Story Structure

I’ve talked about creating plot boards and scene weaves, but there’s one last thing about plot that I have to touch on, something a little more foundational, and that it the story structure.  Truby elaborates on this in The Anatomy of Story, but I’m going to give you a condensed version of it here.

Truby calls all of these story movements rather than structures.  I think that’s just a matter of semantics because, to me, the way a story flows from one even to another is the same as its basic structure.  He identifies five structures.

The first is the linear story, which everyone is most familiar.  The hero focuses on achieving a goal and pursues it relentlessly.  There’s a beginning followed by a middle, followed by an end; A to B to C to D and finally to E.  Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly the second half of it, can best be described as linear.

The second kind of story structure is the meandering one, which is similar to a linear story but it flows greatly from one direction to another on its way towards the end.  Forrest Gump is a good example of a meandering story.  Although he thinks about his love Jenny throughout the film, he doesn’t go after her every single step of the way.  She’s a presence in his mind, but external events lead him from one adventure to the next from meeting presidents to fighting in the Vietnam War.  This, I think, is the plot structure that closest mirrors real life because we rarely know where we’re heading, and we’re pretty much bouncing from one thing to the next.

The third kind of plot is the spiral story in which the story is constantly revisiting a particular event or memory.  The first story that comes to mind is the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, the story of a soldier in an alien war dying and constantly repeating the previous day leading up to his death.  As a result of this visitation, he finds greater purpose in the war, increasing his combat skills and looking for a way to end it for good.

The fourth kind of plot is the branching plot.  In these plots, the story begins from a central point and continuously breaks off into separate threads.  Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is, again, an example of this.  The Two Towers and The Return of the King look at different groups of the Fellowship after they split up at the Falls of Rauros.  The downside to this is that you need to divide the reader’s attention among a few main characters.

And finally, there’s the explosive story in which everything going on in the story occurs simultaneously.  This is more of a magic trick than a set-in-stone structure.  Even Truby concedes this: “In a story, you can’t show the audience a number of elements all at once, even for a single scene, because you have to tell one thing after another; so, strictly speaking, there are no explosive stories.”  Dennis Quaid and Sigourney Weaver did a movie a few years ago called Vantage Point that, I think, tried to follow this kind of structure.  I could be wrong – I never actually saw it – but from what I’ve heard, the movie showed a president’s assassination from the viewpoint of five different people.  Unless you split the screen five ways, you can’t show all five stories simultaneously.  This is impossible to do with the written word because you can’t split a page up five ways.

All these structure types have their pros and cons.  Some are simpler than others, like the linear plot versus the explosive plot.  Others, like the meandering plot, offer more realism.  It’s ultimately up to you to decide which one will be the most useful for your purposes.

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