Story Structure

I’ve got this thing against people swearing by a single story structure. I don’t quite know why it is, but – oh, yeah, I do. Watched a new Hollywood release recently? Seen it before? I have. Seen it too many times before? Me too. And I just can’t get over the idea that while each and every release has a thread – or maybe even two threads – of potential, someone or something is throwing it away.

And then another movie comes out. Same story. Quite literally.

Cinema has so much potential, what with all the tech, all the costumes, all the actors, and the studio community. It strikes me as odd that production teams with so much skill and experience just settle for basic, over-used stories. I don’t like being able to predict absolutely everything that is going to happen during the film. Maybe I’d like to just think of myself as some kind of gifted prophet, but I can’t – other people seem to have the same gift.

It happens a lot with books, too. I used to like to say “it’s all the fault of our teachers”, but if they were anything like my teachers (that’s you, Earl), then they were giving us good structural advice for when our stories are in trouble. In other words, you’re going nowhere. Kaput. Not as an “if you don’t use this structure, you aren’t writing a story” statement. Writers who took any kind of course all heard the fantastic and miraculous tale of the ultimate structure: The Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell). We’ve probably all seen Kurt Vonnegut talk about three simple story structures. And then, if we still read books, we see it in action.

So when I bumped into the short stories about Geralt of Rivia (who some of us know as the witcher), I was thrown off my feet. They weren’t particularly fantastic. They weren’t extremely comprehensible. Heck, they didn’t even seem to be in any particular order when I first read The Last Wish. But they were interesting. They were unpredictable. What I saw in them was a kind of new potential for storytelling: little snippets of adventure. They felt more like events than structured stories. Instead of reading through them and thinking “ah, yeah, so now he turns around and goes sad about life for a few minutes before someone sets him back on his feet”, I found that the stories were organic. Sure, there were small overdoses of heroism, but that’s nothing compared to overdosing on story structure. I’d rather see a (kind of) invincible character doing interesting things than slog through a story where a true-to-life character runs through the motions (and yet, is that really true to life?).

That’s not to say that I like superhero stories. They are endurable, sometimes (except that most of them follow the same story structure anyways), but I’m talking about something else. I want to read interesting stories with relatable characters.

Hence the title of this blog post. I’m working on episodic stories. They are more for interesting content than any kind of structure. Sure, I might slip into some kind of clichéd structure for one or two stories, but my focuses are content, setting, action, world. Organic storytelling and interesting content.

4 thoughts on “Story Structure

  1. An interesting concept, though I’m not sure I completely agree. With Hollywood films I don’t think the structure is the problem. More like a complete lack of originality, bland characters in a bland plot and write-by-numbers dialogue. The structure is certainly not helping, with plot points that practically stab you in the face, but the Hero’s Journey is such an ingrained practise in our culture – for a reason. It’s a tried and tested method, which can often make a good story better.

    I personally find stories with no structure lack purpose, direction and often feel very self-indulgent on the part of the writer. Not that I don’t love a story that bucks the trend – as long as it does it well. My screenwriting lecturer said just the other day that you have to master the art of structure and plot before you can subvert it.
    At the moment for my module I have to write a feature film and I would be lost without structure. It would probably start off strong, sag in the middle and come to a wet slap of an ending. I definitely agree that this structure is probably overused and the best films are the ones that use it subtly and don’t rigidly stick to it – using it as a guide rather than the rule.

    Having said all that, character is everything and I do believe that if you have a unique, engaging character the audience will follow you to the ends of the earth – three act structure or not.

    Sorry, didn’t mean for this to be an essay – I really like how you write Imalion’s diary so it’s a system that clearly works for you. Don’t think I could do it though!
    Also bearing in mind that I come from a purely film point of view where an epic story has to be condensed into an hour and a half. Books are different – the reader is probably more forgiving of a lapse in structure.

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    • Oh, I agree – I don’t like non-structure, but rather I don’t believe we should all use one particular structure. Structure is part of life, part of storytelling, part of every fiber of existence.

      You don’t see it in Hollywood? What about Disney? Every (American) movie seems to be predictable nowadays. I’d love examples of non-predictable films.

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      • Oh I see it in Hollywood alright. Can’t watch an American film without looking at my watch and going “Midpoint should be in 3…2….1….There it goes!” I agree they are so predictable you can plot out how the storyline will go before you watch it…..I just meant that for me structure isn’t the greatest flaw in Hollywood films.

        Non-structural, non-predictable films are hard to find – unless you go full blown surrealism which just makes you feel like you’re going slowly insane. Or soviet montage, or some old russian films – but sitting through an entire film like Battleship bloody Potemkin is hard going.

        I have a great appreciation for Studio Ghibli films – they do still conform to the basic structure, I think, but they generally postpone the inciting incident for as long as possible. You can easily have 20-30 minutes of just character and their ordinary world before anything actually happens. Studio Ghibli films tend to take their time – which is something I’d love to see Hollywood films do occasionally. Most of the time you barely have time to understand the character’s name before something blows up!
        I also had the chance to watch something called the Bicycle Thieves, which is a really old Italian Neo-realist film (which sounds more dull than it is) and again, I think it used structure but it was subtle and the story was so engaging and simple that it didn’t matter, and it is one of those rare films that I had no idea where it was going and was genuinely heart-broken by the ending.

        I definitely think it would be cool if there were a few other variations of structure. Hollywood could certainly use some lessons from other cultures…

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        • Haha, nope, surrealism doesn’t cut it for me. Definitely seen some good soviet films though. But then there’s that balance: Hollywood does movies about (most of) the things I want to see (books I’ve read, shows I loved that have been resumed, etc) and sometimes even has some fantastic ideas, but doesn’t go anywhere interesting with them. I think Eragon was my first and biggest eye-opener to the sheer closed-mindedness of Hollywood – they couldn’t use the original story with their set-in-stone structure/time limit/etc, so they made an entirely new story and somehow still called the resulting tragedy Eragon. I think they may have possibly gotten some of the names right.

          Also yep, there are more issues with Hollywood. I’ve just been thinking about story structure a lot lately.

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