“Story is very close to liturgy, which is why one’s children like to have the story repeated exactly as they heard it the night before. The script ought not to deviate from the prescribed form.”
‘Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.’ There are far more complex explanations, of course. […] Jack discovers a beanstalk; Bond learns Blofeld plans to take over the world. The ‘something’ is almost always a problem, sometimes a problem disguised as an opportunity. It’s usually something that throws your protagonist’s world out of kilter — an explosion of sorts in the normal steady pace of their lives: Alice falls down a rabbit hole; Spooks learn of a radical terrorist plot; Godot doesn’t turn up.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Though John Yorke’s definition of ‘story’ is a wide one, the following is John Truby’s seven step structure for creating memorable stories which feel complete — not like mood pieces, not like character sketches, not descriptions of setting but complete narratives we remember for a long time.
What’s psychologically wrong with the hero?
How is the hero treating others badly? (Moral weakness)
What does the hero need in order to live a better life?
Sometimes these needs are called ‘dramatic needs’.
You may have heard the term ‘lack’ to describe this portion of characterisation. That’s Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s word. Another word commonly used is ‘flaw’. But I really like John Truby’s breakdown of the lack/flaw into both moral and psychological weakness because it’s really easy to forget the moral weakness, and so much better when you don’t.
Do children’s stories always feature a main character who treats others badly? You probably already know the answer to this: No, no they do not. In a series like A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, the main characters function as avatars for the young readers (both boy and girl readers, notice), and the characters around them are full of weaknesses — and are also much more interesting than they are.
What does the hero want? (In this particular story… not in general.)
The opponent is the character who stands in the way of your hero getting what they want.
The hero makes a plan. In longer stories like feature films or novels the initial plan falls flat, then they have to change the plan a bit, or a lot, as things go increasingly wrong.
They might kill off their old self. Or, they might choose to return to their former selves. This rarely happens, and it very rarely happens in children’s literature. It does happen in Larry McMurtry’s Hud, and I did choose this for my picture book app, Midnight Feast.
The main character far more often chooses to confront their innermost fears, overcome them and are rewarded for that.
There’ll be a battle scene in every story. Not literally a fisticuffs showdown, or a gunfight (though in certain genres that will definitely happen too). But there will be one big scene — there’ll be arguments or extreme peril, or witnessing someone else have a fight, which the hero will have had a role in provoking.
If we distinguish between ‘crisis’ and ‘battle’ at all, it’s a very small difference: the ‘crisis’ comes right before the battle. A crisis point always embodies the worst possible consequence of the decision taken when the initial dramatic explosion occurred. This decision brings the character face to face with their worst fear. Their worst fear is represented by the obstacle that is going to force them to face up to their underlying flaw. e.g. If a character is wary of commitment then the crisis will force them to face losing someone they love. If a character is selfish they are brought face to face with what they might lose by being so. If a character is timid they will have to face up to what timidity might cost. Sometimes it’s easier to think of the structure in question-and-answer form, and as writer you will have done this earlier under ‘weakness/need’:
Question: What are the worst possible consequences of my main character’s decision to…?
Answer: [Whatever the answer is, that’s your battle sequence, which leads to a climax.]
(By the way, this question and answer doesn’t just open the story and lead to closure, but is found within every ‘act’.)
TV writers in the United States call the crisis the ‘worst case’. BBC writers call it ‘worst point’. If it’s TV we’re talking about, on a commercial station, it’ll be the bit that happens right before the last commercial break. It’s also where TV writers leave the ending in continuing series, knowing the audience will want to come back to find out if the characters escaped alive.
Others call this stage the ‘crisis’. The bit where the main character comes close to death, often. The worst happens to them. Bad things happen, worse things, now the worst. The crisis is a kind of death. It usually isn’t the hero who dies, of course. We want them to stick around for the next bits. The most dangerous thing to be is the hero’s best buddy. There’s a high mortality rate with those guys.
Sometimes no one actually dies, but hope passes away.
Perhaps, if you think in terms of narrative climax, you’re wondering which part that would map onto. Think of the ‘climax’ as the bit where the main character finds release from their seemingly inescapable predicament. I’ll slot the climax in right between battle and new equilibrium. It’s a useful concept in terms of criticism, but for writers? I prefer to think in terms of battle followed by new equilibrium. The climax is what the audience feels. It’s not a story stage per se. The climax is the part which is the ‘obligatory scene’, set up by the inciting incident. For instance, when Louise murders the rapist in the inciting incident, the climax must be the confrontation between the women and the law.
The hero will learn something about themselves. Importantly, the character makes a choice. They find out what sort of person they really are.
This new self-awareness usually comes with struggling, pain, and even suffering, especially in modern realistic YA. Characters are really put through the mill.
Characters…should not always get what they want, but should — if they deserve it — get what they need. That need, or flaw, is almost always present at the beginning of the [story].
