Episode 138: Story Structure – Why it Matters and How to Choose

On March 20th, Kasie and Rex took on the structure of the novel. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Story Structure: Why it matters & How to choose

Agenda

  • Structure is scaffolding
  • Basic structures available to you
  • Structure vs. form
  • How to choose and why to experiment
Photo on Pexels.com

Segment 1

In last week’s episode on how to deal with time passing in your story, we gave the tip “Separate time periods” and talked about using Chapters to indicate a perspective, time, or location change. So today we’re going to get into the literary fiction side: how is the story being told. Once again, this is part of my editorial process as I’m working on yet another novel that ignores the Chapter structure.

My first experience with this was A Case of Need by Michael Crichton which worked through a series of days: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc. I thought the structure was compelling. When I first wrote After December, it was a straight chronological piece with the expected structure. Chapter 1, chapter 2, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s be clear.

However, I felt challenged by Crichton’s ability to reduce an entire story to just a few days and I wanted to do that, too. So After December is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, New Year’s Eve 1998, Saturday, Sunday, and 02/02/02. These headings represent milestones, progress through the story. With the NYE and 02/02 “chapters” being flash BACK and flash FORWARD respectively.

What does it do? The structure forces us to forgive Brian (or so I’d hope) because these are the worst days of his life so far. There’s no time for growth, for change, for being better. He’s in the pain.

It also lengthened the sections to an unpredictable pace. People I know (looking at you, Susan Kaufman) said they kept reading a little bit further because they didn’t know what would happen next. That’s what structure can do. It can force your reader to comply.

So, today we’re talking STRUCTURE of the novel. How do you organize the work? How do you lead the reader? And why, for the love of Christ, do writers toy with you by jumping back and forth and around and round and forcing you to focus here and there while there’s sleight of hand happening on the other side of the curtain.

But first, housekeeping:

In April we’ll be hosting the Livestream component for the SCWA’s Annual Conference. What does that mean? Well, we’re testing it out today! Right now, on our YouTube channel. Yep, you can see me (Kasie) live and hear (maybe) Rex.

Did you know we have a YouTube channel? Check us out, dudes! Our second Featured Author Interview with Patron CJ Heigelmann is up to over 3,000 views on YouTube. That’s waayyyy more than any of our Behind the Scenes vids. Not that we’re jelly. We adore CJ. 

CJ’s debut novel An Uncommon Folk Rhapsody is an ambitious Civil War saga stretching multiple generations in one family. His second book, Crooked Fences, is a deep dive into PTSD, military-to-civilian life transitions, and a specific character’s struggle with his own racism and bias. Buy the books here.

Thanks to our patrons who continue to support the show and our efforts to bring writing craft lessons to the airwaves. If you’re ready to support the show, go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC and join at the $5, $10, or $18 level to get access to behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive courses, and promotional work like Profile Pages and author interviews on the YouTube channel.

Segment 2

Time to nerd out. So in my strategic management class next week we’ll be talking about the various “levers” companies have to enact change in their organizations. We’ll talk about systems, people, processes, and metrics.

Writing is the same. Authors have levers they can use to change the outcomes of the story. They can work character, plot, setting, and structure. The structure is the part of storytelling you don’t work on in elementary school.

We used to do these book reports that were 1) Plot, 2) Character, 3) Setting. I don’t remember talking about the structure of the book until middle school. Maybe that’s when books with structure finally showed up for me to read? Or maybe that’s when my teacher was finally an English specialist and so she knew that stuff? In any case, it wasn’t part of my early reading life.

So, Google “story structure” and you’ll get some advice. Like this list of 7 Narrative Structures Every Writer should know:

  1. Freytag’s Pyramid
  2. The Hero’s Journey
  3. Three Act Structure
  4. Fichtean Curve
  5. In medias res
  6. Seven-Point Story Structure
  7. Save the Cat

The first is just what you think it is, a pyramid. It begins with the inciting incident, edges up in rising action, climaxes, and experiences the denouement or the finish. Interestingly, Freytag says the end is catastrophe in that all of the protagonist’s worst fears come true. Admittedly, this is less common these days. We have less appetite for tragedy (true tragedy). We want resolution, maybe even HEA.

We covered the Hero’s Journey here and here. Might be worth revisiting. But the structure is basically: Ordinary world, call to adventure, refuse the call, meet the mentor, cross the first threshold, tests/enemies/allies, innermost cave, ordeal, reward, road back, resurrection, return with the treasure.

Three act structure: exposition & inciting incident (set up), rising action & midpoint (complications), climax & denouement (conclusion).

Fichtean suggests after the inciting incident, each subsequent crisis worsen until climax — this is a mystery structure. The climax and falling action here take up less than ¼ of the total book.

We worked on “in media res” on episode 53. This structure requires a lot of flashback to deliver the relevant (and necessary) exposition.

