Monday 1 October 2012

Story Structure is Simple

Sure, a story needs a Beginning, Middle and End, but apart from that what else do you need to build a satisfying and effective story structure?

The answer is simple: Nothing.

In the same way that the four building blocks of DNA enable the creation of all life on Earth, so B, M and E, if positioned, combined and repeated correctly, can produce an endless variety of story.

BME. First, my definitions:

Beginnings explain what’s going on. 

Middles show what you’re going to do about it.

Ends deal with the outcome. What it is, and how it affects people.

A man’s child is kidnapped. He goes to extreme lengths to find the child. He gets the child back.

That is a simple BME for a story. But within that overview, each chapter, each scene, each section of a scene has its own BME, sometimes multiple BMEs strung together.

But the thing about BMEs is that they don’t have to appear in that order.

A man is naked in a bedroom. He gets dressed and then climbs out of the window. He walks round the front as a woman says, “I thought your flight was coming in the evening,” to a man getting a suitcase out of his car.

When we see the man in the bedroom we don’t know what’s going on, we’re in the Middle. When he passes the front of the house we get the Beginning, the explanation of what’s going on. You could have just had him hear what she said from the bedroom door and then escape, but you don’t have to.

But, if I had the man leave out of the window and go off without ever explaining why (even though it’s pretty obvious he’s avoiding someone), that would leave readers annoyed and frustrated. You leave out one of the blocks and the structure collapses.

Each unit also can double up, so what is the End of one section can also simultaneously be the Beginning of another.

The man who finds his lost daughter has reached the end of the ‘looking for daughter’ part of his story. If she turns out to be possessed by a demon, that same scene is also the beginning of the ‘What do I do about my demon-daughter?’ thread.

Or the middle of one characters thread can intersect with the middle of another character’s.
If the man searching for his kid is fighting a bunch of men who are involved with the kidnapping, and a new character bursts in and shoots the men and tortures one for info, then clearly new guy is in the middle of his own story.

Imagine if I brought in this new guy to help out our hero, but never explained why he’s also after these guys. No Beginning. Or if he helped out and then disappeared? No Ending. Again, structure collapses.

BTW, it is possible to leave off Ends so that it is left open-ended or open to interpretation, but those are rarely satisfying.

Most people can understand the concept of Beginnings and Endings. You can still construct them out of shorter BMEs to make them more interesting, but you could reduce them to a single line if you wanted. It’s Middles that writers find most difficult in creating something that holds up and works across multiple pages and chapter.

The key to Middles is not to make them boring (usually because they’re too easy/predictable/static/passive/clichéd/inconsequential). That comes down to personal judgement. But in terms of structure, all you need is: this is what's up/this is me  trying to do something about it/this is how that turned out.

You can present it in that simple a manner, but you can also get a bunch of these threads and mix them up. It’s like writing a tune with three chords—it can make an awful din, or the greatest rock song of all time.

How you sequence, layer and mix the basic units is up to you and your artistic judgement. But as long as you complete each BME, even if they’re in the wrong order or chapters apart, the structure will be sound. 
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You do make it simple for us! I'll know to look for it when dividing my manuscript into chapters. (Yes, that is the very last thing I do. Just ask my critique partners.)
And kudos for the strat guitar picture.

mooderino said...

@Alex-I feel we all need to simplify.

Elise Fallson said...

I find the ending difficult when writing a series. You have to leave the reader satisfied and yet leave elements unresolved that will make the reader want to pick up the next book. Difficult to find the right balance.

Ellie Garratt said...

Thank you for the great advice. I remember reading a long time ago that a writer needs to know how story structure works in order to be able to break it. This post explains that perfectly.

mooderino said...

@Elise-structurally speaking it helps to provide an ending to something specific even if you leave other things without an end for the sequel.

@Ellie-it's amazing how complicated things can get with just the three basic building blocks.

Veronica Sicoe said...

Great advice. This is exactly how scenes, chapters and stories should be thought of in matter of structure. :)

LD Masterson said...

Your blog often provides basic guidelines I can go back to when I'm losing control of whatever I'm working on. Thank you for that.

Melissa Sugar said...

Thanks for breaking it down to simplicity for us. I know that most writers find the middle the most difficult part to write, but for me the ending is the hardest part. I want it to be great, but I wonder if I have rushed it or whether I have gone on too long. I enjoyed reading this post. It was most helpful.

Gail said...

You make it sound so simple. I can do a beginning, a middle and an end but it is the inbetweens of those I have trouble with. I seem only to be able to write short stories.

Shane Jeffery said...

You are spot on here Mooderino. You covered the basic elements. There are plenty of advanced techniques to do with story structure, and I would certainly enjoy reading your thoughts on those.

Keep up the good work!

mooderino said...

@Vero-it can be a little tedious to think of it in such basic terms, but the end result, like building up a mosaic, can be stunning.

@LD-you're very welcome.

@Melissa-structure and content are both important factors. Having an ending at the end of a book is fairly obvious. Having endings throughout the book is what sometimes gets forgotten.

@Gail-the bits in between are also beginnings, middles and ends. Although many great writers never mangae to expand from one form to the other (Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel being two).

@Shane-there are so many ways you can take it, the same as composing music with only a few notes, that a lot of it comes down to wach writer's personal taste, I think.

Ghadeer said...

You really do make it as simple as an equation :)

mooderino said...

@ghadeer-which can create endlessly sophisticated patterns.

Lauren said...

Very clear. Most of us use this structure without even thinking about it.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Mooderino, you explain things so simply and beautifully like a awesome teacher. I just love these posts that you share. BME is such a simple way of getting our story act together.

nutschell said...

I wouldn't be surprised if you were secretly a professor. I love how you simplified story structure for us. :)


Golden Eagle said...

Writing a story sounds so easy when you put it as just BME.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Lauren-it is so natural and unconscious that writers can not be aware of it.


@Nutschell-I'd rather be a secret superhero. Although professors do get to wear tweed jackets with the leather elbow patches. Sort of a costume.


Rusty Carl said...

I struggle with middles. That helped. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Rusty-I think we all struggle with middles (even the people who think they don't).

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great advice, but I've learned that series writing can be more challenging. You have an ultimate end in mind, but between the books, you also have to tell a complete story.

mooderino said...

@Michael-doubling up and dealing with endings and beginnings at the same time is part of all storytelling, creating a complete story within an incomplete one without making it feeling episodic, although the more epic your story gets, the more difficult it is to keep track of all the threads.

Isis Rushdan said...

Sometimes keeping it simple is best. When we make things more complicated than necessary, we can lose focus. Thanks for the post!

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

Basics are SO important for us, as writers, to remember. Thanks to your posts we are reminded of these basics. These little refresher courses really do manage to seep into the creative mind and stay for a while.

I appreciate the time you take to write these posts, as I am sure the others feel the same way.

Why do teacher/professors have to make the basics SO complicated, when it's spelled out so beautifully by you.

mooderino said...

@Isis-I think the patterns you can create from simple materials are only limited by your imagination.

@Michael-cheers, very nice of you to put it like that.

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