We all fear telling stories that seem to go on and on with no point.
The stories that jump back and forth in time, the ones that go back to the beginning when you think you’ve reached the middle because you missed an important detail. The ones where you introduce people and situations that seem to have no bearing on the story. All this and a thousand more storytelling sins.
The worst is that while you’re in the middle of your story, you can see your audience suffering from listener fatigue. The disconnect is killing.
Story structure can rescue you. It sounds dramatic, but it’s absolutely true.
I’ve written quite a bit about the story structure at the core of my StoryCraft work. This is material I review often, for myself and with every group I work with. Why? Well, it’s like making the perfect omelet. The principles are simple but perfect execution takes practice.
Here’s what you need to remember: we go bouncing around in our stories because we haven’t taken time to think about our story even in terms of the beginning, middle, and end.
Your story needs a beginning that includes all the most important information about the setting and characters, a middle where the action develops, and an end that shows us what kind of transformation the hero has been through.
If you have planned these points in your story, you’ll see much easier what you need to include and when. More importantly, you’ll see what you don’t need.
Let’s take an example we all know and that I use often: Cinderella.
A Lesson from Cinderella
Now, this is a story with varied beginnings. Her mother’s dead. In different versions, Cinderella cries over the grave, she’s been packed off to boarding school, or her father remarries to a wicked stepmother with two mean daughters. The key points here are that her mother is dead and that her new stepmother is mean and makes her do maids’ work. You could reduce the beginning to a single sentence. You can also expand it to a few chapters.
There are more key events in the middle. An invitation arrives. Cinderella is excluded from the ball by her stepmother. She goes in disguise thanks to a fairy godmother. The prince falls in love with her. She leaves early, loses her shoe, and he decides to find her. He takes the shoe around the kingdom until he finds her.
All of the Disney singing and dancing are extra. The fact that her step-sisters tried on the shoe and tried to keep her away is extra. The key points are relatively limited.
The end of the story is that the prince finds Cinderella and they get married. That’s it. Curtain down and the story’s over.
Now, the joy comes in expanding the story with gorgeous details and, yes, singing and dancing. But if you use story structure effectively, you can figure out which parts of your story are essential and which parts are extra. And when it comes to telling an effective, efficient story, that’s half the battle.
Now go ahead, work out the beginning, middle, and end of a story you need to tell. You can even draw yourself a story diagram. Fill in the beginning, middle, and end. Get a little daring and fill in a turning point and climax, too. The process will help you understand your story better – and tell a better story, too!