Thursday, February 21

Story Structure Provides A Framework For Meaning

PJ Reece in How to Create a Story Structure to Die For writes that a story is really made up of two stories and a middle. What happens at the middle of the story? In a word: death.


In the middle of your story the hero dies, though not literally.

Figure 1: 10 of Swords
Like the tarot card of the same name, his death isn't literal. If there is a death card in the tarot I think it's the 10 of swords (see Figure 1). The death card (see picture at top)--the 13th card of the major arcana--is more about change. It signifies the end of one story, or way of life, and the beginning of the next. More than anything, it's about rebirth.

Heroes Have To Fail Before They Succeed 

In genre fiction, heroes usually succeed in their quest. We want to see the good-guy (or gal) win and triumph over their obstacles.

But in order for the protagonist's victory to mean something there has to be an ever present sense of the possibility of loss.

The way we give the reader this sense is by making it clear that the hero can fail. In fact, failure should be much more likely than victory.

How do we do this? How do we convince our readers that the protagonist can fail? By showing him fail, repeatedly, earlier in the story. As PJ Reece writes:
[In the Oscar winning movie, The Artist, a] silent movie star watches in dismay as talking pictures become all the rage.  George Valentin finds himself with no job, no girl, no more adoring fans.  He takes up the bottle and slips into oblivion.  Most protagonists would straightaway fall into the dark heart of the story and wake-up to the facts of life.

But not George.

Our hero continues to believe in yesteryear, which lays himself open to more punishment.  The screenwriter pushes George to rage and all the way to self-loathing.  His beliefs are literally killing him.  It looks like George might actually commit suicide.

That’s a story!
That brings us to the midpoint, the "dark heart of the story". This is where the hero relinquishes his old belief system--the symbolic death--and embraces a new way of viewing the world, and his problems.

Why The Hero Needs To Suffer

In each story there is a truth. Perhaps this truth is covered by the theme (for instance, 'liars never win') or perhaps it's something the hero needs to find out before he can accomplish his goal (this is his external goal, the story goal).

For instance, in The Firm Mitch McDeere had to re-discover the truth that he loved the law, and not just the money he could make from practicing it. It was that truth that let him to steer his way through the Scylla and Charybdis of the FBI and the mob.

The point is that the hero's suffering has to be connected to this truth, the truth that they need to uncover to overcome the obstacles before them and achieve their goal.

For instance, in Shrek the truth was that he had built up layers of protection around him to keep the world at bay because he didn't think anyone could love him. He was scared of getting hurt. Shrek had to confront this fear and overcome it in order to win the hand of the lady he loved. He had to come to a point where he realized the truth--that he wanted a companion, that he wanted Fiona. Shrek's failures helped him realize this.

Or so I would argue.

Other articles you might like:

- 6 Ways To Get Rid Of Infodumps At The Beginning Of A Story
- 8 Tips From Chuck Wendig On How To Read Like A Writer
- Author Solutions: The New Carnys?

Photo credits:
- Top photo (13th card of the major arcana in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck): "RWS Tarot 13 Death.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith. File is no longer under copyright in US.
- Figure 1: 10 of Swords in the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, "Swords10.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith. File is no longer under copyright in US.

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