The 5 Basic Questions of Story Structure
Story structure can be a frustrating topic for a lot of writers. It’s really easy to fall into the mindset that a set structure for a story is the same thing as formula writing; just rehashing the same ideas over and over, which gets stale very quickly. No one wants to pour their heart and soul into a cookie-cutter format that gets lost in the milieu. The good news is that structure isn’t inherently the same thing as formula writing, and you can do it without being a hack. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Having a solid foundation for your story is essential to getting your message across, and while there are a few models that successful writers use for their structure, it is far from one-size fits all.
What Is Story Structure:
Every story, from Gilgamesh to Twilight has a structure. It is the skeleton that the story is built on. Without it, you story lacks form and can meander between plots and characters before ever coming to the point. There are conventions to the way we tell stories. I know, most of us want to pretend that we are pioneers in this ages-old game, carving new pathways in storytelling and leading the charge in innovation, but even as unconventional as it was, Vonnegut still used a set structure in his stories.
A story’s structure is the framework that your plot is built around. Like the blueprints you need to build a house or the map you need for a good road trip you want set instructions and steps to follow. Where chefs use recipes, writers use structure. Luckily, it is doesn’t have to be complicated. Good story structure can be as simple as answering the right questions in the right order and letting the rest of the story unfold around it. I’ll show you what I mean.
The 5 Basic Questions:
The most basic of storytelling structures is one we all learn in elementary school. You recognize the form without even thinking about it. It looks like this: you introduce your characters to the problem, there is rising action until you reach the climax, and then the action falls into it’s natural conclusion. Intro, Rise, Fall. Simple, right? But what does that even mean for you as a writer? It’s one thing to look at a rising action chart and think you can follow it, but it’s another thing to apply it to your own story.
But what if you took this same format and stretched it out a bit. The basic questions of any narrative are Who, What, Where, Why, and How. As an author, I like to look at these big questions in each section, and use them as guideposts as I write.
Where and What:
These two questions are the basis of your story’s setting. Where and when does it take place, who are the main characters, and why should we care? If you can establish Where and What early in the story, it will be easier to follow along into the action. It’s hard to care about a story if you don’t know where it’s happening, or even what the conflict is. By the end of the introduction, before the real action starts your readers should know where the story takes place, and what the problem is. Then you can move into solving the story problem.
Who and How:
Your rising action is just the answer to who the villain is, and how they caused the problem in the first place. Throughout the bulk of your story you will need to address the antagonist’s actions, and the protagonist’s consequent reactions. Until you reach the climax they should be locked in a cycle of action and reaction, neither side fully coming out ahead, and neither side fully losing. If you focus on who acted, and how they acted, you will have a steady framework to drive your story forward.
Ultimately, if you addressed who your antagonist is, what they did, how they did it, and where they did it, you’ll only have one question left; Why? Your falling action is the answer to that question. This is what I think of as the parlor scene, ala Agatha Christie. As Poirot explains the details of the murder the last thing the readers get to know is why.
In narrative fiction there is a pull to understand characters. If we don’t understand the characters we’re traveling along with on their journey, we may not even care if they reach that end. The motivation behind why bad things happen is the age-old ineffable truth. Why do we do what we do? If you save that question for the end, your story will flow naturally.
As an author, when I start a new story I always start with this simple structure. If I don’t know Where, What, Who, How, and Why before I even start writing, then I will have a hard time framing my story. I often move on from there, lately I’ve been working a lot with the more complex 4-act structure with Joe Nassise’s Story Engines. But even that, at it’s core, is about answering these same basic questions. Where does your story happen, what is the main conflict or event that happens, who did it, how did they do it, and why did they do it? If these are answered in this order, you’re well on your way to a solid story structure.