how to put heart & soul into your story structure
There are few things more intellectually beautiful, to me, than a well-crafted story structure. To quote Hannibal from the 80’s show THE A-TEAM – not exactly a literary figure, I know, but bear with me – “I love it when a plan comes together.”
When you can’t put the book down. When different storythreads weave through each other then come together in the end in a way that seems inevitable yet you also didn’t see coming. When the conclusion rounds off the story even as it opens up the story so that everything is illuminated. When you put the book aside with a pang of regret, maybe, but also a sense of…fullness.
When – as a writing instructor once put it – “everything hangs together.”
Fiction takes the crazed random tumble of life and shapes it – some of it – with order and meaning.
Structure is form. Structure holds everything together: it’s like the vase you pour the story into. But the danger of form is turning it into formula: the difference between handcrafting something exquisite and churning out factory-made items.
I believe in the hero’s journey, three-act structures, plot points and midpoints and all of that (and the blog Storyfix by Larry Brooks is an awesome place to learn about these things).
But it’s possible to follow these principles and produce a well-crafted, well-written story that nonetheless fails to excite and engage the reader. It also might be difficult to explain why (especially when the agent or editor rejects it with a bland, “I just didn’t fall in love with it”). You could say the story lacks soul or originality, which I’ve posted about before (see this piece about writing soulful fiction).
But I think what explanations of story structure often fail to get at is the story beneath the story, which is also its emotional heart. And its guts and brains and soul. This is where the story works out its overall meaning, and it’s the difference between something that feels slick and shallow and familiar, and something that gets under your skin and lives there for a very long time.
Kate Wright calls this the story spine. She puts it forth as this: one set of ideas wrestling with an opposing set of ideas as made manifest through the characters. The story spine, in short, is a continuing conflict of ideas, growing and deepening until there is some kind of resolution.
Some kind of synthesis.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about abstract ideas pretending to be characters but real flesh-and-blood people who populate your novel and fight with one another and fall in love with one another and go on quests and have sex and regress and make wrong choices and also the right choices and confront their inner demons and so on and so forth. It’s difficult to get people emotionally involved with an abstraction. Whatever ideas are battling it out in your novel, you need to anchor them in your captivating and complicated characters. You take a wandering generality and turn it into a meaningful specific. It’s not just about true love; it’s about Romeo and Juliet. You get the idea.
But your protagonist – and everything that supports her — represents your main idea, your thesis.
Your antagonist – and everything that supports her — represents your opposing idea, your antithesis.
Your story – your plot points and act breaks – describe how these forces clash and impact each other until eventually they knit together into something new. Your synthesis. Your ultimate conclusion. Which is also the ultimate meaning of the novel. The story underneath the story – the story spine — is the dialogue these different ideas keep having with each other.
If you’re blocked – or if you’ve outlined your story structure and technically know what happens next but feel flat and uninspired – take a fresh look at your characters, then look through your characters to the ideas they represent. What are those ideas? How can those ideas come into conflict with each other, whether it’s a dialogue between a boyfriend and girlfriend in a coffee shop or a death-defying chase along the edge of [insert name of impressively tall famous building here]?
Make your characters stand for something, and your story will stand on its own.
image by Anna Karwowska