Understanding the structure of stories is a huge benefit to creating stories that hook readers.
Having a blue print to follow not only speeds up your writing process, but it also helps shatter writer’s block and give you a clear picture of where your character needs to go in order to tell a captivating story.
The three story structure methods I am going to talk about are:
1. Sketch Comedy Writing Structure
2. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”
3. Dan Harmon’s Story Structure
Lets dive in.
Sketch Comedy Structure –
This can be applied to short cartoons, short stories, sketch comedy (obviously) and short children’s books. You can also use it for telling quick stories to people and getting a quick laugh.
This is a 5 point structure:
Point 1 – The Set Up – Very clearly and bluntly state who it is we are talking about or watching, where they live, what they are doing or what their world is like. Just get right to it, it can be clunky. “Hi Burt, wow raking all of the leaves on your lawn today?” We’re in, we get it, we’re ready for some twists.
Point 2 – The Inciting Incident – Something completely whacky happens here unexpectedly that that character reacts to, generally going with the story, not resisting it. The “Yes, and” philosophy.
Point 3 – Raise the Stakes – Make the story bananas. Throw everything and the kitchen sink at this character and the story to really absorb the listener or viewer in the story.
Point 4 – Turning Point – This is where we sort of come back to reality. The mayhem stops, or maybe the character stays in this world and we feel like we were fooled, either way, we’re transitioning out of the story.
Point 5 – The Ending – Button it up. Is there a final joke you can throw in. A “call back” will tie the story together. If you mention something that happened at the beginning of the story, you will almost always get a laugh. When listeners and viewers can connect dots in stories, it gives them the warm and fuzzy feeling.
Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” (“Hero With a 1000 faces” is the name of his book – Hero’s Journey is the philosophy)
I won’t go into detail on this one bc it’s all over the nets, but I’ll just mention it to give you exposure to it and give you a bit of background on how I use it.
“Hero with a 1000 Faces” is a book a dude named Joseph Campbell wrote after finding a connection between all stories.
The dude who created Star Wars claims to have followed this exact story structure and replaced the characters with his own. Some find this to be despicable, but I think it’s genius. It’s like taking the blue print of a house you like but putting your own twist on it to make it unique.
You’ll see many similarities between Joseph Campbell’s story structure and Dan Harman’s story structure below, but they are both worth learning and having as your story telling foundation.
This is the “Hero’s Journey”:
1. A Person, after we learn about their world (similar to the set up above) is
2. Called to Adventure – either they want something, or somebody tells them about something, or they need to do something. A super natural aid can help propel the character
3. They cross the threshold of everything they’ve known into a new world where
4. They meet a sidekick (a helper)
5. They meet a mentor
6. Temporarily find success in this new world and are way too elated (this part isn’t in the chart below but I think it’s one of the highs and low of this next segment:
7. Challenges and Temptations. Highs and lows. Rollercoaster. Everything is thrown at this character. Since we know this character already, these challenges make us feel for him/her. We are in their shoes.
8. Then they enter the abyss – they finally wake up.
9. They transform, as they ascend back to their world
10. They rise with a new understanding, a new wisdom.
11. They Return and are rewarded with something, anything, mostly knowledge. They have gone through hell and survived and can go back with new knowledge to help them in the future.
In my opinion, you can skip Joseph Campbell’s outline and just use Dan Harmon’s below, maybe it’s the way he explains it, but it made more sense to me that anything.
Before getting started, you can read Dan’s entire write up here. You should actually spend your time doing that rather than reading my recap below. It’s so good.
This is an exact expert from Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 101:
Here we go, down and dirty:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed.
Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.
I will talk in greater detail about this pattern in subsequent tutorials.
1. When you
2. have a need,
3. you go somewhere,
4. search for it,
5. find it,
6. take it,
7. then return
8. and change things.
Less focus on English, more on importance:
1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
2. Need (but they want something)
3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
4. Search (adapt to it)
5. Find (find what they wanted)
6. Take (pay its price)
7. Return (and go back to where they started)
8. Change (now capable of change)
Back to me:
This structure applies to any and all stories. Whether you are writing children’s books, movies, or telling a story at dinner, following these beats will hook people. It’s human nature to need to know what happens in these stories once they are established in their brains. It’s actually uncomfortable for people to stop listening.
Hopefully the above 3 structures gave you some exposure to what’s happening underneath all of those stories you love, and, whether you write books, write anything, or don’t write at all, will give you a better understanding on how to use story or at the very least, recognize the aspects that make for a good story.
This is where I end the story, after having gone through the painful process of writing a blog post, but with the new knowledge that this might have helped someone and refreshed these structures in my mind.
Go you must.
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