I delved into this in my post on Fairy Tale Structure and the List but there are other kinds of meta structures besides fairy tale structure and mythic structure, so for people who are taking this master list thing seriously, I wanted to spend a post talking about meta structure. That’s my own term for it, by the way – I don’t know if there is some definitive official term for what I’m talking about. Aristotle called it energia, and John Truby (in his superb book on structure, THE ANATOMY OF STORY) calls it the “story designing principle”, but this is what it is:
Sometimes there is just a perfect way to tell a story.
This is partly luck in premise, but some of it can be engineered, if you train yourself to look for meta structure, and be aware of how you might be able to use it in your own story.
Here are some examples.
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
BACK TO THE FUTURE
I don’t know if people can see what I’m getting at just by looking at that list, but don’t worry, I’m about to explain each one.
Now, all of those movies are “high concept”, but those premises also go beyond high concept.
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL tells you exactly what the story is going to be, right? The meta structure of that story is seeing the same group of old friends on the days of four different weddings and one funeral day, on which they mourn one of their own. That is the organizational frame on which that story is built.
GROUNDHOG DAY: A man repeats the same day of his life over and over and over again until he gets it right.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: shows a man’s entire life in vignettes, and then shows the cumulative effect of his life and deeds by depicting his home town as it would have been had he never lived.
In much the same way – BACK TO THE FUTURE shows a kid whose life is not so great accidentally transported back to the past, and his actions in the past completely transform his life when he gets back to the future.
FOUR CHRISTMASES (which I haven’t seen but got the meta structure of it instantly…) – shows a young couple forced to attend the Christmas celebration of each one of their divorced parents, which teaches them what they want for themselves in marriage and love.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: shows how every major event of a poor Indian boy’s life has enabled him to correctly answer the questions on a multimillion-dollar game show.
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE – is a romantic comedy that shows two people who are meant for each other falling in love – even though they live on opposite sides of the country and never meet until the last scene of the film.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: is a murder mystery in which the twelve killers on a stalled train act as a jury to try, convict, and execute a heinous criminal, and Hercule Poirot acts as both detective and judge, who first solves the baffling, contradictory crime and then decides that the killing was just.
Okay, so each of these premises tells you EXACTLY how to tell that story, right? Each story almost HAS to be told the way that it is told. It’s almost mathematical in its precision. There is a larger concept or metaphor or organizing principle that holds it together.
Your story might not have a meta structure like that. Many – or maybe even most - classic movies and books do not have this kind of meta structure. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, JAWS – they’re great stories, but I don’t think you can say that there’s a meta structure operating in those stories in the way that there is in the other stories I’ve listed.
I’m bringing up the point to get you guys to start looking for meta structure, because when you add this narrative tool to your ever-expanding toolbox (hmm, that sounds intriguingly dirty, doesn’t it?) – you may just hit on the perfect meta structure for your own story.
Now, we should also spend some quality time talking about another meta structure – mythic structure, which Christopher Vogler has a whole very successful and tremendously useful book about: THE WRITERS JOURNEY – it’s a Cliff’s Notes version of Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO’S JOURNEY, designed specifically for writers. However, I’m on the road, not back home until tomorrow night, so I will have to provide links when I get back this weekend.
So, have I completely confused everyone with this concept of meta structure? Or do you have dozens of examples for me?
Previous articles on story structure:
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
What's Your Premise?
Why the Three Act Structure?
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Elements of Act Two, Part 2
Elements of Act Three, Part 1
Elements of Act Three, Part 2
What Makes a Great Climax?
Visual Storytelling Part 1
Visual Storytelling Part 2
Creating Suspense, Part 2
Fairy Tale Structure and the List
What Makes a Great Villain?