Wednesday, October 2

The Structure of Story

The Structure of Fiction


When I was a kid I had absolutely NO idea how to write an entertaining story. I wish someone had whispered the phrase “story arc” in my ear, it would at least have given me a place to start.

The Classic Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey


The Hero’s Journey is something we feel in our bones, it is the story of human civilization, but let’s make it explicit. What are its elements? We need:

A character, in a situation, with a well-defined problem, who tries to repeatedly solve it, but he fails and, in failing, makes the problem worse.

At the climax of the story, the hero makes a final attempt to achieve his/her goal. The result of this final attempt -- of the race to the final confrontation -- should unfold from the pattern of the hero’s victories and failures during the rest of the story.

If that sounds a bit mysterious, hang in there, I’ll unpack it.

BTW, that summary was from Philip Brewer’s post, Story Structure in Short Stories.

The Inward and Outward Journeys


Let’s break down the idea of a journey. There is usually an inward journey for the hero as well as an outward journey. 

In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage (inner journey) went from cowardice to courage and (outer journey) from incompetence to mastery. These two journeys, these two paths, come together. Cage does something very brave just before the Final Confrontation and this gets him through the All Hope is Lost point. Mastering his cowardice was essential for Cage winning the final battle.

Again, more about this, below.

1. Opposites are good


This story structure comes to us by way of Larry Brooks's article: The Short Story on Structuring Your Short Story

Brooks writes:

"Like life, our stories always reside somewhere along that same continuum of set-up… shift… response… shift… attack… shift… resolution."

For instance, in the setup, the hero -- I like using the word ‘hero’ rather than protagonist -- is going through his normal everyday routines -- he struggles with the neighbourhood bully, he is in love with someone completely out of his league, he dreams of taking over the lucrative family business. That’s the hero's ordinary world.

Then something happens. There’s a shift. It could be that the protagonist gets a magical golden ticket, it could be that a young boy, sees a hologram and goes in search of an older, mysterious rather dodgy, character.

In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf came to Frodo, who had recently inherited the One Ring, and advised him to take it away from the shire in order to protect his community.

Okay. So. Another name for what just happened was the ‘Call to Adventure.’ After anything big happens in a story, there’s a response. In the case of Lord of the Rings, they are chased by the Black Riders.

But what I like about Larry Brook’s way of looking at things is that we really don’t need a lot of fancy names: the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, and so on.

The key, the bedrock, is that something negative happens that derails the hero, and then something positive happens. That’s the pattern. The negative things that happen keep getting worse but the hero manages to keep going. Negative and positive. This back and forth keeps up until the hero and villain fight it out at the end and settle the matter once and for all.

Hook the reader early.


Plant a hook in the first couple of lines. Be bold. Here are a few first lines I think are marvelous:

“Halston thought the old man in the wheelchair looked sick, terrified, and ready to die. He had experience in seeing such things. Death was Halston's business; he had brought it to eighteen men and six women in his career as an independent hitter. He knew the death look.” (The Cat From Hell, Stephen King)
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984, George Orwell)

If you THINK you have a good hook for your novel, but you’re not sure, test it out on your friends -- or even random strangers in line with you at Starbucks -- tell them your hook and watch their face, that will tell you pretty much everything you need to know. Also, do they ask questions? Are they curious about what happens?

I think it’s a good idea to include your hero’s perspective in the hook, although, that said, only one of the stellar opening lines I included, above, say anything about the protagonist (The Cat from Hell). As always, it’s up to you. If it works, it works.

2. Introduce the elements of a central problem as soon as possible. 


We’ve given the reader a hook. They’ve read the first sentence or two, now we need to draw them into some conflict, some problem, that is directly related to, connected to, the central problem of the story. 

Also, we need to fulfill the promise of the hook, or at least give the reader enough information to make them curious enough to keep reading. 

Here are the first two sentences of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” (I know I just shared the first sentence, above, but this is one of the best first paragraphs I’ve ever read):

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

Now, I thought the first line was a very good hook, but just look at that second sentence! 

Right away, the reader knows there is going to be a lot that is strange and a lot that is mysterious occuring in the Dursley’s life and the Dursley’s are going to HATE it. I also knew right away that I would find the Dursley’s trials and tribulations humorous, because the Dursley’s seem like perfectly horrible people! (Which they are.)

