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A set of scaffolding to represent story structure

Story Structure Rules in the Land of Fiction

Without a strong story structure, your characters won’t reach their potential, your plot will feel disjointed, and your themes may never see the light of day. Story structure holds the whole of your fictional world together and enables your tale to travel through its various landscapes until it reaches the sunny (or not so sunny) uplands of revelation and resolution.

You can write a story without a strong underlying structure but why would you? So much would be lost; your reader might never get to appreciate the underlying truths you are trying to express, which is surely the reason you are writing that particular story in the first place?


What is a story?

The word ‘story’ doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘event’ or ‘episode’ or ‘happening’. It’s much more complex.

A story is:

  • a journey, internal or external, taken by a character or characters
  • a process via which a change takes place
  • a lesson that teaches something that needed to be learned
  • a series of causal events that lead to a climax and resolution

Good stories cause us to reflect on life. Many stories might mimic real life very closely, but stories are not real life. Real life is random and often chaotic. It is unsatisfying, joyful, disappointing, thrilling, rewarding, frustrating. Story is all of those emotions while also being ordered, purposeful, progressive and meaningful. It’s how we wish life actually was, which is why we find stories so comforting; they create order out of chaos, and imbue the human experience with a sense of purpose and substance.


The unwritten contract with the reader

On a primal level, we recognise the purpose of stories, and as readers and viewers, when we come to a story, we come to it with a whole host of unconscious expectations. When we give our time to the book or movie, we are signing an unwritten contract with the writer. We expect them to deliver a story that resonates with us on a psychological level.

Have you ever read a book or watched a film and felt outraged by the ending? The writer or writers had got it wrong. They'd wasted your time. One memory of such a moment is a trip to the local cinema to watch Burn After Reading, a Coen Brothers film starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney, amongst other big names.


The Cohen Brothers


Burn After Reading

One reporter said of the film:

It takes a while to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of Burn because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly.

That’s a fair summary of the story. It’s funny, it’s random, its unexpected and not particularly causal, and it certainly isn’t meaningful. We think we’re taking the journey with a particular character, but it turns out they were just expendable, their story pointless and unimportant.

The reaction of the audience in the auditorium was extreme. Half the audience spent the last forty minutes or so shifting about visibly - and noisily - in their seats. They exited while mumbling disgruntled complaints, the most common of which seemed to be, ‘What a pointless waste of time that was.’ 



The other half of the audience applauded. These were the ones who understood what the writers had done, which was to mercilessly subvert all of the viewers’ subconscious expectations and belligerently fail to deliver on the promise of the unspoken contract. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what we mean. If you haven’t, suffice it to say that the ending was a damp squib at best, an insult to the viewer at worst. The hero, who wasn’t remotely heroic, dies, and his death leaves us with a big, fat ‘So What?’


The Coen Brothers subverted story structure

Some ways in which Burn After Reading subverts common story structure:

  • Every writer who’s been around the block a bit knows that it’s important to set up what’s at stake and to make those stakes matter. The Coen Brothers didn’t do this. The stakes didn’t much matter at all.   
  • Readers expect their hero to be someone they can identify with. They want to root for them. The characters in Burn After Reading were all dislikeable, and it would have taken a real stretch to root for any of them.      
  • Even in a tragedy, something will be resolved at the end, and something will come out of the situation whether or not the hero lives to enjoy it. The story of this movie didn’t change anything. The central characters might as well have never existed.  

The Coen brothers broke all of these story structure ‘rules’ and they wrote something that, in story terms, was utterly dissatisfying. And pointless. 

Which was the very point they were making.

The whole audience in the cinema that evening had sat down to watch a film with a long list of unacknowledged expectations. And when those expectations weren’t met, we reacted - some with a wry touché, others with an angry stamping foot. Whichever way we responded, we were all aware that we’d been ‘had’.

The Coen brothers deliberately set out to achieve that effect, and they did it with slick control and incredible skill. They didn’t create this story by accident. Their understanding of the conventions of structure was thorough enough for them to take what they knew and then subvert it. In doing so, they were playing with their audience. They knew exactly what they were doing, and those members of the audience who clapped at the end had recognised that.

As readers and as viewers, our expectation of story is hardwired into us. As writers, it makes sense then to understand what those expectations are so we can satisfy them. Or, as in the case of the Coen brothers, devilishly subvert them.


Online Writing Course on Story Structure

If you are interested in learning about what story is and how it is created through the interplay between characters, plot and theme, we have a ten-week online writing course coming up, starting on April 21st 2022 – The Fundamentals of Character, Plot and Story. This course will transform your understanding of this crucial aspect of the writing craft.

Knowing how story really works will massively boost your confidence as a writer and will help you write stories that speak to your readers in ways that will resonate with them. This course is perfect for beginners, intermediates, or anybody wishing to understand more about how story works. 


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