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How to Structure a Story


If you understand the basic theory of how stories really work, it’s possible to approach the putting together of a story in a quite mechanical way. These steps give you the skeleton of the story: the ‘flesh’ of plot and character will follow rather easily if this framework is in place.

1. Recognise (or postulate) a core vacuum.

What does this mean? It means that a very good starting place for a story is coming up with a menace, a huge threat, a hole or gap or peril which is somehow imminent. Star Wars has the Empire; The Lord of the Rings has the Dark Lord; Captain America and the Winter Soldier has HYDRA. These core vacuums are usually quite similar to each other. But their size and shape depend upon the story being told - Pride and Prejudice has no equivalent to the ‘evil empire’, for example, at first glance. But a closer look reveals that at its core is the brutal social conventions of its time which would see a family made destitute unless their daughters married into money. Those social conventions are embodied in the witch-like Lady Catherine de Bergh. So though Austen was writing a romantic tale with comic overtones, there is still a villain and the vacuum at the core of the tale is just as deadly in its own context.

2. Estimate its shape and size.

As we have just said, the vacuum must fit the tale being told. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the racism of a small town in the American South; in Tom’s Midnight Garden it is the tyranny of Time and the remorseless change that it brings. The core vacuum can be a statement of the story’s theme. It is usually personified in some way in an antagonist.

3. Prepare something that will fill it.

This is where the work of character creation and plot building occur. But both of these are relatively easy if the core vacuum has been established as above. You will need a protagonist, but rather than trying to devise a ‘realistic figure’, think in terms of holes, gaps, needs, that relate to the core vacuum you’ve established. Most protagonists are orphans for this reason - it gives them a basic need and loss which often aligns with the core vacuum. We consider that a protagonist’s father having been killed by the antagonist is a well-known and used trope of fiction - this is why: it immediately aligns the protagonist’s loss with that of the story as a whole. Yes, being an orphan evokes our sympathy on one level, but that basic loss also focuses our attention, sticks us like glue to the story’s hero and points him or her in the direction of the plot.

4. Partially fill it.

Having devised (hopefully) a plotline and a set of characters that will move the reader towards the resolution of the core vacuum, you must now proceed to do so. Each chapter you write, each scene that occurs, must be either evoking a vacuum or partially filling something associated with the core vacuum.

What does this mean in practice?

In Star Wars: A New Hope, it is established in the opening scene that the galaxy is under threat from a menacing Empire, with its chief servant Darth Vader. We see that threat loom large, and then be initially avoided by the escape of C-Threepio and R2-D2 with the information Vader seeks; then we see them on Tatooine, getting separated and lost. R2-D2 encounters our protagonist, the orphan Luke Skywalker, but escapes from him into the desert to seek out Ben Kenobi. With each scene, we see vacuums, threats, losses, gaps, missing things, which in turn prompt action: it is R2-D2’s absence which provokes Luke into searching for him; it is Luke’s falling prey to the Sand People which brings Ben Kenobi to the rescue - and so on: vacuum, partly filled, another vacuum, partly filled. This creates the rhythm with which the viewer’s attention is moved along.

5. Progressively magnify and then fill it.

As we go along the vacuum gets bigger. At first, Luke is irritated by being prevented from going into town to see his friends; then he is disappointed when his desire to go to the Academy is baulked. Soon this deepens: he grows anxious about the missing droid, and is then knocked unconscious in the desert. With each scene, we grow closer to the core vacuum: Luke is introduced to Ben Kenobi, who tells him of the Empire, the Rebellion and of the murderer of his father. In the very next scene things are magnified further when Luke returns to his home to find that his aunt and uncle have been killed.

This series of increasingly dark events is no lucky accident of story-telling, but a sequence found in any successful story: in Pride and Prejudice, events build from minor social inconveniences to a potentially ruinous search for an eloped couple; in To Kill a Mockingbird we begin with childhood adventures on the street but end with a life-threatening encounter in the dark. This is so much a part of the woof and warp of tale-telling that we might react with ‘Of course’ - until we glimpse that there are mechanics at work beneath the surface.

6. Achieve Fulfilment.

The final part of a story is the confrontation with the core vacuum itself, normally embodied in an antagonist. Once defeated, Fulfilment results, at least in an Epic story - in Tragedies and Ironies, that gaping core is left gaping, leaving audiences chilled rather than fulfilled.

How does one create a core vacuum in the first place?

Work backwards:

1. Find a Fulfilled area.

2. Take things away from it progressively.

3. Continue to withdraw what has previously filled it until you are left with a gaping hole.

That gaping hole is the nuclear reactor of your story: it will act to draw characters and the plot towards it.

You can read much more about all of this in How Stories Really Work.

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