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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Story Structure

In my studies of story structure, the biggest surprise I found was how little story development varies. My dear friends, we are such very boring creatures! No matter the genre, the same development of story events occurred, over and over and over.

For this blog entry I wanted to give a quick summary of story structure according to me. Much of this is not original work -- I'm not that brilliant -- but I've synthesized the work of smart people with my own humble observations to come up with a model of story structure that works for me, during my work in coaching writers.

During my studies, I tore apart about 20 *good* modern novels (ie novels that I enjoyed), ranging in genre from literary to adventure to mystery to YA to science fiction, plus a bunch of movies. I did word counts or timed scenes with a watch, listed everything into columns, and then analyzed the commonalities of story progression across genre.

The story can be divided into four more-or-less equal parts, each part with a distinct theme. Furthermore, there are definite story POSTS that occur reliably in the progression of the story, and land reliably within a range of a few percentage points of the whole. I'll put them down very briefly, and use the film *My Big Fat Greek Wedding* to illustrate. BTW I could have picked just about anything to illustrate, but this is a cute movie :-)

ACT ONE: demonstrates the original or starting position of the protagonist, plus the set up to show how he moves into the main story.

Ordinary World -- shows what the protagonist's *normal life* is like. Toula is a 30 year old unmarried Greek woman working in her (extremely intrusive) family's restaurant.

Inciting Incident -- shows a potential change offered to the protagonist, either a choice or an assignment. Toula finds a college brochure that might offer her an opportunity to achieve something different by taking a few classes.

Argument -- the protagonist isn't sure if he will enter the new world or not. Toula must convince her father to allow her to take some courses at the college.

Door -- represents a *journey* into the new world. Toula enters the college campus and starts taking classes.

ACT TWO FIRST PART: the protagonist learns how the *New World* works, and also thinks that once this little journey is over he will be *unchanged* (able to straddle or return to the Ordinary World). This is often shown as a series of three encounters, each increasingly involved.

Toula is shown changing her image to become more glamorous (hair, clothing, ditching the glasses, makeup etc.), answering questions competently in class, and socializing with other students (something she couldn't do as a kid).

Midpoint: an often flashy event that represents either a false high, or a devastating loss, that makes it clear the protagonist can no longer go back to his Ordinary World.

Toula meets Ian, a high school English teacher, and starts dating him even though she knows her family will *never* accept him because he isn't Greek. Shortly afterwards, Nikki tells Toula that the family knows about her romance with Ian, and then Toula must sit before the disapproving family committee that tells her to break it off.

ACT TWO SECOND PART: the protagonist scrambles to regain equilibrium while the antagonistic forces gain power. Toula's family tries to match her with other *suitable* bachelors without success. Finally Ian proposes to Toula, who joyfully accepts, but her family only reluctantly agrees. Ian yields to these powerful forces by becoming *Greek*: becoming baptized and participating in Greek family activities, including a fabulous party in which Ian's conservative parents are contrasted with the noisy Porticullis clan.

Slide: another often flashy event that serves as a funnel. The nature of the climax is now clearly seen. Often there is a sort of *death* present here; think Obi Wan against Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie. (observation courtesy of Blake Snyder in his Save the Cat!, a book I highly recommend). Toula comes home with her wedding plans, only to learn her family has already ordered the invitations and the bridesmaids' dresses.

ACT THREE: the protagonist gears up for the final encounter, although it looks unlikely that he will ever win. Toula is dismayed that her family is so intrusive, and that her family and Ian's are so different.

Darkest Moment: The very worst position that the protagonist can possibly imagine. While preparing for the wedding that morning, Toula realizes she will never be free of her family.

Help from Outside: a small action that allows the protagonist to regroup and win. This story post I recognized courtesy of Nancy Rue and Angela Hunt in a NANGIE writing class I took a few years ago. Toula's grandmother shows Toula her own wedding crown, and Toula realizes that her family all love her and that she is connected to her family in a deep and profound way.

