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STORY STRUCTURE

 

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there are a lot of opinions floating around about story structure. Some writers firmly insist that structure in stories is entirely unnecessary. Others staunchly assert that structure is absolutely essential to story making. I'm inclined to agree with the latter group. (Click here for some of my reasons.

When I began my quest to get a firm grip on this idea of structure in stories, I decided to explore a number of the most popular story structures I saw being discussed among fiction writers. I thought if I learned about a number of good, proven structures, I would be able to choose the one that would best fit whatever story project I was developing.  Below are nine structure models I examined. Click the titles to read a description of each. 

 
 

The more I learn about building stories, the more convinced I am that at their roots, all the "different" story structure models are not, in fact, different structures at all; they're just different ways of describing  a single, underlying, fundamental structure. Each of the models I've described dissects the basic story structure differently, uses different terminology to describe the segments, and has a different approach to creating each of the component parts--but the underlying structure is the same in all of them. It's like one person cutting an apple into eight "wedges," while another cuts it into six "slices." It's still an apple either way. And either way, the pieces into which it is cut make it easier to eat than trying to swallow the whole apple at once--just like a working understanding of fundamental story structure makes a story easier to develop. 

I've broken the structure down into my own set of "apple slices" that helps me wrap my mind around how this works. Click the label below for descriptions of my slices and an apples to apples comparison of the story structure models above. 

 

There are, of course, forms other than story that narrative fiction can take--vignettes, anecdotes, jokes, poems, and thought experiments, for example. And there are a great many categories of content that can be used to fill the "containers" of the story form--comedy, tragedy, myth, epic, fable, farce, and so forth. There are even variations in the way the story is presented, such as drastically abbreviating one part of the story while expanding another for emphasis, or relating the events of the story out of order as flashbacks. In the case of flashbacks you will have two different, interwoven story structures--the original story (in which the story events still occurred in the right structural order chronologically, even if they're being related out of order), and the story of how that original story (or its significance to the character in a larger context) is uncovered.

But the more I learn, the more I am convinced that there is really only one fundamental, underlying structure that constitutes story. 

That doesn't mean the different models aren't useful; they absolutely are. Each model focuses on different aspects of the structure, goes into different levels of detail, or makes different suggestions for how to navigate a difficult portion of the story form.

Viewing the different models as a variety of perspectives on the same structure instead of as different "kinds" of stories provides writers with a broader range of tools for creating stories. Instead of being limited to a single structure model, a writer who is struggling with a particular part of a given story can consult several different sources for suggestions on how to handle that portion of a story. 

For example, if the Seven Point model's First Plot Point is feeling too vague and nebulous, a writer can switch over to the Hero's Journey for a while and break that segment of the story down further into the Call To Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor, and Crossing of the First Threshold, and then pick up again with the First Pinch Point in the Seven Point model. 

Or, if the Save The Cat model's story beats of Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost,and Dark Night of the Soul are feeling too restrictive, the writer can go with the less explicit Climax segment of the Eight Point Structure, or Second Pinch Point of the Seven Point Structure, which cover the same structural territory. 

In fact, a cohesive story could be constructed using a different model for each section of the story. For example: 

The story begins with an opening image, that leads into a set-up in which the the theme is subtly stated (Save the Cat). The main character experiences a call to a theme-related adventure, which she refuses at first, but after meeting with a mentor, she decides to take on the challenge and crosses the threshold into the adventure (Hero's Journey). Surprising, yet theme-related, complications and obstacles arise (Eight Point) until the character, who has learned from the experience, lets go of the theme-related things in her past life that kept her stuck in old paradigms (Virgin's Promise). More complications arise and she's feeling the pinch of increased pressure for a second time (Seven Point). But she brings the things she has learned together in a grand theme-related denouement, and manages to triumph over the forces of opposition, earning a new and better life(Five Point.)
 

Okay, it's not great literature, but I think it makes my point. At the very least, this perspective offers an assortment of great tools to help authors get around blockages and avoid wandering aimlessly through saggy Act Twos that seem to be headed nowhere at a snail's pace. 

And because I'm a fairly visual person, I've turned them all into a set of handy dandy charts for easy reference. Structural elements are color coded according to my system of touch points and aligned with the corresponding structural elements from the other models (Remember, though, that all of this is just summarized information. For a real understanding of each element, you'll want to consult the actual books that discuss each model in depth.

Click the thumbnails below to open the charts.  In each of the charts, you can click on a brown "card" to go to the page with the summary of that structure model.  Clicking one of the colored "cards" will open a larger image of that card for easier viewing. Hover your mouse cursor over the enlarged image for a summary of that particular story element. The two charts contain the same information, it's just arranged differently.

 

 

 

VERTICAL LAYOUT

In this layout, the stories are arranged vertically with the beginning of the story at the top, and the end at the bottom.  Structure models are arranged from left to right. 

 

HORIZONTAL LAYOUT

In this layout, the stories are arranged horizontally with the beginning of the story on the left, and the end on the right. Structure models are stacked vertically. 

 
 
 
 
 

PRINTABLE CHART

And for a handy portable reference, here's a printable version.  (Corresponds with Horizontal Layout chart.)