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Story Force: Understanding Story Structure

I've always struggled with knowing how to write a story.

I am better at writing essays or short scenes, but figuring out how to string several scenes together to form a compelling story was a science I never fully understood.

Many writers have a knack for telling great stories. It comes naturally to them and they seem to understand the important elements.

However, I believe most aspiring writers struggle because they don't take the time to understand what makes a good story.

It's tempting to believe that if we could just finish the novel that the money will start flowing in. But, it has to be both a good novel and one people want to read to be successful.

There are a lot of theories about how to write a story, but today I'm going to present a very simple, foundational concept I call Story Force. If you remember nothing else about writing a story, you will want to remember this.

Story Theory

Let's first review a few common teachings about writing stories.

A story has a beginning, middle and end.

This definition of a story is vague, yet it implies that a story is like a race or a journey and that it has three parts. Implicit in the statement is that something moves or changes. I can't argue with that.

Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you just told 'em.

This definition is often used more with essays or speeches, but it is a variation on the beginning, middle, end definition. It implies that you should have a message or a point to communicate and that you want to repeat yourself so people understand what you are trying to say. Hmm.... Can't argue with that, either.

The Story Arc

The next definition of a story, the story arc, gets a little more specific. A story arc is said to have the following elements:

  • Beginning or exposition
  • Rising action (including a serious of complications)
  • Climax
  • Falling Action or denouement
  • End

Once again I can't argue with the theory.

This diagram is simply a more detailed representation of the first two statements about story. There's a beginning. The middle contains some complications and a final climactic moment. And there's the end where you wrap things up.

Alright, I'll accept that, but even with more details, many questions remain.

Let's look at another theory of story.

A story contains plot, character, conflict, theme and setting.

I'll admit this definition confuses me more than the others.

It's likes saying a cake contains flour, eggs, water, sugar and baking powder. Now make a cake.

If you know nothing about baking. Nothing. Then you would have a few questions like. Do proportions matter? What kind of flour? What do I do once I mix the ingredients?

I'm left with a lot of questions about writing a story. Can a setting be the empty space in my mind? Are some plots better than others? Should I have one character or many characters?

Books have been written trying to answer similar questions, but the ones I've read are unsatisfying.

As a scientist I would prefer concrete, specific answers. However, there seems to be no paint-by-numbers approach to writing stories. It is an art, after all.

Are we each doomed to learn every mistake on our own. Must we each run the gauntlet ourselves and suffer the same torment and mistakes as each of our predecessors?

Even if writing is an art that can only truly be learned by doing, aren't there some guiding principles which can help me understand why certain things work and others don't?

Story Force

Whether or not the typical definitions of a story make sense to you, the point of my writing so far is that those definitions have always left me with more questions than answers.

In the hope of saving you the unnecessary confusion I have experienced for so many years, allow me to introduce the concept of story force.

As you may know if you've read my bio, I am a former particle physicist.

My breakthrough in understanding stories came when I compared a story to the sub-atomic particles in an atom.

Most particles are composite particles, that is, they are comprised of other smaller particles which are held together by some kind of force.

A Hydrogen atom, for example, contains one proton and one electron. Having opposite charges, these two particles are attracted to each other and form a stable relationship which we call a Hydrogen atom.

Similarly, a story does not exist in a vacuum. A story with no writer and no reader is no story at all.

A story is a force which connects, or bonds, a writer and a reader.

Just like forces in nature, the story force can be strong, weak or somewhere in between. Some stories will form a strong relationship between writer and reader and others will have no attraction at all.

In nature, there are universal laws--laws which protons and electrons must honor if they are to form composite particles like Hydrogen atoms.

Similarly, writer, reader and story exist as one quantum entangled composite particle and there must be rules about the bonds that keep these three unique entities bonded. If one of the rules is broken, then our particle decays and the constituents separate--or never meet in the first place.

Generally speaking, writers want to attract readers. They do so using stories. But if a reader does not remain interested and invested, then the relationship is broken--or never initiated in the first place.

Just as writers want to attract readers, readers want to be attracted to writers. But readers are fickle and have many writers to choose from.

Why would a reader choose one writer over another?

The answer is story force. Readers are drawn to the writer with the greatest story force.

