Peter L.S. Trevor

We are stories made manifest

Story Structure

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What is story structure?

Structure is the internal pattern that holds a story together. A writer’s prose style determines how readers ‘hear’ and, to some extent, enjoy a story, but the internal structure, the organisation of the parts, shapes the piece, makes it readable, and often determines its meaning.

Some of the earliest thoughts on story structure can be traced back to the narrative structures of Aristotle (circa 335 BC).  The concept of ‘unity’ guides most of Aristotle’s proclamations about narrative structure. If you can remove or reorder parts and still have the plot make sense, the work is not unified; it has superfluous elements.  In simple term, stories have a beginning, middle, and end.

Meanwhile, Kishotenketsu (circa 500 AD) described the structure of classic Eastern narratives, such as Chinese four-line poetry: introduction, development, twist, and conclusion.

In 1863, the German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag described what has come to be known as Freytag’s pyramid.

Freytag's Pyramid
  • Exposition:  The introduction of important background information to the reader.
  • Rising Action:  A series of events build towards the point of greatest interest.
  • Climax:  The turning point in the protagonist’s fate.
  • Falling Action:  The conflict unravels, with the protagonist either winning or losing.
  • Dénouement:  Conflicts are resolved, normality is restored for the characters, and the reader gains a sense of catharsis.

However, it should be noted that Freytag’s analysis was intended to apply to ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama, not modern stories.

Campbell, et al

In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell introduced the concept of the Hero’s Journey (also known as the Monomyth).  It is now a popular template for many modern stories and films.

The Hero's Journey

Campbell describes 17 stages which may be organised in a number of ways, including division into three “acts” or sections:

1. In the Departure part of the narrative, the ‘hero’ is living in the ordinary world when they receive a call to go on an adventure. They may be reluctant to follow this call but are helped by a mentor figure.

2. The Initiation section begins when the hero crosses the threshold into the unknown or “special world”.  They face tasks or trials, either alone or with the assistance of helpers, until eventually reaching “the innermost cave” (the central crisis of his adventure).  Here, they must undergo “the ordeal” and overcome the main obstacle or enemy … undergoing “apotheosis” and gaining their reward.  Then they must return to the ordinary world with their reward. They may be pursued by guardians of the special world, or they may simply be reluctant to return (requiring intervention from the outside).

3. In the Return section, the hero again traverses the threshold between the worlds, returning to the ordinary world with their treasure.  The hero is himself transformed by the adventure and gains wisdom or spiritual power over both worlds.

Contrasting some variations (Joseph Campbell, David Adams Leeming, Phil Cousineau, and Christopher Vogler) …

ActCampbell
(1949)
Leeming
(1981)
Cousineau
(1990)
Vogler
(2007)
Departure1) The call to adventure
2) Refusal of the call
3) Supernatural aid
4) Crossing the threshold
5) Belly of the whale
1) Miraculous conception and birth
2) Initiation of the hero-child
3) Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
1) The call to adventure1) The ordinary world
2) The call to adventure
3) Refusal of the call
4) Meeting with the Mentor
5) Crossing the threshold to the special world
Initiation6) The road of trials
7) The meeting with the goddess
8) Woman as temptress
9) Atonement with the father
10) Apotheosis
11) The ultimate boon
4) Trial and quest
5) Death
6) Descent into the underworld
2) The road of trials
3) The vision quest
4) The meeting with the goddess
5) The boon
6) Tests, allies, and enemies
7) Approach to the innermost cave
8) The ordeal
9) Reward
Return12) Refusal of the return
13) The magic flight
14) Rescue from without
15) The crossing of the return threshold
16) Master of two worlds
17) Freedom to live
7) Resurrection and rebirth
8) Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement
6) The magic flight
7) The return threshold
8) The master of two worlds
10) The road back
11) The resurrection
12) Return with the elixir

Since then, Blake Snyder, in his nonfiction book Save the Cat!, detailed the structure of the hero’s journey, providing a by-the-minute pattern for screenwriting.

He coined the term “Save the Cat!” to describe the scene where the audience meets the hero for the first time. If the hero does something nice, e.g., saving a cat, this makes the audience like the hero and sympathise with him.  And, according to Snyder, this simple scene that helps the audience invest themselves in the character, is frequently missing in many of today’s movies.

Other aspects

But this isn’t the only way to tell a story.  Here are five relatively common alternative story structures. (One or more can be combined.)

Convoluted: The story is presented as interlocking puzzle pieces that make up a cohesive whole.

For example, the movie Pulp Fiction has multiple stories, each with a different protagonist, that intersect with each other.

Episodic: A longer story can sometimes be divided into semi self-contained sections or, for lack of a better word, chapters. Thus, the story is likened to a season of a TV show, with each chapter being an episode.

Tolkien used this in Lord of the Rings to heighten tension.

Frame: The story begins and ends with the narrator in a particular place.

For example, Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke is a collection of short stories.  Each is presented as a tall tale told in the White Hart pub and thus is framed by a short scene set in that pub at the start and end of each story.

Reverse Chronology: The story starts by revealing the ending, then moves backwards to show how the hero got there.

For example, the film Memento is about a character who has lost their short term memory.  It starts at the end, then moves backwards in increments that simulate the protagonist’s short-term memory.

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