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
The hero’s life will be different from now on. The audience generally needs a scene or two in which we get a glimpse of how things are going to be from here on in, though sometimes writers offer a truncated story, leaving out this bit, so the audience can decide for themselves what happened. Lots of people don’t like having to do this though.
*Short stories don’t always follow this pattern. For example, Chekhov often leaves out the self-revelation, hoping for the revelation to happen for the reader rather than for the character. Make Way For Ducklings is missing the Weakness/Need and Plan steps, leading to the criticism of ‘weak characterisation’. But really there are few popular exceptions existing outside this basic structure.
I am adding an extra step which applies to a few stories, not most. Sometimes the writer leave the ending open. In this case it’s up to us to work out what happened next. This isn’t going to be a scene as such, but an accumulation of details garnered from all the scenes which lead us to our conclusion.
Story Structure Mnemonic
If you’d like to use my mnemonic above (it works for me!), you might like to watch this video of a little pig very politely sharing his dinner with a woman.
You’ll hear this same advice everywhere.
…give us a hero facing a challenge or a goal that changes their near-time life, launching them on a quest to solve the problem or attain the goal, with something opposing that objective (usually the villain, but sometimes a force; in either case, the story works best when that opposition is external rather than an exclusively internal demon), with meaningful stakes hanging the balance.
Tom Gauld has a different way of explaining the same rules. Here is one of his New Yorker comics:
Box one shows that a hero must take action otherwise it’s not a story.
Box two shows that there must be conflict otherwise it’s not a story.
Box three shows that the hero must constantly redouble efforts (and modify plans) in order to achieve the goal.
Box four shows that a hero needs a strong desire line, and by desire ‘line’, we mean that it lasts until the end of the story.
Does this structure work for children’s stories also?
Yep. Every single time. But I’ll add a few points:
- Picture books (at least, the kind with a narrative — not typical abecedaries, concept or toy books such as Where’s Wally books — are excellent for showing this structure because the structure is so clear. The steps will even be marked clearly.
- An especially clear example of storytelling structure can be found in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers.
- If a story is ‘once upon a time something happened’, then the inciting incident is the ‘something’ that kick-starts a story.
- There’s a rule that picture books for young readers need a non-tragic ending (I won’t say happy, since we do have Jon Klassen’s Hat books, in which the main character dies.) The majority of picturebook stories are home-away-home structure. Books designed to be read before bed require the main character to make it home safely, in general.
- The ‘opponent’ is often also an ally. For example, well-meaning parents and teachers. This is true of realistic stories for adults, too, of course.
- When the main character is an animal, there’s sometimes a parallel subplot in which a human character is the one with the clear desire and plan. An excellent example of this is Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, in which the old lady next door is the human proxy for the pig. This applies to animals who are not fully humanized (and would never be necessary in a book such as Olivia, in which the pig is for all intents and purposes a little girl.)
- The hero in a children’s book does not need to have a moral weakness. In other words, the reader does not need to see how the hero is treating others badly. That said, a character such as Olivia, who is very wearing on her mother, is more rounded and ‘human’ precisely because of her annoying habits. There is more tolerance for Pollyannas in children’s literature (at least among adults), no doubt because the gatekeepers of kidlit still like heroes to be models of behaviour, and always punished for their misdemeanours.
- In the self-revelation stage of children’s fiction, the protagonist usually reaches a higher level of maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness by the book’s end, but has not achieved adulthood. There will be some sense that they have much more yet to learn. No Awareness >> Growing Awareness >>
The W-question Method
Every storyteller has their own way of looking at story structure. Time and again, no matter the words used, it comes back to the seven-step structure (and occasionally it’s shortened into six steps, or broken further into eight).
As an example, take screenwriter and story supervisor, Jason Katz, of Pixar fame.
Jason Katz advises storytellers to ask the story questions in the right order.
Katz orders his answers to those questions as follows: who, when, where, what, why, how. According to him, the “who, when, where” is easy. That’s where you’re establishing the setting for your story and identifying your main character. He goes on to say that answering the “what” is the thing that will drive your story. He calls it the “engine of your story” and one of the critical steps to answering the “what” question is asking two more: “what does your character want?” and “what does your character need?”
Easy, according to Katz:
Who: The list of characteristics of your main character, the character web, the opponent, the allies, the fake-ally opponents etc.
When: The era of the setting, which will affect things like technology and social values.
Where: The geographical part of the storyworld, the scope of the arena, the seasons, the altitude and all those other symbolic things
Harder, according to Katz:
What: This is where Katz plonks character ‘weakness’, ‘need’ (to borrow John Truby’s terminology).
Why: Ghost/fatal flaw
How: The plan
As you can see, the W-question way of thinking about story matches up perfectly with Truby’s, and all the other story gurus out there. Only the words are different.