Story structure

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  —  Robert Frost

Structure and pattern underlie most things, and story is no exception. I found early on that writing without an idea of story structure was an exercise in futility. I’d sit down, pound out 10-20k words and then read back the resulting mess. It reminded me of the Ira Glass creative process video – although I wouldn’t come across that for many years. The basics were there, the words were in the right order, I was making every kind of mistake possible, but there was some seed of hope under all that mess. Structure wasn’t the only thing, but it was a huge thing, a really undervalued thing.

People talk about the various types of story and if you google you’ll find the 7 basic plots, or any number of variations on that theme. They’re all fundamental variations of the massively unhelpful “stuff happens, or it doesn’t.” So you might look into it more, you learn about the 3 act structure. You’ll not be satisfied, you’ll find it doesn’t really help. Three acts in the size ratio 1:2:1, with transition points between each act and another transition in the middle? That’s 4 acts of equal size! That’ll take you on to something like Larry Brooks’ storyfix site, and you’ll start to really look at deconstructing books and movies. Or you’ll move to Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! and again, you’re digging a little deeper. You’ll read about the snowflake method, you’ll come across sites explaining chiastic structure, you’ll venture into the hero’s journey, etc.

And all of these things are different views, different takes on structure. On the patterns of story telling. No single method explains it all because there is no single way of telling a story. But story, at some level, has structure. It has patterns. It has those things you can stop and spot. You can come to understand it by putting in significant amounts of writing and rewriting until the structures start to come naturally to you. You can take a framework and plot your milestones, knowing you’re saving a large amount of rewriting within. You can set up an entirely chiastic structure that you can use and re-use, knowing that each time you do, you are writing something that fundamentally works.

Obsess about it, but don’t become obsessed with it 🙂

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