Seven-point story structure is supposed to start at the end. We touched on this in the prologue conversation in episode 82. If the story starts at the end and works its way back, then we know where we’re going and are just curious how we got there. The 7-point structure goes: 1) hook, 2) plot pint 1, 3) pinch point 1 (which is where something goes wrong), 4) midpoint or a decision for the protagonist, 5) pinch point 2 (another blow to the protagonist), 6) plot point 2, and finally 7) resolution. Sometimes the resolution comes too early or too easily.

Save the Cat: we’ve also worked on this in episode 124 about liking the main character. But Save the Cat is a story structure where the story is broken into 15 beats and each section or set of scenes follow a progression of endearment (save the cat) and set back.

Okay, so “story structure” can literally be about the way you deliver the scenes.

Segment 3

But we’re talking about whether you call them “Chapter” or not. Whether you go chronologically or not. Whether you deliver information in the expected (chronological) order with the occasional flashback or whether you flip the story topsy-turvy and challenge the reader to keep up.

Why does story structure matter? (link)

Stroy structure is internal while the form of the story is external. Okay, so maybe what we’re really about here today is the form of the story?

Structure is about the framework of the text, the order of events, how they are told. But form is about the genre of the text and how it appears (?) according to this link. Is that vague enough for you? In general, though, “form” refers to genre — i.e. memoir, novel, biography.

Okay, so, if we’re talking structure in fiction — how the story is being told — let’s think of the ways. You could tell the story 99 ways like this blog talks about. But that seems excessive.

We know novels told in these ways:

  • Epistolary (a series of letters) — Dracula, Fair and Tender Ladies
  • Transcripts — (sometimes also an ‘epistolary’ novel) Interview with a Vampire
  • Single POV — first or third person, a single POV is a limited narrative
  • Multiple POVs — first or third person, multiple POVs is a specific approach
  • Collective first person — this is a unified voice, representing a group — The Virgin Suicides, Shakespeare Sisters (this link)
  • Chronological — forgiving the expositional flashbacks and tension-building foreshadows, chronological stories are told in order of events
  • Reverse chronological order — told in opposite order; here’s where we are, here’s what happened do land us here
  • Alternating timelines — we talked about this in last week’s “how to handle the passage of time” conversation, but you can look at the story from different angles by leveraging different timelines.

This blog suggests these 4 story structures:

  • Milieu — the story built around the discovery of an idea, a place, or people — think The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy is a voyeur into a new and unusual place; or Harry Potter learning about the Wizarding World – the greater story is how muggles and magic folk coexist (or don’t) and we learn to navigate that through Harry’s first-hand experience. Every story has a milieu – a place, a society, a set of rules – but when the story cares more about the “world” than the people in it, it’s a milieu story.
  • Idea — the idea story is an investigation “Who killed the victim?” or What would happen if the earth stopped rotating? (The Age of Miracles)
  • Character — focus on the transformation of the character in the worlds that matter most to him (or her); in this case, we’re watching a single person evolve and the impact that evolution has on his or her happiness and prosperity
  • Event — something is afoot, out of place, needs to be solved. The event is external to our protagonist, but fixing the event falls upon the MC nonetheless.

Segment 4

So, how do you decide?

I chose the day-to-day format for After December for two reasons: 1) it made the experience immediate, urgent, and raw; 2) it reduced the story to just the bounded case of the funeral weekend. There’s no time for growth or change. I loved it being bound by the urgency, the immediacy, of what had happened.

Okay, so now I’m in Before Pittsburgh and it’s three years that are passing and I’m again eschewing chapters. Why? Time matters. Time is both distance from the wound (Tony’s suicide) and also space for healing, growth, and grief. All things Brian didn’t get in After December. He wasn’t afforded the luxury of space, time, or quiet or prayer or travel or age. I want to give him all of those things.

So I start with the immediate — daily. Passages with specific date stamps. He’s still counting the days since Tony died. Then we move to months. Then to seasons. Then to cities. And when we get to the next major tragedy – September 11th – we’re brought back to the moment-by-moment experience we all have from that day.

I wanted to use time and through structure of the novel make use of time to show the accordion effect life has over a lifetime. Some things feel immediate, desperate, all-consuming. Some things stretch out into mundanity and expectedness.

How you tell the story is a literary fiction concern. We think about structure and playing with it as a literary pursuit. It’s not enough to go through the story chronological counting off chapters like we’re pacing a football game or a college degree. We speed up, we stretch out, we play with the pacing of scenes and overall structure because we want to underscore themes.

Ask yourself: Why is Dracula an epistolary novel? Simply because the first person narrator wasn’t a dominant style at the time. To get into the characters’ head, Stoker had to tell the story in their own words.

Now, with first-person narrators being so, so common. How can we innovate? We still have the levers of character, structure.

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