04 September 2013

Craft Notes: Story Structure

[Having just completed my Ureddit course on Narrative Writing Craft, I thought I would x-post my lessons here.  Seems like a good home for them, I suppose...]
“If the past is to be read as present, it is a curious present that we know to be past in relation to a future we know to be already in place, already in wait for us to reach it. Perhaps we would do best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic” – Peter Brooks
Aristotle, in his Poetics, asserts that every story has a Beginning, Middle, and End. Gustav Freytag, in his philological studies, determined that the sequence of dramatic structure can be restated as a pattern of increasing tensions and conflicts organized into certain criteria: Exposition, Complication(s)/Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement. The Structuralists and Formalists of the 20th century took this notion further and, analyzing conventional and unconventional/experimental literature, determined that this pattern can be more accurately restated as a progressive logic of Placement, Displacement, and Replacement. These structures are generally isomorphic, and all stories progress according to this pattern, which can trace development at the level of plot, character development, language, imagery, tone, or any mixture of the above.

Beginning  | Middle                       | End
Exposition | Complication(s) and Climax   | Denouement
“Hook”     | “Rising Action” and “Crisis” | “Falling Action” and “Untying/Unraveling”
Placement  | Displacement                 | Replacement

I’ll mostly be using Placement-Displacement-Replacement to talk about stories, but here are some quick definitions:
  • A “Hook” is the story’s incipient problem or driving question: the initial conflict, mystery/enigma, MacGuffin, or character “yearning”—as Robert Olen Butler puts it—that sets a plot in motion (this yearning, a character “wanting” something and then undertaking actions to achieve goals, is common in conventional fiction—we’ll talk about it more in Module 2).
  • “Exposition,” here, is more like the exposition of themes in music than rhetorical exposition), though this section of a story is typically populated with much of the latter.
  • “Rising Action” is a sequence of events, not necessarily chronological, that complicates and intensifies the initial problems and conflicts, each event building off each other (implicitly or explicitly) and increasing tension towards its apex.
  • The “Crisis” or Climax is the moment that brings all the conflict together in a single event, pitching the story’s tension as high as it can go (appropriate amplitude here is contingent on a lot of factors). An Anti-Climax, often used pejoratively, reverses expectations by fizzling out tension where one would expect it to be at its highest (though this can be effective, if done intentionally).
  • The “Falling Action” leading to the Denouement—French for “an untying”—is how all the conflicts and tensions play out after the Climax, sometimes inverting or mirroring the story’s build-up in the beginning. (Note: it is possible to have a story without a Denouement that ends at the moment of Climax, but this is like sex without cuddling or calling afterward: you’re probably going to make the other person mad if they expected differently.)
What writers call the Narrative Arc is the organization of a story (be it dramatized scenes, things summarized by a narrator, a series of descriptions, and/or linguistic games) into the pattern described above, which can be roughly visualized in a sort of wave.


Just as there are an infinite number of stories, so there are an infinite number of narrative arcs that follow any number of genre patterns. Keep in mind that no story and no genre are beholden to any one type of narrative arc, and you can certainly change the dependent/independent variables to get new shapes, depending on the type of story.

(Side note: these graphs and their variables are all subjective and relative. They are intended heuristically to illustrate a concept. Also, whether this pattern is something neurocognitively innate or merely part of a set of “best practices” humans have developed for persuasive purposes over the years, I won’t say, but this is open for discussion in the comments.)

To model for you how to apply these terms, I’ve annotated—based on my own reading/perspective—Robert Hass’ short story, “A Story About the Body” and Dan Chaon’s “The Bees” (annotations here—warning: spoilers). Take a look at these stories to get a sense of what I’m talking about and how to spot certain structural shifts and craft moves. (I’ll be talking about these stories a lot.)

