For writers: how to structure stories

Aristotle portrayed in the 1493 Nuremberg Chro...

Aristotle, portrayed in 1493 in contemporary dress. Image via Wikipedia

I remember being greatly confused about structure when I first started to write. I had a mental picture of something rather like scaffolding, holding everything in place. Then, of course, there was Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, and I also went on to study Structural Linguistics. None of these have helped me at all in understanding how to structure fiction.

Structure was a bit out of fashion during the Modernist period. I largely blame this on Proust, whose A la recherche du temps perdu persuaded many writers that structure was something that could be largely done away with. Mind you, I haven’t read A la recherche myself, though I do know someone who has read most of it (in English).

Hollywood, on the other hand, has a very clear understanding of structure, drawn straight from Aristotle’s famous pronouncement that every story should have  beginning, middle and an end. When watching a film, it is the underlying structure which often makes the difference between something which is nice, well acted and has some good lines, and something which is life changing.

The idea of structure caught my eye through something in The Guardian’s Notes and Queries, back in the 1980s, where someone suggested that they had heard that there were only Seven Basic Plots, but they would like to know what they were. Years later, Christopher Booker of Private Eye published The Seven Basic Plots which attempts to answer that question (though he may not have heard it on Notes and Queries). I have to say Booker’s book did nothing for me when it came out, and I came to my own conclusion that either seven was the wrong number, or there were no ‘basic’ plots, or there was just one, or else he’d picked the wrong seven.
Whatever (as some of my friends say).
It seems to me that, whether or not there are seven basic plots, there are three fundamental types of structure for a story, and their success and importance comes back to the fundamental reasons why we tell stories.

The three basic structures

Looking at all the stories I’ve ever read, good, bad and indifferent, all were more or less structured (and more on that in a moment), and the structures fell into one of three basic kinds, or else were a combination of them. The three were:
  • Innate
  • Formulaic
  • Invented (or possibly organic)

Innate structure

Some stories follow a natural pattern. This includes sports stories of the kind where team a (or player a) suffers humiliation at the hands of team b, works hard, goes through all kinds of successes as it struggles to get itself sorted out, and finally meets team b in the final (or maybe just a grudge match) which is its validation after having defeated many lesser teams. The big match is the only match that counts, and the story has to reach its climax with that match, win or lose. You can go all round the houses on the way in, but every sports fan knows that the season needs to finish with the ‘big match’ — if it doesn’t, an earlier match, perhaps a local derby, takes on the function of the big match in subsequent folklore.

War stories which lead up to a big battle, election stories leading up to the election, and historical stories leading up to a fixed event also have an innate structure. Any film or story about the Titanic, for example, is going to end up with the ship sinking. Every viewer or reader knows this, and so the underlying innate structure of the story is understood before everything starts.

Formulaic structure

An otherwise good man with a fatal flaw is tested by the gods, the flaw becomes apparent, and the man ends his life in shame and ignominy. This is the ‘formula’ behind Greek tragedy, and a Greek audience watching plays in the classical period would look for the flaw or mistake early on, knowing that it would overturn all of the man’s other good qualities by the end. In a romantic comedy, the boy and girl will encounter each other early on, for some reason not get together at what would have been the ideal moment, will each fall in love with/reject the other out of turn, and finally, after they appear to have entirely rejected each other, get together anyway. Viewers of modern rom-coms know the formula, expect it, and enjoy the way in which the well known structure happens even while it appears not to. For those with a deep yearning to have this stretched out to the limits, the Ross and Rachel’s inability to see that they are made for each other is the underlying structure that brings the ten series of Friends together. Detective mysteries, where we know that the detective will solve the crime in the final chapter, are also formulaic.

Invented (or organic)

Alternatively, it’s entirely possible to come up with a new structure which is just right for the particular story. My favourite, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, does this admirably by making the outcome of one game turn on the outcome of the other. All formulae must have begun, at some point, with a new structure which was so good that it stuck. The best example of this in modern times is the Sherlock Holmes adventure which, with a few exceptions, begins with Holmes taking the case, investigation, and a climax and denouement where Holmes takes some kind of a risk to solve it. Before this, there was no detective story genre (Edgar Allen Poe had a couple of goes at it, but did not establish a genre by any means). After Holmes, the genre was fully established. There are of course many long and winding narratives which are in sense an attempt to invent a new structure, but in another, more useful, sense, are just long and winding narratives that don’t really fulfil our need for a shape.