Climax: an often flashy sequence in which the protagonist ultimately wins, if not the outer conflict then certainly the inner (think Rocky). Toula and Ian have a beautiful, Greek, wedding and reception. Toula's father makes a joke that shows how Toula's family and Ian's family, although different, are ultimately the same.

Resolution: tells how the protagonist's life will go on. Toula and Ian are shown several years later in a house next door to her family's house, walking their daughter to Greek school.


OK, there is the story structure in miniature, sort of. Try laying these story points over any story you like -- you'll be surprised at how well they'll match!

This column is for dear friends. I hope it provides some food for thought.


copyright 2008 by Amy Deardon
all rights reserved


Gwen Stewart said...

Amy, this is such great information and so timely for me, as I think about putting together a new novel. Your rundown is perfect for me. Somewhere between a complete seat of the pants writer and an outliner, I find balcony-view explanations of story structure very helpful. This is the perfect length for me to launch a story. :)

A music teacher, I think of story structure like song structure: uncannily similar from story to story, from song to song. I believe to my bones that our brains are 'wired' to accept these structures and find comfort in the familiar feel of them.

Thank you again!

Amy Deardon said...

Hi Gwen -- I agree that there is an inborn response of us humans to story structure. I wrote about that here:

Good luck with your novel!

Travis said...

Hmmm. You certainly make a good case on how a formula works as long as the people enjoy that particular formula. I'm not certain that my stories fit in that particular box. I'd have to ask others who are less biased. Maybe that's what helps me do what I do--complete ignorance of what others are doing.

Amy Deardon said...

You'd be surprised. This is NOT a formula. I liken it to drawing a face -- the eyes are halfway down the head, they are separated by an eye-width, the tip of the nose is an eye-width below the eyes, the start of the ear pinna is at eye-level, etc. etc.

Faces have an infinite variety of appearances, yet they *all* adhere to these proportions. When sketching, you can draw the perfect eye, but if you don't place it correctly the face will always look *off*. Similarly, the closer stories follow these proportions, the *better* they seem. Yes, there are exceptions, even good ones -- I found Lightning by Dean Koontz, and Dead Zone by Stephen King, had a longer wait to the door and an elongated act two part two respectively -- but act two part one and act three respectively in the stories were proportionately smaller. Basically the door or the slide had been pushed back a little. Another story with distorted proportions I saw recently was Wall*E by Pixar films this summer. The door occurred about halfway through the film, and if you watched it you probably felt it picked up in the second half. This is why, IMHO. Basically they should have added another subplot line to fill it out -- there wasn't enough material for a full length film -- but this is just me and I drive everyone crazy making them listen to me analyze this stuff :-) BTW I love Pixar; this was the first film of theirs I wasn't completely delighted by.

I've found as I coach novel construction that whenever anyone says their story *doesn't follow this structure* I can point out how, in fact, it does. I agree with what Gwen says above, that this is a hardwired construct in our brains. See my June blog post (Fairytale) about this!

Philangelus said...

I've always liked this story structure:

1) Protagonist faces a problem
2) Protagonist takes a step to solve it
3) which makes it worse
4) x=x+1; if x<7, return to step 1, otherwise go to step 5
5) When the situation can't get any worse, protagonist solves the initial problem
6) end

Amy Deardon said...

I like this!

Grace Bridges said...

Ooh, this is so true! I've done it too and didn't know it till now. Isn't it funny how even fairly small details all fit! Like drawing a face, as you say.
Cool post!

Anonymous said...

Amy, indeed, there is a definite structure for stories, whether they are in print (novel or short story) or whether they are told through the medium of film.

And the structure is very rigid, especially when it comes to filmmaking, as I learned at a recent screenwriters workshop.

You might want to read Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey," which deals with this structure, or, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell.

Martha Ramirez said...

GREAT post! So much great info!!!!!!!!