Elements of Structure – Art of Storytelling

The Dramatica Theory Book begins:

“Part of what makes a story great is its underlying dramatic structure and part is the manner in which that structure is related to an audience, often called “storytelling”. Therefore, this book is divided into two principal sections: The Elements of Structure and The Art of Storytelling.”

When I wrote that paragraph, I thought it was pretty self explanatory. But over the years I’ve been surprised by how many people, though they agree with the concept in principal, don’t really understand the difference between those two facets of a story.

Part of the problem is that people lump all aspects of a story other than the words they use to tell it into a single glop they think of as the structure. This means they see a characters name, its job, age, gender and so on as structure. They see the setting, time frame and genre as structure. They all the events that happen and all the moralizing as part of the structure. Yet none of these are structural elements at all. They are, in fact, part of the storytelling.

Why is it important to differentiate the two? Because structure can only be solidly built if you see it for what it really is – the framework that holds up the story.

In this tip, I’d like to spend a little time illustrating the nature of and differences between story structure and storytelling, and provide some techniques for using this clear view of both to enhance the soundness of your story and your creative experience as well.

What we’re going to do is break a completed story into four parts, rather than just structure and storytelling. To do this, we’ll use an analogy.

Think of a story as a body. There’s the skeleton, the soft tissue, the clothes and lastly the haircut, jewelry, make-up, facial hair, cologne and so on.

The skeleton is the structure, the soft tissue is the encoding (I’ll define this in a moment), the clothes is the exposition and the finishing touches are the storytelling.

Structure then is the fixed framework that defines the basic shape and function of the thing. For example one story might have a goal of Obtaining a particular item. Another story might have a goal of Becoming a different kind of person. Obtaining a thing is completely different from Becoming a new person, so those two structures would be completely different.

Now on to the soft tissue of story, the Encoding. Using the above example, in the Obtaining story the goal might be to obtain a treasure, a diploma, someone’s love or the answer to a riddle. Clearly each of these stories would seem completely different, even though they are all Obtaining stories and, therefore, structurally identical.

In the other story example, “Becoming” might be becoming more honest, becoming more self-sufficient, becoming more passionate or becoming more considerate. Again, each of these would seem like a different story, even though, structurally, they are all about Becoming something.

Just as the same skeleton can belong to a fat person or a thin one, a healthy one or a sick one, a strong one or a weak one, so too a single structure can manifest itself in many different ways.

So we have a pretty good grip on a very fundamental understanding of the first two parts of a story, the structure and the encoding. Now we consider the clothing, which is the equivalent of Exposition.

In stories, as in clothing, exposition is the way the thing is revealed. How much do you show up front? How long does it take to see more? What do you see in what order? And when do you get to see it all?

Authors need to remember that while they know their entire story from beginning to end and everything in between, their audience or readers don’t. So the job of exposition is two-fold. One, to make sure you find a place in the unfolding of your story to convey everything you want the audience/readers to know. Two, to consider how best to unveil the details of your story like a striptease artist, teasing your audience/readers to instill in them the greatest possible interest.

Finally, we come to the actual storytelling – the fancy dancy primps and preens that give the whole package pizazz. Now consider that though you have completed the first three stages in developing your story (built a structure, determined the encoding, and worked out the exposition, you haven’t actually written a word! So this last stage, Storytelling, is (surprisingly enough) where you actually tell your story!

The structure determines what it is, the encoding determines what it means, the exposition determines how it comes across, and storytelling determines how it feels. In other words, in four steps you’ve moved clear across from a fully logistic approach to the elements of structure to a purely passionate experience in the art of storytelling.

Now, I promised to describe why this is useful to a writer. First of all, we shouldn’t think about the four stages when we are creating – it just moves us into an analytical frame of mind and smothers our Muse. But once we are done with inspiration for a bit, then we need to look at our story more objectively – to examine it analytically to make sure we haven’t missed a beat, gone off track, failed to communicate or lost the passion.

A completed section of your story may mask problems in one of the four aspects by something really cool in another. This doesn’t solve the problem, it just hides it behind some flash. In the end, it might wow, but it won’t sustain. Conversely, the best balance meal of a story might be bland to the point of being impossible to swallow, yet seems quite complete to an author. By separating the four stages, you can see where your storytelling might not have enough oomph and needs to jiggle its booty a bit more to entice.

By putting structural considerations out of your mind while you creatively write, it frees your Muse to pursue any creative path that appeals to her. By putting creativity out of your mind while you analyze, you can see clearly where the problems are and how to go about fixing them.

In the end, you’ll be more productive and have a more pleasant creative experience. And all by being truly aware of the difference between the elements of structure, the art of storytelling and all the points between.

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