This is the latest installment of the Storytelling Scrutiny Squared feature, where I link to other folks who are interested in storytelling and provide information and insight, and demonstrate appreciation, attitude, or amusement.
Normally, i focus on one person or website or podcast or whatever, but once a month I will talk about a storytelling theme instead, link to multiple sources, and give you my own thoughts.
Today I talk about Story Structure, and the models (theories) and methods that I find particularly interesting and helpful for understanding (scrutinizing) how superb storytelling works.
Note that I’m interested in understanding story structure for two reasons: It helps me to better appreciate great storytelling in novels, movies, TV shows, and of course comics, and it also helps me with my own writing projects (none of which is far beyond the preparation steps yet). You may have either reason, both, or another completely different one, to be interested in story structure, but no matter what, if you are interested, you will probably find the following hints useful.
My first contact with Story Structure, like with everything else concerning taking Storytelling seriously (meaning, writing it with a capital S), was when I started listening to the Writing Excuses podcast. Those knowlegdeable folks often talk about hot to achieve good structure, either by Outlining or through Discovery Writing. If you check out the episodes under each tag, you’ll find that tehre is a lot of overlap, because they discuss the pro and cons of either method, and also explain how the techniques are not mutually exclusive, and they fall on a spectrum. Outlining means planning the structure in advance, Discovery Writing means figuring it out on the go, but many people mix-n-match these approaches. Myself, I tend to switch back and forth between planning and experimenting, each step informing the next one.
As to the actual structure one can use, Writing Excuses mentions the Three Act Structure as a formal method, but focus rather more on the general idea that any story makes promises in the beginning, and those have to be fulfilled, often in unexpected ways, in the end, to avoid leaving the audience unsatisfied. I concur absolutely; I have talked before about how important it is to Terminate With Extreme Prejudice.
One of the podcasters, Dan Wells, also talked about a more complex Story Structure Model, the Seven Point System. He taught a session about this, a video of which, plus the Powerpoint presentation, can be found on his website under the tag How To Build A Story.
I was very impressed by his presentation, even though I almost immediately abandoned the actual Seven Point System model. This is because I consider his lessons about the interweaving of multiple plot strands really outstanding. He explains it using The Matrix as an example.
To understand – or create – the overall structure of a story, I prefer the model that Alexandra Sokoloff explains on her Screenwriting Tricks for Authors website, where she has many articles that explore and explain Story Structure.
Her key idea is the Three Act Eight Sequence Structure, which is kind of a standard in movie script writing, but also extremely useful for any othe rkind of – long form – storytelling.
But at the end of the day, these models are only tools to understand Story Structure, and they are very helpful, but when the story is more complex, and possibly also more fluid, as tends to happen in webcomics, these models can inform the actual structure, but should not constrain it. If I look at all of my favorite webcomics, I can see that they vary greatly, from more regular chapter structure to almost none. And I don’t find any correlation between the regularity and the entertainment they provide. As long as the creator(s) know what they are doing, or at least make believe they do, the story rocks, no matter what.
Now I ask you: What method or model do you use to understand story structure? Tell us in the comments!