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The Most Important Article You’ll Ever Read On Story Structure

We think in narrative, but think about topics. Narrative is the operating system of our own minds, and we seek to impose that upon every topic we encounter. For if we can, then we have the most touch-points with our own awareness, and see the most we can of what we are exploring, as well as the forces that operate in that system and hold things together.

That which does not match the very schematic of our minds appears to be chaos. But even chaos can be topically related.

The problem for the creative mind is that it wants to have topic and narrative come together in a perfect fit. It is not unlike putting a pencil on a table, and balancing a ruler across it. Topic is on one side and narrative is on the other. If you push the topic side down to the table, like a seesaw, the narrative side will go up, and vice versa.

So, the truth of the matter is, that topic and narrative can never both be fully explored in the same work.

And so, some writers seek a perfect structure at the expense of the passion of their topic. And others seek to completely explore their topic, though it makes a shambles of narrative.

But if you can accept that structure should not be perfect and that topic will never be expressed, then you can find the balance between the two that optimizes the effect or personal satisfaction you are shooting for.

When creating, the Muse abhors structure. She wishes to romp free in the fields of experience. You must never try to bridle the Muse or she will run away from you never to return.

So, in any first draft, forget about structure. Let the story flow of its own topical organic nature.

At this time, you create a Story World – the universe of experience in which your story will take place. It is not your story, but is the realm in which your story’s journey will occur. But it should have no structure, because it is not even a narrative yet – just the narrative space in which the narrative will eventually form.

Next, after creating a story world, you create a storyline. This can be one or more journeys across your story world, with a point of departure, a destination, and meandering around and lingering at as manny different concepts as you like within your story world. Again, structure should not be specifically applied at this time, since your own mind is already automatically laying the embryonic foundations of structure in the background while your Muse creates.

Finally, in the third stage, you look at your finished storyline journeys and, regardless if there is just one story/journey or many, you go to the list of Story Points in Dramatica and make sure each journey has them all, as completely as is reasonable.

So, you ensure there is a goal, a protagonist, a main character, an influence character unique ability, and so on. BUT do NOT create a storyform yet! We aren’t interested at this stage what kind of goal it is, just to identify what the topical subject matter of the goal is – that each journey HAS a goal.

Finally, once you have revised your storylines to include as many of the story points as you reasonably can, THEN and ONLY then do you create a storyform. This storyform will provide a template to which you can aspire, but like the pencil and the ruler, you can never really achieve without short changing your topic and your passion.

So, in seeing what KIND of goal your story SHOULD have, for example, you can then consider if your goal is actually like that, similar to that, or worlds away from that. And, if it doesn’t match exactly, you can determine if you think that will hurt your story, or if it is close enough, or the story point minor enough, that you can just leave it as it is, in the most passionate and organic form, and ignore structure at that point.

No one ever read a book or saw a movie to experience a magnificent structure. The readers and audience are there to ignite their passions about a topic of interest to them. THAT is the bottom line and it is also King. Never let structure get in the way of that.

–Melanie Anne Phillips

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Story Structure – Guidelines NOT Rules!

Of late, I’ve been working with the concept that perfect story structure is a myth – and should be! As they say in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, “it’s more of a guideline than a rule.”

In story creation, one should ignore structure up front because we all think in narrative to begin with, subconsciously – that’s what narrative is: the pattern or framework we use to find meaning.  And since narrative is how we think, every creative work we bring into the world already has an embryonic narrative structure forming in our subject matter.

The problem is that often subject matter may engender multiple potential narratives that are incompatible with one another at some or many levels. And the job of structuring is to find and refine those potential narratives so that one may be selected as the one round which you build your story.

This creative process tends to take place through four stages of story development:

1. Building your story world – who’s in it, what happens in it, what it all means.

2 Finding the path you want to follow through that world – basically your story’s timeline.

3. Adding in structural story points to act as the cornerstones and lynchpins of your story.

4. Determining the complete structural storyform that best matches your intent for the story.

In that final fourth stage, you use the storyform as a blueprint for your story, but have a lot of leeway in how closely you adhere to it. No one reads a book or goes to a movie to experience a great structure. They go because of their interest in the subject matter and a desire to have the expression of that subject matter ignite their passions.

And so, aside from the most crucial story points, an actual story (as opposed to a theoretical ideal story) can vary considerably from structural perfection whenever the process of making it more structurally accurate would undermine the flow of passion or short change the exploration of the subject matter.

Knowing, for any given story, which story points are crucial and how far one can drift, is a result of experience: the more you practice, the better you get.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-Creator, Dramatica

Learn more about Dramatica Story Structure Software

In Search of Your Writer’s Identity

Sweet potatoes are the best.  And they are best described in Ralph Ellison’s story of a black man coming to terms with his identity entitled “Invisible Man,” in which he has always avoided eating his favorite childhood food, hot buttered yams, sold by street vendors, so he would not be stereotyped, as he now works in an office in a suit.  But he finally accepts his true love of the food, stops by a vendor, puts down his briefcase and eats the wonderful sweet salty treat with abandon, proclaiming in his mind, “I yam what I yam.”

