The Shape of a Story, and Why We Tell/Read Stories

The keynote speaker at the Write on the Sound Writers Conference at which I did my workshop was a film writer named Brian McDonald. He had an interesting take on the shape (structure) of a story. Since storytelling in a novel and on the screen is fundamentally pretty much the same, I thought I’d share what he had to say about that, and about storytelling in general.

Here are the elements of a story. They are simple, yet I think this works. To tell your story, you simply (yeah, right) complete the sentences.

1. Once upon a time . . . The beginning, the setting of the scene, the introduction of a character

2. Every day . . . The life of the character as it is, and is about to be disrupted

3. Until this . . . Something happens, the inciting incident, that throws a character’s life out of whack

4. Because of this . . . The character reacts with an attempt to put her life back on track, but there are complications.

5. Because of this . . . The effort fails, and then the character tries again (there can be a series of these), and there are complications.

6. Until finally . . . The climax, the point in the story that the character achieves her goal

7. For every day . . . The resolution, the tying of things together (or not, if you have an ironic ending) that completes the story experience

Mr. McDonald then had the audience fill in the blanks. I don’t write fast enough to get all of the ideas that were tossed out, but here’s an approximation.

1. Once upon a time, Mary was a traffic cop in Boston at the intersection of Fourth and Fifth.

2. Every day she would direct traffic, rain or snow or heat wave, and dream of doing “real” police work.

3. Until a driver stopped his car in the middle of the intersection, walked to the car behind him, shot the driver, and then ran off. Mary stood frozen.

4. Because of this, Mary felt terribly guilty that she had done nothing. More than that, because she did nothing, there are those in the press who accuse her of being a part of the murder.

5. Because of this, Mary spends her nights tracking down the killer . . . and then the killer does it again, right at her intersection. Accusations reach a peak, and she is suspended from the force.

6. Until finally she locates the killer and follows him in her car to her old intersection. When he jumps out, gun in hand, and approaches another car, she runs him over and saves the day

7. She is awarded a medal and made a detective, and every day she lives her dream of being a real cop.

It might be fun to see if you story has these elements. In terms of screenwriting, McDonald breaks these parts down this way:

Once upon a time. . .
Every day . . .
ACT BREAK
Until this. . . (the turning point)
ACT BREAK
Because of this (the middle)
Because of this (the middle)
ACT BREAK
Until finally (climax)
For every day … (resolution)

So why are there stories, anyway?

McDonald said that there has never been a culture that had no storytelling. So why are stories—and we storytellers—so ubiquitous? Why do cultures seem to NEED stories?

I’ve said now and then that stories help us understand how to be human beings, and that notion is in agreement with McDonald’s theory, but he puts a finer, sharper point on it.

It’s because, McDonald says, they have survival information. Even fairy tales deliver that—Hansel and Gretel is a story about the danger of strangers. Children who get that lesson are less likely to succumb to the temptations of a villain.

Stories, he said, are a way of getting the benefit of someone else’s experience without having to go through it. This holds true even if the experiences you share are in actuality imagined ones created by an author. They’re still a fresh look at life.

Romances portray experiences that have to do with relationships, as do literary novels. Thrillers deal with surviving extreme circumstances—the followers of the MacGyver series even learned tricks they could use.

McDonald said to think of it this way: conflict in a story is about surviving. If, in a scene, the conflict you introduce doesn’t impact the survival of the character, even in a minor way, then maybe it doesn’t have the stakes that make it a meaningful conflict in terms of the story.

For what it’s worth

Image by ftongl.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Ray,
    Great post. I like the screen-play approach to story. It reminds me of a book on writing, Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, in which the story form is related to tales from mythology. There’s truly nothing new under the sun, is there?

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  2. Mary E says

    Someone mentioned The Writer’s Journey–there is also a very good book on story structure for screenplays called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. His description of the screenplay ‘beats’ is useful for all storytelling.

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  3. says

    Fantastic post! Ever since taking screenwriting classes in college, I’ve drawn parallels between writing for print and writing for the screen, and I think being able to think in screenwriting terms helps me structure my stories. I love your example, and I think making a worksheet with those guidelines (“Because of this… Until this…” etc.) would probably help any writer, either in his/her brainstorming process, OR in his/her revising process (to make sure the story is coherent and on-track at all times).
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..All shapes & sizes =-.

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  4. Steve says

    I’m going to ask what I ask every time I see a story formula (and there are many floating around) If this it THE formula, then why are there so many successful published novels that don’t follow it?

    -Steve

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  5. says

    Steve, there’s no claim that this is THE “formula.” Nor even that it’s a formula. It’s just a tool for how to think about the fundamental elements of any story. It says that a story starts in some kind of status quo, then something happens to change things, there are complications, then action to resolve the unbalance, and then a resolution. Does any story fail to follow this basic “shape?” For me, this elemental way of looking at it is a way to diagnose structural weaknesses in a story. Sorry if it’s no help to you.

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  6. says

    This is simple stuff that should be obvious, however, most don’t grasp the concept. There should be something about creating a character that’s compelling as well….

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  7. Steve says

    Hi Ray and thanks for the response.

    You almost had me agreeing with you that this is one of several ways to look at a story, and might not apply to them all. But then you said:

    “It says that a story starts in some kind of status quo, then something happens to change things, there are complications, then action to resolve the unbalance, and then a resolution. Does any story fail to follow this basic “shape?” ”

    With that, you are back to asserting the universal applicability of the viewpoint you present. Okay, here’s a quick and dirty counterexample.

    Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy begins with the slave boy Thorby being sold at auction to Baslim the Cripple, licensed beggar under the Mercy of the Sargon. (And, as we find out much later, secretly Colonel Richard Baslim of the X-Corps of the Terran Hegenomy, working undercover on Jubalpore to amass data on the slave trade.)

    We are shown nothing of Thorby’s day-to-day life prior to this incident, although we are briefly told in later backstory that it consisted of cold, hunger and whippings in the hold of a slave ship. At several later points of the story, Thorby does indeed settle into a daily routine of sorts, but each time events intervene to move him on to the next stage of the story.

    So, I suppose the pattern you speak of exists within this story, in a sense, in the context of the subplots; but it is not the pattern of the story overall.

    Again, I have no problem with your viewpoint being useful and that many good stories probably follow that pattern. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are other patterns which are also workable.

    -Steve

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  8. says

    Steve, now we’re getting into definition of terms. The story you refer to fits the structure just fine. Once upon a time, a boy was a slave.

    That is his current life when the story opens. No, it’s not described in detail, but that’s where he is.

    These are broad strokes, Steve, a look at a consistent and viable pattern for stories. Every character starts somewhere, i.e., at a particular time and place his/her situation is so and so. The example you cite does not stray from that simple premise. However, if it’s not useful to you, then don’t use it.

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