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Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

First of all, why is this important? Well, basically every successful book, movie, whatever follows some kind of three-act structure. Thinking about it is really useful when you're trying to write a story with the right kind of buildup, pacing, twists, etc. Personally, my writing got a lot better once I started seriously thinking about structure, and I think it's a great tool.

Here are a couple questions to kick off discussion:

- Do you let your stories take their natural course or take a more planned approach to structure? If the latter, what kind of methodology do you use? This is probably related to the age-old question of planning vs. discovering a story it, so feel free to discuss your writing/planning/revision process as well.

- Do you think about structure when writing stories with lots of branching? How is planning a nonlinear story different from planning a linear one, and how do you manage the complexity of different paths inside of a single overarching narrative?

 

Finally, here's a quick rundown of the main structures I'm familiar with. Feel free to skip it if it's tl;dr.

The Three-Act Structure: The basic Western story structure. The first act is setup and exposition, then the main conflict of the story is introduced in the first turning point that leads into the second act, the rising action. A second turning point at the end of act II leads into the climax and falling action. There's a lot written about the three-act structure and its many forms. Personally I like the four-act variant that divides act II in half around a midpoint, which is some kind of major twist or context shift that makes the protagonist go from reaction to proaction. There are other variants as well, for example TV shows, which are written with five acts because of commercial breaks.

The Hero's Journey: Everyone knows about the monomyth: the hero receives a call to adventure, leaves home, defeats evil, and eventually returns transformed. I don't really like it, so I'm not going to discuss it much.

Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet: Basically the bible for writing a Hollywood blockbuster. It's the three-act structure with additional milestones. Blake Snyder's book about it, Save the Cat, has a lot of great practical advice and some useful insights, like using the main relationship subplot (whether that's romantic or not) to teach the protagonist the lesson of the story, how to deliver on your premise, etc. I really recommend it. The downside is that if you rely on it too much, it's easy to churn out formulaic garbage. I try to use the beat sheet more as a tool for pacing and arranging scenes than as a mad libs guide to writing.

Dramatica: I haven't looked into this one too much because it's way too complicated and I dislike their terminology, but some of the high-level ideas are good. Specifically, it represents a story as an argument and characters as different facets of the argument, which I really like. I've felt for a while that all stories send a message whether you intend them to or not, and having tools to help plan that out is useful. I don't know that I like the way they executed that idea, but maybe there's something useful there.

Kishotenketsu: This is a traditional structure from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean stories and is interesting because it relies on contrast rather than conflict to drive the narrative. It separates a story into four parts: introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. Unlike the structures we're familiar with, the narrative is driven by resolving an apparent contradiction or digression introduced in the twist rather than by conflict. I don't know how useful it is to us, but it's interesting to think about. We tend to view conflict as intrinsic to storytelling, but that's more of a Western conceit than a universal truth.

 

Do you use any of the above structures, and if so, what do you think about them? Also, if you know of others, please share! I'm always looking to expand my knowledge.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago
I don't think of acts or structures when I draft, plot or write a story. I work by thinking of the story through a string of individual scenes.

My current style is a bit of a blend between planned and free-form. I draft an initial concept and separate it into scenes, establishing a general idea of where each scene should start, what should happen and where it should leave me. The details come in during the writing phase, but since the initial concept isn't highly structured, I usually modify the plot and future scenes to fit the story that's actually being told.

I have a bad habit of editing as I go, so it's a slow process. But it trims the fat well and enhances the imagery, as every word and detail has increased significance to the overarching plot.

When I wrote Cliche Adventures, I worked under an unrefined version of this with less rules and structure for crafting sentences. (I currently operate under a rather strict system for sentence syntax in stories.) But I wrote most of that in 2014, and that was the first year I really considered any of my writing to be what I'd consider acceptable or good.

I write standard stories and CYOA content pretty much the same. The divergent paths in a CYOA just spring up at plot points, so I look at it as a "what if" scenario.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

Do you merge the other paths back into the main story soon, or do you write large branches? Also, do you go back and edit your stories when you're done? I used to edit as I went, but lately my rough drafts have looked more like bullet points with dialogue when I get to a part I don't feel like writing. I toss out half of it anyway... -_-; I'm on the fifth draft of my current story, and all this editing makes me wanna die.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago
Cliche Adventures completely diverges - except for one choice that allows you to change your mind on entering the tourney and opt for the melee. This didn't get much editing other than the initial run through.

Comedy and parody I roll through a little quicker.