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  • “[Plot is] a structure of desire and resistance (conflict) in which the same desire and the same resistance meet in a series of actions (events).” – Douglas Glover
While often used interchangeably, the difference between a story and a plot was described well by E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel:
  • “The King died and then the Queen died” is a story.
  • “The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.

According to this formulation, a story, then, is a sequence of events, possibly unrelated/non-causal. A plot is the intentional arrangement of events according to a principle of causality (i.e., “after this therefore because of this”) by a narrating agent. (It’s interesting to note that the word “plot” can also mean an entity’s—perhaps an author’s—“secret scheme.”)

A story addresses the question “what’s next?” while a plot prompts the question “why?” A story is all the scenes—units of arranged action over a set period of continuous time that take place in one setting—in chronological order; a plot is all the scenes arranged in a way that they make sense according to a narrative arc. Story is the stuff that happens; plot is the stuff that happens organized into a meaningful/enjoyable sequence. Note that, because plots can present scenes in any order so long as they contribute to the narrative arc, a reader can only get the whole “story” by reading the whole text (this will become very important when we talk about “Telling Time” in Module 3).

In fiction, essential events are called kernels, nonessential events are called satellites—removing any kernel event from a plot or changing their sequence will make a narrative disjointed/discordant, but both contribute to the overall story. (Satellites are especially important for things like sub-plots, which I’ll discuss in Module 6).

Many have argued over how many plots actually exist, arbitrarily throwing out numbers from 2 to 150. The number doesn’t matter as long as you understand that a plot is the essentially the emergent grammar of a narrative.

The 2 basic plots, according to John Gardner:

According to Georges Polti, in his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, there are 36 plots with different character types/objects/goals necessary for the execution of these plots, in essence treating a plot like the syntax of the sentence, with the grammatical roles of that sentence filled by certain agents or actions.

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"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." – Anton Chekhov

There is one last concept I’ll discuss here regarding story structure. Chekhov’s Gun is the dictum or guideline which states that the things you introduce in a story need to be important to the narrative in some way. Thought about simply, if your first chapter talks about knives and swords and daggers and bodkins, then somebody sure as heck better get stabbed at some later point. On a more nuanced level, this applies to any image pattern or metaphor, idea or concept, character trait or action: anything introduced during a story’s Placement period needs to play a role in the Displacement and/or Replacement. Your story’s structure is always dependent upon the “objects” (real or abstract) you place at its foundations.

At heart, this concept and structural issues in general have to do with a reader’s expectations—the Narrative Contract, which we’ll talk about in Module 5. Everything you write in your story matters, nothing should be superfluous, because at every moment your audience is reading “in anticipation of retrospection”: they want to see how everything comes together at the end, and the beauty and poignancy of your work will be partially determined by how intricately things fit together.

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Reading Assignment:
Discussion Questions:
  1. How would you categorize the plots of these stories according to John Gardner’s plots? How about Polti’s?
  2. Where would you say the dividing lines are for each of these stories in terms of Placement, Displacement, and Replacement? Try to identify the point where the Setup and Exposition of the Placement ends and the Rising Action of the Displacement begins, and try to identify the Climax and how that segues into the Denouement of the stories’ Replacement.
  3. What do you notice about the proportions of each section? What signals these transitions to the reader?
  4. What are the “hooks,” or initial conflicts/problems of these stories (or: where is the instance of initial tension)? How does the ending “Replace” this initial conflict?
  5. How are your expectations at the stories’ beginnings fulfilled by the end (or: do you notice any instances of Chekhov’s Gun explicitly or implicitly)?
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Critical Writing Assignment - Annotate the Structural Changes of a Story