Hybrids

Mixing two structures can give very rich results. You could categorise this with ‘invented’ structure if you like, though I think it’s different enough to be worth looking at separately. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J K Rowling leads us to believe throughout that what we are following is a sports-type story. She has mixed sports stories in with the earlier books, where Gryffindor beating Slytherin to the Quidditch cup is an underlying theme. In the fourth book, though, the Quidditch season is cancelled to make way for the tri-wizard cup, where students from three schools compete for the prize. This takes us right the way up to what appears to be more or less the end of the book, when something else happens. When Potter takes hold of the cup to win (jointly) the prize, he and his fellow-student are whisked away by magic for an altogether different kind of ending. The tri-wizard cup, it turns out, was merely being used as a ruse for something much more sinister and frightening. Doing this, Rowling combines the structure of a sports story with the structure of an espionage novel, to give us something which is, arguably, and from my personal point of view, the most satisfying of all the novels in the series.

Why structure at all?

The need for structure comes down to the reasons why we tell stories at all. To my mind, and in different proportions in different books, there are six basic reasons why we tell stories:

  1. To Explore
  2. To Question and Explain
  3. To Experience and Encounter
  4. To Fulfil
  5. To Shape
  6. To Share

Nobody has ever got to travel from one world to another by magic rings, but The Magician’s Nephew gives CS Lewis the opportunity to explore, with the reader, what this would be like, including the operation of the rings which turns out to be quite different from Diggory’s Uncle’s ideas.

To Kill a Mockingbird questions and explains many attitudes about racism which were still controversial and largely undiscussed when Harper Lee wrote it. Beowulf questions and explains ideas of honour, bravery, and what a hero is. The Oresteia questions and explains the idea of justice, taking us from mythic justice administered by the Erinyes to civil justice administered by the state. All Quiet on the Western Front does rather more questioning than explaining, Lord of the Flies does perhaps rather more explaining than questioning.

Hopefully very few of Tolkien’s readers will ever encounter or experience anything quite so terrifying as Bilbo’s riddle contest with Gollum in The Hobbit. Even with the best that video gaming can offer, it is unlikely that anyone will ever experience Quidditch the way it’s played at Hogwarts. Some things, such as the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, could never be encountered or experienced without fiction in the way they are in the original Foundation Trilogy. Books are vicarious living, even if they are as mundane as Cranford.

Very few romances actually follow the path of the romance formula. People really do settle for the wrong people, even though everyone else can see they would have been much better with the person they really loved. In a messy world, we like the fulfilment that comes when (in the words of the A-Team’s Hannibal Smith) ‘a plan comes together’. Fulfilment requires the willing suspension of disbelief, always necessary for reading (even, sometimes especially, reading newspapers), because our underlying experience of life is that, even when things do come together, there are always loose ends.

The same applies to shaping. We want every story to have a beginning, middle and an end. We enjoy it when things happen in threes, and earlier generations would have enjoyed it when the seventh son of a seventh son does well. The most attractive boy gets together with the most attractive girl — even if, for some reason, he, we, or the rest of the characters only recognise that she is the most attractive towards the end. As with fulfilment, shaping gives us something which is different in most cases from what we experience in the real world, though we treasure the occasions when the world gives us something which is both well shaped and fulfilling.

Finally, reading is a shared experience. When we read a published book, see a play in the theatre, watch a film in a cinema, or even watch a television broadcast, we are sharing as set of experiences with the author, and with all the other readers, viewers or listeners. This, again, is contrary to our experience of life, where we do not share the thoughts of others, get to see things from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, get to know with certainty what happened, or get to experience simultaneous events happening in different places.

Naturalism

All this is thoroughly unnaturalistic. The pre-modernist and the modernist interest in naturalism tended to fill stories up with unnecessary detail, denuded them of comfortable plot ideas, and generally made reading a more cerebral and (I feel) less fulfilling pursuit. If that sounds harsh, the introductions to the Lord of the Rings and to The Name of the Rose both decry the same thing. The more serious literature became, the less fun it got.

Partly for this reason, we tend to see films where everything works out for the best as ‘lightweight’, whereas films with no particular plot and messy endings can present themselves more easily as ‘serious’. The extraordinary unnaturalism of Shakespeare, even when he uses no supernaturalistic elements, would not have got past the naturalism book-police if his reputation had not already been firmly and eternally cemented.

All that said, we are living with the background of modernism in the rear-view mirror, and we do more easily spot the holes in plot and the over comfortable wish-fulfilments than pre-20th century readers might have done. Therefore, keeping plots credible at the same time as making them interesting is a challenge for today’s writers.

Formula, innate, or invented?

It would be easy to write off formula plots as ‘less’ than entirely original invented plots, and write off both invented and formula plots as ‘less realistic’ than innate plots. But innate  plots, though a staple of many fine books, plays and films, only give us a limited number of things to write about.

Ultimately, to my mind, the first duty of the author is to write something that readers are going to like. A novel may well be (probably is) greater if it tackles grand themes, has credible characters and doesn’t strain disbelief, but a novel which has these three things but isn’t enjoyable to read has, from my point of view, entirely failed. Not everyone would agree. The majority vote, though, is on the side of writing that makes you want to read it, rather than writing that makes you wish you had read it.

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