Why learn about story structure?

Story Sense

This is an extract from our book on story structure, Story Sense for Writers, available now in paperback and ebook, from most online booksellers, including Amazon.

Everyone has a “story sense”.

You can tell what type of story you’re being told (romance, adventure, comedy, tragedy). You can tell if it ends happily or sadly. You can tell if you like it or not. You know if it works as a story.

In the same way that you don’t need perfect pitch or a knowledge of music theory to tell a car crash from an orchestral symphony, you don’t need an understanding of story structure to appreciate a good story.

But, just as musicians combine their natural, in-born sense of timing, pitch, melody and harmony with a learned knowledge of music theory to further their art, writers and storytellers can combine their natural “story sense” with a little learned knowledge to further theirs.

Sometimes, only a little is needed. If you’re in the middle of writing a story and feel that something isn’t going as well as it should, it helps to at least have the words for what it is that needs to be fixed. Or, if you have a great idea for a story, but all it’s made up of at the moment is a series of disconnected scenes, it helps to have a basic map of how stories are shaped so you can turn those scenes into a full narrative.

Learning about story structure won’t turn you from an intuitive writer into a formulaic machine, any more than learning about sonata form will turn a symphonic composer into a muzak beatbox. In both cases, structure provides a good, solid framework to what they’re fleshing out — a basic skeleton to build on, work with or work against, to stick to when it’s needed or throw away when it’s not, to act as a prop when things aren’t going well, and to ignore when they’re going great.

Story Structure for Writers presents some of the basic ideas of story structure. These aren’t ideas that tell you what you “can” or “cannot” do with a story. They also aren’t laws that someone in the past invented and said we all have to follow. They’re truths about storytelling that have emerged from the millions, if not billions, of stories we humans have told one another throughout the ages.

They’re basic truths we all know, and that make up our “story sense”, but that we may not know consciously. As a writer — someone who works with stories — it helps to have this intuitive knowledge made conscious, so it becomes a tool in the hand, a thing you can pick up and use, or lay aside when you’re both-hands busy. But you can only use this knowledge, this tool, if you have it.

Are we born with our “story sense” or do we acquire it? It’s true we’re exposed to thousands of stories growing up, from fairy tales to family anecdotes, television serials to movies, books to comic strips, news items to playground jokes, as well as the founding myths of our many cultures — stories which have actually shaped our world. All that story experience goes into our sense of what makes a story work.

But there’s also the idea that stories might be somehow built into us, into our way of thinking and being. Not the individual tales — we don’t come into the world with “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” imprinted on our DNA, though it may sometimes feel as though they are. But the essence of story, the basic map of how a human being is challenged and responds, of how things happen in the world around us, are something that’s so deeply a part of us, it must have been inborn. It’s why we respond to stories in the first place.

Stories mean something because they speak to us at the deepest level. In music, our conscious attention might be caught by the melody played by the clear, high-pitched violins, or sung by a human voice, but at some level we’re also hearing the subtler shift of chords below that, the deeper changes going on beneath that melody line. I believe that, in stories, something similar occurs. We read, or watch, or hear them, and are caught up in the actions and words of the characters, the surface details of the world around them, but at a deeper level we’re responding to something else, in a wordless way: the ebb and flow of fortunes, the suspense and tension of action, the growth or decline of relationships, and the slow but sure arc of change a story maps out.

That’s what you’re working with as a writer, the basic elements of story, and knowing more about them can only make the stories you tell work better and be more meaningful.

Read more in Story Sense for Writers, available now in paperback and ebook, from most online booksellers, including Amazon.