com). She has over 35 years of creative and commercial writing, editing, and layout design experience across a variety of fields and disciplines. Christine taught English and creative writing for over ten years. Right Line Editing & Design was launched April 2005 (www.RightLineEditing.com).
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The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with multi-genre author Ken La Salle – the five hundred and seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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