Analysis, Storytelling Geekery

Story Structure

Amongst the ways you can divide fiction writers are the division between those who like to plan their stories out beforehand, and those who like to make things up as they go along.
George RR Martin, the writer of the Song of Ice and Fire books which have recently been turned into the excellent Game of Thrones television series, describes this division as being between Architects and Gardeners.
The Architect plans things out in detail before starting, while the Gardener enjoys waiting to see what things look like, then decide where things will go.

A writer of Ice and Fire. And a Gardener, surprisingly.

It’s easy to see Architect writing style as stiff and uncreative. I’ve read writers who’d probably describe themselves as Gardeners who say that a lot of the fun of writing is seeing where the story will take them.
But when I try to write in this style, I either regret the choices I take with the story, or end up spending ages setting up a relationship or describing the working environment, or introducing the hero and villain, with no solid idea of what they’ll come into conflict over.
I’d definitely describe myself as an Architect.

As a result, I’m fascinated by story structure. I’m sure there’ll be people who see structure as the death of creativity. I’m pretty confident there’ll be some big name screenwriters of the 70s and 80s who see the arguments put forward by Robert McKee and similar prescriptivists as being responsible for the lack of creativity in modern blockbusters. (The truth is, of course, that it’s entirely Michael Bay’s fault.)

Having said that, he does do a pretty good impression of a tidal wave.

The best way I know of to achieve this is a term I’ve only heard of in the last year, ‘breaking the story’.
In essence, you start with the story that you want to tell. That could be a story from your own childhood, something in the news that struck you as fascinating, or just a bunch of characters you want to play around with.
You then ‘break the story’ to get across the things you want to say, the jokes you want to tell, in the best possible way. Story structures, if they work, are rough rules for when things should happen.

I’ll start with a really basic story structure, which you’re probably already aware of – the three-act structure.
In basic terms, the first act is where characters are introduced and a conflict arises. In the second act, things get worse and tensions rise, and the third act is where the finale and ending occur.
That probably sounds really obvious – if you’ve ever seen a film, read a book, or told a joke, you basically know all that. But I just used a basic example to demonstrate that structure and creativity aren’t necessarily opposed.

Anyway, the point of all this, is that one thing I intend to do more of soon is to reverse engineer existing stories, look at how others have approached the idea of structure.
I’ll look at Blake Snyder’s 15-part Beat Sheet & Dan Harmon’s Circles soon, and others not long after.
I’ve done a little of this before (though not on the blog) and I find it both interesting and useful to look at how other writers have structured their stories. So if anyone else reading this wants to join in and link to their own reverse-engineered story plans I’d be interested to take a look.

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