Once, while working as a firefighter, the officer was off from work. As the acting officer for the day, I was responsible for getting things done. On a big whiteboard in the office, I listed all the things we had to do for the day. I left for a moment and when I came back, the list had grown! But it had things like “take a nap” and “take a break”. Clearly, others from the station thought that my list may have been overdoing it. Looking back, they probably were right. What can I say, I’m a list kind of guy. Keeping a list helped me to structure my day. Since then, I have learned to keep structure, with a bit more flexibility when at work. I feel the same way about story structure.
For this next series of blog posts, the focus will be story structure. What is it? What do I use? What could you use? Why use it all? Well, that’s what I want to talk about for a few posts
How I’ll be defining story structure for this series
I found this concise explanation of story structure in an article from MasterClass: “Story structure—which is also known as narrative structure, storyline or plotline—is the organizational framework of a story.” Let’s equate a story to taking a trip. The Driver (main character(s)) are going to a new place (goal) and will see life differently after getting there. When you are driving somewhere you have never been, you use directions (or at least, I hope you do). This can be directions from Google, a GPS, or even (gasp) a paper map! Story structure is the directions being used to get to the new place.
My lens for using story structure is that of an oral storyteller. Interestingly, story structure is the same if you are telling a story orally, written, in a movie, using pictures, etc. Which story structure you use may change depending on which area you use storytelling. The structure is better determined by what story you are trying to tell in what way.
You’ll notice I said “which story structure” when referring to how to best use story structure. One of the big “Ah-ha” moments for me in learning storytelling is that there is more than one story structure that can be used. I then asked the question “How many story structures are there?” When I started writing this post, I came across 23 different ones used in movies, novels, and other forms of storytelling. I came across another one while writing this post, so now there are 24 that I know of. What the heck, I’ll make one myself so we can have 25. It makes sense to have this many possible choices if you think about story structure as driving directions like we talked about earlier. It’s fine to have a structured way to get somewhere, just know there can be more than one way to do that.
Why have story structure?
Pick your favorite grocery store. Now pick a meal you really like, but need to get the ingredients for. No, a frozen meal doesn’t count for this trip to the store. You walk through the door, going from aisle to aisle getting the spices, meat, veggies, and whatever else you want to have. Pay for the stuff, get home, and start on the meal. Prep the food, combine everything just right and cook until it’s ready.
Oooooor, you can go to the same grocery store, go to the section that has the prepped meals. Find that same meal, pay, and go home. Everything is all together already, in the right amounts, combined correctly. All you have to do is heat it on the stove or in the oven.
The first example is your brain taking in info from all over the place during any given interaction. It’s trying to figure out what to do with what it sees. It can do it, but it takes a bit of work. The second example is an effective story that has put everything together for you. It gets something that makes sense much faster and easier. Using a story helps to do that. Using story structure allows the teller to give the listener to have all they need ready for easy consumption.
So, what’s next?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore together different storytelling structures I’ve come across and ways I think about using them. My hope is that by the end of the series, you will be able to test out story structures you may not have known about to be effective in telling your story on purpose. Be sure to follow the blog to see the latest thoughts!