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Story Structure: Using The Story Grid Tools

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Let’s take a step back from the Story Grid tools for a moment and ask “What are these tools good for in the first place?” What they’re good for is determining if you have a workable story structure, and fixing your story if you don’t.

Story Structure Tools

But before we can discuss how you can use Story Grid tools to do this, we have to go over what story structure is, and why you need to follow recognized story structure principles.

Story Structure and Creativity

“But I want to be free to create whatever I want. I don’t want some arbitrary ‘structure’ to stifle me.”
Structure doesn’t inhibit creativity, it releases it. Without structure, you can end up with a rambling account of events, but not a story, just as a sentence or paragraph that doesn’t follow the structure of your language is word salad, not meaningful communication.

Let’s look at an analogy with architecture. Architects are certainly creative, yet they must observe certain structural principles if they want what they build to stand up over time—or hold together at all.
The purpose and cost of what they’re building, no matter if it’s a concert hall or a chicken coop, will determine the size, shape, and materials of their design. There’s no getting around that.

Similarly, your story’s purpose, e.g., its theme, and its cost to you in terms of the time and emotions you’ll invest in it, will determine the size, shape, and materials of your story, i.e., which Time, Structure, Style, and Reality Genres you’re creating in. See my earlier post in this series for an overview of these Genre types

Elements of a Story

If you do a Google search for “Story elements”, or “elements of fiction” you’ll see that a story must have Five elements. Or Seven. Or Ten. Or…

However many you list, these are the raw materials with which you build a story.

Story Elements

  • Change: Someone or something must change in order for there to be any sort of story at all. Even if we generalize what we mean by “a story” to the extreme, “The car ran a red light” could be “a story”, while “The car is green” could not.
  • Setting: A story must occur somewhere. Obvious, right? Even accounts like the car example take place somewhere. That “somewhere” will be filled in by the reader to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how much detail you provide.
  • Characters: If we narrow what we mean by “story” to the kinds of stories we talk about in Story Grid, a story has to have characters—people, anthropomorphized animals, or personified objects. One or more of those characters will be the story’s protagonist(s).

If we stop here, then “A guy walks into a bar” would be a story. We have: “a guy” (Character); “a bar” (Setting); and we know that the guy was outside the bar, and now he’s inside (Change).

Doesn’t seem like quite enough, does it? For one thing, there’s only one event. But even if we added to it, “A guy walks into a bar. He orders a drink. Then he drinks it.”, There’s still something missing: a Plot. While technically stories don’t need to have a plot, the kind we’re interested in do, so let’s add that.

  • Plot: Put simply, a “plot” is a number of events recounted in a deliberate sequence within a story. The Russian Formalists defined the difference between story and plot this way:

A story is a series of events recorded in their chronological order. A plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.

And a plot has it’s own elements.

Plot Elements

While most sources put everything together in one list, I find it useful to break the following out as specific to the plot of a story.

  • Goals: The characters in a plot must want something, either to have something, to be something, or to do something. In the Story Grid methodology, we call these goals “Objects of Desire”. For more on this, see this article.
  • Conflict/Forces of Antagonism: Don’t think of “antagonism” as necessarily hostile or belligerent (though it could be). It is simply something or someone that hinders the protagonist from achieving their goals. It could be another character with opposing goals, or two conflicting goals within the protagonist, or it could be the environment (including the social environment).
  • Cause and Effect: The events in a plot must have some causal relationship with prior events. In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster said this on the difference between Story and Plot:

Story: the king died and then the queen died.
Plot: the king died and then the queen died because of grief.

Let’s go back to the architect analogy. I said that the purpose of what an architect is designing determines the building materials. These must be such that the foundation will support the weight of what they build on top of it. In most cases, there will be a roof, so the walls have to be strong enough to support both their own weight and that of the roof.
The elements of your story, whether fiction of nonfiction—the characters, setting, plot, and so on must be strong enough to support the weight of its theme and the emotions the story is designed to invoke. See “Friedman’s Framework” for more on that last point.

Simple Examples

Let’s look at some nursery rhymes.

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.

