But this is why I really stress, and I should continue to stress, the importance of creating your OWN master list in your own genre, in that story notebook I talked about.
Anyone who’s developing a new story, or is even remotely thinking about it, who hasn’t done this yet should do it RIGHT NOW: make a list of ten books and movies in the genre that you’re writing in: books and films that you love, that you think are structured similarly to the story that you’re telling, or even that are not in your genre but are your favorite books and movies of all time.
Because what works structurally for me is not necessarily going to do it for YOU.
For me, I am constantly looking at SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (book and movie), A WRINKLE IN TIME (book), THE WIZARD OF OZ (film), THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (book and ORIGINAL film), anything by Ira Levin, especially ROSEMARY’S BABY (book and film), THE EXORCIST (book and film), JAWS (film, but I need to go back and compare the book), PET SEMATERY (book, obviously), THE SHINING (book and film), IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
That’s off the top of my head, just to illustrate the point I’m about to make – and not necessarily specific to the book I’m writing right now.
All of those examples are what I would call perfectly structured stories. But that list is not necessarily going to be much help for someone who’s writing, you know, romantic comedy. (Although the rom coms of George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, are some of my favorite stories on the planet, and my master list for a different story might well have some of those stories on it).
You need to create YOUR list, and break those stories down to see why those stories have such an impact on you – because that’s the kind of impact that you want to have on your readers. My list isn’t going to do that for you. Our tastes and writing and themes and turn-ons are too different – even if they’re very similar.
I will start using more examples of each thing I’m talking about. I’ll go back at some point and revise these posts with more content, too. But in the meantime, I will keep begging for everyone’s examples so we can have a more eclectic and genre-inclusive discussion and so I can learn something, too.
I just taught a story structure workshop last week and it was as always fantastic to hear people’s lists, one after another, because it gives you such an insight into the particular uniqueness of the stories each of those writers is working toward telling. Make your list. Think of the story you are writing right now and list ten books and films that are like it – without thinking about it too much. There will always be some complete surprises on there, and those stories are sometimes the most useful for you to analyze structurally. What you are really listing are your secret thematic preferences. You can learn volumes from these lists if you are willing to go deep.
Always trust something that pops into your head as belonging on your list. The list tells you who you are as a writer.
One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that my favorite stories of all are fairy tales and myths – which are often interchangeable, although Christopher Vogler and John Truby make good arguments that stories with mythic structure and stories with fairy tale structure have their own rules and formulas.
When I respond deeply to a movie or book, no matter how realistic and modern it seems on the surface, chances are it’s going to have a fairy tale structure.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON, THE EXORCIST, THE GODFATHER, A WRINKLE IN TIME, STAR WARS, THE TREATMENT (Mo Hayder) – every single one of them is a fairy tale. And fairy tales have their own structural rules that just work for me.
This week I finally saw PAN’S LABYRINTH (I know, I’m WAY late on that one, and Del Toro is one of my favorite directors. It’s wonderful, heartbreaking.)
That movie has a blatant fairy tale structure, and as in so many fairy tales, the heroine is told by her mentor and ally the faun that she must perform three tasks to save the underworld kingdom and reclaim her place as the princess of that world (and thus escape her horrifying reality in 1944 Spain.)
The three-task structure is SO useful and successful because it tells the audience exactly what they’re in for. Audiences (and readers – but especially audiences) need to know that things will come to an end eventually, otherwise they get restless and worried that they will never get out of that theater. I’m not kidding. And a reader, particularly a promiscuous reader like me, will bail on a book if it doesn’t seem to be escalating and progressing at a good clip. But with a three-task structure, the audience is, at least subconsciously, mentally ticking off each task as it is completed, and that gives a satisfying sense of progress toward a resolution. Plus once you’ve set a three-task structure, you can then play with expectation, as Del Toro did in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and have the heroine FAIL at one of the tasks, say, the second task, and provide a great moment of defeat, a huge reversal and surprise, that in this case was completely emotionally wrenching because of the heroine’s very dire real-life situation.
Another classic fairy tale structure is the three-brother or three-sister structure. You know, as in The White Cat, or The Boy Who Had to Learn Fear, or Cinderella. In this structure there is one task that is the goal, and we watch all three siblings attempt it, but it’s always the youngest and ostensibly weakest sibling that gets it right.
Another Rule Of Three fairy tale structure deals with the three magical allies. THE WIZARD OF OZ has this – Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion; the animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY – fairy godmothers Flora, Fauna and Merriwether; A WRINKLE IN TIME – the “witches”: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs Which; and STAR WARS – R2D2, C3P0, Han Solo (Okay, there’s four, Chewbacca, but he’s so joined at the hip to Han that they’re really one entity.). Magical allies give gifts, and they provide substructure for stories by each having their moment or moments of aiding the hero/ine.
I must point out that you DO NOT have to be writing a fantasy to use any of these structural techniques. They all can work just as well in the most grittily realistic story. Just look at THE GODFATHER, the most classic modern example I know of the three-brother structure. There’s the old king, the Godfather; the two older brothers, Sonny, with his lethal temper, and Fredo, with his weak womanizing; and the youngest brother, Michael, who is the outsider in the family: college-educated, Americanized, kept apart from the family business, and thought of as the weakest. And throughout the story we see this unlikely younger brother ascend to his father’s throne (even though it’s about the last thing we want.)
You can see the three-brother structure working loosely in MYSTIC RIVER, with the three friends who are all cursed by a horrific childhood event that inextricably binds their fates together. Lehane even uses a fairy tale analogy in the tale: “The Boy Who Was Captured By Wolves,” and the fairy-tale resonances in that book and film contribute to its haunting power.
THE DEERHUNTER is another three-brother structure, that opens with another huge fairy tale story element: a curse. The whole first sequence is a wedding, complete with unwanted guest (the Green Beret who won’t talk to the three friends about Vietnam), and at the height of the merrymaking the bride and groom drink from the same cup and spill wine on the bride’s gown, thus bringing on the curse for all three friends.
The point is, if you really look closely at stories on your list, you might just find a similar meta-structure at work that will help you shape your own story. Try it!
And please do give us all some examples today – your own master list, or books and films with fairy tale elements or structure.
Previous articles on story structure: