Our minds automatically respond to structure both consciously and subconsciously. Structure transforms a collection of sounds into music, brush or stylus strokes into art, and your words into a cohesive, engaging story. Structure keeps your story from meandering, from confusing and boring your reader. Good structure can keep those pages turning into the wee hours because your reader is hooked. Learning the elements of structure is basic to becoming a good writer.
Structure at its most basic is that all elements of a story has a beginning, middle and an end — or, if you prefer, setup, development and resolution — and that the narrative smoothly flows through it. This tenet applies to all elements of a story and its constituent components. Not only should your overall story be well structured, including the individual plotlines, the dialogue and the character development, but also the chapters, paragraphs and even sentences. In all cases, the progression from start to end has to make logical or at least intuitive sense.
Put another way, everything should feel natural to the storyline and the world you as a writer have created. Stray too far from the path and you run the risk of bewildering, exasperating or even angering your reader. By doing any of those things you’ve pulled them out of the story. Do it enough times and they’ll pick up another story. They may never give you another shot again. And if that person is an agent, an editor or anyone else who can help you, you’ve just hammered a nail into your literary coffin.
Be very clear I’m not suggesting your readers shouldn’t become angered, exasperated or bewildered when reading your story, but you want those reactions to be the result of the progress of the story unfolding or the foibles of your characters, and not because of inept writing. Some superbly crafted stories have, through exceedingly clever and artful violation of the standard rules of structure, managed to create narratives that intentionally perplex the reader to a desired effect, especially in tales that use non-linear plotlines to achieve a purpose, but that requires knowing the rules well enough to break them properly.
At its most basic, a good story is a collection of two or more related storylines that intertwine and complement each other. In general there is the main story, which tends to be a goal-driven or other action based plot, or a sequence of events, that progresses via trials, obstacles, complications and other turning points. Story should have at least a general if not a specific end point or other arrival point from which the story can be said to end, at least for the moment, in a satisfying manner for the reader. This is not to say that there isn’t some new direction the story could go or even keep progressing, but at least the reader is left with enough of a sense of closure that she isn’t frustrated.
The next main storyline — or subplot — one of perhaps several — is usually centered on the evolution of a relationship between two characters, but sometimes this “B” story, if strong enough, can also take the form of a character arc. A character arc depicts the progression or regression of a character, often shown as a weakness or deficiency that must be overcome for a successful conclusion of the story, especially the reaching of a goal. However an arc can also show a negative evolution of a character as well.
While a subplot can merely be a complementary chain of events, the more strongly it intersects with other storylines, the stronger it makes the overall story. The longer it takes for two storylines to intersect, the more strongly they should do so when they finally do come together. If storylines fail to come together the reader is left with two barely-related narratives that should probably separated into two separate books or stories.
Though there is no hard and fast rule dictating how many subplots you can weave into the story, avoid confusing your reader by piling on more than can be followed without confusion. The more subplots you include, the more tightly and organically they should be integrated. The movie Tootsie has, depending upon how you count them, four or five subplots, however they are all relationship subplots that involve at least one of the two lead characters and one of the main supporting characters. Because of the natural interconnectivity of all these subplots — and because each of them is clearly structured with a well-defined setup, development and resolution — the overall combination is an entertaining, satisfying whole. That is why Tootsie is cited in so many books and classes about screenwriting and storytelling as a great example of story structure.
Finally, good structure must also be present in sentences, paragraph and chapters. Each such component needs a well-defined beginning, middle and end. Reading a sentence or a paragraph aloud will often reveal structural problems, because a badly structured passage seldom flows easily. If it doesn’t read aloud easily, it won’t read easily, period. Your main job as a writer is to communicate actions, experiences, thoughts and feelings with accuracy and clarity. If your communication is disjointed — unless you’re trying to convey the disjointed perceptions of a character — and even then that must be done artfully — your reader will have a tough time following, and possibly might even stop caring.
The next time we delve into structure — after I finish my next editing pass on my book and get it ready for printing — we’ll dig deeper into the specifics of setup, development and conclusion, both in the abstract and with concrete examples. In the meantime try analyzing one or more stories you know well (and yes, movies count as stories,) and identify all of the plotlines and how they relate to each other. It’s good practice for structuring your own writing.