The other day, I asked where lots of folks had problems with their stories. “Plot” and “structure” came up a lot (and I feel your pain). Hence, here we are with 25 things you might wanna know about narrative structure.
1. Every Story Has Structure
Whether you put it there or not, no story goes from start to finish without structure. Structure is either something you design as a storyteller or something that just happens. Sometimes the structure is the right one. Sometimes it’s the wrong one. (You’ll know it’s wrong because the story will suddenly feel like it’s got a dick growing out of its forehead. “Something’s off,” you’ll say. And the story will respond, “Maybe it’s the swinging forehead dick?”) If you have a good gut for a story, then you will intuit a strong structure as you go. If your instincts aren’t that sharp, it helps to design the story’s structure before moving forward.
2. Think Of It As Story Architecture
Structure serves story; story does not serve structure. A cathedral is built toward certain considerations: the beauty of God, the presence of God’s story, the need for acoustics, the accommodation of seating, the sacrificial altar, the DJ booth, and so on. You design a structure to highlight the type of story you’re telling. Using a non-linear structure in a mystery story is so that you maximize on the uncertainty and use the rejiggered narrative to create suspense. Structure has purpose. Structure is where art and craft collide.
3. The Two Essential Pieces
Most stories have at their core two critical components: The Fuck Up, and Trying To Fix The Fuck Up. Something goes wrong or something changes — a divorce, the Apocalypse, a lost child, someone puts ALF back on the air — and then one or several characters strive to fix that which has gone wrong. (In effect, reversing or correcting — or sometimes exploring — the narrative change of state.) Maybe they succeed. Maybe they fail. Maybe they achieve a Pyrrhic victory where they succeed but not without significant cost. What this really reveals are the most critical components to structural storytelling: a conflict is essential as is the character agency to correct that conflict. Without those, your structure is naught but a straight line. A straight line is the most boring construction a story can take. Aim for any shape but straight.
4. Said Differently, From Order To Chaos
Storytelling is the push-and-pull of order and chaos, the horny tumble and tangle of limbs as each struggles to overcome the other. Signal moves up and down, transitioning from a clear frequency to an inky squiggle of chaotic uncertainty which in turn reveals the structure. And that structure highlights the up-and-down and push-and-pull. The flat lines of order give way to the ascent (or more properly, descent) into chaos.
5. Narrative Measurement
I have explained this before, but fuck it, you’re duct-taped to that chair nice and tight and I know you can’t squirm away HA HA HA: narrative, like all things, can be measured. You don’t have to measure it, same as you don’t have to measure that fish you caught or the fishing rod that caught it (insert your own keenly-veiled sexual metaphor here!). If you do measure, know that beats make scenes, scenes make sequences, sequences make acts, and between each act is a turn of sorts, a shifting of the story’s hips, cocking this way, or that. Ignore it if you like, but if you’re building a house, you might want to know what a brick looks like.
6. Sliced In Thrice Nicely With My Knife
You could argue that all stories fall into three acts — and, in filmmaking, if they don’t fall that way they’re damn well pushed. Act One is the Set-Up (first 25%), Act Two is the Confrontation (next 50%), Act Three is the Resolution (final 25%). It’s an imperfect description and damn sure not the only description, and in the grand scheme of things you could, if you chose, distill it down to beginning, middle, and end.
Whatever structure you give to a story is also a structure you can give to an individual act. In this way, each act is like a story within a story with its own ups and downs and conflicts and resolutions. As an act closes the tale told there either evolves or transforms entirely to manifest new aspects of the tale. For an example, look to the stages of our lives: child to teen to adult to doddering Depends-wearing gadabout (or at least that’s how I hope my own final arc plays out). While we remain the same person through such life changes, our story grows and shifts and becomes something else. Thus is the way a story’s acts flow into one another.
8. Complexity Breeds Complexity
The more complicated your story, the more acts that story is likely to feature — it’s like how you get gremlins wet, they just make more goddamn gremlins? Like that. A bigger, stranger, crazier story is likely to demand a bigger, crazier, stranger structure. Reason a film tends to only have three acts is because a film is around 100 minutes long — and because audiences crave the comfort of simplicity for a number of reasons good and bad. Shakespeare, for instance, rocked a five-act structure.
9. Omne Trium Perfectum
That’s Latin for, “I’m sorry, there are two girls in my bathroom.” *checks notes* No, wait, that can’t be right. Oh! Oh. Here it is. Loosely translated, “Every set of three is complete.” Even if you ignore all other structural components, this is a good one to keep an eye on — the Rule of Threes suggests that all aspects of your story should have at least three beats. Anything that has any value or importance should be touched on three times and, further, evolve a little bit each time. Every character arc, ever act, every scene, every setting, every motif or theme, needs you the storyteller to call it back at least three times.