We have characters (Jack and Jill) in a setting (unspecified hill and environs) and a change (Jack ends up with a head injury, Jill is at least shaken by the experience).
We have a plot, i.e., a sequence of events: the pair go up the hill; Jack falls down; Jack gets hurt; Jill also falls down.
The characters have a goal—getting some water. They share the goal, so there’s no conflict there. But something unspecified about the hill causes children to fall, so there is a Force of Antagonism.
Jack gets hurt as a result of his fall, so we have a cause and effect relationship there. Jill’s injuries, if any, remain a mystery.

This is a story. A simple story, but a story.

Old Mother Hubbard

Let’s try another one:

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone.
When she got there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none.

We have two characters, O.M. Hubbard and her dog. They’re situated in the Hubbard home, probably the kitchen. Hubbard’s change is to go from a state of ignorance or false belief about the status of the bone inventory to knowledge, while the dog moves from anticipation to disappointment (poor dog, indeed). There are three events: Hubbard approaching the cupboard; the discovery of the boneless state thereof; the dog doing without. That’s a plot. In that plot, Hubbard’s goal is to take care of the dog, while the dog’s goal is to gnaw on the bone. No conflict there. The Force of Antagonism is the reality of the situation—no bones in the cupboard, and the dog’s disappointment is a direct result of the discovery of that reality.
This is a story, make no bones about it. (You have my permission to groan).

Where Story Structure Comes In

Let’s return to the architecture analogy. They have a variety of building materials to choose from—2×4’s, steel beams, dry wall, stone, cement, etc. Based on what they’re building, they’ve selected some, rejected others. Let’s say you’ve done the same with the elements of your story: these characters, not those, in this setting, pursuing these goals, and so on. Great. Good job.

Now, just like the architect, you have to come up with a plan for using them in a way that holds together and fulfills your purpose for building it. That plan must obey the principles of story structure. Let’s mark that out in boldface:

For your story to hold up, it must conform to the principles of story structure.

The General Principles

At last count there were 276 gajillion books and articles on story structure. Each has its own “special sauce”, but they all agree on the same general principles. Let’s have a look.

The three movements of a story

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

The King’s advice is sound. The first principle of story structure is that a story shall have a beginning, a middle, and an end. At first glance, this doesn’t seem to mean much. After all, a piece of string has a beginning, a middle and an end too. So what?

The difference is that each of these “movements” of a story serves a definite purpose.

The beginning of a story should:
  • Introduce most of the characters, especially the Protagonist;
  • Give the Protagonist an initial goal;
  • Introduce the Protagonist’s primary story goal, if its not the initial one;
  • If the Protagonist is reluctant to pursue that goal, give them a stronger incentive—force them if necessary;
  • Set up the Force of Antagonism.

All this is in service of its primary function: To Hook The Reader. In Story Grid we call this movement the Beginning Hook.

The middle should:
  • Introduce any remaining story characters;
  • Complicate things for the Protagonist;
    • Introduce any subplots;
    • Present the Protagonist with new goals, some in accord with the primary goal, some in conflict with it, including internal conflicts;
  • Put them in unfamiliar situations;
  • Test their resolve and their skills;
  • Reveal the power and goals of the Force of Antagonism;
  • Bring the Protagonist farther from the primary goal than when they started.

The middle should not be just “stuff you have to get through to get to the end”—not if you want to keep your readers. It must Build the Reader’s Interest with each new complication. In Story Grid we call this movement the Middle Build.

The end should:
  • Tie up any subplots;
  • Return the focus of the story to the primary goal and any internal conflicting goal;
  • Present the Protagonist achieving, or not achieving, either goal;
  • In either case, show the consequences.

The ending should Repay the Reader for investing their time and feelings in your story by fulfilling the promises made in the Beginning Hook. In Story Grid, we call this movement the Ending Payoff.

How Story Grid Goes Beyond Other Methodologies

Now, we’re ready to look at how the various tools that Story Grid provides can help you analyze your story’s structure and fix any problems you might detect.

The general principles you’ll see in other sources, e.g., Rising Action followed by Climax and Falling Action (technically known as Freytag’s Pyramid), can be found in the functions of the three movements described above. These sources use various labels for these general principles: Plot Points; Story Beats; Motivation-Reaction Units; and so on. Story Grid has its own nomenclature for these principles, for instance, The Five Commandments of Storytelling, but it does a lot more than just give you more names for things. Let me give you an example.