3. The Ordinary World


Show your readers your character going through his/her daily routine, and show them one problem that he needs to overcome, one thing he/she is failing at.

For example, Harry Potter is failing to fit into the Dursley’s family, he is failing to find people who love him. Of course, it’s not his fault, the Dursley’s are despicable people, but, still, it’s a problem. Why is Harry failing to fit in? Well, he is the offspring of someone who could do magic and the Dursley’s are terrified of that. They are terrified their friends will find out they are related to people who can do magic. They are terrified of being rejected. So, the very thing the Dursley’s are terrified of, they do to Harry Potter. 

I have to be honest, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is one of my favorite stories! Both because it is very fun to read and because it is well structured as a story.

4. Try and Fail Cycles


Here’s the way I think about the construction of a story. The hero starts his journey in the ordinary world, going to his ordinary life. 

He is secretly in love with the lead cheerleader, but she doesn’t know he exists, he gets beaten up for his lunch money, etc. But then something happens that changes his situation. For Harry Potter it was a letter that invited him to attend a school for wizards. 

Generally, at around the 25% mark of a story the hero’s situation changes. Often when something big happens, there are a number of attempts to change but the first couple of attempts fail. For example, with Harry Potter, there were a LOT of attempts to deliver Harry’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts before he ultimately received it.

One movie that is great at demonstrating this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think of the scene where Indy is thrown into the Well of Souls, think of the number of times he tries to fight off the snakes and then his torch goes out, and then he tries to climb a statue, and then it tips over, etc. (I talk more about this in Parts of Story: Try-Fail Cycles.)

5. Midpoint confrontation


This is where the hero confronts the villain (or where the protagonist confronts the antagonist). Obviously, the protagonist can’t defeat the villain here, if he did then the story would be over! 

What generally happens is the hero learns that he’s wrong about something he believes about the world. He’s wrong about something important, essential, to the problem he is trying to solve. Further, he learns this because he confronts the antagonist. 

For example, in Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage, at the midpoint (Spoiler!) discovers that he has been tricked. He journeyed to a location because he thought he could fight the Omega (the Big Bad) but he was met by Alphas (run of the mill bad things). He discovered he was being tricked. That was an important piece of information that significantly changed Cage’s plans.

So, in summary, at the midpoint the hero fails in defeating the antagonist but he learns something vital from the confrontation.

6. The Hero’s Plan: The race to the final confrontation


At some point the hero comes up with a plan. Generally this is somewhere around the 75% mark. Generally, there is some sort of group scene around this point (your main characters meet in a bar, restaurant, etc), the hero has a touching bonding moment with his band of travellers.

Make sure the stakes are clear. What could the hero lose? What would the hero gain?

7. Something goes wrong: try and fail cycle.


The hero is racing toward the final confrontation, but of course something goes wrong. 

The hero’s plan was good, plausible, perhaps brilliant, but something went wrong and it failed. 

This is a try, fail cycle. The hero fails, then he tries something new. Then he fails. Then he tries something else. Then he fails. 

Then, facing certain death, he tries a new thing in desperation, believing that if it works he will die but at least the antagonist will be eliminated. And that is a good thing because it means his family and friends will be safe.

And it works.

Obviously this is difficult to set up. In the movie, Edge of Tomorrow, the protagonist, Cage, was introduced as a coward -- that is what he needs to overcome -- so when the final confrontation happens we need Cage to be prepared to give up his own life for the people in his community, for humanity. And he does.

8. All Hope is Lost


Toward the end of the Try and Fail cycle I just spoke about, the hero will experience an ultimate setback. They will fail, but they will fail in such a way that it seems there is no way back. At this point, often, the A-story (the outer journey) and the B-story (the inner journey) come together. Further, these threads come together in such a way that the hero sees the way out, the way to POSSIBLY win the confrontation.

9. Resolution


Either the hero defeats the villain or not. In popular fiction, generally, he does. And ideally, it should be done cleverly. If you can surprise the reader here, but in a way that makes sense and grows from the hero’s challenges, that is the stuff of which great stories are made.

There’s a reason why stories like Star Wars: A New Hope, Edge of Tomorrow and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark were box office favorites.

I urge you to take a peek at The Structure of A Short Story by Sarah A. Holt, it’s an older post, but it’s much shorter than mine and she has a good sense of humor.

BTW, I’ve begun reading my posts over at YouTube, so if you would rather listen to this, here is the url: Structure of Fiction.

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