Story Structure

Story matters.

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places

If nothing else, attempt to master the art of story and the quality of your work will improve.

I say “attempt” because story is so large, so all encompassing that it will take most a lifetime to gain even a journeyman’s level of craftsmanship. It’s only a few who ever truly master the art of story.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. And it’s only by bleeding onto the page that those masters were made in the first place.

That’s why you’re here after all. To learn. So let’s get to it.

Story has a structure.

Yes, I know there are unstructured stories in the world, but you could also argue that an unstructured structure is a structure (ponder that for a second…)

Going back to a classical narrative again, there are certain stylistic elements that we see again and again throughout history that for some reason, they resonate with our human brains. We think in a linear, causal, consistent way.

How do we write stories with resonance?

By learning how to structure our stories, we harness the power of these ancient storytelling archtypes and techniques.

Let’s break it down.

The smallest part of a story is a beat.

Referring back to Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, he defines a beat as a behavioral exchange shown in action/reaction.

Let me give you an example.

“And again, the slip, the lunge, that brush of fingertips, and he’s watching his daughter as she’s carried away. This time, though, he doesn’t leap. He clings frozen to the rock, his stomach knotted, his mind a howling void. Daddy! Just before Mara disappears, he reaches out to her—one arm raised, as if in farewell. She reaches back, and for just a moment, their eyes meet. Just a moment, and she’s gone.” – Vernal Fall by Edward Ashton (January 2017)

Now apply the beats–the behavioral exchanges resulting in either an action or reaction:

And again, the slip, the lunge, that brush of fingertips (Action), and he’s watching his daughter as she’s carried away (Reaction).

This time, though, he doesn’t leap(Action or lack thereof). He clings frozen to the rock, his stomach knotted, his mind a howling void(Reaction).

Daddy! Just before Mara disappears, he reaches out to her(Action)—one arm raised, as if in farewell. She reaches back(Reaction),

and for just a moment, their eyes meet(action). Just a moment, and she’s gone.(Reaction)

Can you see the way the beats build? The tension in this one short paragraph rises dramatically through the use of action/reaction beats until the final beat where Mara goes over the edge of the waterfall.

I remember reading this story in slush and being unable to breath because the tension, the way the author builds those beats is just exquisite. If you haven’t read the whole story, go now. Read “Vernal Fall” by Edward Ashton.

Beats build scenes.

A scene is a conflict caused action that changes some aspect of the character’s life in either a positive or negative way. Ideally, every scene should create meaningful change.

Did you catch the important parts there?

Conflict-caused.

Meaningful change.

If we’re building our scenes using beats, and every beat is an action/reaction, now we’re compiling those action/reactions, building the intensity, cranking up the conflict, until something changes.

Can it change back? Sure. Reversals happen all the time–until the end of the story.  The reader will be disappointed if you rewind the story and take it all back. But we’ll get to that another day when we talk about fulfilling promises.

Let’s go back to “Vernal Fall”:

“He’s watching a baseball game when the call comes, half-asleep on his couch in the heat of the late afternoon. The ring snaps him awake. He fumbles for the receiver, drops it twice before he manages to bring it to his ear.

“Hello?”

There’s a hesitation on the other end of the line. His stomach clenches.

“Mr. Garrett?”

He nods, swallows, finally manages to croak out a yes.

“My name is Michael Burke, sir. I’m a ranger at Yosemite. Your daughter—there’s been an accident. You need to come out here as soon as you can.”

Garrett opens his mouth to speak—is she?—but no, of course she is. Burke would have said if she were still alive. Garret drops the phone into his lap, and Burke’s voice fades to a tinny whine. The Pirates are up by a run. Manny Ramirez steps to the plate.

Put me back.” – “Vernal Fall” by Edward Ashton

For the sake of this exercise, identify the beats/action/reaction. Now let’s look at this segment as an entire scene.

Conflict-caused action that creates meaningful change in the character’s life:

Garrett learns through a phone call that his daughter has been in a fatal accident and he is forced to deal with the consequences of her death.

When you’re writing, ask yourself, “What is the point of this scene?” Quite often, you’ll find the answer is exposition.

Cut it.

If the scene doesn’t involve a conflict caused action that creates meaningful change, it shouldn’t be there.

Especially in flash.

Scenes make up sequences.

For the most part, we’re talking longer works than flash fiction now. But since we’re here, we might as well do it right.

When scenes are strung together, they create sequences. We’ve already established that each scene will create change in the character, but not all change is created equal. The major changes in the a character’s life come in your capping scene.

In a sequence, the culminating scene which will bring about the greatest, most powerful, and determinant changes. These are your capping scenes.

Scenes build acts.

The changes in each act will be more impactful and more meaningful than the changes in any individual scene. In the same way a capping scene set off the end of a sequence, a more powerfully charged scene sets off the end of an act.

At the end of an act, there is a major reversal for the character. Injustice is avenged. The bad guy escapes again. The heroine loses her job. Or the heroine regains her job only to be promoted over her old rival who fired her in the previous act.

Story structure builds, conflict after conflict building into greater and greater problems and reversals until the stage is set for a final climactic moment.

Finally, acts build the story.

The greatest level of change caused by the greatest amount of conflict is resolved over the course of the story. McKee says the ending “must be absolute and irreversible.”

Beats, scenes, sequences, and acts can reverse, but never the story itself. To do so is to rob the reader of their entire experience.

A satisfying story, according to the deeply-engrained archetypes that resonate in our unconscious, calls for a meaningful ending the reader can believe in.

As storytellers, our job is to learn the art of story. Of course there are dozens of brilliant examples that break all of these structural rules. But for each one, there are a dozen more that follow this structure. Learn the rules. Practice the form. Apply it to your writing and see what happens.