But what is story force and how can we use it or enhance it?

The Story Triad

Story force describes the relationship between writer and reader, it includes them in its definition. It suggests that stories cannot be talked about properly without considering the people involved.

The concept of story force suggests that when you think about stories, that you must think of writer, reader and story together. And now a writer cannot remain isolated as the center of his own universe. He must consider his role and his effect. He must open his eyes to the idea that what he writes and how he writes controls the strength of the attraction between him and his readers.

This may not seem like an important concept, but many writers begin with misguided assumptions. Many writers believe they are the sole masters of the universe they are creating.

Indeed, some writers don't care if they have any readers. Writing for oneself can be profoundly fulfilling and therapeutic. There's nothing wrong with that. But if one wishes to tell a story which another will read, one must understand her role as one part of a triad. Don't make the mistake of thinking that writing is merely about self-expression and hope that you will have millions of readers. It is partly about self-expression, but if you do not have strong story force, you will not have readers.

The Question

So far, story force remains a very abstract concept. It is instructive, but it is just as vague as all the other story definitions above.

The benefit of story force is that it gives us a framework within which to explore what makes a story strong or weak.

To make the concept more tangible I will define two foundational qualities of story force. They are absolute requirements for strong story force.

Follow along now and I will take you on a journey to discover the first of these foundational qualities.

If we want to know what makes for a strong story force, the obvious first question is What attracts a reader? We want to attract readers, right? How do we do that? Or put another way, Why do people read?

For me, I am compelled to read by curiosity, intrigue or sometimes by fear. It's debatable, but I think I'm similar to your typical reader.

Although the reasons we read are different than what makes a good story, the two are connected. And learning about one can help us understand the other.

Each of my reasons for reading is often used by clever marketers to capture attention for a few minutes or seconds.

How many times have you seen an ad or a blog article with a title like Discover the Top Ten Ways to Avoid an Untimely Death--And How Each One Could Make You A Million Dollars!

(If there had been a link, you would have clicked it wouldn't you?)

Curiosity, intrigue and fear share a common thread--they each arise from a question in my mind. I wonder what's in that top ten list? I wonder if I'm normal? I wonder if there's something I'm missing? Could I really be richer and happier and healthier?

And sometimes the questions I'm seeking an answer to are more mundane? What's the net worth of the sharks on Shark Tank? What year was Shakespeare born? What's the deadline for filing my taxes?

Questions like these motivate me to read. They are trivial and don't rise to the level of a story, but they do encourage me to read.

So far, my only motivation for reading is to find the answer to a question in my mind? However, there are a couple other reasons I read. Escape, for example. Sometimes I want to forget my life and live a different one.

The best way for me to escape through reading is to be sucked in by a great story. What this tells us is that a good story should consume our attention for a period of time. We still haven't discovered how a story should do that--we just know it should.

There is one final reason I read and that is a desire for an experience or a feeling.

The best stories are the ones that involve our emotions. They grip us. They draw tears. They make us jump up and down with joy when we are alone in our bedroom--or maybe that's just me. The ability to feel something while reading a story is directly connected to how compelling and immersive it is.

Let's put it all together now. I read to answer a question, to be consumed and to feel something.

But can we distill that even further?

What causes me to be consumed and to feel something?

As human beings our attention is most focused when we stand to lose something or to gain something, or you might say when we are invested. We are biologically wired for self-preservation, but our interests extend beyond our own bodies, because our social structure also protects us. It helps us survive and makes us feel good. Shake ups in our surroundings threaten us or help us thrive so, not only are we keenly focused when we stand to directly gain or lose, but we are also invested in changes to the people around us.

Just as in real life, when we get to know characters in a book and begin to empathize, we project our focus onto them and become invested in them, because indirectly we feel that it affects us. We humans are hyper-sensitive to changes in our social structure, even fictional ones.

What can I conclude from this reasoning?

What I've been describing as a threat or an opportunity might also be called an uncertainty or (drum roll) a question with an uncertain outcome.

When we boil it all down, every reason I have for reading depends on a question. That could be a direct question like Who killed the duchess? Or a more event-based question like How will Jessica react now that Bobby has left her for Becky?

For strong story force, a writer must pose a question that focuses and captures the attention of the reader.

