Sunday, November 9, 2008

Story Structure

Whenever I take one of my "ridiculously close looks," I dig into the word-by-word construction of sentences, because reader sensations like point of view and mood are built up in the reader's mind from the tiniest little pieces. This is something I studied before I started writing seriously, so I had it as a kind of resource, but it took me a while to figure out how to use it for my own purposes.

In fact, it was the larger-scale structure of stories that was more difficult to grasp. I think this is probably because of how hard it is to back off of words and sentences and grasp their larger-scale function. Backing off and editing larger structure can be painful, too, because it can mean that sentences we love are completely eliminated.

I had a small epiphany the other day, after teaching my third grade writing workshop. I had written out a series of "story parts," essentially, functions for sentences in a story, and I was trying to have the kids see what part each of their sentences played in the story.

The stories looked something like this (I made this one up myself):

I got hurt one day. I was eight years old. It all started when I was riding my bike in the street in front of my house. I didn't see a big rock and I ran over it. I crashed on the ground. I hurt my knee and cried. My brother called my mom and she gave me a band aid. Then I felt all better. I was glad they were there to help me.

The list of functions (with the sentences from my story in brackets) looked something like this:

Title: the name of the story

Opening (Topic Sentence): tells what your story will be about
[I got hurt one day.]

Setting: talks about the time and place of the story and creates a picture for people to see
[I was eight years old. It all started when I was riding my bike in the street in front of my house.]

Lead-in to the main event: sets up the causes of the main event [I didn't see a big rock and I ran over it.]

Main event: what the story is all about (connects to topic sentence)
[I crashed on the ground.]

Consequences of the main event: what happened after or because of the main event
[I hurt my knee and cried. My brother called my mom and she gave me a band aid.]

How you felt about the main event: your feelings about the event.
[Then I felt all better. I was glad they were there to help me.]

The epiphany I came to was this: on some level, this is still what story structure is like. I've explained to these kids that it doesn't really matter how many sentences they give to each function so long as all are present and feel balanced - and in fact, it doesn't matter how the functions are executed either. Maybe your opening is actually one topic sentence - or maybe it's a whole scene, executed in the height of the show-don't-tell style. But it still has to tell the reader what the coming story will be about.

The variability of the model is actually quite high, allowing for great differences in execution. And in some sense I think the model may be almost fractal for longer works, with small sequences of the same kinds of functions within each larger piece. But when you're writing and editing a story, it's still a good idea to ask yourself: what function does this piece play within the context of the larger story? What other pieces of the story have similar function, and should these occur together? Is the amount of material given to each function well-balanced?

Outlining is one technique that gets close to these functional questions, because it forces me to take the long view on a story and look at how it plays out overall. But on its own, outlining doesn't address the function questions, and I find it tends to guide me more to consider the chronology of the plot (of course, this is not a bad thing to consider!). Maybe the next time I outline a story I should make parenthetical notes to myself about what each piece is doing for the story, rather than just what happens in it.

Hm, I think I will.


  1. Interesting! I use a storytelling exercise when teaching improv (to grown ups and kids) I'll share.

    Four Line Stories

    Once Upon a Time . . . [introduce your who and where]
    Everday . . . [establish the status quo]
    Until one day . . .[conflict]
    [resolution] . . .and they all lived happily ever after.

    We go around the room with each person doing one line of the stories. Then eventually we get to a place where we'll loosen up and let them do multiple lines.

    Not as sophisticated obviously, but at a most basic level you get instant stories.

  2. Thanks, K!
    That's a good setup. I think there's a lot of similarity, though I do break it down into a few extra pieces. It's all good to think through.