Personally, in 7th grade art class, we were given an assignment to bring in pictures to illustrate how to show distance.  One techniques was loss of detail.  I brought in a picture from Mad Magazine where a little boy had just cut off the tail of a cat with a pair of scissors and labelled it “Loss of De Tail.”  He looked at it for a moment and said, “You want to add this to the other examples in your portfolio?”  Man had no sense of humor.  He lost it by living a life as someone he wasn’t.

In each of the two narratives above, one fictional and one a true story, two different people for completely different reasons had stepped away from who they really were to fashion lives that didn’t reflect them at all.  They felt justified in doing this when it started because they never imagined the path would lead them to where they ended up.

It starts with a single compromise to oneself – doing a job you hate to achieve something you want or putting your own art on hold to pay the bills as a teacher.  But to maintain that compromise, you need to make another, and another in support of it until you’ve built up a whole network of interconnected dependencies that form the bars of a framework behind which you are self-imprisoned.

You’ve put so much effort into building this damn thing called “your life” that you can’t bear to let it go – like a cancerous tumor you’ve become really attached to, to the point you won’t let anyone remove it from you.

Captain Kirk said, “I need my pain,” when he was offered the chance to become “magically” angst-free.  Our pain is the scar we wear, the badge of honor for all the suffering we endured on the way to the life we have fashioned for ourselves.  It defines our struggle, so it defines ourselves, or at least who we have become.

But is that who we really “are” much less who we would want to be?  Of course not.  But are we willing to change?  Hell, no!  We’d not only risk everything and everyone we have, but will then have to face that maybe those aren’t the things and people we really want.  And then there’s the kids, and all those who depend upon us, and our responsibility to future generations….

Shakespeare said,

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

But in this case, it is not the after-life we fear, but life itself.  Can we really face having to acknowledge we’ve spent years of our lives weaving a fabric with a horrible pattern that doesn’t reflect us at all?  And wouldn’t THAT be dandy, to not only have to face that knowledge, but then to crash it all down in order to be ourselves so all we end up with is lost time and nothing at all to show for it?  Gambler’s syndrome – if I spend a little bit more I’ll eventually score big enough to cover all of my loses and still come home a winner.

No, it’s not an easy place to go.  But as artists, we head right for that place like lemmings, subjugating our Muse “until later” or because we need to be “responsible.”  Seriously?  What kinds of lame excuses are these?

Don’t lie to yourself that it will happen someday, because it never will – not on its own.  It will only happen someday if you make it happen.  And there’s no time like the present.  Yeah, sure, okay,  you’re not going to abandon your family and head off to another continent to rediscover your Muse (though some have done just that).  But you probably won’t.  I never have, but I’m no freaking example of much of anything, ‘cept to myself, of course.

No, you’ll probably want to write the great American (or some other nationality) Novel or Screenplay, and you’ll “grunt and sweat under a weary life.” to try to make that happen while still trying to maintain everything else.  After all, J. K. Rowling did just that, didn’t she?

But honestly, how many J. K. Rowlings are in the world?  One, of course,  So give up the dream of writing what you want and expecting it to make mega bucks.  Could happen, but you’ll probably have better odds with the Lotto.  Besides, as soon as cold, hard cash enters the picture, your Muse seizes up in a mental charlie horse, all twisted up and contorted into a Gordian knot of creative deadlock.  Oh, yeah. That’s fun.

Listen my friends (I can call you my friends, can’t I?) if you want to be happy in writing, just write whatever you freaking want.  And write it how you want.  And tell it the way you want it told.  But never sell out your Muse for security – oh, no…  Just take a job on the side and realize it has nothing to do with your creative self.  Be truthful, it’s just for the money.  Differentiate between your worker-bee self and your inventive spirit self, and don’t ever, not now, never, under any circumstances lock the two together or they will both go down into the deep and you along with them, waving to yourself like Ahab on the whale of your reality as your inspiration sinks below the waves leaving no one to tell the tale because the damn writer in you just drowned in self-pity and was never heard from again (though some mindless husk continues to crank out text under the same name).

You yam what you yam.  Eat it.

Melanie Anne Phillips

An Argument Against Deadlines

In story structure there is a dramatic element called the Story Limit.  It has two varieties: the time lock and the option lock.  Some stories come to a climax because they run out of time, others because they run out of options.

In a time lock story, you are rushed.  In an option lock story you are pressured (because the undesired situation remains an irritant until you finally find a solution).

The same thing applies to writing.  If you have a deadline for a publisher, then you are writing with time lock.  But if you are creating for yourself, you are writing with an option lock.

And so, it really doesn’t matter how big the ocean is, you have all the time in the world to paddle across it.  And, if you enjoy the process of writing, the more time it takes, the more you get to enjoy it.

A little effort every day will get you there.  Even if there are days that don’t produce much if anything, there are days that will produce a lot so that, in time, step by step, page by page, you will one day find yourself on the opposite shore with a finished novel.