“Story Issues” Part 2: Story Structure

So your story has ISSUES. That’s why you’re revising it, right? Here’s some expert advice on how to fix those issues of yours.



What is it?

In its most basic form, story structure has been described by many as “the bones” of your story. The skeleton, or the scaffolding, if you will.

But I like this version a lot better:

“Originated in 1994, the The Dramatica Theory of Story Structure is a diagnostic modelling tool built around a concept called “The Story Mind.” According to this notion, every story has a mind of its own – its psychology is built by the story’s structure and its personality is determined by the storytelling.” (Link to article)

I LOVE that. The notion of story structure as the psychology–or the driving impulse–of your story. For example, if you’re writing a horror novel. Your story most likely has a sick, twisted mind that starts out masking its darker tendencies to the world. In the beginning, when your readers first meet the story, things will appear normal. Almost pleasantly so. But even then, if you’ve done your job, there will be a niggling doubt in the reader’s mind that something about this story is just a little “off.”

Fast forward to a hundred pages later, when your story is cheerfully picking off characters like they’re no more valuable than pins at a bowling alley…and suddenly, the story’s true sickness is finally revealed. In the end, you’ll be faced with two major options: exposing the story for what it is, and ending on a Primal Fear note where the audience is left with a profound sense of ickyness. Or, you can hit up the traditional Hollywood ending, where the problem is exposed and eventually cut out of the collective world that is the brain of your story. (Personally, I prefer the Tarantino style, where at least the bad guy almost always goes down in a totally ridiculous and unbelievable flame of glory.)

But… What happens when your story structure (aka your story psyche) is broken? (i.e. Fragmented, Conflicted, Weak or Stunted?)

“For thousands of years, the main guide writers had to plot and story structure was Aristotle’s book, Poetics.  Aristotle’s concept of story structure was based on his study of  classical Greek theatre.  You may have studied Aristotle’s ideas in  school, but here are his main observations regarding the structure of a  story: 1.  Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 2. The incidents that make up the plot are linked by cause and effect. 3.  A story is about a “change of fortune” for the protagonist.” – The Best Approach to Story Structure, by Glen C. Strathy (Link to full article)

But that doesn’t really help us, does it? Not in terms of specifics.

John Savage agrees. “One of the pieces of advice offered to inexperienced writers that really irritates me springs from abysmal ignorance of the good parts of literary
theory. The most common mistake is the assertion that ‘all [successful] stories have structure x’. … The real problem with these so-called structures is that they aren’t structures
at all—they’re lists of ingredients, or at most archetypal plots. They do not cover any of the other essential elements of fiction: character, environment, or theme.”

In essence, it’s like someone looking at Hannibal Lechter and being like “Dude, you should probably chill out and stop killing people, right? Cause that’s bad.” Thanks Aristotle. I totally appreciate your input. (Slice!)

How can you fix it?

The solution is simple. (In theory, but not in practice, unfortunately.) You need to put your crazy ass story through THERAPY.

Figure out what is the major driving force of your story. What does it believe in the MOST strongly? What are its greatest fears? What is it trying to prove? And most importantly, what’s wrong with it that’s making it behave improperly? (i.e. not in line with its purpose, so to speak.)

Okay, yeah. That sounds like a good plan. But…How the hell are you supposed to do that, you might ask? (Or moan, through the spaces between your fingers, as you bash your head repeatedly against your writing desk. Whatever floats your boat.) By applying the same theory of story structure that brought us this awesome new story structure analogy in the first place: the Dramatica Theory! (Note: all following quotations are derived from this article, unless otherwise cited.)

“The Dramatic theory sees characters as representing our various drives and motivations, theme is seen as our conflicting value standards, plot represents our problem solving methods, and genre describes the overall attitude (personality type) of the Story Mind itself.”

“Appearing not unlike a cross between the Periodic Table of Elements and a three dimensional chess set, the Dramatic Table of Story Elements is divided into four families: Universe (representing situations), Mind (attitudes), Physics (activities) and Psychology (manners of thinking).”

“The equations used to create the model establish consistent relationships among dramatic elements. For example, one of the subdivisions under the Mind family is “Memory” which falls in the same relative position in its quad to “Past” in the Universe family. Therefore, Memory is to Mind as Past is to Universe. The entire model is consistently structured in this manner.”

Is this making any sense? No? Okay then. Here’s a helpful graphic!


And hey! If that fails, you can always go with the Abstract / Imaginative Approach:

Basically, that’s where you sit in a dark room, close your eyes and have imaginary conversations with your story and/or characters. Pretend you’re a psychiatrist who’s trying to get to the bottom of your story’s scarred psyche. Take notes. Nod a lot. And don’t forget to ask about the mother.


By the way MaryAnn Diorio (from the last installment of “Story Issues“) also  has a great article about this.

More about Dramatica, from the “official” web site. (Link)

Hey, there’s even a book about this structure theory. (Link)