Structure is how a story is put together. It's the underlying shape and order that everything else hangs on. I know that sounds obvious, but every now and then you need to point out the obvious stuff. If you don't have structure, all you have is a pile. Even something as amazing as the Guggenheim follows a lot of the basics of building construction.
Which is a great example. Much like the physical architecture of buildings, there are certain rules a writer needs to follow with the structure of their story. A very skilled person can bend or tweak these rules to accomplish a clever effect, but ignoring the rules often means the story (or building) will just collapse. At the least, it’ll end up so ugly and misshapen nobody will want anything to do with it.
As I have in the past, I may use a few terms here in slightly different ways than they get used in other places. I’m mostly doing it to keep things as clear as possible, so try to think of the ideas and concepts I’m tossing about more than the label I slap on them for this little rant.
There are two types of story structure I want to blather on about. One is linear structure. The other is narrative structure. They're two separate things. If the writer is doing things correctly, they tie together in the same smooth, effortless way character and dialogue tie together.
First up is linear structure. This is how the characters in a story perceive events. Unless you’re writing a story from the point of view of Doctor Manhattan, your characters are going to experience the story in a linear fashion. Morning will be followed by afternoon, then evening. Thursday comes before Friday, which is the start of the weekend. People begin life young and then grow old. Another good way to think of linear structure is continuity. A before B. Cause before effect.
The other half is narrative structure. This is how your audience experiences the story, and it can come in a number of forms--many of which we’ll deal with next week. I just wanted you to have both terms in your forebrain right now.
So, a term some of you may have heard before is three-act structure. It gets tossed around in screenwriting a lot, but it shows up in most forms of storytelling and showmanship. Despite attempts to define it as something much more rigid and page-dependent, three act structure really just means that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning happens first, then the middle, then the end.
Again... every now and then you have to point out the obvious stuff.
Now, it’s key to note they may not always come in that order, but they do always need to be there. We’re going to get into that in a little bit (again, probably next week). For now, the key thing to remember is that even if these events are presented to the reader out of order, the characters are still experiencing them in order.
One easy way you can check a non-linear story is to cut it up and put the bits in chronological order, like a timetable. This is the order the characters and the world are experiencing the story (as opposed to the reader). Does effect still follow cause? Are the actions and dialogue still motivated? If everything’s right, there should be a clear chain of continuity. If it starts to get fuzzy or questionable, that's not a good sign.
Now, I’m sure the question some of you are asking is “why?” Since so many tales involve flashbacks and frames and non-linear storytelling, why does a linear structure matter? It should only matter in straightforward stories like 24, right?
Wrong again, Timmy.
As I mentioned above, linear structure is how the characters experience the story. And as I’ve said many, many times, characters are key. If they’re not grounded in a linear structure, they end up tripping over themselves. They know things they shouldn’t know yet or bear the scars of events that haven’t happened. Once it starts with characters, these flaws and oddities ripple out into the plot and there’s a notable lack of continuity. Suddenly effect is coming before cause, and B comes before A, with D between them.
A quick note for genre fans. Time travel stories get called on continuity a lot. Not in the altering history sense, just in the who-knows-what-when sense. Just remember that time travel isn’t going to affect a character’s personal linear timeline. My day four can be your day one. In the handy diagram here (developed with a $25,000,000 grant from NASA), you can see that our time traveler (in blue) has a coherent, linear story--even though it seems at odds with the story of the mundane non-time traveler (in black) who also has a linear story (no one said time travel was easy). One of the best things I can suggest for this is the third season of Doctor Who. It deals with this idea in the first episode and in two different arcs that span the entire season. Plus it’s really fun and Freema Agyeman is gorgeous, so win-win all around.
My novel, Ex-Heroes, has almost a dozen major flashbacks in it to a period before the beginning of the novel. But if you were to rip all of those chapters out and rearrange them in chronological order (go ahead, buy an extra copy just to tear it up), you’d see that the story still makes sense. The heroes appear. The zombies appear. Society collapses. The heroes try to salvage what they can and rebuild society (which is where the book begins). A new threat appears. The story itself is linear, even though it’s presented in a non-linear way.
On the flipside, I once worked on the straight-to-DVD sequel to a very popular murder mystery/ Hitchcock-style thriller (which was, in all fairness, mostly popular because Denise Richards and Neve Campbell get topless and make out in a pool). When you took many of the “hidden scenes” at the end of the sequel and put them in order, the story actually made less sense than it did without them. This film, needless to say, had horrible linear structure. The writers were just throwing down “cool” moments with no regard to where and how they actually fit into the story.
One more general note for you. When you look at the linear structure of a story, it should be very straightforward. A-B-C-D-E- and so on. If you’re looking over this and suddenly hit 4-5-6 somewhere... well, there’s a reason that looks odd there. It’s falling outside the scope of the plot. An example I’ve used before is the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Doctor Jones gives a speech about Masada to the two government agents. Don’t remember that scene? Yeah, well, that’s because it has nothing to do with the story so they didn’t put it in the movie. Linear structure is a great place to see if there are extra things hanging on a story that don’t need to be there.
So that’s linear structure in a somewhat large nutshell. Next time I’ll babble on about narrative structure and, if I’m doing it right, this will all start to make sense.
Until then, go write.