On Writing: Story Structure

On Writing: Story Structure

"When you find yourself lost, look at the map for instructions"  - Michael Arndt


I don't know about you, but I find myself lost quite a bit when it comes to writing. I would say that a good 20-35% of my process at any given time consists of reviewing the fundamentals of story structure. Some people argue that structure is really the only thing that you can teach when it comes to writing... either everything else - prose, dialogue, characters, and world - can only be improved through experience, or they only stem from story itself, so structure is actually story  uh uh wait. Huh?

Okay. Anyway. Here are five resources I find myself going back to constantly to relearn story:


Story Circle is Dan Harmon's interpretation of  Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, which in turn is a distillation of universal story elements derived by analyzing epic poems, which, before written down, were passed down via oral traditional for probably a really long time (we don't really know the answer but it was probably a long time after we learned how to talk that we learned how to write things down much less think of writing them down for something as trivial as entertainment. That's, like, a long time, man! 

Like all of the structures linked here, the Hero's Journey is great as both a starting point and diagnostic tool for your story. You use it to start laying out plot or to analyze when something isn't working. It also may provide insight into what is missing for a particular arc or scene and can be compressed or expanded to apply to scenes, sequences, acts, and entire stories or trilogies. 

In all its forms, story is a cycle that reflects the human condition. 



Kishōtenketsu is a way of breaking down stories originating in the East and formalized by the Japanese who gave it a name. Kishōtenketsu ​ shares many similarities with structures of a western origin with subtle - yet distinctive - differences that on the surface seem either painfully obvious or inanely profound. 

At its core, we're talking about the differences between Eastern and Western culture reflected through the interpretation of narrative. I suspect with the success of Parasite that Kishōtenketsu will gain a lot of mindshare among authors in the years ahead. 



Anatomy of Chaos is a proponent of Four Act Sequence Structure for feature film screenplays, which breaks down traditional three act structure in 24 key story beats and four acts. This is a common and useful paradigm taught at many universities with screenwriting programs. 

The key advantage to Sequence Structure over traditional three act paradigms is the more robust direction provided by splitting traditional Act 2 into two smaller acts, each with its own set of six beats. A lot of people find this helpful in prompting to come up with - "what's next?" On a basic level that's all these different structures are: tools to help you construct the mechanisms of your story. Use them when you need to get unstuck. 


Guess what part of the story we've been working on lately?

The title of this video is a bit of a misnomer: although the focus is on Endings, an Ending is just the payoff for all of the work that you set up in the Beginning, so this video is really a catch-all guide on how to write screenplays.

Arndt says that if you have only one takeaway from his lecture, it should be that great stories have three stakes: external, internal, and philosophical. ​ Great stories explore a clash of intractable values. Good stuf, this video. One of the best out there! 



I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the first structural paradigm I learned - good ole' classic 3 act structure as told by Syd Field.

Syd gets a lot of guff these days, but I'm not sure why. If I had to guess, it would be something related to some of our innate tribalistic instincts giving rise inevitably to majority and minority schools of thought, all of which is productive as it the difference of opinion is what provides for critical thought which is turn pushes new ideas? No doubt 3-Act Structure is the oldest of the old schools, mainest of the mainstream. 

I keep hinting at it, but to be clear: all of these structures and paradigms are basically talking about the same stuff, just with very small yet distinct interpretations. None is more correct than the other. At the end of the day they're imperfect explanations of a the most abstract of concepts: story. The Dao that is the Dao is not the Dao and all that jazz... 

These are all guides to help you master story, which is a personal journey of discovery. 

Good luck and keep writing! 

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