The Island Story I'm working on is circular during the survival portion with randomized encounters, but I have plans for a divergent branching segment once a few requirements are met. Now, I tend to edit as I go by being very fussy with word choice and sentence structure. And then I do secondary editing afterwards with re-writes where needed until I'm happy.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

Personally, I usually start out with a basic structure of a story. A skeleton, if you will. After that, I add on as I go, changing previous ideas for better ones if need be. I could start out with a story about a man going to get milk and end with the eradication of a hostile cat species.

As for your second question, the way I write linear vs nonlinear stories isn't that different. For a linear story, I do what I said above, start with a skeleton and go from there. For nonlinear, I start with the skeleton and wonder "what if the main character did this at that point?" And I add another branch based on that thought.

 

Finally... Well, although you don't like it, I enjoy "The Hero's Journey", and I'm currently writing a kickass story right now that can be described as that. Although it does tend to be overused, it is for a reason.

Golly, I sure do love procrastinating!

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

I like how disgusted you are even having to acknowledge the hero's journey is a thing in literature. 

But it's my assumption that most stories written on sites like this are going to fall into either the three act structure or hero's journey even without the author knowing of those terms or doing it intentionally, just because they're so intrinsic to the stories most of us are familiar with it's hard to conceive of a satisfying one without those elements.

I've never actually heard of Kishotenketsu, but that's interesting. I have a hard time picturing a story without some form of conflict, I always thought it was just a given that conflict was such an integral part you couldn't have a story without it. Got any good examples?

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

Here are some short examples from the Wikipedia article.

  • Introduction (ki): Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
  • Development (sho): The elder daughter is sixteen and the younger one is fourteen.
  • Twist (ten): Throughout history, generals (daimyo) killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
  • Ketsu (??): The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.

The same pattern is used to arrange arguments:

  • Introduction (ki): In old times, copying information by hand was necessary. Some mistakes were made.
  • Development (sho): Copying machines made it possible to make quick and accurate copies.
  • Twist (ten): Traveling by car saves time, but you don't get much impression of the local beauty. Walking makes it a lot easier to appreciate nature close up.
  • Conclusion (ketsu): Although photocopying is easier, copying by hand is sometimes better, because the information stays in your memory longer and can be used later.

 

And yeah, I read an unbelievable amount of bad fantasy as a teenager. I am very over the hero's journey.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

Generally, my stories tend to fall into the Three-Act Structure, although they are built more around the characters' personalities than anything. An idea for a character will settle in my head; I'll slowly construct the aspects of that character; and, eventually, a plot will form around them, although it kind of goes back and forth -- coming up with a character and a story for them, forming the story more, adding on character traits to complement or contrast it, etc....

For example:

A young girl, who is a member of a near extinct African tribe, prefers to cut her hair short to balding. Maybe the tribe is completely against this. It's forbidden, but she does it anyway, without any explanation. Why does she do this? Perhaps a tragic past event related to someone she loved has caused her to do so. Why is the tribe so against it? Maybe it signifies rebellion. Okay. So they don't like that. Let's make the girl a generally rebellious character then to greatly contrast the tribe's laws and viewpoints. We could even make her someone who actually prefers to follow the rules, but will disobey this one rule for some reason. She knows the consequences and is afraid for her life, but something else acts as a stronger pull to drive her to rebellion. We should know something more about our character, so let's craft a personality shelf for her. Maybe she only lives with one relative, and her loneliness and isolation at home only fuels her discomfort. Or perhaps it's the opposite? Perhaps she has a large family and has little privacy, which would also fuel her discomfort. Does she have any friends? What are her favorite foods? Are her favorite foods things that the tribe can rarely pilfer/find? What are her greatest fears? What's her biggest accomplishment, if any? What dreams does she have for her life?

We take the character and we build around them and form a structure for both them and the story through a back-and-forth dance. This is generally how I craft my stories, and it takes a long time, but is something that I find fun and effective.

I do agree with Mizal in that the Three-Act Structure and the Hero's Journey, while certainly not the only ways to tell a story (as you've very nicely listed and explained), are so ingrained into the tales we tell that we might be telling one without even realizing it at first. Never heard of Kishotenketsu, by the way. Interesting!

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

Is this something I should know for writing? Goddammit, I already have to deal with things like "flow" and "themes" which I still don't understand, now there's story structure? Bah, this is too much to deal with. I'm going to go eat some turkey.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago
You're Irish. Aren't you supposed to deal with problems while drinking a strong pint?

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

I would kill everyone I know for a few strong pints right now, in all honesty.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago
That's the spirit!

~ Back to topic: I think Axiom is excessively detail minded in her writing, so I wouldn't stress about formulating the perfect story structure. Once you're exposed to so much of a certain style, I think it's kind of the intrinsic, default way you go about creating something.

