Story Structure

18 February 2002

This is a three-part invention—so to speak—on story structure. One of the pieces of advice offered to inexperienced writers that really irritates me springs from abysmal ignorance of the good parts of literary theory. The most common mistake is the assertion that "all [successful] stories have structure x." We'll leave aside the problems with scope that this creates for now, and just look at two of the leading purported "structures."

One of the most common examples in the speculative fiction field is that espoused by Algis Budrys, which goes something like this:

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result.

Element 5 can be dismissed immediately. There is no need whatsoever for "repeated failures" in attempts to solve a problem. As obvious counterexamples, consider Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," J.G. Ballard's "The Recognition," Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," and just about anything that is single-thread action in which a "master plan" is seen through to fruition. When the author throws more, unanticipated obstacles in front of the protagonist to lengthen the piece or "increase tension," the protagonist has not "repeatedly fail[ed]" to solve the problem.

Element 7 is also easily dismissed. If one accepts it, no story can be ambiguous. With some work, one can also find exceptions to each of the other elements; "Omelas," for example, violates element 1.

What these problems with this model really point out is that the formula is too rigid. Such a formula is a good teaching exercise, like a two-part invention, with its rigid structure and focus on an individual technique or interpretive method. That is all well and good. However, it does not make for good art. The only one of Bach's two-part inventions that receives any attention as a performance piece is #4 in d. Perhaps this is just a hint that following a formula leads to less-than-salutary results. You'd never expect that assertion from me, though, would you?

That's not to say that inventions are worthless. They are learning tools. But, with darned few exceptions, that is all they are. One can learn a lot at, for example, Clarion; but stories that stay "Clarioned" either won't sell at all or will sell only to tertiary markets, or perhaps to Writers of the Future (which, sad to say, has rigidified over the last half dozen years or so.)

Joseph Campbell's so-called "hero's journey" is another common proposal as the "paradigmatic story structure." Leaving aside the dubious provenance of Campbell's theory (given the willful ignorance of evidence that didn't fit his preconceived notions, among other problems), this theory has even more exceptions among good stories than does the "seven point" method. Campbell's theory has been expressed in a number of ways; here's one representative version:

  1. The hero is confronted with a challenge,
  2. rejects it,
  3. but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it.
  4. He travels on the road of trials,
  5. gathering powers and allies, and
  6. confronts evil only to be defeated.
  7. This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which
  8. the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to
  9. confront evil again and be victorious.
  10. Finally, the student becomes the teacher.

This theory 1 has more problems than one can shake a ream of paper at. Elements 2, 8, and 10 are actually seldom present in short fiction at all. Element 9 depends on the failure prescribed in element 6. Element 5 is perhaps the most laughable for short fiction: with few exceptions, there is no "gathering," but at most a "redeployment of existing assets." Perhaps at novel length, this is a significant element—but all too often it leads to the "quest coupon" method of plotting, in which the characters run around collecting various "plot coupons" until they have enough for the E-ticket ride of the climax. Of course, some of these criticisms result from the all-too-common misunderstandings of what plot really is; although that's more of an aside this time, it's far from irrelevant in the final reckoning.

There is one type of story, however, that almost invariably defies all of the supposed structural rules for fiction, whether in short fiction or otherwise. Can anyone guess what it might be? No, Mr. Brewer, you already know the answer. Someone else, please.

At the smallest level—the one most apparent to those without overexposure to literary theory—satire cannot successfully follow those rules. Satire is not the same thing as parody; there is a world of difference between Don Quixote and Bored of the Rings. Several worlds, in fact. The key distinction is that parody is ultimately "about" the source work and the author's reaction to it, while satire is ultimately "about" a larger target. Parody is usually played only for laughs; while satire can be hysterically funny (e.g., Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), the author maintains the laughter just long enough to slip the knife in and give it a good twist.

So, then, how does one structure a work of short fiction? Although I think Kipling a bit optimistic (there are not truly nine and sixty "right" ways to compose tribal lays), he's onto something.

The real problem with these so-called structures is that they aren't structures at all—they're lists of ingredients, or at most archetypal plots. They do not cover any of the other essential elements of fiction: character, environment, or theme. The most difficult aspect, though, and the real difference between the saleable story and the unsaleable story, is the integration of the various parts. Just having a character in a situation with a problem who tries to solve his problem isn't enough; the character must somehow fit the initial situation (even the "fish out of water" is a fit of one kind), the problem must somehow relate to the character and to the situation, and the attempts to solve the problem and theme must relate to all of the above.