This one is a doozy, but if you take the time to do it I will 100% guarantee that you will become a better writer or editor. Follow the steps below:
  • Step 1: Find a short story you like that’s about 5,000 to 10,000 words (though this works with novels, too).
  • Step 2: Physically retype the entire story. Seriously. Look at the page as you’re typing it up in your word processor. Pay attention, along the way, to subtle patterns or things you might not have noticed before (and things like grammar and format and what not).
  • Step 3: Go through the typed story and annotate the structural and craft moves of the piece, either commenting on everything you can think of or on specific concepts (like structure and plot or image patterning or character development) as though you were trying to illustrate craft concepts for someone unfamiliar with them.
To model this assignment for you, I typed up Dan Chaon’s “The Bees,” and then I annotated it. (Read the story before you read the annotations, as they contain spoilers. I also chose a story in the Horror genre because I want you to see that even genre fiction is very tightly crafted.) This isn’t the first story I’ve done this for, but the process altogether took me about 11 hours. Even if you don’t do this assignment, you might consider looking at the story and annotations since they point out a lot of useful practices.  If you want to see another example online, check out these annotations for Tallent’s “No One’s a Mystery” published on Numero Cinq Magazine.

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Guided Writing Assignment – Outlines, Part 1

Many of you who went to middle school in America or are familiar with plot-based writing templates (like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!) will already be familiar with a lot of the concepts introduced in Module 1. This activity will hopefully turn those descriptive observations into something useful (there will be a more detailed outlining and story structure activity in Module 7). Go through the steps below, writing down in as much or as little detail you want in your own document:
  • Step 1: Pick either one of Gardner’s plots and/or any one of Polti’s plots. This will provide a template for your story’s actions.
  • Step 2: Think of a “hook,” ongoing problem, conflict, or enigma faced by a character. What are some of the nuances of this problem? Why is it difficult to fix? (No world building but through what a character experiences in her/his quotidian day-to-day.)
  • Step 3: Think of two or three small singular or ongoing events in this character’s backstory or memory which contributed to the problem or made the character aware that there was some kind of problem/enigma.
  • Step 4: Describe a scene in two sentences beginning with “One day…” (or any variation on “One [specific temporal marker]…”) wherein the character does something to resolve the problem or figure out the enigma and involves him interacting with another character. Try to mention a small detail that might be significant at a later point.
  • Step 5: Describe a scene in two sentences beginning with “That night…” (or “The next morning…” or “Two weeks later…” or anything along those lines) wherein a complication arises from the character’s initial action, and the character does something to resolve this new complication.
  • Step 6: Think of how this character would reflect upon this problem and what s/he’s done. Thinking of the events that have happened, what does it all mean to the character and how has her/his perspective on the initial problem changed?
  • Step 7: Describe a scene in two to four sentences beginning with any temporal marker wherein the complication(s) that arose during the earlier scenes cause the initial problem to get worse than ever, bringing the story to a climax. (Make sure everything has occurred according to a logical/believable progression.) What is the final thing this character does to solve this problem that has been compounded with these complications? (Base this action on what you wrote for Step 6.) Does s/he succeed or fail, and what are the implications of the result?
  • Step 8: Describe a scene in two sentences beginning with any temporal marker wherein the character is experiencing her/his life after the climax. Add one more sentence about how your character feels about everything s/he did in the process of resolving (or failing to resolve) the initial problem.
Do all that, and you have a story outline. You can get as detailed listing character traits or settings as you want in this outline, but once you have this template try opening up a new word document and begin building your story out from each step in sequence, changing your outline when appropriate. (Here’s an arbitrary word count, if you need extra guidance: everything portraying step 2 and 3 should last from 300-1000 words, steps 4 and 5 together should be about 1000-2000, steps 6 and 7 should be about 1000-2000 words, and step 8 should be about 300-800 words.)

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Module 1 Selected Bibliography and Recommended Reading:


Barthes’ S/Z
Burroway’s Writing Fiction
Cohan and Shires’ Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction
Forster’s Aspects of the Novel
Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders
James’ “The Art of Fiction
Kellogg, Phelan, and Scholes’ The Nature of Narrative
Mullin’s “Plot Structure in Short Stories
Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose
Vonnegut’s “Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing

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