Story Structure from Working Professionals

Recently, I finished Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book on writing screenplays. I found it similar to Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Make no mistake, they are different books, but they describe the same thing: fundamental story structure, though using different terms. This story structure has been with us for centuries, and we’re used to seeing it.

For instance, they describe the midpoint of a story. StC describes it at being on page 55 of a 110 page script. SE describes it at being halfway through the book. StC says at this point in the story the protagonist experiences a false high or a false low. Take the Avengers, for instance. When Thor is ejected from the helicarrier and the Hulk jumps on to the jet and eventually falls into an abandoned factory. This is the (false) low. And it happened midway through the movie. Give or take, I didn’t take a stopwatch to the movie. The good guys failed (and the bad guys–Loki–succeeded), but the story wasn’t over yet. The audience knows it and they’re invested in the story–they want to see how the Avengers rally and defeat Loki. Don’t believe me? Look up how much revenue The Avengers brought in. People spent money to see a good story, and having the structural properties helped.

Over the years, I’ve come across a few writers who don’t believe they need to pay heed to story structure. Their rationale is that structure leads authors to write cookie-cutter stories. Obviously, I don’t believe that. Tell me how a movie like The Proposal (a rom-com) is the same story as Die Hard (action-adventure). In the context of those stories, they hit the same structural elements, yet they’re completely different stories.

In truth, successful stories all have the same properties. Genre doesn’t matter. Superficial structuring like the frame element of the the old lady in Titanic, or the beginning of Mission Impossible 3 by showing the action that occurs 3/4 throughout the movie (without context!) doesn’t matter. These stories still contain proper structural properties. How deftly the writer incorporates those properties is their skill and expertise, which adds to the reader’s delight.

The ability to write beautify prose can’t cover, or make up for, structural shortcomings, and readers will leave the story unsatisfied. In movies, directors can use CGI or beautifully composed shots to attempt to distract the viewer from structural shortcomings, but they usually fail. For example, the beautiful CGI of the Star Wars prequels couldn’t save those movies. Stamping “Star Wars” on them couldn’t save them either. Those movies are unsatisfying, and it’s the story that’s the problem. Those movies tried to do too much (Jedi not seeing into the future, Anakin’s journey to the dark side, Anakin’s romance, Obi-wan journey as a master, the rise of the Empire, Palpatine’s rise to Emperor, the hidden Sith apprentices to name a few). Is the story Anakin’s journey to the Dark side? Is the story the rise of Palpatine and the Empire? Is the story the decline of the Jedi? All of those are interesting stories, but each needs specific events at specific places to focus the individual story. All of the stories happening at once can’t include everything needed, leading to an unfocused story. We saw the resulting mess on screen.

I think of stories like buildings. An old-style log cabin, an ordinary townhouse, the White House, and the Taj Mahal are all buildings, very different building with very different purposes. Yet, they all adhere to the same construction principles. It they didn’t, they’d collapse. The laws of physics are unforgivable.

Unfortunately, when an author neglects to adhere to established story construction principles or story physics, their stories fall apart. Sometimes, the reader (or viewer) merely says the story sucks, and sometimes they’re angry and upset for investing their time/energy/emotion in a failed story.

Other times, readers’ll never finish the story. I’ve heard more than one person say a story wasn’t going anywhere. And these were New York published books by well-known authors. I experienced much the same thing with one of Tom Clancy’s later novels. In this novel (which I’m purposely NOT naming), I felt the the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the novel was padded with filler. The last half or so was brilliant, though, and it saved the experience. If Clancy’s name wouldn’t have been on this novel, I’d have put it down. However, I stopped reading Clancy novels because of it. It’s a shame–The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and the Cardinal of the Kremlin are three of my favorite novels.

I don’t blame those readers for not liking stories or not finishing them. It’s a cheat to introduce a new character with game-changing information in the last 5% of a book (a story structure no-no). It’s a cheat to have the non-protagonist solve the protagonist’s story problem (a story structure no-no). It’d be like having Wedge blow up the Death Star in Star Wars instead of Luke. (Wedge was the only X-Wing pilot to survive raids on both Death Stars, and you have to pay close attention to know who he really is.) The audience followed Luke’s story for the entire movie–they rooted for him. If he doesn’t save the day, then why’d the audience bother following him for 2 hours?

I believe a writer can tell any story while adhering to established story structure. It’s only the writer’s lack of will that prevents him from doing so. Story structure isn’t handcuffs but the key to liberation. So, read and use books like Save the Cat and Story Engineering, so your story works well and people read and enjoy it.

I’m interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.

About George

I'm interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.
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