I don't plan on ever writing a story that isn't conflict driven, at any rate.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

I suppose. I would question whether any of these actual structures even apply to storygames, or need to at least. I mean, When you can decide the path you're going down, I think there needs to be a certain leniancy of structure.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

I imagine the right way to apply structure to a branching story is to make sure that each divergence hits the right story points. Like if you have different routes, they each follow their own structure. If you only have minor branches that rejoin the main plot, then all versions of an event fit the same story beat or plot point.

Let's talk about story structure!

2 years ago

Yep, it's absolutely a thing you should know about writing. I can recommend some useful books if you're interested. That said, for the purposes of writing stories on this website, it's really not a big deal to ignore it. If you ever want to publish a novel, though, you should definitely read up on structure imo.

Let's talk about story structure!

one year ago
Commended by EndMaster on 5/1/2017 5:25:45 PM

I like how you actually sound like a real writer and shit.

In general I plan most of the story out, but the stories I write tend to get larger as new possibilities crop up.

So I end up making some of it up as I go along, but I still fall back on planning so I’ll often stop and organize all the new ideas and material before proceeding.

Before starting I make a document that lists all the important characters, places, and events. A timeline of all the major planned events is really important to me most of the time, since it’s usually these events that play a big part in the story and depending on the character’s choices, will severely be altered. Or maybe they won’t be altered at all, but the character’s past choices will allow them to deal with them in a different manner. Usually these events are dictated by what year they will occur. But sometimes I use other milestones depending on the story scope.

Of course I often end up adding more characters, places and such to the list, but I try to get all the main ones I definitely have in mind first. I also usually already have most of the endings in mind before I start. It’s just writing all the stuff in the middle that takes time.

I find the easiest way to write the story in general, is to write one major branch at a time and do all the “correct” choices first. Write it from beginning to end as if it was a linear story. Then go back and write the other successful paths, then focus on the lesser paths that lead to failure or death.

As you know, this is all a lot of record keeping, so I have another document listing all the choices I haven’t written out yet and I put an asterisk by them in the text itself as an extra reminder. I delete them off this list as I complete them.

After completing one major branch, I move on to the next major one and repeat the process until eventually I finish the damn story.

While I have done it a few times in the past, in general I don’t really like looping my stories back to a “main path.” I’d rather have each path as its own entity even if they might be a bit similar as far as the outcome is concerned.

I envision the main path (Which consists of “set events”) as a timeline and then each choice alters from that timeline and then other choices alter that new timeline and so on. You never really get back to the original again. The best you can do is alter things so things end up similar, but not quite.

Its like going to an alternate world and everything is the same except the stop lights are blue instead of red. Yeah it’s not a major difference, but the path that lead to that difference is still different enough that it shouldn’t just loop back to the original main path.

Honestly, I have a hard time even writing a short CYOA, let along a regular linear story anymore, I just always see the “What If?” possibilities popping up. I usually have to cut content from stuff I do plan, because otherwise I’d never finish the damn thing.

So that’s how I do it with this stuff. I see it all as some weird alternate reality jumping in writing form. Not sure if that’s actually a structure or what, but there you go.

Let's talk about story structure!

one year ago

I find the easiest way to write the story in general, is to write one major branch at a time and do all the “correct” choices first. Write it from beginning to end as if it was a linear story. Then go back and write the other successful paths, then focus on the lesser paths that lead to failure or death.

This is what I did with my Chaos entry and, other than running out of time halfway to the end, it worked out really well. I just stuck notes in red text here and there where I knew branchpoints would be, but otherwise didn't even bother separating it all out into pages for the editor until I started copy and pasting.

Anyway I won't even attempt to write a story without an outline anymore, even a short story for the prompt threads. Since you mentioned timelines I do a lot of those too. If we're talking major events, there's certain stuff that's always going to happen the player can't necessarily prevent, and I want to keep it all consistent regardless of when the character's path actually intersects with it.

I like the 'alternate reality' hopping interpretation, but I still struggle with making paths that are massively different, unless the choice itself forces it. ie: traveling to completely different geographical locations and getting caught up with completely different people and adventures.

Let's talk about story structure!

one year ago

I suppose this kind of relates to story structure, so, @EndMaster how many words do you average on each page? Or if you don't know, how many words would you guess? 

Let's talk about story structure!

one year ago

I really wouldn't know where to guess. I never really keep track of how many words I'm writing, so much as I'm keeping track of how many story passages I'm writing and how many pages it is taking.

When I first started doing it, it probably was about two full Microsoft Word pages.

Then my estimate for a single passage for awhile was about four full pages on Word.

Nowadays it's more like six full pages on Word per passage and I'm trying hard to not let it creep to eight.

Let's talk about story structure!

one year ago
In a CYOA the number of words on a page really is just a matter of formatting and presentation. Structure depends on the events of the story, word count had nothing to do with it.