Whether you plot out your stories in advance or depend on your writing to lead you to a good story, structure must be considered, either at the start or during revision.
• Structure gives readers access to the story: Readers expect certain things to happen at certain times
• Structure provides logical unfolding of events: Readers expect a causal relationship between events
• Structure allows appropriate pacing of events: Readers don’t want to be rushed or delayed
Merriam Webster defines structure as: “something arranged in a definite pattern of organization;” and “the aggregate of elements of an entity in their relationships to each other.” In storytelling, structure is how a plot unfolds. The common structure is in three acts: beginning, middle, and end.
Neighbors dispute their property line. They fight. Neighbor A kills Neighbor B.
Notice, that this basic format mirrors Aristotle’s prescribed structure: Conflict-Action-Resolution (CAR).
Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is organized using this structure:
After a family argues about a road trip’s destination, they leave for Florida and are murdered.
The details make the story interesting. One person could write a very pedantic story; O’Connor wrote a classic.
Of course, this basic structure is not always followed, but most often readers are left confused. Because of the unusual structure in 2021s Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, critics and readers alike wonder what the story is about; The structure in the 2000 film Memento is easy to grasp – ending, middle, beginning—but that doesn’t make the movie any easier to understand.
Over the years, people have added various plot points to the three-act structure. One of the first and most basic models is the 1863 Freytag’s Pyramid: Beginning, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Ending. An outline of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” following Freytag’s Pyramid is included in the handouts on Google Docs. The links to all handouts are in chat and will be included in the July Newsletter and on the website when I update it at the end of the month.
There are other models you can follow to fill in the plot—some more detailed than others. If you google “Structure in Storytelling” you’ll find many sites talking about three, four, seven, nine common structures, along with more generic discussions. These models generally follow the three-act linear structure of beginning, middle, end.
However, there are some which look at structure in parts rather than strictly linear, like Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley’s Dramatica which concentrates on Overall Story Throughline, Main Character Throughline, The Influence Character Throughline, and the Relationship Story Throughline. Another is Goal-Motivation-Conflict (GMC), both internal and external. Often used for scene development like Aristotle’s Conflict-Action-Resolution, GMC, can also be used in overall plot planning.
The best model to use is the one that resonates with you and your work. The one that makes the most sense to you as you plot or revise your story.
Today using “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” Carol Phillips, Sherry Bader, and Judith Stanton discussed three models: Kat O’Keeffe’s Nine Block Structure, James Scott Bell’s Super Structure, and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat Beatsheet. You can find the comparison handout here.
I could have picked a more straightforward story but in choosing this classic we wanted to show that the models work with any story. The three of us have slightly different interpretations of the structure, and the models dictate some of those differences. If you try your hand at determining the structure, you may have your own interpretation. However, notice the models, all agree on the main points.
Carol Phillips, June 2022