Obviously, some readers don't care about some questions. You, for example, probably found one of the questions above more interesting than the other. You may prefer a good whodunit? But a different reader may find relationship drama more interesting.

As a writer, you should craft the type of question which personally engages you. But obviously, you can't force a reader to find your question compelling.

Remember the proton and electron? Each desires to be joined one with the other, but it is the third element, the electromagnetic force which bonds them. The writer desires a reader. The reader desires to connect with a writer. The story is what bonds them. Whether that connection happens is up to fate. But the writer has some influence over story force and the reader has some influence over his own openness. The rest is physics.

We conclude then that the first of two foundational qualities of strong story force is that a strong story will always begin with a compelling question.

The artistry, skill and style of a writer will determine the type of question she poses and how she poses it. But every story must create one main question in the mind of the reader near the beginning of the story. Every writer should always know what that question is. In a novel, there will be many other questions, or sub-stories, but they must all be subordinate to the one main, overarching question posed at the beginning.

The Answer

The second of the two fundamental qualities of strong story force is that a story must answer the main question it asked in the beginning.

The writer must ask a compelling question and then the writer MUST answer the question. If you don't, your reader will never again put his trust in you. This is an unspoken contract between writer and reader. Every reader knows it unconsciously, but not every writer does.

Revealing or discovering the answer will be the greater part of your story.

What the answer is matters less than how you answer the question.

For example, imagine a story that begins with Mary learning she has cancer. The question is How will Mary deal with learning she has cancer? Or, when your reader personalizes the question, she will say to herself, How would I respond if I learned I had cancer? The rest of the story should answer that question.

The answer to discovering she has cancer could be that she quits her job, travels and finally discovers how to live. It could be that she gets angry at the people around her because she can't deal with death and ultimately dies alone? It could be that she is relieved because she hates her life and doesn't care if she dies alone. Her last breath is the most peaceful of her life.

There are many ways to answer the question you pose.

Consider the popular television show Breaking Bad. A mild-mannered chemistry teacher discovers he has cancer and decides he's tired of playing it safe his whole life. He eventually becomes the most ruthless, clever and successful meth dealer in the southwest US.

Who saw that coming?

Clearly people could have many reactions to dealing with cancer. In one respect, therefore, the cancer question is compelling.

You might be tempted to think that you have to find the perfect question for your story. But, like the answer, it is not so important as how you answer your question.

You might think a question with only one possible answer would not make for a very good story, but I would argue that when it comes to stories, there is no question in the universe with only one possible answer. Think about it. Use your imagination. Stories don't have to be real in a scientific sense.

The best questions are those without simple answers, but an imaginative writer can surprise us by showing us how something we thought was simple isn't so simple.

The best answers are those which surprise us, make us think, make us care and ultimately take us on a journey of discovery until finally, in the climax of the story, the main answer is presented to the reader.

All of the tension and anticipation created while searching for the one final answer is released.

The reason this technique works in stories is because humans are hard wired to struggle and overcome. We are never more engaged than when we struggle--whether our struggle is to escape loss and pain or to gain success and freedom. And we never feel more alive than when the struggle is finally over. If we win, the relief is filled with joy and victory. If we lose, the relief is filled with agony and heart break. Either way, we feel more alive than at any other time in our lives.

The answers which consume us the most are the ones we fight for, the ones which teach us.

After writing the climax of the story, though, you are still not done.

The falling action is very important. Humans are also hard-wired to revel in their victories and defeats. They want to reflect and make sense of what they experienced. This is a very important part of answering your question.

The falling action is where you tie up loose ends and show the aftermath of your answer. It's also where you draw out the emotion you created in your reader. They invested a lot of energy, now give them the afterglow. Allow some time for everything to sink in. Many writers get tired and end their stories too soon, but don't scrimp on the denouement.

May the Story Force Be With You

When writing for humans we must remember the story force formula.

Cats are different. Story force isn't so important when writing for cats.

Story force is what creates the bond between a writer and reader. Like the laws of physics, there are laws at work within human beings. We are hard-wired for struggle and transformation. The challenge to strive, to seek, to overcome are a fire within to find the answers to our questions.

This is the essence of story telling.

Your uniqueness as a writer is the way you ask the question and how you answer it.