How Story Structure Helps You Stay on Topic

We all know that one person who seems to go on for ages when they start a story.

They jump back and forth in time. When you think they’re in the middle of the story they jump back to the beginning. They introduce people and situations that seem to have no bearing on the story. All this and a thousand more storytelling sins.

The worst of them all is that they lose your interest.

You have to work so hard to construct the story they’re trying to tell you that listener fatigue sets in and you’re off to imagination land or planning your grocery shopping.

Maybe you’re the one who’s guilty of this particular storytelling crime.

Story structure can rescue you. It sounds dramatic, but it’s absolutely true. 

Elsewhere, I’ve written about the story structure at the core of my StoryCraft work. Go have a look, it will help you, I promise.

People go bouncing around in their stories because they haven’t taken time to think about their 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.

Now, this is a story with countless beginnings. Her mother’s dead. In some versions, Cinderella cries over the grave. In one, she’s been packed off to boarding school. In all of them, 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 a few 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. She and the prince fall in love. She leaves early, loses her shoe, and he decides to find her. He takes the shoe around the kingdom until he finds her.

All 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.

So go ahead, draw yourself a story diagram, there are examples in my post. 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!

 

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