10. The Power Of The Pivot
The story must from time to time pivot — as the saying goes, the tiger must change his panties. *checks notes* Damnit, who wrote these? Stripes. Stripes. The tiger must change his stripes. Jesus. This is true of characters, too. Or the world and its rules. Change is a critical element to storytelling, but you cannot change aspects wildly and completely. It must be gradual and believable, moving only a single phase shift over, the way water becomes ice — it’s an expected and believable shift. It’s why I prefer to think of this and call it a pivot. That word intimates a turn of the body, not a dizzying backflip. Pivot points will mark those narrative moments when your structure turns and things change. When one act becomes another, for instance, that is when the story pivots for the audience. This could mean an evolution of conflict, a revelation of new information, a major character life change. Any major shift in the story will do.
11. Escalations And Reversals
Again, if you don’t care much about formal structure, just tune your intestinal frequency to these two ideas: first, the story must escalate, or in all-caps-speak, SHIT GOTTA GET DOUBLE-BIG FUCKED UP YO; second, the story must feature occasional reversals where One State (order, victory, hope) becomes the Opposite State (chaos, loss, despair), or in all-caps-speak, YO BRO THE STORY SWITCHED IT AND FLIPPED IT AND BOGGLED MY SHIT SON. Dang, if I could write a novel in all caps, I would.
12. Why The Ejaculatory Arc Works
We’ll talk a wee bit more about Freytag and his arcing glob of narrative jizz (it was Douglas Rushkoff who I first heard use the term “male ejaculatory arc” to describe the standard structural shape of modern narrative) in just a moment, but the reason this general shape works is because it reveals escalation — things grow worse or more complicated or more intense as the tale moves forward. A story in the reverse would be anti-climactic, which is I guess to say, like an ejaculation on rewind.
13. The Arc As Microstructure
Hard time thinking about plotlines or subplots or act structures? Think instead of how a story comprises a number of smaller and larger arcs — an arc just being a component of your story that begins and ends (or, even better, rises and falls). Characters, themes, events, settings — these can have arcs. Some fill a whole story, some are just little belt loops popping up here and there. Some arcs begin where others end. Many overlap, rubbing elbows or shoulders or other filthier parts. Television is a great place to study arcs (and if I may suggest a show: Justified, on FX). Comic books, too.
14. For Every Story, A Structure
Every story demands a different structure. No universal structure exists. It’s why that mopey old saw about there being only seven plots or some bullshit is, well, bullshit. If you distill them down to their barest (and in many ways most meaningless) essence, sure, that’s true. But the art is in the arrangement. The structure you build around the plot to support the story is where the elegance lies.
15. I’m Talking Motherfucking Freytag, Y’all
One structure you can look at: Freytag’s Pyramid. Or Triangle. Or Pubic Thatch. Whatever you care to call it. Gustav Freytag said, Mein Gott, all diesen plottenheimer schmeckt der same to meinein mouthenpartsen. Translated, every story features five key structural beats mirroring five acts: Exposition (introduce characters and world) –> Rising Action (conflict creates tension) –> Climax (confrontation leads to a major change) –> Falling Action (conflict resolves) –> Denouement (dangly bits are all tied-up or trimmed away). It is, like all structural explorations, equal parts “useful” and “a garbage scow set aflame.” Not every plot fits. Further, modern storytelling (which usually trims five acts to three) pushes that climax further toward the end, which means the falling action and denouement get squished, as if between two Sumo wrestlers.
16. From Five To Seven
Behold, a rough seven-act structure: Intro (duh) –> Problem or Attack (duh) –> Initial Struggle (character first tussles with source of conflict) –> Complications (conflict worsens, deepens, changes) –> Failed Attempts (oops, that didn’t work) –> Major Crisis (holy goatfucker shitbomb, everything’s gone pear-shaped) –> Climax and Resolution (duh). Not a bad look at the way many modern stories play out.
17. Ain’t Nothin’ But An Aristotle Thang
Two words: anagnorisis and peripeteia. Both from Aristotle’s theory of tragedy (and two words that if you get in Scrabble, you automatically win a balloon ride or something). Anagnorisis is a discovery made by a character. Peripeteia is a dramatic change (either positive or negative) within the story. Each feeds into the other in the same way I spoke of order and chaos earlier — a character’s discovery may lead to a change in fortune, or a change in fortune may lead to a new discovery. These two things tumble around and around like a pair of hedgehogs battling one another in a washing machine until finally they reach catastrophe, which in Aristotelian terms is what closes the story — either the character wins or is defeated by the conflict or by himself (and in true tragic form, the character often defeats himself).