One example of this problem is the quasirevolutionary stance so common in IFS. I've lost count of the number of liberal democracies2 that seem to be accepted as a natural system of government in these preindustrial cultures, complete with organized educational systems, advancement on merit, searches for new Heroes that ignore class structures, etc. A prime example—and far from the worst one—is Lackey's Valdemar environment. Leaving aside the William-Morris-like "medieval without the dirt, disease, and poverty" aspects for the nonce, such an environment says worlds about the makeup of the elite (the Heralds, in Valdemar itself). If "merit" really is the basis, there should be a lot fewer nobles, a lot more citydwellers, and a lot more candidates who fail training than is apparent there. This does have—or, at any rate, should have—significant effects upon the characters, both in terms of the kinds of situations they find themselves in and the kinds of characters they are. It also should have great effects upon the kinds of plots and problem-solving, but seldom does. Conversely, working in the other direction, one must ask what kind of society would be consistent (even to the point of tension, if required, but consistent nonetheless) with the chosen "enlightened" ruling structure. It would almost certainly not be preindustrial, or in any event not agrarian-based, and would require some sense of physical threat to the elite from even the lowest of the low. Feodality could maintain itself as long as the average citizen had no ability, even en masse, to threaten the elite.

Too often, though, writers claim that "I'm just trying to entertain; therefore, I don't have/need a theme." Sad to say, too much of this material gets published, particularly in media fiction. The claim, however, is either a blatant lie or reflective of considerable ignorance. All commercial fiction has, at a minimum, the theme of "ka-ching!" behind it: the author wants to get paid (on occasion, in "respect" rather than in money, but that's just a different currency). Occasionally, it's even worse, as in the Dragoncrap Chronicles, which appear calculated more to sell D&D supplements and gaming aids more than anything else. But, in any event, "themeless" writing is impossible. That's not to say that every story must begin with a Theme, and everything else must be bent to the writer's preconceived notions, or that the writer's initial thoughts about theme will necessarily be the same at completion.

This all creates an interesting counterpoint in the actual writing process. At least at the initial drafting stage, every word, every sentence, every paragraph, is primarily related to one or more of the four contrapuntal aspects of a work of fiction. As the story approaches a complete form (i.e., after it has been drafted and edited at least once), some of the "notes" will weave together in something approaching harmony. A simple fugue—or even a very complex one, such as the last part of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge or Beethoven's Grosse Fuga—cannot successfully extend very long without at least some elements of harmony.3 Thus, that paragraph describing the main character's exquisite evening gowns, if done well, will reveal as much about the environment as it will about the main character herself (or himself, in a twisted-enough context…), and probably something of the underlying theme, too.

So, then, where does this leave us? No doubt more confused than when we started. It clearly leaves us without a prescribed "story structure," which is all to the good. Even moreso in the arts than in other endeavors, it simply does not do to ingrain bad habits in students. Instead, it leaves us with a description something like this:

A work of fiction requires

  • One or more characters,
  • who must make a decision(s) or take/refrain from action(s)
  • which has/have consequences, foreseeable or otherwise,
  • appropriate to and limited by his/her/their environment,
  • that resolve(s) or reveal(s) an underlying theme
  • as depicted in prose.

One difficulty with this model is the implied sequence (character comes first), which is more an artifact of language than a specific necessity. "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," for example, certainly deals with the limitations of the environment "before" it deals with characters, or decisions/actions, or consequences, or theme. Fiction is not necessarily linear; the writing of it sure as hell isn't, even for those who claim to go from word 1 to word 108,972 without any backtracking in the middle.

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  1. Both this listing and the one on 12 February are shamelessly copied from Philip Brewer's article "Story Structures in Short Stories" (Speculations 45: 16–18 (Feb. 2002)). They're quite similar to other versions I've seen—but this way I didn't have to find those versions and retype them.
  2. "Liberal democracy" has little to do with contemporary notions of "liberal" and "conservative" (particularly as those terms have been corrupted in American usage). Instead, a "liberal democracy" is one that draws both the electors and the elected from a relatively representative cross-section of the entire society (even if certain discrete groups, such as women, are excluded) to constitute a deliberative body that both makes and determines enforcement of law and policy. In some variations, the electors could be an identity with the elected, as a cursory look at pre-Roman Athens implies. It can be relentlessly reactionary, right-wing, conservative, what have you; it is the form and the cross-section that make it a "liberal" democracy.
  3. Polyphonic works are not an exception to this model. Polyphonic works have limited lengths, and themselves reflect some of the underlying society (particularly including the inability of any of the "serious" instruments to individually engage in harmony). Just as we have learned a great deal about what makes "good music" since the time of William Bird, we have learned a great deal about what makes "good fiction" since the time of Laurence Sterne.

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