Just like we need a bit of structure in our lives in order to thrive and stretch our selves to reach our goals, our writing needs a bit of structure to it. This helps keep the story coherent and cohesive and helps it resonate with the reader. I’m sure there are experimental constructions out there where upon first glance it makes no sense at all and as a reader you can’t make heads or tales of it, until you learn the structure and suddenly everything clicks and makes sense.
Now, structure isn’t the same as plot, nor is it the same as a formula.
When people talk about stories, books, tv shows and movies as being formulaic, they don’t necessarily mean their structure is boring and worn out. Usually they mean their plot is tired and so well-worn, there are no surprises for us.
However, people have been telling each other stories for millenia. Some jaded folks claim there are no new stories or ideas. But we’ve seen numerous stories told where the structure is repeated time and time again. Why? Because it works with a wide variety of plots and people are comforted and satisfied by the familiar. Indeed many of the same basic plot lines have been retold with new characters throughout the ages.
The most familiar form is probably the three Act Structure as described by Aristotle in his Poetics. It can be found from ancient Greek plays to numerous books and movies of today.
Aristotlean Play Structure
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
This system will look very familiar if you graph it like Gustav Freytag did at the right when he analyzed ancient Greek and Shakespearean dramas.
Many people are interested in how novels and screenplays are organized and each have their own perception of how it works best and why. Some look at it from the angle of characterization and the emotional stories of those characters. Others have likened it to a journey that the character takes and the steps involved to propel the character on his journey and the adventures and trials experienced and his glorious return as a hero. here’s even a twist on this for the heroine’s journey. Yet there are others yet who are more plot-oriented with some delving into what motivates the characters to make the decisions that they do during the course of the plot.
Popular Takes on Structuring A Novel or Screenplay
- Traditional Three Act or 5-Part Structure
- Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey
- Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure
- Debra Dixon’s Goal/Motivation/Conflict
- Michael Hauge’s Six Stages
- Kara Lennox’s breakdown for a 400-page novel
- Billy Mernit’s Seven Steps for Romantic Comedies
I’ll be looking closer at these in the coming months, but I don’t think most of them are really completely different structures so much as various lenses with which to analyze a story or alternate sets of questions to ask yourself as you go about building your story.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser will determine your level of comfort and need for outlines, but I’m sure you’ll still find yourself asking these same types of questions that will affect your structure at one point or another, either before your first draft or as you try to assemble a later draft into a coherent story.
Which type of structure comes naturally for you? Have you ever used some other type of structure? Diary, Framed Flashack, Family Saga, or something else?