Comparing Story Structures

Last year I read a book written by Christopher Booker called the Seven Basic Plots. As the name implies, the book revolves around the seven plots which all storytelling is based upon. It is really a quite interesting read. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says (he seems particularly negative about modern storytelling for instance), it will still get you thinking about how stories are structured and how they work.

Regardless of the type of story though, he describes five stages that every story goes through (though shorter stories may focus on one particular stage):

  1. 1. Anticipation Stage
  2. 2. Dream Stage
  3. 3. Frustration Stage
  4. 4. Nightmare Stage
  5. 5. Resolution Stage

I believe that this structure has a lot in common with the three act structure, as illustrated below. In reality, the fit may not be as perfect as I depicted it, but it’s close enough.

The Anticipation Stage, which corresponds to Act 1, is where most of the exposition happens. This is where we get introduced to the characters, and more importantly, learn what is at stake. This is also the part where the protagonist receives the ‘call’, the inciting incident that compels the protagonist to undertake whatever lies ahead of him. This stage ends with Plot Point 1, when the hero takes on the problem.

The inclusion of the Dream Stage by Booker is a bit awkward in my opinion. This is the stage where the protagonist may experience some initial success, which happens often enough, but at times feels a bit contrived. Take Kraken Wars, one of his examples. This is how he describes the stage:

Rather more serious incidents take place, such as the unexpected sinkings of various large ships, and the discoloration of ocean currents, indicating some vast submarine activity in ‘the Deeps’. But the real nature of the menace is not yet clearly in view, and it still seems too remote and mysterious to justify real alarm.

In my opinion, this can easily be included into the Frustration Stage, the part where the protagonist encounters a lot of obstacles and setbacks. This corresponds with Act 2a, which ends with the Midpoint, the point where the protagonist seems to be at his lowest point. This is where we enter the Nightmare Stage, which corresponds with Act 2b, when all seems lost and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. But then at Plot Point 2, something happens (change in the character!) which reverses the fortune of the protagonist, and we enter the Resolution Stage. This is where the story works forward towards the Climax, when the story is resolved. The story doesn’t end with the Climax, but often goes on a little further to show what the world come to after the events of the story (Lord of the Rings, as amazing as it is, did drag out this stage way too long).

In the end though, it doesn’t really matter which ‘structure’ you follow or how they are called (thus implying that the comparison I’ve done here is actually pretty pointless). These are general guidelines anyway, and although most stories (or the good ones anyway) do adhere to the very basic guidelines, there is still an amazing variety in how these stories are told. The most important things to keep in mind are the crosses in the above picture, or more specifically: The Inciting Incident, the Plot Points, the Midpoint and the Climax, as these are the turning points in the story. Turning points signify change, and we all know (or should know) that change is the key element for character and plot development. Similar to what Ishana already mentioned earlier, it is a good idea to plan ahead and think about these turning points in your story. Of course it does not mean you are stuck with these plans forever, nor does it mean you have to plan out the entire story beforehand, but it gives you a better idea on how your story will advance if you work towards these points.

So my homework for myself for the weekend: start thinking about these turning points in my novel for the upcoming onslaught otherwise known as NaNoWriMo.


Filed under Writing Advice

4 responses to “Comparing Story Structures

  1. Ishana

    Great post. I’ve been meaning to check that book out of my library for months now. It’s amazing to see how well these supposedly different structure coincide with each other.

    You’re right that you don’t need to follow any sort of structure at all, the structures are there for a reason. The “rules” are guidelines of what typically makes a story interesting. No fun to have a story with 40% exposition, nor is it fun to have a hero that doesn’t struggle. The structures just help people organize it. That’s how I look at it, anyways. However you look at it and whatever you call it, you’ll probably end up following the structures without noticing. That’s just how awesome they are.

    Thanks for the post! I actually quite like the diagram you have. I’ll have to refer to it while writing later.

    • I agree. The rules are basically just guidelines which gives you something to fall back on if you happen to get stuck, and also a good reminder of what elements are important in a story.

      To make it even more basic, you can condense the different structures into these elements, which roughly corresponds to the three acts:
      – What is at stake? Here we get to know the characters, and hopefully get emotionally invested in them.
      – What is the conflict? Conflict equals struggle. Yup, no fun at all if the hero does not struggle.
      – How will the conflict be resolved? Here I want to emphasize change again. Only through real change can we reach a satisfactory conclusion. So no Deus Ex Machina plotlines please!

      • Ishana

        And for a query letter, cut off the “how” and leave the stake and conflict. Wow, that makes it sound almost easy…

  2. Pingback: Last Thoughts on Prophecy before NaNoWriMo kicks off « The Musings of a Dreamer

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