Four great books on story structure
Whether you meticulously plan your novels and stories, or make them up as you go along and tidy up afterwards, having a grasp of how stories work structurally is invaluable for a writer.
It can be a case of knowing the right word for what’s happening, structurally-speaking, in your story (inciting incident? crisis? mid-point?) or for the size of story-block you’re looking at (an act? a scene? a beat?). But being able to take a step back and see your story in terms of its most important moments, and understand what makes them important, and why they might or might not be working, is as important to a writer as knowing about load-bearing walls is to an architect.
There are a lot of books about story structure — most of them written with screenwriting in mind, but equally useful to novelists and short story writers — so here’s our round-up of some of the best:
Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke
“In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs – the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within. This book attempts to find what lurks at the heart of the forest. All stories begin here…”
Yorke’s background is in television, where he started as a soap opera script editor before moving into the production of both long-running series and one-offs. Perhaps because of this, his book mixes a very practical what-works approach with an appreciation of the meaning and artistry inherent in a well-formed and finely-honed story.
His basic model is a five-act “roadmap of change”, charting the inner and outer growth of a story’s main characters, combined with an appreciation of the symmetry found in all great stories. You’ll also find his take on how modern storytelling has refined the way a basic dramatic scene works, so as to be always driving the story forward, leading to that “more-ish” quality of so much great TV.
If you only read one book about story structure, this is the one we recommend.
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Booker’s weighty (728 pages in hardback) look at what he considers to be the seven archetypal types of story is divided into two parts: an excellent first part and a less-good second part.
In the first, Booker looks in detail at the basic structure of each of his seven basic story types: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. He also looks at the nature of some of the archetypal figures encountered in these stories, including the three stages of a monster’s development (as Predator, Holdfast, and Avenger), and the different forms in which “dark powers” and “light figures” might be encountered. Like Yorke, Booker sees each of his basic story types as having the same basic five-part structure.
In the second part of The Seven Basic Plots, Booker takes a critical look at Western culture in the 20th and early 21st centuries and goes a bit grumpy old man on it, saying how much of it isn’t as good as it used to be — largely because it doesn’t fulfil his idea of a well-formed and complete story, as outlined in the book’s first half. After the excellent and useful story-related information in the first half, this second half comes across as a bit of a let-down, and can really be skipped if you’re (a) just here for the story structure, (b) you don’t agree with Booker that modern culture is a bit rubbish, and/or (c) you just want to get on with writing!
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Perhaps the most famous book about story structure (ever since George Lucas used it to shape his initial Star Wars trilogy)… which isn’t about story structure at all.
What Joseph Campbell sought to do in The Hero With A Thousand Faces was to find the archetypal structure that linked hero-myths from cultures all over the world. As such, it has been used by readers both as a guide to telling compelling stories, and as a map for personal growth. But Campbell’s focus is on myth, not modern storytelling. (For instance, he says that, in a truly complete hero-myth, the story often ends with the death of its god-like hero.) And many of the story-examples he uses are very wild and strange, with all the dramatic transformations and illogical leaps in narrative that you find in traditional myths.
It was Christopher Vogler who interpreted Campbell’s ideas into a usable form for writers. Starting as an internal memo shared among film executives at Disney, Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, translates Campbell’s mythic archetype into a map of the major points in any character’s story, whether that character is of the obviously heroic, action-adventure type, or the more emotionally-driven internal change of a character in a drama or love story.
Unlike the other books mentioned here, Vogler’s isn’t a five-act structure, but a 12-step division of the storyline. Some of the names for these story-stages, such as “Refusal of the Call” and “Meeting with the Mentor”, have become standard terms of reference for writers and filmmakers.
Story by Robert McKee
McKee has become the guru of modern screenwriting, and is great to turn to when you need to be reassured that story counts, and that meaning in a story counts. And McKee is great when it comes to helping you understand how a story expresses its meaning, with concepts such as the “controlling idea” (the basic thing a story says, which comes through most triumphantly in its final climax) and the idea of “story value” (the basic human value a story is asserting or examining, and whose presence can be felt in every scene).
Like Yorke and Booker, McKee presents a basic five-part structure for the overall narrative, but is also keen to look at how every scene, even every line of dialogue, can work to serve the story in the most dramatic and effective way.
The information McKee presents doesn’t quite boil down to a single theory (as with Yorke and Booker), but his book is nevertheless packed with effective storytelling advice, and a lot of enthusiasm for the enduring value of stories that have something to say to the modern world.
Story Sense for Writers by Murray Ewing
As a bonus fifth book in our list of four great books on story structure, this is our own short guide to the basics of what makes a story work. Story Sense for Writers is about honing your natural sense of what makes a good story, a sense developed by the thousands of stories we’re exposed to throughout our lives, from fairy tales, TV shows, movies, novels, comic strips, family anecdotes and playground jokes, to the founding myths of our many cultures.
It’s about turning what is at the moment just an intuitive sense of whether a story works or not into a knowledge of the basic elements of stories, what they do, and how they do it, so you can take control of your own story-writing and turn a good idea into a great story.
What’s more, it’s short. Intended as a guide for writers who want to gain some useful knowledge quickly, Story Sense for Writers is available in paperback and ebook from most online booksellers, including Amazon.
So, if you haven’t read anything on story structure, pick one of these and start learning the essentials of the storytelling craft. If you already know something about story structure and want to go deeper, or want some more tools to hand for when you’re in a writerly tight spot, pick one of our recommendations and dive in!
It can only make you better as a writer.