18. The Monomyth: Storytelling Epiphany Or Sublime Bullshit — You Decide!
Ever since Star Wars hit, a lot has been made of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey — AKA, “The Monomyth.” It is neither The Best Thing Since Blowjobs or The Worst Thing To Happen To Modern Fiction. It’s just a thing — one more structural consideration you can choose to use or toss in the medical waste bin at your local health clinic. While it’s got a lot of extra fiddly bits, the Monomyth can be distilled as: Departure (hero leaves normalcy and comfort on an adventure spurred by some call to action) –> Initiation (hero meets trials and tribulations both personal and impersonal) –> Return (hero comes back to the world changed and brings with him boons for his buddies). It’s got 17 total steps (or 8, if you want the distilled version). Want to examine its application? Fuck George Lucas. Seek James Joyce.
19. The Morphology Of The Folk-Tale
I do not have the space or the time in this list to explore all 31 of Vladimir Propp’s structural steps which are meant to explicate the narrative nature of folk-tales (Russian folk-takes in particular). I mean, dang, I got shit to do. Like eat a sandwich. Or stare at the floor. Or gloomily masturbate. It’s a very specific rendering of narrative structure, but it could be enlightening in some fashion. I’ll trust your Google-Fu to get started.
20. Did You See Last Night’s Episode?
And no, by “episode” I do not mean, “that time when Chuck went apeshit at Arby’s and started slathering his nude goblin body in Horsey Sauce.” Different kind of episode. No, here I mean episode-as-narrative-structure. Television and comic books tend to be episodic, with any serialized elements packaged away as story arcs (noted earlier). Episodic storytelling tends to chop up each tale in neatly-packaged plot pieces, with each piece theoretically resolving by its end and then together forming a larger story. Generally, television works on acts separated out by commercial breaks. Episodic narrative may make your story feel more manageable — but, at the same time, placing an episodic structure inside a non-episodic format (say, a novel or a film) is likely to feel artificial and/or inauthentic.
21. My Porn Director Name Will Be “Therefore Butts”
Click here and get schooled by the South Park guys. The key thing they’re getting across with this is that scenes and events in storytelling don’t happen independently of one another. There must exist a chain of cause and effect, of action and opposite reaction, of consequence. Dominoes do not fall separate from one another. They fall against one another. Embroider that profound shit on a throw pillow.
22. From Aperitif To Digestif
Fuck you, I like food metaphors. So, here’s one — consider how the structure of a seven-course meal works in terms of storytelling. You start with a Aperitif (guests become acquainted over a drink) and progress through a series of dishes meant to both embody the meal and challenge the palate, with certain contextual shifts in taste (sorbet and/or cheese) to punctuate larger events. Dessert rolls along as kind of a climactic moment and then coffee and the digestif appear to give one final strong dose of taste-punching goodness in order to help the eater digest the meal he just consumed. You could chart it on a graph and it might look similar to narrative structure. Then again, maybe I’m just hungry.
23. You Can’t Structuralize Me, Man
Non-linear storytelling would seem to have a non-traditional structure, and that’s true, to a point. But what you’ll ultimately find is that, while the plot events may bounce around like a meth-cranked dormouse, the structure that occurs is still one that you can identify. (Which tells us that plot and narrative structure are there to complement one another but are not actually the same thing.)
24. Tend To Your Organic Story Garden, You Goddamn Hippie
Writing without structure is a challenge equivalent to writing with structure — if you do it right, you get something that feels organic and unexpected. If you do it poorly, you’ll end up with the storytelling equivalent of the Winchester House: doors that never open, stairways that end in walls, rooms that serve little purpose. If one method’s not working? Duh, try the other. Which leads me to…
25. The Final Word
If the application of structure helps you tell a better tale: use it. If you find it artificial and it only hampers your efforts: kick it in the mouth and chuck it down an open manhole cover. This stuff isn’t here to oppress you — it’s a tool for when you need it and invisible when you don’t. Some stories will call for the strong spine of structure. Some stories need to be altogether hazier, stranger, less pin-down-able. Just know that if you’re having some trouble grasping how the plot moves from one piece to another, it might be time to take a gander at borrowing from the many structural storytelling examples that exist. Either that, or maybe you need to eat a baggie of magic mushrooms or something. Your call.
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