Toolbox – Building a Story Structure

In the beginning, the story is sentence. The sentence is structured to have meaning – for this story. The paragraph is structured to show movement, a concept. A scene develops the structure of flow, and change, and connection.

A story: what is it? A character who struggles to resolve a conflict. That story is confined by the structure placed around it – the housing, or box, or container. Whether that container is square and follows the norms for the genre, or maybe moves into a round container for something different, it is the container; the beginning and end.

A lot of books talk about structure and what it is. Most of it can be taken with a pinch of salt, much like the chatter about POV.

After much discussion, many words and analogies and waving of arms, of looking inside books of people who tell us they know what it is, we have decided:

Structure is something that is the form that holds the story together. Whether you start with structure (the 3-act structure or the incline or any of the other terms or concepts) or start with an outline or start with a billowy cloud idea that floats around in your head, by the time the story is ready to be placed within the words that confine it – the structure – the beginning, middle and end are there; the conflict that led to the plot that led to the plan for how to put this here and that there and to hold off on this little piece of information and to drip-feed that little bit through that character or this moment or . . . you get the idea. The ‘feel’ of the story and how to best represent it to the reader to best effect – that is the structure.

 

Every house is a structure that represents a house to someone who knows what the concept of house should be/is to them. A 3-bed from the 1880’s compared to a 3-bed from the 1950’s compared to a 3-bed apartment on Glenelg foreshore. All different in how they look (inside and out), how they were built (and updated/modified over time), how they are viewed by others (owner, buyer, visitor, developer); all have the same ‘format’ of 3-bed. Yet, they are all structures used for the purpose of housing. A caravan is a house; it just moves from one place to another, as the owner requires. A transportable building can also be moved, but sits still for longer, or for a purpose, or relates to the social standing of the owner/resident. A log cabin is a structure, a house. A bird’s nest is a structure, a house (just not for a human – usually), a kennel is a structure.

Each structure has a way in, a way out (sometimes the same place as the way in, sometimes not), a place where the resident can look out and see the (world) view (also limited by the structure), a place where the outside(r) can look into the structure, get a close and personal view/sense of what’s going on inside. Each structure has a ‘path’ that leads from here to there to somewhere else (halls, through-ways). Each structure contains elements that are ‘owned’ by one character (envisage a bedroom space, clothing), and elements that are communal – where more than one character can convene, work, move around, assist, hinder, etc.

Just because one house has a specified structure, doesn’t mean all houses have the same structure. A house is defined by its purpose – and a story structure is no different.

Story structure is the way the story is put together to hold it up, to present to the world, to hold within the characters and places and events that make up the story.

In the simplest of terms, find the character and give them a conflict – how can this conflict be demonstrated to best effect? Where in the story arc is the best place for . . . etc. etc. etc.

Writing is utterance – chant and rant and litany. A reader expects a story to be within a structural element: beginning, middle, and end. A reader strives to reach the end to ‘find out what happened’ to the character in the story. And the writer wants the reader to strive to the end, to retain the words and feeling of the ‘house’ of the story – to keep it on their shelves so they can re-read the words and re-feel the emotional impact of that house. Structure is an invisible element that combines a strong foundation with solid walls, interesting surroundings and real people who live there.

Now put that to good use.

The 3-Act Structure

1 – establish world, characters, and question/problem. (25%)

2 – journey/quest, wrestle with problems, difficulties along the way. (50%)

3 – concludes the plot with a climax, wrapping up issues and answering questions. (25%)

Aristotle’s Incline

Doing a diagram of the story structure (the arrangement of parts of the novel) plants the design of the story/novel/book in your mind, and gives an overview of direction (path).

The 7 Stories/Plot (some would say)

1 – overcoming the monster

2 – rags to riches

3 – the Quest

4 – Voyage and return

5 – Comedy

6 – Tragedy

7 – Rebirth

 

Conflicts:

Human v human

Human v nature

Human v god

Human v society

Human in the middle

Woman and man

Human v him/herself

 

Meta-plot begins with anticipation stage

(call to adventure), followed by the dream stage

(adventure begins). Hero has some success

(illusion of invincibility), followed by the frustration stage

(confront the enemy – illusion of invincibility lost); worsens in nightmare stage

(climax) where hope is lost, then resolution when hero overcomes their burden against the odds.

Sound familiar? It’s a story structure – how you put the story inside the parameters so that it tells the story in the best way possible, so that the reader understands the progression and is absorbed by the story elements (and is not confused by where or when that part of the story is).

 

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