A short story has a very different structure to a novel. There’s so much to fit into a short story that the structure has to be precise and the writing very tight, otherwise you risk presenting something that seems to ramble all over the place and never seems satisfying. The invitation for the reader can be light and happy, or it can be tense and immediate, but no one stays for long.
A novel does all those things, but a novel delves deeper. It has a deeper, more complex plot; deeper, more involved description; deeper, more fully rounded characters. It can be punchy, but it can also invite the reader in to stay a while. Sometimes, readers stay a long while… that’s were series come from.
I haven’t been writing much lately, and don’t anticipate being able to write anything worthwhile for a while yet. Stepping away from writing is a necessity. There are other things in my life that I have to put my time into right now, but I can’t let the writing go. It’s an integral part of who I am.
That’s why I’m looking at structure. I can skip through that in five minute slots that don’t tear me away from what I need to be doing right now, and I can still feel connected to who I am.
This week I’ve been thinking about structure. Structure is one of my weaknesses. I have to work hard at making sure my stories have all the elements they need to give them body and cohesion. I’ve been looking at three types of structure.
One of the structures I’ve been looking at is a linear one. It’s an eight step process published by Stephen May and Nigel Watts in their book Write a Novel and Get It Published. It goes something like this:
- STASUS. What is the world like before things begin to happen?
- TRIGGER. What happens to set things in play?
- THE QUEST. What does the hero/ine have to do to return things to the stasis point?
- SURPRISE/S. What things happen to prevent the hero/ine making things right.
- CRITICAL CHOICE. Things get so bad the hero/ine has to make a choice to follow a specific path to achieve a new kind of normal. What are their choices? What decision do they make? Why do they make the choice they do?
- CLIMAX. The critical choice has consequences that might not have been expected. Everything is much worse now and we don’t know how the hero/ine is going to get out of it at all.
- REVERSAL. These are the consequences of the critical choice. What does the hero/ine have to do now to make things right?
- RESOLUTION. The new normal.
I’ve used it before and, while it works to an extent, I found it limiting. I imagine it would be very useful for people who don’t understand how stories work, that there is a need for building tension and critical choices to be made at various points to maintain reader interest. I imagine a lot of literary authors shun the Three-Act Structure because most literary stories I’ve read don’t have the leaps between choices and consequences that a lot of story structures recommend.
The third structure type I’ve been reading about is The Hero’s Journey. Its stages are:
- THE ORDINARY WORLD. This relates to the stasis from the eight-point story structure, but the focus is very much on the hero and often includes some foretelling.
- THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. This is the trigger but, once again, very personalized and focused on the hero.
- REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero refuses to be part of the adventure for various reasons. I find it useful to match the hero’s character arc into this.
- MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. Someone older, wiser, or with a different outlook makes the hero understand certain points which lead him/her toward accepting the challenge.
- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. This is a transition point that links with the Three-Act Structure. The hero makes a decision that leads him/her to accept the challenge. The world is in flux and no one knows what’s to come.
- TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. The hero is tested and determines who is friend and who is foe. This section can be repeated until the hero has gathered all the knowledge he/she needs to become who they need to be to succeed.
- APPROACH. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
- THE ORDEAL. This one equates to the Critical Choice of the eight-point structure. It generally falls just after the middle of the story, where things have been getting progressively worse and the hero has to do something different to change the expected outcome. It leads to the second transition point, which lies at the end of Act II in the Three-Act structure.
- THE REWARD. The choices made during the ordeal have given a different result, probably the result the hero wanted, but they aren’t home-free yet.
- THE ROAD BACK. This is the second transition point. It’s come about because of the ordeal/critical choice. There’s another challenge for the hero to overcome; one he/she hasn’t anticipated and that test them more fully than any other challenge has.
- THE RESURRECTION. The final challenge. The climax. Whatever happens here sets the scene for what the new world is going to look like. It’s rife with danger and no one is sure what the outcome will be when the hero wins.
- RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero’s decisions have achieved results. Whatever he/she has done has led to the beginning of a new normal for everyone. Here is where everyone begins to look to the future.
I’ve used this story structure very successfully, most recently with my fantasy novel Warrior Pledge. I had originally written the story using the Three-Act Structure, but it was flat and predictable. When I overlaid the Hero’s Journey over top of what I’d written I was able to identify some serious gaps in the narrative, and also some things that were out of order. Once I’d written/rewritten those sections, the story was much more nail-bitingly tense, the characters were more compelling and the narrative was much stronger. I didn’t use the diagram for the hero’s inner journey, but my characters naturally fell into that development.
The Hero’s Journey fits seamlessly with fantasy stories, but it can also be applied to contemporary tales. It’s all to do with your interpretation of each section.
Hero's Journey: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm
Three Act Structure: http://jordanmccollum.com/2009/09/story-acts/