This lesson on story structure begins a new blog series on the craft of writing. I’ve adapted the piece on structure from my Memoir Writing class. Enjoy!
Structure is the internal pattern-the skeleton, if you will-that holds a story together.
The human body has two major skeletal systems, the axial and the appendicular. The axial skeleton is comprised of the 80 bones in the skull, ribs, and sternum. The 126 bones of the appendicular skeleton include the shoulders, pelvis, and attached limbs.
All humans have an identical number of bones, an identical skeletal system. And yet we all look different. While our looks are, of course, defined partly by what’s visible on the outside-skin tone, hair, eye color, etc.-the skeleton, the length, width and shape of our bones, determines our essential, or identifying, features-our height, the size of our frame, our facial features and so on. From a mere skeleton, a forensic artist can sculpt a bust that resembles the person closely enough for identification by relatives and friends.
Story structure works in much the same way. A writer’s prose style-voice, tone, diction, use of figurative language-determines how readers ‘hear’ and, to some extent, enjoy a story, but the internal structure, the organization of the parts, shapes the piece, makes it readable, and often determines its meaning.
Harriet Doerr begins her novel Stones for Ibarra, the story of a married couple who move from San Francisco to an old family home in Mexico, with the death of the narrator’s husband, Richard. The novel follows, in part, Richard’s work and eventual illness and death. By beginning with his death, Doerr: 1) removes from the reader’s mind the inevitable, yet distracting, narrative question: will Sara’s husband die? 2) shifts the focus-and meaning-of the novel to the journey of this ex-patriot couple, their life among the villagers, lessons learned about life, fate.
So structure plays an enormous role in shaping our stories and determining their meaning.
Like human bones, story structures vary tremendously. A traditional story begins with a situation-a character, set in a particular time and place, confronted by some sort of problem-proceeds in chronological order through a period of rising action, during which confrontations and internal and/or external tensions play out, and ends with a resolution.
But that’s only one way to tell a story.
Experienced writers create hybrids by twisting, inventing and combining structures in endlessly surprising and interesting ways. A writer who’s interested in experimenting with structure can learn a lot from filmmakers. Perhaps because an unfamiliar structure is less challenging in shorter formats-the audience sees the whole in one sitting, making it easier to put pieces in place-filmmakers often take risks with dramatic structure.
These risks don’t always work out-the structure confuses or frustrates the audience. But, as in the Academy award-winning movie Crash, when a complex structure pulls us out of our comfort zone, forces us to think, and think deeply, the result can be positively brilliant.
Questions To Ask About Structure
First, take a close look at your story and determine at what point each major change takes place. If, like many creative people, you write organically, your early drafts may be too loosely organized to determine definitive starts and stops in the action. If this is the case, try creating a rough outline. I know: I hate outlining, too. But an outline really can help us to see a story more clearly, determine exactly what’s going on, figure out what, if any, important information is missing, and, at a glance, to notice illogical leaps.
Now, with a pen, graphically separate the parts of your story. Draw a line at the end of each section or circle the entire section.
Pamela Painter, one of my Emerson College grad school professors, taught us to ‘cut our stories apart with a scissors.’ Cutting and separating the sections accomplishes two things: 1) gives you distance, separates you-more aptly, your feelings and emotions-from the story. I have no idea how this works, but it does; 2) allows you to physically move sections around. If this works for you, terrific-go for it. The idea is to recognize components, like different acts in a play, as opposed to viewing the story as a whole.
Once you’ve determined exactly where each section starts and ends, ask the following:
- Does every detail and action support one main idea? Cut all extraneous pieces.
- Is each section relevant to focus and theme? This is slightly different from the question above. A scene may support an idea, yet be irrelevant. Think cuts directors make before releasing a movie. Say your main character, a slightly off-kilter girl, is Facebook-stalking the hot guy in her chemistry class. That she draws pictures of him and plasters the drawings on her bedroom wall supports the idea of her obsession. However, in a short story, a long scene of her doodling, because it draws the reader from the main story, can skew your focus. Again, cut, cut, cut.
- Does each section advance the story? You may determine that a section or scene is relevant, but for it to work, or do its job, it must move the story forward. Using the example above, a static doodling scene-in other words, a scene where nothing important happens or nothing changes for the main character-will stop the story dead in its tracks. At best, this is boring for readers. Consider cutting.
- Do scenes follow a clear (not necessarily chronological) sequence? Is the pattern discernable? Here cutting the story into sections pays off. Move sections around. Toss the pieces in the air, see where they land. Have fun. Notice what happens. How does reordering change your story? You may be surprised. A simple move-placing the end at the beginning, for instance-can make a significant difference.
- Are all parts logically connected? If you’ve moved scenes or changed their order, are the connections still clear? What changes must you, the author, make in order for the scenes to add up in the reader’s mind, for the story to make sense?
Experiment. Take risks. Have fun!
Next: Structural variations. A description of five common story structures and exercises you can use to make interesting changes to the structure of your story or novel.