Most other people will tell you to do something like, “Put the first Plot Point (or Tent Pole or Story Beat) here in your story,” and give some general idea of its function. But there’s a difference between that Plot Point in a Horror story and a Love story, and Story Grid has the tools to guide you in creating them.

Back to Architecture

Let’s go back to the architecture analogy. Once you look past the general principles, you face considerations based on what kind of structure you’re building. You’ll make different decisions in designing a private home and a concert hall, although both will have walls and roofs and plumbing that must obey general principles.

The analogy in Story Grid is the Content Genre of your story. Different kinds of events go into a Crime Story and a War story.

Story Structure and Obligatory Scenes

Let’s say you’re designing a traditional Catholic Cathedral. In your design, you’ll include things such as a nave, a transept, a choir, a sanctuary, and so on. A Broadway-type theater, on the other hand, will have a stage as wide as the auditorium, an orchestra pit, a balcony, and so on. The balcony, of course, will mean staircases (and nowadays ramps and elevators).
All these things are must-haves.

The analog in Story Grid is the Obligatory Scene. Obligatory scenes, as the name implies, are scenes that a story must have. In a Courtship Love Story, you must have a scene where the potential lovers first meet, and nowadays, that means a meet-cute scene. You must have a scene with the lovers’ first intimate moment, be it first kiss, first sex, first dance. You don’t need those in a Performance story. You can have them if there’s a Love subplot, but you don’t need them. What you need in a Performance story are scenes where: the protagonist’s potential to master their chosen field is displayed; the Protagonist practices and hones their craft; the big performance at the end. At this level of detail, the structure of a Performance Story is different from that of a Love story.

Story Structure and Genre Conventions

Just as there are certain things you would expect about the architecture of a cathedral or theatre, there are activities going on inside them that are specific to each. Both will have ushers helping people to find seats, both can have people singing. But you wouldn’t expect incense to be lighted in a theatre, and a point where the audience takes communion would be shocking, as would applause after each portion of the mass in a cathedral.

The analog in Story Grid is the Conventions of each Genre.
In a Love story you need a love triangle, you need characters who will help the lovers, and characters who will hinder them. In a Thriller, there will be a Speech in Praise of the Villain, either in praise of their motives (usually by the Villain themselves), or in praise of their abilities. The Villain in a Thriller will be monstrous in a way that the Villain in a Crime Story is not.

Why do you have to include Conventions and Obligatory Scenes specific to your Genre in your story? For the same reason you need to include their analogs in a theater or cathedral: to meet the expectations of the audience (or congregation). Your job is not to ignore those expectations, but to meet them in an innovative and creative way.

Later posts in this series will go into Conventions and Obligatory Scenes in more detail.

Story Structure and Other Story Grid Tools

Story Grid offers tools for examining/fixing aspects of story and story structure that we haven’t touched on.

The Story Grid Global Foolscap is a one-page tool that can be used both to design your story before you start writing and to evaluate a draft at the Macro level.

The Story Grid Spreadsheet is a tool that lets you drill down scene by scene so you can better understand which scenes are working, and how to fix ones that aren’t

The Story Grid Infographic is a pictorial tool that helps you see the flow and pacing of your story, including the main plot and any subplots you wish to add.

In addition, there are tools to help you work with the Content Genres better, and to align the Story Grid methodology with systems from other disciplines. And more tools are always being created.

The Big Takeaways

The purpose of this article is to help you form a mindset so that you’ll find the other articles in this series to be more useful. And so the only exercise I’ll give you here is to read those articles with the mindset and perspective I’ve presented in this one:

  • Stories are not just haphazard collections of events.
  • Whether they are fiction or nonfiction stories, they require definite elements, such as characters, a setting, a plot that includes conflict, etc.
  • An author uses these elements according to definite, but flexible, principles of story structure.
  • The Story Grid methodology refines those principles as we move from the general case to specific Genres, as defined by Story Grid.
  • The Story Grid methodology provides a unique set of tools to aid you in crafting and revising stories that follow these principles of story structure.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic


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About the Author

Larry Pass started reading at the age of three and has been reading ever since. Larry earned a B.A. Summa Cum Laude in mathematics and went on to graduate work at M.I.T. where his studies were funded by the National Science Foundation. Larry's passion for learning is complemented by an equal passion to help others learn and grow.