Becoming a Productive Writer: The Five Core Story Structures
Writing with certainty comes when you know and can recognize the core structures behind all stories.
These structures have nothing to do with plot, although they drive the action. They have nothing to do with genre – which is mostly setting and pacing.
These core structures are what build all stories. They are framework, siding, insulation, roof, and foundation.
And are so obvious that they are usually unnoticed.
Their recent discovery was only after a long review and testing of the various models of story building. That study itself is well covered in other articles, books, and courses.
This article is an introduction to them, a simple explanation and outline so you can reorganize your own continuing studies and improve your story-craft.
First, you have to throw away thinking in terms of plot and genre. Plotting is derived from reviewing stories after they were written. The word “plot” comes from a word meaning “lay of the land”, a practice of describing what already exists for real estate transactions.
There may or may not be a single “monomyth” plot as laid out by Joseph Campbell. That’s a workable, but limited, model.
Earlier than Campbell was an incredibly prolific author, William Wallace Cook, who held that it was simpler than that.
Cook understood that while all readers and authors were looking for their own happiness, all stories were built on their not achieving it.
When you look around through the various plotting books and articles, you see that they all agree that what really drives a story and makes it effective is “Conflict”.
Unfortunately, that term itself, as well as misconceptions of how to apply it, have delivered more stories to the bookstore graveyard than to the bestseller lists.
Conflict, per Cook, is developed by having a goal opposed. That might sound simple, but his exact phrase was:
“Purpose, expressed or implied, opposing Obstacle, expressed or implied, yields Conflict.”
And now you can see how tales built on Campbell’s monomyth actually work. The common expression is that the Hero wants something, but the Villain wants it, too. And their conflict is what runs the story. Add in a location and progressive complications and then your stories have their basics.
When you start mastering and using story structures, you’ll soon see that you are weaving a tapestry, not just holding a single yarn that you roll out for your reader.
These story structures, together, actually explain the success of blockbuster books that seem to transcend genre or simple analysis. Blockbuster authors tend to develop a brand that becomes its own genre.
Analyzing these exceptional authors gave the first clue.
They tend to write in multiple story structures at the same time. You’re already familiar with three of these structures: Action-Adventure, Romance, Mystery.
And these are also known as “genres” on their own, which obscures them as structures. What the blockbuster authors do is to interweave these together through a single story in order to tell their tales.
Action-Adventure is known through Campbell’s monomyth. And this is the most common approach to writing. More plot analysis is built on that story-arc than any other.
Romance is more popular and has a very set structure. In short, you have two lovers meeting, being forced apart, and returning together to find a happily-ever-after, or at least a promise of one.
The third common story structure is the mystery. It’s somewhat the action-adventure in reverse, since a major crime is usually committed before or at the very beginning of the story, then the rest of the story reveals who did it, why, and describes how they are prevented from committing another.
Again, blockbuster books have these three story structures intertwined all at the same time throughout a story. One will be a dominant structure over the others, but with every adventure, there is also a mystery and a romance. Or mystery is the prime structure with action sequences and a romance story-arc. Romances are intriguing with chase scenes and unsolved mysteries involved in separating and re-uniting our lovers, all in the nick of time.
And those descriptions above are just brief notes compared to the wealth of data available on how to write in each of these structures. What we are dealing with here are core, simple structures to build on.
As well, you can see these structures show up (or implied) in every popular short story and even flash fiction, extending right out to epic series of thick novels that take place over centuries and continents.
There are two more story structures that show up along with these three. And they’ve been neglected as red-haired second cousins until now.
Redemption is the salvation of the soul of the main character. This structure really follows Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Story” as its best example. The characters have to confront and come to grips with their decisions, and how these have affected their past, present and future. At last, the afflicted character decides to change and takes action to fix things.
Non-fiction is the fifth story structure. And don’t think that good non-fiction isn’t just as engaging as fiction. But where it is, you’ll see the other story structures are present. The model of telling one or more short anecdotes in each chapter to support a point shows this. The author then explains how that anecdote illustrates what he is trying to explain.
The non-fiction story structure was best delineated by Walter S. Campbell, in his “Writing Non-Fiction”. Himself a successful fiction writer, Campbell found where these fiction and non-fiction stories overlapped and contained the same core structures was when they were most effective.
He laid out four points:
1. Get the reader’s attention.
2. Convince them that this subject has something to do with them.
3. Bring up cases (examples) that will prove what you’ve claimed.
4. Convince the reader to take action along an outline of steps.
One of his pupils boiled it down to four one-word phrases.
HEY! YOU! SEE? SO!
Good non-fiction writing is harder to find, as far fewer non-fiction books are written than fiction, and most don’t know or use this structure. Yet, there are great examples of how story structures utilized mostly in fiction stories has been used to create engaging non-fiction. You can also find where the non-fiction structure has been used in the background of a fiction story to add convincing explanation to character development, as they pragmatically interact and learn through their setting.
You don’t have to use all five of these story structures in each of your stories.
I’m not even recommending that you try.
For now, it’s simpler to keep your mind open to seeing and recognizing these five story structures, and their elements, as they show up while you’re writing. As you get used to utilizing each of these structures, right alongside the others, then your stories will start having broader appeal and becoming more widely popular.
They’ll contain something valuable for nearly everyone.