Classic Story Structure
No untrained musician grabs a sax and makes it wail like “the Trane” (John Coltrane). Saxophonists, novelists—all artists—first need to learn the rudiments; only then can they riff.
Among the rudiments of storytelling is classic story structure—and I do mean “classic.” Aristotle first explained these plot elements in The Poetics (4th century B.C.E.), the earliest known work of literary theory. All the world’s literary masterpieces, as well as contemporary thrillers and romances, mysteries and fantasies, can be broken down to the same building blocks that Aristotle pointed out millennia ago.
Before you try experimenting with tricky story structures (stories that begin at the end and then reconstruct the beginning; stories where the narrator is deluded, or is a liar, or has no long-term memory, etc.) you would do well to learn the basic dramatic structure that has worked so well since ancient times.
You may worry that if you build a story using a time-worn formula your tale will turn out to be one big cliché. Yet does every novel you read seem like one more version of the same old plot? Given the many far-ranging variables in character, motivation, setting, events—and the author’s unique voice—it is rare for well-written tales to end up as clones (though fans of genre literature will expect to encounter familiar themes).
Here then, is the classic story structure used by Aristophanes and Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain, Anne Rice and John Grisham. It is repeated here in a few versions for emphasis; think of the repetition as practicing scales.
· Something dramatic happens to someone,
· in a specific, concrete setting,
· and she fights back or pursues a goal, driven by a strong need created by who she is (i.e., her character and her past).
· Forces try to stop her, but she keeps pressing forward because something critical to her heart is at stake.
· Things get more complicated,
· but just as things seem as bad as they can get,
· she breaks through to an important lesson that enables her to,
· at last, satisfy her need.
a. A person (The Character)
b. in a place (The Setting)
c. has a problem. (The Conflict. Look for specific troubles tailored to hurt and challenge this particular character.)
d. The person takes his best shot at solving the problem. (The Action)
e. Things get worse. (The Complication, full of surprises, twists, setbacks)
f. Troubles hit rock bottom. (The Pit—which often brings The Insight and The Choice.)
g. The hero confronts his opposition (internal or external) in a showdown. (The Climax).
h. The story resolves. (The End, with perhaps a brief Denouement or epilogue).
Lastly, blockbuster novelist Dean Koontz gives us his version of the perennial story line (from his rare little guide, How to Write Best Selling Fiction): “The hero has a serious problem (or something he wants very badly). He tries to solve his problem (or attain his goal) but plunges deeper into difficulties and danger. His stumbling blocks arise logically from his efforts to find a solution. His troubles increase monumentally. Finally, forced by harsh circumstances to discover a truth about himself or the world, he is enabled to solve his problem or attain his goal (or fail dramatically).”
Learn well this ancient structure that virtually all stories follow. Then improvise your heart out.