Story has many definitions. For John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, a story is “a speaker telling a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.” For Michael Hauge, author of Writing Screenplays That Sell, a story enables “a sympathetic character to overcome a series of increasingly difficult, seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve a compelling desire.” For Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction, story boils down to an equation, “CONFLICT + ACTION + RESOLUTION = STORY.”
According to Joseph Campbell, our souls are born craving stories. It’s part of our genetic makeup. It’s how we understand who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. He spent a lifetime studying the stories of the world, from creation myths to fairy tales, and discovered that no matter where you’re from, your basic stories all distill down to the same basics. Our brains are wired to look for the pattern of a story, and if we don’t find it, we end up feeling dissatisfied.
And the number one rule of successful story writing is to satisfy the reader. Each genre comes with specific expectations. If a reader picks up a romance and there’s no relationship, she’ll be disappointed. If he picks up a mystery and the sleuth fails to interpret the clues and solve the case, he’ll be disappointed. If Joe Average fails to conquer the monster, if the knight fails to slay the dragon, if the action hero fails to conquer the evil villain, the reader will be disappointed. The power of structure is its ability to assure satisfaction for your reader.
Every profession has a baseline of some sort. A house starts with a plan. A painting starts with a sketch. A cake starts with a recipe. Even our own incredible bodies have a skeleton on which to drape the flesh.
Successful stories are no exception. They all have certain elements and, for soul satisfaction, those elements appear in certain places. Ugh, I can hear the cries reverberating through cyberspace. “That sounds like formula, and formula is bad. Formula doesn’t allow for creativity. Formula gets you cookie-cutter stories.” So change the word to structure. Structure gives you form. Structure gives you solidity. Structure saves you from reinventing storytelling with each new story.
Stories are foremost about people. So the first thing your story needs is a main characterthrough whose eyes your story will unfold. That main character is going to want something concrete and specific, and want it desperately. That main character isn’t going to be perfect; he’s going to be flawed—like all of us, so that we can identify with him. He’s going to have a fear/attitude/belief of some sort that will keep him from being all he can be. To make the story interesting, we’re going to throw an opponent in his way—someone who’s going to put sticks in his wheels and poke at his flaw. We’re going to make this opponent create an event that will force the main character to look at his flaw and make a decision that will change his life forever. Because we want him to overcome his flaw, we’re going to give him an ally of some sort that will help him through his journey.
How do you play these elements in their most effective way? Through the various signposts that create forward movement along your main character’s journey.
For me, what works best is dividing the story in four sections that roughly cover one quarter of the story.
In the set-up, I introduce the main character, the opponent, the ally and any other important story character. I give the reader of glimpse of my character’s “ordinary world,” then I throw that world in chaos by introducing an event that changes the balance of his world and throws him into conflict. I let the reader know what the main character wants, what he fears, and what he risks losing if he doesn’t choose to change his ways. At the end of the set-up, I force my character to make a decision that will propel him into action.
In the second quarter, the main character tries to solve his problem using outdated methods. He tries to restore his balance to where it was before and fails. He tries and makes things worse. He may win something on one level, but he’ll lose something on the level that would take him forward on his growth. I end this section with a mid-point event that gives the main character a glimpse of what his reward for change could be, then have him fall back on old habits because of fear. I make this event emotional, and if possible, reiterate the theme of the story in a metaphorical way.
By the third quarter, he knows he has to change or he’ll lose what’s important to him. He’s taking steps with a new mindset. It’s hard, but he perseveres. Then at the end of this section, I force him to have to make another choice. I test his resolve.
This decision is going to yield to disaster that will start the fourth quarter. It’s going to look as if he’s going to lose whatever he’s after. He’s at his most vulnerable. Motivations that he might not have understood were pushing him come to the surface. He can now act by making a conscious choice. He makes some sort of sacrifice that shows he has changed and will not go back to his old ways. He now deserves the prize.
For me, life’s too short for an unhappy ending. I get enough defeat in real life. When I take the time to read (or write) a story, I want the hero to get what he wants or something better. And if he doesn’t end up with his prize, I at least want to know that he’s changed for the better.
The power of structure is knowing I have a solid skeleton in place. This allows my mind to spend its energy on finding creative ways to attach the flesh that will yield a fully formed story that will, I hope, provide my reader with a satisfying experience.