Where Does Story Structure Come From?

Story Structure | Where Does Story Structure Come From?

In previous installments of this series, we’ve determined that stories do, in fact have structure.  And, we explored how each story’s structure is something of a map that shows us how to go about solving a particular kind of problem or how to improve something our lives.  This could be by achieving a goal, learning how to cope, learning a new way of looking at life, etc.

But that’s all pretty nebulous.  So, if stories have structure, it has to be something more tangible.  And yet, it also has to be flexible enough to account for all the different kinds of stories that have been told.

That’s a pretty tall order!  And yet, here we are: with an innate sense that some sort of structure does exist, yet a frustrating inability to see it clearly, though we can almost make it out, moving around in the dark waters beneath our subject matter and storytelling style.

In this installment, we’re going to strip all that away and take a good look at the beast.  And to do that, we’re going to explore where story structure comes from in the first place.

Story structure begins with us.  Not surprising since stories are about people, after all.  But more specifically, story structure begins with how each of us, as individuals, go about solving problems and trying to improve our lives.

When confronted by something we’d like to change or something new we’d like to attain, we look at from all sides: with our logic, how we feel about, or with a skeptical eye, for example.

We consider the issue through each of these perspectives (or filters) and see how things look.  Do any of these suggest a course of action? Which ones look promising, and which ones set up a red flag: “Best to not do anything at all!”

Then, our mind takes over and collates all those assessments, “This feels right, but it makes not sense at all,” or, “I know it’s the right thing to do, but I just can’t tolerate it.”

At some point, we’ve thought about it enough, and we determine our plan for what we’re going to do and/or how we are going to respond.

That’s pretty much how problem solving works for you (at a greatly simplified level) and for your main character too!

Story structure for your main character (excluding the rest of the story) boils down to this: It shows the timeline of how your main character examines the central issue at the heart of their personal journey and then makes a decision about the best path to take.

But what about the rest of the story?  What about all those other characters beside the main character – the ones who are in all kinds of relationships struggling with each other over the goal at the center of the plot?  Where does that story structure come from?

Actually, the same place – just bigger.

Here’s how it works…

When people get together around a common issue (like a goal or a cause), after a while that group begins to self-organize.  One person will emerge as the Voice Of Reason for the group, another as Passionate Heart, and yet another as the Resident Skeptic.

You see, when we work together to resolve something of common interest, we still use the same tools and perspectives we do as individuals.  The difference is, that for ourselves we do all of those jobs like general practitioners because there’s just us to do them.

But in a group, if each individual tried to do all the jobs, it would be a mess!  Everyone would be overlapping their effort, and since each one would be doing many jobs, they couldn’t devote all their time to any one job.

So socially, we understand that intuitively.  And that’s why in a group, people begin to specialize.  One looks at the issue solely through the eyes of Reason.  Another is the Skeptic who questions everything.  Both are essential perspectives to take, but by specializing, each one can devote all their time to a single perspective and go for a deep dive.  They can work their way down into the details that no one person could do if they were trying to do a lot of other jobs too.

In this way, by specializing, the group can see deeper into every issue it encounters, and that serves every member of the group.

But here’s the cool thing…  Because all those jobs in the group are the same ones we use as individuals, the structure of the group is nearly identical to the structure we use in our own minds.  In a sense, it becomes a map of our own minds’ problem solving processes, but something external to ourselves – visible in the way the group is organized.  In short, we can see the workings of our own minds in the workings of any organized group. Whoa…

Just as the structure of the main character is based on the structure of our own internal problem solving processes, the structure of the overall story is based on the structure of how a group goes about solving problems.

So you have two identical maps of the problem solving process in a story:  1.  The individual trying to work out what’s best for him or her.  2.  The group trying to figure what’s best for it (and all its members).

But here’s the clincher:

What’s best for an individual is not always what’s best for the group he belongs in.  In other words, the needs of the one are often in conflict with the needs of the many.  And the truth of the matter is, all dramatic tension is created by that conflict between what the individual wants to achieve for himself or herself and what their group’s agenda demands of them as a member of the group.  Again, whoa.

Think about that.  Story structure is like a wheel within a wheel.  The individual is struggling to navigate their life to resolve their issues, all the why trying to negotiate their participation the the group effort.

Kinda feels like everything from A Christmas Carol to Hamlet and touches on genres from Romance to Action to Buddy Stories, Comedies, Westerns, Spy Thrillers, you name it.

And that is why story structure was so hard to see:  Since stories unfold over time, everyone was looking for a timeline kind of structure.  But the truth is, stories are only timelines from the perspective of the reader or audience, because that is how they are exposed to it.

From an author’s point of view, the story is a done deal.  They see it complete – beginning, middle, and end all at once.  An author stands outside of time and works out his or her structure as if it were a framework for the story – scaffolding that supports their message or intent.

A tweak here, and adjustment there, and the dramatic forces that represent the kinds of things we encounter in everyday life are fine-tuned to provide just the point of view the author wants the reader or audience to arrive at, once the storytelling is over and they look back at everything they experienced to understand what it meant.

Well that’s quite a journey we’ve taken here ourselves.  But it led to a new way of looking at story structure that brings brings it into greater focus by seeing where it came from in the first place.

In other installments in this series we’ll talk about the specific dramatic elements and components that make up structure, and how you can use them together to create just the impact you want to have.

This entire series is drawn from our book on the subject that we published way back in 1991, Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story.  Just click on the link to read it for free in a downloadable PDF.

Until next time, May the Muse be with you!

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

This entry was posted in Story Structure. Bookmark the permalink.