Deciding on a Story Structure

Date Published

February 12, 2021


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If you’ve read just about any book on story structure these days, you’re bound to see statements like “every successful story follows this pattern,” “immutable laws of story construction,” “this applies to all stories and there’s never any difference,” etc., etc., etc. All of them say they start with Aristotle’s Poetics, but they quickly devolve into conversations about 3, 4, or 5 acts and the number of steps you need to get from beginning to end (anywhere from 6 to 12 to 15 to 23 and anywhere in-between). A lot of them even tell you exactly what page you need to include the steps on. (OK, they specify they’re talking about screenplays, but then they usually give you instructions how to convert page numbers for novels.)

It’s really a confusing mess and if you’re a beginner like me, you latch on to anything that promises results. After all, you just want to get writing. When you’re not a pantser, you need something to get the old juices flowing.

If you can’t tell, I’m pretty cynical about the whole process. I’ve read so many books on story structure, all the author has to do is say one or two key words and I automatically start to classify them accordingly. And to attempt to put these methods into practice? I don’t know, I may be strange: not everything seems to fit with the more detailed methods; when you do the ones with fewer steps, you end up with a story that looks like a wool sweater after the arrival of a horde of ravenous moths. “Don’t sweat it,” the story gurus say. “Just adapt the structure to your story.” Then they immediately get back to telling you on which page something has to occur.  Right.

I’ll admit there’s a few newer books arriving now that actually admit there isn’t a “one size fits all” structure and it’s a breath of fresh air. Then they rehash a few of the main popular structures and tell you to just experiment and see what works. Heavy sigh. So, in deciding what to work with here for my novel, I’m going to do just that. I’m going to take a “pick and choose” approach and see how that goes. (I can just imagine the shock and dismay coming from any of the gurus that I’m borrowing from since I’m not using their complete programs. Oh well, whatcha gonna do?)

Here’s how I went about deciding things:

First off, I skimmed through my digital writing library (remember several hundreds of books) and flagged anything that looked halfway promising. I tried to include those books that either (a) gave me some success in the past, or (b) I had not tried yet and didn’t seem too far off base. A lot of this was intuitively done but that’s ok – that’s how I roll.

Besides story structure, I also did this with characterization as I knew that came next on the list. I also included books that I thought would be especially useful this time around – books on writing horror or gaining confidence, etc.

I ended up with close to 70 books flagged. I then started going through each one, delving into the content a little more deeply. With some, I just unflagged them almost immediately. With others, I had to leave and come back several times. Eventually I had just a handful of books in each category.

I’ll admit I was leaning toward one method  in particular – the 8 Sequence approach created by Frank Daniels – but there were 4 or 5 others that looked promising. (Yes, I know that Daniels worked in film, but after all, story is story, no matter where you’re doing it. Also, everything we’re doing today is based on a set of instructions written by Aristotle to create great plays. Don’t get all purist on me.) 

Anyway, I continued working through my list when, in that mystical, fortuitous way some things happen, I had a random Facebook post show up in my feed from a director named Adam Skelter. I had discovered him a few years back when I watched this mini course on YouTube called the Anatomy of Chaos: The Art of Story. I remembered that I enjoyed it immensely and decided to watch it again. I happily saw the first two segments were on structure so hit the play button and sat back to enjoy. About a quarter of the way through the first video, there it was – a chart of his structure based on the 8 Sequence approach. That clinched it for me – the heavens opened and a light shone down. The good thing about this method is there’s a lot of material out there about it. I have at least half a dozen books that all use it and there’s plenty more material online. If I get stuck, I’ll at least have other sources to turn to that explain things differently. (I’ll also include Skelter’s first two videos below so you can view them if you’re so inclined.)

Concerning characterization, this was a little harder. Everyone says to start with your characters but again, there are multitudes of ways to do that. Some books are basically just lists of hundreds of items you fill out for your characters in order to “try to get to know them.” Some are free-form interviews. Others take a more psychological approach, basing characterization on the Myers-Briggs personality scale or the Enneagram. Since none were speaking to me completely, I decided, therefore, to choose some from both Column A and Column B.

Jesper Schmidt and Autumn Birt have a book/workbook combination called Plot Development that I felt did character questionaires really well. It’s detailed without being ridiculous in the amount of information you gather for each person. Every character shares a base set of questions, then the protagonist and antagonist have other sets, and finally point of view characters have still another. There’s none of this, “What is your character’s favorite flavor of soda?” type of question – theirs are things I would actually want to know.

I also decided that Jeff Lyons’ book, Rapid Story Development, was probably the best regarding a more formal approach. Based on the Enneagram, he developed a seven step process that uses it in various ways to look at needs, relationships, interactions, etc. I’d read a lot of the theoretical section but never actually tried out the exercises. It truly is  excellent. I’m not sure if I’ll work through all seven steps as it’s quite dense and thorough. Still, if I find it worthwhile, I’ll try and complete everything. I’ll post more here about my progress as I start completing steps.

So that’s it as far as structure and characterization go. I’ll next start looking at developing a process around each of these and writing about the various components in the Writing Process section. See you there!

Adam Skelter’s Story Structure Videos

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Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash